Two Heartbeats Away: The Public Life and Pivotal Death of Garret Augustus Hobart
Set upon the verdant landscape of William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ is Hobart Manor. Its original portraits, ornate rugs, stately banisters and elegant furnishings make this edifice a development officer’s fondest dream come true. Indeed, it is the site of alumni gatherings, wine and cheese receptions, staff retreats and other events at which the university sells its mission. Tour guides explain the restorations made by the Hobart family over the decades before WPU acquired the structure. While the family gets generously referenced, less is said of the original Hobart, the one for whom the Manor is named and whose own portrait graces the top of its grand, Victorian staircase.
Garret Augustus Hobart was a staple of New Jersey politics in the late 19th century. Paterson city attorney (his statue fronts City Hall), assemblyman, Assembly Speaker, state senator and Senate President, this lawyer ascended the political ladder with genial ease and focused diligence. Upon assuming the vice presidency of the United States in 1897, Hobart made the office a functioning part of the government in a way that neither his predecessors nor successors—until the late 20th century—could match. For all of his hard work and wise counsel, historians take interest not in his head, but in his heart…because it stopped in the third year of his term.
Hobart was the first vice president under William McKinley. Completely unknown to one another before the campaign of 1896, these two men nonetheless became close and fast friends. A school teacher and corporate attorney, Hobart rose through the ranks of New Jersey politics on the momentum of competence and affability. McKinley was likewise known to be courteous and approachable. After notable service in the Civil War, the 25th president became a lawyer, prosecutor, U.S. congressman and governor of Ohio—where he proved to be a formidable executive— in short order. Given their Midwestern standard-bearer, the Republican convention of 1896 saw the easterner, Garret Hobart, as a perfect complement to round out the national ticket.
For most of American history before (as well as many years after) the McKinley presidency, vice presidents were to be profoundly ignored. As unwelcome reminders of presidential mortality, they had little influence within administrations and were often absent from their constitutional duty to preside over the Senate. Hobart, by contrast, expanded both roles. Early on, McKinley discovered that his vice president was a man of good will, with no agenda beyond attacking his constitutional role with relish. Equally valuable, Hobart possessed keen political instincts, proving them time and again. A veteran Washington journalist observed this pioneering relationship between the chief executive and his understudy:
For the first time in my recollection, and for the last for that matter, the Vice President was recognized as somebody, as a part of the administration, and as a part of the body over which he presided.
The Washington Post editorialized that the U.S. Senate’s deliberations, under Hobart’s leadership, rose to an unprecedented level of professionalism and efficiency. Yet it was his personal relationship with the president that cemented his influence. Having leased a mansion on Lafayette Square—only a short walk from the White House—the second family socialized regularly with the first. In fact, the residence served as a back-up Executive Mansion of sorts. As McKinley’s wife, Ida, suffered chronic ill health, the vice president and Mrs. Jennie Hobart would often pinch hit socially for the ailing first lady and her distracted husband. Drawing on his years as a commercial and railroad attorney, Hobart even helped the president select financial investments.
Pivotal was Garret Hobart’s wise counsel relating to the Spanish American War. Voices within the administration were beating the drums loudly for military action in Cuba against the Spanish government. Loudest among them was Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, himself itching to participate in battle. When the American warship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor in February of 1898, cries for war reached a fever pitch, especially on Capitol Hill. McKinley was uneasy about the incident; there were too many question marks to mobilize the United States for a full-scale armed conflict. His predecessor, Grover Cleveland, had criticized the war camp as imperialistic and McKinley was inclined to agree. So was Garret Augustus Hobart.
At the same time, Hobart’s political antenna picked up danger signals. The enthusiasm in the Senate for knocking Spain off its high horse was not to be contained. Opposing this momentum was not a hill on which to die politically. Accordingly, during an afternoon carriage ride, Hobart advised the president to request a declaration of war. It was not a good idea to get too far out in front of public opinion, the vice president cautioned. Besides, this way McKinley could temper the more jingoistic impulses of the war camp. “Say no more,” was the presidential response. And the rest is history: the quick success enjoyed by American forces all but ensured McKinley’s reelection…and made Theodore Roosevelt a national hero.
From all evidence of the friendship between the president and his number two, there is little doubt that Hobart’s name would again grace the Republican ticket in 1900…were it not for his untimely death in 1899. Garret Hobart threw himself into work like many successful men of his era. Unfortunately, this prescription was lethal for a man with a weak heart, which gave way while he was resting back in Paterson. The vice president is often described by historians as being “a heartbeat away” from the highest political office. In Hobart’s case, it was two heartbeats—McKinley’s and his own. By the time the president expired two years later, there was a new VP—Roosevelt— to accede to the presidency.
Like all near misses, Hobart’s life lends itself to numerous “what ifs”. Had he lived and assumed office upon McKinley’s death, would he have run for re-election in 1904? Or would he have deferred to the war hero and New York governor who in fact had replaced him? And if Theodore Roosevelt did not reach the White House until 1905, how differently would his own leadership have unfolded? Considering his profession the law and his avocation politics, Hobart very likely would have contented himself with a partial term as president, graciously making room for the Rough Rider. TR might have served through 1912, and perhaps beyond. What, then, might the world have looked like?
Leaving such speculation aside, it is credible to say that Garret Augustus Hobart helped set the table for Teddy Roosevelt: first, by urging McKinley to wage war on Spain, thereby giving TR his finest hour, when he fearlessly led soldiers in an assault on a heavily fortified Spanish stronghold. Then, of course, by passing away, the vice president left an office begging to be filled by a national icon who would guarantee McKinley a second term. The first year of that term saw a return to the distant oblivion in which vice presidents had long toiled before Hobart’s advent. Indeed, Roosevelt was on a lengthily extended vacation when McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.
When examining President McKinley’s two vice presidents, history buffs might view Hobart as the centrifugal force that pushed glory and accolades away. Roosevelt, by contrast, was a centripetal force that drew them to himself. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously declared: “Papa has to be the baby at every christening; the bride at every wedding; and the corpse at every funeral.” Not so with Hobart. The Monmouth County native and Passaic County lawyer was self-effacing and understated. Perhaps Governor Roosevelt understood his debt to Hobart when eulogizing the departed vice president:
He was a public servant of tried capacity and stainless integrity, who in his high office exerted an influence for good, the extent of which is best realized by those who had been most intimate with him. New York joins with the rest of the nation in mourning his loss and paying homage to his high character.
This New Jerseyan whose life and death well impacted American history is memorialized not only at Hobart Manor. His statue fronts City Hall in Paterson while his Greek-style mausoleum adorns Cedar Lawn Cemetery. Still another reminder of his life resides at the Paterson Free Public Library, where patrons can view the extensive art collection he and Jennie acquired over the years. Included among the holdings are original works by Eastman Johnson and William Merritt Chase. Many of these works hung in the Assembly chamber in Trenton during Hobart’s speakership.
These landmarks and artifacts serve as reminders of the rich heritage the North Jersey region rests upon. Were it not for a bad ticker, William Augustus Hobart would have been president of the United States. Given his natural reserve, he probably would not have made it to immortality on Mount Rushmore.
A rest stop on the NJ Turnpike, maybe.
 Jules Witcover, The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2014), 224.
 Robert W. Merry, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 269.
 David Magie, The Life of Garret Augustus Hobart: Twenty-Fourth Vive-President of the United States (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons), 221-222.
© 2019 John C Gregory