The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”


The legislature charged him with contempt, and he was still defiant. Eventually, the state supreme court decided in Hague’s favor, accepting his lawyers’ argument that the legislature did not have the judicial power to probe for felonies: that function belonged to the courts and their grand juries. But it was a barren, legalistic victory. It ruined Hague’s image as a reformer forever. The Newark Evening News summed up the public sentiment in the state: “If Mr. Hague himself would come clean; if he would tell the truth and shame his enemies with the truth, what a triumph would be his! A man who has nothing to conceal, a man whose life is an open book, does not fall back on right of privacy or other technical safeguards when his reputation is at stake.”

There was, at that point, some ground for wondering if Hague could last much longer. The Republican-controlled legislature was still in furious pursuit of him, and a hefty two-fifths of the voters in his Jersey City bailiwick had turned against him in the May, 1929, mayoralty election. Time magazine predicted that he would soon imitate several former leaders of Tammany Hall by taking refuge in Europe. Then an event occurred across the river in New York that transformed the politics of the entire nation. The bottom dropped out of Republican prosperity, and with a shock that was felt around the world, the stock market crashed. The gray, dismal years of the Depression settled on the nation. They were made to order for Hague.

As the private sector of the economy shrank, thousands found themselves unemployed, and Hague was transformed from a politician on the run to a titan of steadily swelling power. He alone, by executive fiat, could ignore economic reality and maintain his padded payrolls intact. A city job became not merely a way out of the slums but a source of salvation for those who thought they had achieved the mythical security of the American middle class. Many of the older, wealthier Protestant families, who had been the backbone of Hague’s Jersey City opposition, were totally ruined.

His new Depression-spawned power made Hague meaner and tougher. For the next two decades, his operation became an exercise in the retention of power for its own sake. Having doublecrossed the two leaders who had given him his start, Hague trusted no one. Phones were tapped regularly. “Every night,” declares a man who is still an important Hudson County official, “a police lieutenant sat in the Western Union telegraph office in Journal Square and read every telegram that came in and went out of Jersey City that day.” Hague spies in the U.S. Post Office maintained similar surveillance on the mail of all those who were labelled untrustworthy. There were informants in every bank in Jersey City, quick to alert City Hall to any unusual surplus in a man’s account.

Throughout the twenties, when Hague had been blasting the corporations, he had maintained a warm alliance with labor unions. Theodore “Teddy” Brandie, head of the Ironworkers Union, loaned Hague $60,000 when the Bureau of Internal Revenue gave the Mayor a tap on the wrist in 1930. Three years later, Brandie was called a hoodlum and a crook by Hague, and driven out of the labor movement. Every other union in Hudson County was invaded by Hague’s “reporters” and reduced to docility. “Everything for industry” became Jersey City’s slogan, and Hague lured companies to Jersey City by promising them “perfect” labor relations.

Hague was equally adept at instilling fear or preferring favor. “Play ball with me and I’ll make you rich,” he would tell those who fought him. A distressing number of them took him at his word, and quietly accepted a judgeship or a commissionership in the state, county, or city government. The churches, a potential source of moral censure for an ex-reformer, were mopped up with extensive favor-doing and giving. Hague helped Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Walsh of Newark raise millions for Darlington Seminary. The Mayor donated a !50,000 altar to Saint Aedan’s, his own parish church. At least fifty-four priests, ministers, and rabbis were on the government payroll as chaplains to hospitals, police, fire, and other city and county departments.

Massive majorities were demanded in every election, no matter how trivial, to awe and discourage potential rebels. The zenith was reached in 1937, when Hague was re-elected mayor for the sixth time, by 110,743 to 6,798. Each year, in a final rally at the uptown auditorium known as The Grotto, Hague would exhort the faithful as if Armageddon were at hand. “Three hundred and sixty-four days a year I work for you,” he would cry. “Now this one day I ask you to work for me.” In 1941, Hague needed, under the Walsh Act, only 766 signatures to nominate him for his seventh term as mayor. The organization collected 125,371. “It is very gratifying,” the Mayor said as truckmen staggered into City Hall with bushels of the signed petitions.