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Frank Hague

long-time Mayor of Jersey City

Frank Hague

Frank Hague was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on January 17, 1876. His parents were recent Irish immigrants, and he grew up in a neighborhood made up primarily of other poor Irish-Catholic immigrants. Dismissed from school at 13 due to poor attendance and unacceptable behavior, he spent time working as a blacksmith's assistant for the Erie Railroad and then as a manager for Joe Craig, a professional lightweight boxer, before going into politics.

Hague's work with Craig paid well enough to allow him to buy a few suits that made him appear much more successful than he really was. In 1896, that apparent prosperity gained him the attention of "Nat" Kenny, a local tavern owner who was seeking a candidate for constable to run against the candidate of a rival tavern owner. With Kenny's financial backing, Hague won his first political election by a ratio of three-to-one.

When Hague agreed to run for Ward Constable he did not know that the position came without a salary. Fortunately for him, his success in that election earned him notice from the Hudson County Democratic Party "machine," which in 1897 asked Hague to help get Democratic votes in the upcoming Jersey City mayoral election. Hague's efforts resulted in a huge voter turnout in his ward, and in 1898 he was rewarded with an appointment as a Deputy Sheriff, at a salary of $25 a week. In the 1901 mayoral election, Hague's second ward was one of only two wards that voted Democratic; the election was won by Republican Mark M. Fagan. He survived a Republican challenge for a third term as Ward Constable the following year, by which time he had become a major player in the Hudson County Democratic Party.

In 1903, Hague married Jennie Warner, with whom he had one son, Frank Hague, Jr.

In 1904, Hague was asked to help a former classmate, Reg Dugan, who had been arrested in Roxbury, Massachusetts, for passing a forged check. Ignoring a subpoena to appear in a Hudson County Court hearing, he and another Deputy Sheriff instead traveled to Roxbury, where they testified that Dugan could not possibly have committed the crime for which he was charged because they had both seen Dugan in Jersey City on the day the crime had supposedly been committed. If the men had answered the subpoena, however, they would have heard Dugan admit to the crime, and would have avoided being found guilty of contempt of court and being stripped of their duties as Deputy Sheriffs. Although he was soundly criticized in the press for his actions, Hague's position in his community was greatly elevated, as the majority of his constituents only focused on his willingness to do whatever he could to help a "brother." The municipal elections of 1905 resulted in another term as Mayor for Fagan, as well as a fourth term as Constable for Hague.

Although the "Reg Affair" cost Hague his paid position, he did not stop doing whatever he could to help the Democratic Party keep its constituency in his ward. As a reward for his work in getting Democratic votes in the 1905 election, he was rewarded with an appointment as Party Leader for the Second Ward, and the leader of the Hudson County Democrats also got him appointed as Sergeant at Arms of the New Jersey State Assembly, both of which were paid positions.

In 1907, Hague helped reform Democrat H. Otto Wittpenn win the mayoral election. In 1908, Mayor Wittpenn rewarded Hague with an appointment as Custodian of City Hall, a position which provided Hague with numerous patronage opportunities. In 1910, Wittpenn lost his bid for the governorship of New Jersey to Woodrow Wilson, despite widespread voter fraud and intimidation in Hague's Second Ward. Wittpenn did win his bid for re-election as Mayor in 1911, however; Hague was elected Street and Water Commissioner in the same election. Although Hague's new position allowed him to greatly expand his patronage opportunities, he also used it to make actual improvements to the city. Under his direction, Jersey City streets were regularly cleaned and anti-littering ordinances were enforced for the first time in decades.

In 1913, Hague supported a change in Jersey City's government from the Mayor-Council form to a Commission form, a change which was approved by voters. Under the new system, all executive and legislative powers were vested in a five-man commission, each member of which would head a city department. The five commissioners would also choose one of their own to be Mayor of Jersey City. Subsequently elected to the first City Commission of Jersey City, Hague was made Commissioner of Public Safety, putting him in control of the police and fire departments. As he had done as Street and Water Commissioner, Hague used his position to both extend his patronage base and improve the city. Fulfilling a promise to his constituents that he would do what he could to lower the city's crime rate, Hague imposed a strict code of conduct on members of the police force, including those he personally appointed. He also cracked down on prostitution and illegal narcotics, and also regularly monitored response times by personally calling in emergencies and recording how long it took for either police or fire units to respond. In addition to reforming the police department, he also made long-overdue improvements to the fire department, resulting in a drastic reduction in fire insurance rates across the city.

After winning re-election to the City Commission in 1917, Hague was subsequently elected Mayor by his four colleagues, and formally took his seat in that position on May 15, 1917. Technically, Hague's only responsibility as Mayor was to appoint the school board, but he used his position to take control of the Hudson County Democratic Party and turn it into one of the most powerful political machines in the country. However, as had been the case in all of his previous offices, Hague's pursuit of political power also allowed him to make major improvements to Jersey City.

One of Hague's on-going battles with the state legislature was the lower tax valuation of the substantial percentage of railroad-owned property in Jersey City. Holding the line on taxation of the railroads was the State Board of Tax Appeals. Hague realized that to raise the tax valuation and obtain the much-needed revenue for the city, he needed to place a "friendly" Governor in the state house to appoint new members to the tax board. That candidate was Edward I. Edwards, a Jersey City-born bank president and state senator. In the 1919 gubernatorial election, Hague made sure that Edwards carried Hudson County by enough votes to win the statewide count; the final statewide tally was 217,486 to 202,976 votes. Hague used this success to take charge of the New Jersey Democratic Party. In return for Hague's "assistance," Governor Edwards made sure that Jersey City could collect tens of thousands of dollars in city taxes on the railroads, as well as on the Standard Oil Company and the Public Service Commission. Edwards also allowed Hague to name some members of the Public Utilities Commission, as well as to the Hudson County Tax Board and Board of Elections.

Two other governors in Hague's debt were George S. Silzer (1923-1926) and A. Harry Moore (1926-1929, 1932-1935 and 1938-1941). During Silzer's term, Hague got to name the county prosecutor. In 1939, Moore appointed Hague's thirty-four year old son Frank Hague, Jr., a justice to New Jersey's highest court, the Court of Errors and Appeals. Although Frank Jr. had passed the New Jersey bar, he did not graduate from the law schools he attended.

Women became eligible to vote in 1920, and Hague saw an opportunity to expand his voter-support base. Ladies' auxiliaries were added to Jersey City Democratic ward clubs, and Hague also sought a role model for women to garner their support for both his administration and his candidates. For this role, Hague chose Mary T. Norton, a community volunteer he had met during World War I, and convinced her to run as the first woman on the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1921. Upon achieving her office, Norton convinced her colleagues of the merits of constructing the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, named for Hague's mother. Hague then advanced Norton's candidacy to represent his congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, to which she was successfully elected for thirteen consecutive terms (1923-1949).

In 1932, Hague attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago supporting Alfred E. Smith, the Irish-Catholic governor of New York for President. As a staunch Roman Catholic, Hague identified with Smith's opposition to Prohibition, which some believed was directed directly at new European immigrants. When Smith lost his bid at the convention to become the party's presidential candidate, Hague quickly cast his future with the party's choice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hague offered to stage a rally for Roosevelt at Sea Girt, the summer mansion of New Jersey Governors. To Roosevelt's amazement, 120,000 supporters made their way to Sea Girt on August 27, 1932. Hague further showed that he could "get out the vote" by using strategies such as canvassing, providing transportation and other incentives on Election Day. During the 1936 campaign Hague provided 150,000 adults and children to cheer Roosevelt during a visit.

With Norton in the House of Representatives and President Roosevelt firmly on his side during the Great Depression, Hague was able to secure funds for a jobs creation program in Jersey City under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The federally funded program resulted in grants and loans for the construction of the A. Harry Moore School, Roosevelt Stadium and a Medical Center Complex. In 1937, Hague won his sixth term as Mayor with 94.2 percent of the votes cast. Hague thanked his constituents by directing ward leaders to intervene at City Hall for those in need, to distribute jobs and food baskets, to organize summer picnics and excursions, and to pay funeral and health care expenses for those in need. To fulfill a reform pledge to voters, Hague, who did not smoke or drink, allowed no nightclubs or houses of prostitution in the city, kept the streets clean of litter and vagrants, banned the presence of women in bars, and limited gambling to games of chance for churches.

While most of Hague's control over Jersey City came as the result of political manuevering and public support, he was not above using "his" police force to suppress public expressions of ideas he disagreed with. He relied on two ordinances of dubious constitutionality to muzzle critics -- one that effectively required people making political speeches to obtain clearance from the Chief of Police, and another that gave the Public Safety Commissioner (a position Hague held throughout his tenure as Mayor) the power to turn down permits for meetings if he felt it necessary to prevent "riots, disturbances or disorderly assemblage." The latter ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States, but continued to be enforced for several years after that decision. The police were also allowed to stop and search anyone without probable cause or a warrant after 9 pm. In 1938, he had Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate for President, run out of town when he tried to campaign at Journal Square.

Hague was also, allegedly, not above taking bribes and kickbacks. Although his salary as Mayor was only $7,500-8,000 a year, he lived in a fourteen-room duplex apartment that took up two floors of an eleven-story building, as well as a home in Deal, New Jersey, valued at about $125,720 and a vacation home in Miami Beach, Florida. He also took frequent vacations to Paris with his wife, was a regular high-dollar bettor at horse racing tracks, traveled in a bulletproof automobile, and was always flanked by bodyguards. Although it was generally assumed that Hague's wealth came from bribes and kickbacks, neither activity was considered an actual crime in those days. And, while numerous state and federal investigations into his activities were launched during his tenure, none could ever find concrete evidence of any crime ever being committed.

By the 1940's Hague's hold over the political machinery of Jersey City was beginning to lessen. His core constituency, poor Irish-Catholic immigrants, were by then outnumbered by immigrants from other nations, and he was increasingly frustrated by an inability to gain control over the state legislature (something he never accomplished). After thirty years in City Hall, Hague abruptly retired on June 4, 1947, in the middle of his eighth term as Mayor; he officially left office on June 17. His last use of his mayoral power was arranging to have his nephew Frank Hague Eggers appointed as his successor. He continued as chair of the state and county Democratic parties and vice chair of the Democratic Nstional Committee until 1949. He staged his last political rally on October 7, 1948, for Democratic Party President Harry S. Truman.

Hague leaves the Jersey City Mayor's Office after having made it his"home" for 30 years.
Hague leaving office

After leaving office, Hague divided his time between his home at Key Biscayne, Florida, and his Park Avenue penthouse in New York City. He stayed away from Jersey City because of pending legal suits against him regarding salary kickbacks. He died in his Park Avenue apartment on January 1, 1956, and is buried in an impressive mausoleum at the north-central part of Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City.

SOURCES
Jersey City History www.cityofjerseycity.org
Jersey City Past and Present
www.njcu.edu

SEE ALSO
Woodrow Wilson
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Works Progress Administration
Norman Thomas
Harry S. Truman

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> Middle Atlantic States >> New Jersey

This page was last updated on June 01, 2017.