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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Man Who Might Have Saved America from Woodrow Wilson

It’s a shame that if he’s remembered today at all, it’s for checking out early instead of anything he stood for.

Remember all those “begats” in the Bible? More than 40 generations comprise the genealogy between Abraham and Jesus, each one “begetting” the next. Familiar names in the lineage include Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon and Joseph.

Over the course of a fateful 16 years of American presidential history, one could say (with a smidgeon of editorial license) that Cleveland begat McKinley, who begat Hobart, who begat Roosevelt, who in turn begat Wilson with a Taft in between.

Hobart? Who the heck was Hobart, you ask?

Vice Presidential History

Garret Augustus Hobart—known to his friends as “Gus”—was America’s 24th vice president. He served under William McKinley for two years and eight months until his death in office in November 1899 at the age of 55.

With Hobart’s untimely passing, President William McKinley had to find a new running mate for the election of 1900. That man turned out to be Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon McKinley’s assassination only six months into his second term. Teddy won the presidency in his own right in 1904 and then turned the job over to William Howard Taft in 1909.

Teddy’s massive ego and disenchantment with Taft prompted him to enter the presidential race in 1912 as a third-party nominee. That split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson won with just 42% of the popular tally and went on to become arguably the very worst of our 45 chief executives.

So 119 years later, I greatly lament the sad fact that Gus Hobart wasn’t around to run again with McKinley in 1900. If he had lived, he instead of Teddy would have become our 26th President when McKinley died. And if there had been no Teddy Roosevelt presidency, there might never have been a philandering, racist, “progressive” Wilson in the White House to royally screw up the country with an income tax, a Federal Reserve, entry into World War I, and other mischievous adventures in statism (see my essay, “Beware of Years that End in 13”).

Hobart wasn’t the first U.S. vice president to die in office. Preceding him in that dubious distinction were no less than five others: George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, William Rufus King, Henry Wilson and Thomas Hendricks. Hobart’s death, however, was easily the most consequential. It’s a shame that if he’s remembered today at all, it’s for checking out early instead of anything he stood for. I think he might have made a decent president, and a darn sight better one than either TR or Wilson.

Who Was Hobart?

Born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1844, the Republican Hobart attended Rutgers University more than a century before that school’s faculty began donating 95% of their political dollars to socialists and kindred state-worshipers. He went on to become a successful corporate lawyer before getting elected to the Paterson city council, followed by Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly and then President of the New Jersey Senate. McKinley of Ohio picked him as his running mate in 1896 because of similar views and because of Hobart’s ability to bring New Jersey into the GOP column in November. They won in a landslide.

“Instead of deferring procedural matters to an aide or other senators, he ruled on them himself and did so with the utmost precision and integrity.”

Presiding over the U.S. Senate, Hobart quickly earned the respect of his colleagues as an earnest, congenial, fair-minded, and conscientious man. He took the job more seriously than any vice president since Jefferson. So faithful was he in attendance, even when only a single senator or two graced the floor, that he was referred to affectionately as “the chronic audience.” Instead of deferring procedural matters to an aide or other senators, he ruled on them himself and did so with the utmost precision and integrity. McKinley himself came to rely upon Hobart so much that he and the Cabinet thought of the vice president as the “Assistant President.”

On public issues, Hobart wasn’t always right. He was firmly in the camp of Republican trade protectionists that dated back to the time of the high-tariff Lincoln. He supported the dubious Spanish-American War, though his foreign policy views were a far cry from the swashbuckling and often gratuitous interventionism that Roosevelt and Wilson would later practice.

In the arena of monetary policy, Hobart was a stalwart for the gold standard. He played a major role in steering the country away from the inflationists who favored flooding the country with depreciating silver or paper money. In claiming the nomination of his party for vice president in 1896, he devoted almost the entirety of his acceptance remarks to this one issue. His eloquence was unmatched on the matter:

“The money standard of a great nation should be as fixed and permanent as the nation itself….

“If we are to continue to hold our place among the great commercial nations, we must cease juggling with this question, and make our honesty of purpose clear to the world. No room should be left for misconception as to the meaning of the language used in the bonds of the Government not yet matured. It should not be possible for any party or individual to raise a question as to the purpose of the country to pay all its obligations in the best form of money recognized by the commercial world….

“Any attempt on the part of the Government to create by its fiat money of a fictitious value, would dishonor us in the eyes of other peoples, and bring infinite reproach upon the national character. The business and financial consequences of such an immoral act would be world-wide….”

Regarding all propositions to “debauch the currency,” Hobart was unequivocal: “All men, of whatever party, who believe in law, and have some regard for the sacredness of individual and institutional rights, must unite in defense of the endangered interests of the nation.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats that year repudiated the hard-money stance of their own outgoing President (one of the best in our history), Grover Cleveland. Mesmerized by William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at their nominating convention, they anointed the inflationist Bryan as their presidential nominee.

McKinley, though a supporter of the gold standard, cautioned that Hobart should temper his rhetoric on the matter to broaden the ticket’s appeal in the election. Hobart pointedly refused and stiffened McKinley’s spine in the process. When the country’s commitment to sound money was formalized in the passage of the Gold Standard Act of 1900, Hobart’s influence earned much of the credit.

One measure of an administration’s imperious character is the number of executive orders a president issues. In his second term, Cleveland dealt 140 of them. With Hobart at his side most of the time, McKinley issued 185. Big government activist Theodore Roosevelt belched out a record-breaking 1,081. Then after Taft’s comparatively moderate 724, Wilson set a new record by signing no fewer than 1,803.

In the last months of his life, a heart ailment bedeviled Vice President Hobart. When the Senate was not in session, he rested in New Jersey where he doted on two pet fish, a gold one he named “McKinley” and a silver one he dubbed “Bryan.” He died on November 21, 1899, leaving behind his wife Jenny, four children and a nation of admirers.

To the amusement of the family, one of my favorite uncles used to mutter the phrase “Oh, why did he have to die, Lord?” I finally asked him once, “Why do you keep saying that and who are you talking about?” With a twinkle in his eye, he said it was his wife’s (my aunt’s) fiancé.

Given what happened in American politics after Gus Hobart died, I catch myself asking the same thing now, over and over again. Sigh.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is