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The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
He came out of the Horseshoe, a teeming slice of downtown Jersey City that owed its name to a gerrymander of earlier decades. From the brutal poverty of those narrow waterfront streets crammed with saloons and slum tenements, Frank Hague rose to plush accommodations at the Plaza and a mansion on Biscayne Bay, to dinners at the White House and at the homes of the wealthy, to annual trips to Europe in the royal suites of luxury liners, to made-to-order shirts and silk underwear from A. Sulka Uc Company. A few years before his death he secretly acknowledged that he was worth eight million dollars. The lawyer who extracted this figure, a former attorney general of New Jersey, says: “The real amount was probably ten times higher.”
But it was not just his wealth that made Hague unique—it was the totality of his power and the ferocity with which he exercised it. For thirty years he reigned as mayor of Jersey City and ruler of New Jersey. Judges and district attorneys, senators and congressmen, governors and presidential candidates, respected—or at least feared—his name. Those who opposed him, especially on his home grounds, frequently ended up in jail or in the hospital. “I am the law!” he bellowed once in a moment of unguarded candor. Though he could claim, with some justice, that his enemies had distorted the circumstances in which he said it—he was trying to keep some delinquent boys out of jail—even his friends had to admit that, inside Jersey City’s 8,320 grubby acres, it was the literal truth.
How Hague achieved this wealth and power is an American saga, rich in irony and symbolic overtones still significant today. Born in 1876, he was expelled from school at the age of thirteen as a hopeless incorrigible; he acquired his real education in the brawling streets of the Horseshoe in the iSgo’s. Along with a taste for violence, he acquired from his boyhood a deep infusion of Irish Catholicism in its most puritanical form. The infusor was his mother, Margaret Hague. Her husband, John Hague, was a quiet cipher. Mrs. Hague is recalled by one old Jerseyite as “a bitch on wheels.” She turned Hague’s younger brother, Jimmy, into a mamma’s boy so effeminate he never married. Her son Frank, made of tougher stuff, emerged from her stern tutelage ideally equipped to march to power flaunting the banner of a Catholic reformer. The two words are of equal importance in Frank Hague’s rise.
Religion was as divisive to the slum dweller of 1900 as race is to the slum dweller of 1969. The Anglo-Saxon Protestants on Jersey City’s affluent Heights had the money, and they were haughtily determined to convert or browbeat into submission the immigrant Catholics downtown. From his earliest days, Frank Hague was a devout Catholic, and he could always draw on this simmering sense of discrimination as part of his political weaponry.
His psychological combination of Irish puritanism and hypochondria also guaranteed him a “clean” image. He had no interest in fast women or in drinking the saloons dry. Until the age of twenty-seven he lived at home with his mother and frequently accompanied her to church on Sunday. Then he married Jennie Warner, a prim, shy, retiring girl who never played the slightest role in his political life.
The reform side of Hague’s image has been almost totally forgotten today. But it is one of the two things— the other is his technique of holding power—that makes his story worth recalling.
When the lean, red-headed six-footer won his first election, to the post of constable in 1897, New Jersey was called The Traitor State by despairing reformers. Hague’s campaign, which consisted of borrowing seventy-five dollars from saloonkeeper Nat Kenny to “make friends” in the Horseshoe’s ubiquitous bars, was typical of New Jersey’s seamy political life. The political boss of Newark, James Smith, Jr., and the boss of Jersey City, Robert Davis, had auctioned off the state to the burgeoning railroads and utilities in return for juicy stock options and side deals. Thirty per cent of Jersey City’s land was owned by the railroads, and they were assessed at only $3,000 an acre while other properties were evaluated as high as $18,000 an acre. Backed by his self-organized “Tammannee Club”—a name that revealed little originality but much ambition— Hague swiftly became the leader of the Horseshoe’s second ward. Having antagonized Davis, Hague promptly formed an alliance with H. Otto Wittpenn, a reform Democrat who was committed to fighting bossism and the “interests,” as the big corporations were called. When Davis died in 1910 and Wittpenn attempted to assume his mantle as Democratic leader, Hague turned on him and smeared him with ‘the “boss” label. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson became an aggressive reform governor of New Jersey, ramming through a series of bills aimed at returning the control of the government to the people. No one supported him more vociferously than Hague, especially when the Governor attacked and all but destroyed Boss Smith of Newark.
In 1911, Hague became the street and water commissioner of Jersey City. He instantly cut his department’s budget from $180,000 a year to $ 110,000 and “for economy reasons” fired half the men. Later in the year he quietly replaced them with his own followers, and at his sotto voce request the city council restored his budget cuts. He had more than made his point—he was a tough administrator who meant business when he cried “reform.”