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1899 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Exit Hobart, Enter TR

On the morning of November 21, Vice President Garret A. Hobart died at the age of fifty-five at his home in Paterson, New Jersey. Hobart’s health had been failing for most of a year, and in recent weeks his heart problems had taken a turn for the worse. With sad eloquence, a journalist reported that the night before his death, “as the clock at midnight sounded the passing of another day into the void of unrecallable time, the consciousness of things mundane faded forever from his mind. A few hours later, at 8:30 o’clock, he breathed his last …”

Like most nineteenth-century Vice Presidents, Hobart had been virtually unknown outside his home state before his nomination, and not much better known afterward. He had risen from modest beginnings to build a prosperous corporate law practice, at
one point being a member of sixty company boards. Along the way he dallied in politics, serving in New Jersey’s state legislature from 1873 to 1875 and from 1877 to 1885. Afterward he remained prominent in state and national Republican circles, though he sought no further elective office until his vice-presidential nomination.

Once elected, Vice President Hobart achieved the virtually unprecedented feat of being genuinely useful to the President—not by any legislative or policy accomplishments but by playing the role he was most comfortable in, that of the genial host. During his two years in Washington the wealthy and gregarious Hobart gave a seemingly endless series of formal and informal dinners, receptions, and afternoon smokers at which President William McKinley could relax and chat with lawmakers and other prominent men. If the President was not in attendance, Hobart served as his representative, sounding out the views of Congress and gently pleading the President’s case in an atmosphere of camaraderie. When Hobart’s ill health became known, some observers speculated (without apparent foundation) that his constant entertaining might have been the cause.

Although Hobart and McKinley had met for the first time during their campaign, they formed a warm friendship. Nearly as important as Hobart’s social deftness was another personal quality that was, and is, extremely rare in Washington: his complete lack of ambition, which allowed the President to trust him without fear. Besides acting as a conduit of information, Hobart was an invaluable adviser and emissary. As late as July 1899, with Hobart on his sickbed, McKinley chose him to diplomatically persuade the unpopular Secretary of War, Russell Alger, to resign.

Once the mourning for Hobart had ended, speculation began about who would take his place in 1900. Much of it centered on the party’s rising star, Gov. Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge had already urged Roosevelt to seek the vice-presidential nomination if Hobart’s health precluded a second term, with a view to running for President in 1904.

Roosevelt was ambivalent. On the one hand, he doubted that his Spanish-American War heroics would still be remembered at that late date (“I have never known a hurrah endure for five years,” he told Lodge). Staying put as governor of New York could easily turn into a dead end, so perhaps he should capitalize on his popularity before it faded away and accept a place on the ticket.

On the other hand, being Vice President did not promise to be any more of a career boost than being governor. Indeed, the writer Henry Adams suspected that Lodge’s suggestion was a scheme to derail Roosevelt’s presidential drive in the guise of aiding it. As long as Hobart had stayed alive, such questions could easily be deferred. But now, with the 1900 nominating convention fast approaching, Roosevelt had to think long and hard about whether the Vice Presidency was more likely to be a valuable step toward his ultimate goal or a tar baby to be avoided at all costs.

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