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The Early Career of Mayor Frank Hague


By Mark S. Foster

Copyright 1967

Web version, edited by GET NJ.
Copyright 2002

Until recently, most studies of big city “bosses” have shown striking similarities in both approach and content. A number of monographs have erroneously stereotyped the Hagues, Tweeds, Crokers and Pendergasts as being basically alike, varying only in degree. Historians have oversimplified both the individuals concerned and their roles in the city. The most common belief is that a “boss” rises to the top through backroom deals, “stuffing” ballot boxes with fraudulent votes and herding bewildered immigrants into voting boots so they can vote the straight “machine” ticket. The stereotyped boss held power by various types of graft. He might reward his friends with soft jobs on the city payroll. Or he might arrange that a helpful business contact receive a lucrative city contract with no competitive bid. One might list types of graft endlessly. By no means do I wish to convey the impression that “bosses” and graft are not interrelated. The serious scholar should not, on the other hand, equate all city bosses with all types of graft.

Few individuals on the American scene possessed as much flamboyancy and magnetism as did Frank Hague during his political career. Though he died in 1956, he retains steadfast friends and bitter enemies to this day. Controversy surrounded almost everything he did; reporters made him the frequent object of savage attacks or lavish praise. Frank Hague was always good copy. As far back as his days as a young constable, he captured more newspaper “mentions” than many of his superiors. Given Hague’s dual nature, it is puzzling that few scholarly polemics about Hague and Jersey City Politics during his time have portrayed him as an unmitigated evil, a crass opportunist intent only upon lining his own pockets.

Every conceivable charge of graft and corruption has been leveled at Mayor Hague. According to a number of contemporary newspaper and periodical articles, the boodling of two of the most notorious bosses, William Tweed and Richard Croker, pale in comparison to Hague’s Additional evidence demonstrates that his use of Jersey City’s police force rivaled Hitler’s use of the Secret Service during the same period.

This thesis is not a biography of Frank Hague, nor is it a history of the life cycle of the Democratic organization in Jersey City. By no means is it intended as an expose of Frank Hague. Instead, it is a study of the means by which he rose to power as mayor. The thesis does not thoroughly examine the effects of such factors as size and stability of population and ethnic and economic breakdowns by ward upon local politics. Such factors, of vital importance in any complete study of a political organization, will receive considerable attention when this thesis is expanded into a dissertation.

My major thesis is that Frank Hague did not fit the stereotyped boss image during his rise to power; on the contrary, he actually assumed a progressive stance. His rise to power was greatly influenced by his observations of the success of Woodrow Wilson. By 1912, Hague’s reputation was tarnished by his connection with a number of unsavory scandals. He was badly in need of a new image.

Hague clearly recognized the enormous impact of the progressives on the American urban scene during the first two decades of the twentieth century. During Hague’s twenty year apprenticeship before he became mayor in 1917, Lincoln Steffens wrote a series of articles in McClure’s entitled “The Shame of the Cities” which exposed the corrupt alliances between big business and some municipal governments. Other muckrakers exposed malpractices of the insurance trust, patent medicine vendors and the beef trusts. On the national scene, Theodore Roosevelt declared war on “bad” trusts. At the state level, Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson of California, as well as Woodrow Wilson in his own state, initiated significant political reforms. Good government leagues were formed in many towns and cities.

Frank Hague’s political career had reached a plateau by 1912. A new future appeared once he climbed aboard the progressive bandwagon. Had he not molded himself into the progressive image, it would be the height of naivete to equate pure motives with progressive actions. In the light of knowledge of his subsequent career, little doubt exists that Hague assumed this role for only a brief period and for purely selfish reasons. This subject will be further pursued in the dissertation.

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