Vol. 25 No. 5 (May 2015) pp. 81-83

BATTLEGROUND NEW JERSEY VANDERBILT, HAGUE, AND THEIR FIGHT FOR JUSTICE by Nelson Johnson. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 2014. 288pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-8135-6972-7

Reviewed by Peter Galie, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Canisius College. Email:

Seldom does the adoption of a new state constitution emerge from a clash of titans; but that is the story told in Nelson Johnson’s examination of the personal and political forces that cleansed New Jersey’s court system of its ancient rules and “Dickensian absurdity” (p. 5). The titans of New Jersey politics during this period were Arthur Vanderbilt—“The warrior lawyer”-- a Republican WASP from Newark; and Frank Hague, --“Celtic chieftain” – an Irish Catholic Democrat from Jersey City. Their political differences and personal hatred of one another would end with the adoption in 1947 of a new state constitution whose centerpiece, a modernized a judiciary, has been a model for judicial reformers to this day.

Nelson, a lawyer by profession and currently a New Jersey Superior Court Judge, is the author of BOARDWALK EMPIRE: THE BIRTH, HIGH TIMES, AND CORRUPTION OF ATLANTIC CITY (2002) the inspiration for the eponymous HBO series. Johnson is neither a trained historian nor political scientist. His work as a lawyer for the Atlantic City Planning Board in the early years of Casino development and experience as a judge provide the intellectual and experiential background for his writing. BATTLEGROUND NEW JERSEY exhibits the virtues and vices of the lay historian: a colorful journalistic style and dramatic scene construction, but little systematic analysis or statistical data. “I wrote it in a manner that is every bit as familiar — or even more so — than a newspaper article.” The results are mostly positive: vivid and revealing portraits of the political and personal lives of the protagonists: where they came from and the trajectory and intersection of their respective careers. Johnson succeeds in providing the reader with interesting and informative descriptions of the personalities and events that were the crucible out of which a new constitution for New Jersey would emerge.

Beyond this Johnson asserts that, although their origins were different and their goals divergent, the two men shared some important traits: they had little time for opinions that did not suit their agendas; they exhibited an intensity that either attracted or repelled others; both exercised power over their respective political organizations that was absolute; both craved power to bend the world to their vision; and both were willing to adopt questionable means to achieve their goal. While the latter is self-evident as far as Hague is concerned, Johnson, provides new information indicating that Vanderbilt was not above Machiavellian tactics. “Vanderbilt could not beat Hague in a street fight, so he would stab at him from the shadows” (p. 113). His examination of Vanderbilt’s papers housed at the Olin Library reveals that Vanderbilt was a covert, de facto, joint author of David Dayton [*81] McKean’s, BOSS: THE HAGUE MACHINE IN ACTION (1940) the biography of Hague that, according to Johnson, put Hague’s reputation “beyond rehabilitation” (p. 112). The Papers also show that Vanderbilt did everything he could to prevent his involvement from being made public, including repeatedly demanding that his name be removed entirely from the file.

Johnson refers to both men as “great political bosses” (p. 5) a categorization that surely obscures more than it reveals. The Essex County (Newark) system headed by Vanderbilt was grounded in the old WASP political tradition of good government and citizen’s engagement in public affairs. That tradition was accompanied by hostility to new comers, the first of whom to come in large number were the Irish Catholic and Jews, referred to rather commonly as “papists” and “kikes.” This WASP hostility was one of the driving forces behind the efforts to organize poor immigrants. Socialized in a hierarchical order, the newly arrived were willing to place their trust and reliance on those who promised them help. Frank Hague was one of these poor Irish immigrants—“maybe the most successful sixth grade dropout ever” (p. 5). He was a boss: his control and tactics went well beyond anything ever achieved or attempted by the Protestant reformers in Essex County.
Johnson chronicles the remarkable career of Vanderbilt. He created a successful law practice while raising a family and working tirelessly for political and judicial reform. He was President of the American Bar Association in 1937–38, for many years Dean of New York University Law School; and a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1936, 1940 and 1944. He was appointed chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. On two separate occasions he declined to be considered for nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court but was the principal mentor to William J. Brennan Jr. when Brennan was a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court and played an instrumental role in Dwight D. Eisenhower's nomination of Brennan to the United States Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most interesting dimension of the book from the perspective of macro politics is the authors contention that in spite of heroic efforts and resources, Vanderbilt and the reformers did not have the political muscle to defeat the Hague machine: no one did. To restart reform efforts required some compromise in the form of a deal with Hague; and Vanderbilt’s holy crusade did not permit compromise. Each was capable of inflicting damage on the other (as the book relates in some detail) but incapable of ending the battle. The irony is not lost on Johnson: “The one true believer and keeper of the flame-despite his vision and brilliance—had become an obstacle to reform” (p. 180). Efforts aimed at compromise would come-- but not from the titans; they would come from New Jersey’s Cincinnatus, Governor Alfred Driscoll, the real hero of story. Driscoll succeeded in getting Hague to compromise. How? As Johnson puts it, Driscoll accepted “the reality that the first step on the path to reform required capitulation” (p. 168) -- in this case, taking reapportionment and home rule off the table. Driscoll then proceeded to [*82] engineer a convention that adopted a new constitution, including Vanderbilt’s vision for a new court system. Shortly thereafter he appointed Vanderbilt the first chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court.

Hague’s better days, on the other hand, were behind him. The erosion of his image (stifling dissent, violations of the First Amendment, rampant corruption), the drying up of patronage from the state house, and the sclerosis of his machine, took their toll. He no longer had the energy or desire to do what was necessary to maintain or revivify his political organization, and began spending more time out of the state. He resigned as Mayor in 1947 and in 1949 lost control of the Democratic Party in Jersey City.

What can we claim on Hague’s behalf, beyond his ability to gain and maintain power (Mayor from 1917-1947)? The subtitle of the work “Their fight for Justice” leads the reader to expect a description of their respective “fights.” What that fight involves for Vanderbilt the author makes clear even going so far as to call it an obsession. What that fight involved for Hague is not spelled out though what it is can be teased out of the narrative. It would include integrating the new immigrants into the American social and political order; offering a mechanism for upward mobility; and providing employment and social welfare services that otherwise would not have been forthcoming. For Hague the centerpiece would be the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, a lavish spare no expense center that replaced the woefully inadequate clinics common in American cities in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the peak of its operation in the late 1930s more babies were born tin the Hague Maternity Hospital than in any hospital in the nation, and maternal and infant mortality rates were well below the national average. Hague’s notion of justice was closer to contemporary notions of social justice. Vanderbilt focused on procedural justice: the rule of law, efficiency, minimizing corruption and conflicts of interest.

Johnson has done his homework, providing a reliable and readable, “historical narrative.” Recommended for those interested in New Jersey’s political history, biography, and state constitutional reform.


Mckean, David Dayton. 1940. THE BOSS: THE HAGUE MACHINE IN ACTION. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.


© Copyright 2015 by the author, Peter Galie.