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John Thompson Hoffman


HIGH social position, and the influence of a line of ancestry who have for generations been of repute in the State, are no hindrance to a young man in attaining place and power, if they are not used offensively ; but in our really democratic government and national life, they weigh very little unless there is combined with them sterling ability and merit. Indeed, as between two boys of very nearly equal talent and intellectual power, but one of old and honored family, and the other a son of the soil, whose early surroundings were of the humblest and poorest, the poor boy would have, on the whole, a slight advantage in the political prizes of the State and nation.

It is not then because Governor Hoffman can claim in his ancestry the honored names of Livingston, Kissam, Thompson, and Hoffman, that he has attained Ms conspicuous position, but because there was in him that real capacity for the public service without which his ancestry would have been of no avail.

JOHN THOMPSON HOFFMAN was born in the village of Sing Sing, New York, January 10th, 1828. As we have said, he comes of a good stock. His father, an eminent physician, was descended from the Livingstons, the Kissams, and the Hoffmans of our earlier history. The son, after early training under &v. Dr. Prime, a well known scholar and journalist, entered the junior class of Union College in 1843, at the age of fifteen, and though compelled by impaired health to suspend his studies for a year, graduated with high honors in 1846. He had already a good reputation as a public speaker, and his graduating oration on " Sectional Prejudices," both in its matter and delivery was so exceptionally excellent as to attract attention. After leaving college he commenced the study of law in the office of General Aaron Ward and Judge Albert Lockwood at Sing Sing.

Mr. Hoffman's political career began before be had attained his majority. In the year 1848, at the age of twenty, he was made a member of the State Central Committee by the Convention of Hunker or Hard Shell Democracy. That year will long be remembered in the political history of the State. Martin Van Buren's candidacy for the office of President divided the Democracy of New York, causing strong and bitter feeling between his supporters and those of the regular nominee, Lewis Cass, and resulting in the overwhelming triumph of the Whig party. Taylor carried the State by a plurality of about 100,000, and Hamilton Fish was elected Governor. This, in face of the fact that the aggregate Democratic vote exceeded that of the Whigs. Pending the canvass, the State Committee, of which Mr. Hoffman was a member, put forth " An Address to the People," in which the claims of their principles and of their candidates were advocated with marked ability. Although not then a voter, Mr. Hoffman took the stump for Cass and did effective service as a speaker.

On the 10th of January, 1849—his twenty-first birthday—Mr. Hoffman was admitted to the bar.

In October of that year he removed to New York, where, soon after, he formed a law partnership with the late Samuel M. Woodruff and Judge William H. Leonard, the firm name being Woodruff, Leonard & Hoffman.

For ten years Mr. Hoffman devoted himself to the practice of his profession, and so marked was his success, that in 1859 he was urged by some of the most prominent citizens of New York for the position of United States District Attorney. But President Buchanan objected to him on account of his youth, an( Judge Roosevelt was appointed to the place.

In the year 1860, Mr. Hoffman was nominated for Recorder of the city of New York, and after a spirited canvass was elected to that position. In this instance the office sought the man. Mr. Hoffman had declined to have his name presented as a candi date, but he was, nevertheless, nominated by the Tammany Convention, on the second formal ballot. At the election which fol lowed he was the only candidate on the Tammany ticket who without the support of other organizations, was chosen by the people. He entered upon his duties as Recorder on the 1st of January, 1861. None so young as he had ever before filled the place, but none made a deeper and more favorable impression on the public mind.

His strict ideas of justice, tempered by the influence of a merciful heart; his ample legal acquirements, laid on the foun dation of rare good sense ; his unhalting firmness in the discharge of duty, and his unquestioned integrity, combined to render him a good and upright judge. So firm a hold did he gain on the popular heart during his first term as Recorder, in the course of which he tried and sentenced many of those engaged in the famous riots of July, 1863, that the Republican Judiciary Convention named him, on the 12th of October, 1863, for reelection. Tammany and Mozart also united on him ; the newspaper press, regardless of party affiliations, indorsed him, and the people rallied enthusiastically to his support and forgot party prejudice in their admiration for an honest man. Under such flattering circumstances he was again chosen Recorder by an almost unanimous vote of the electors.

On the 21st of November, 1865, John T. Hoffman was nominated for the office of Mayor of the city of New York by the Tammany Hall Democratic Convention. An effort to unite the then hostile factions of Tammany and, Mozart had proved unsuccessful. Fernando Wood was nominated by the last named organization, but declined in favor of John Hecker, the candidate of the Citizens Association, who was warmly advocated by the New York Tribune. C. Godfrey Gunther, the then incumbent, had previously announced himself as a candidate for re-election, and his claims were indorsed by what was known as the McKeon Democracy. The Republicans saw in the division of the Democratic vote a chance for their own success. They nominated Marshall O. Roberts, and under his leadership they inaugurated a most vigorous campaign. At the election which followed 81,702 votes were cast, of which Judge Hoffman received 32,820 ; Mr. Roberts, 31,657 ; Mr. Hecker, 10,390, and Mayor Gunther, 6,758.

On the 1st of January, 1866, Mr. Hoffman entered upon his' duties as Mayor. His administration of this office, joined with his previous reputation as Recorder, rendered his name familiar throughout the State, and during the summer he was frequently mentioned as the probable candidate of the Democracy for Governor.

The Convention which assembled at Albany on the 11th of September was found to be composed of elements which had never before mingled in State politics. Old line Democrats joined hands with Conservative republicans in an effort to unite all the varied forces which opposed the Radical course of Congress. One-third of the delegates had acted up to that time with the Republican party. These were they who favored Andrew Johnson's policy and indorsed the Philadelphia Convention. They scarcely had faith, however, in the President's ability to carry his ideas to a scccessful issue. They were inclined to sing with Tennyson— .

"'Tis true we have a faithful ally,
But only the Devil knows what he means." 

The Democrats had just lost their great organizing leader, Dean Richmond, and these accessions to their ranks, at such a juncture, did not promise to promote harmony. But the Convention at Albany was a very large one, and it soon became a parent that if a proper nomination were made for Governor, a vigorous campaign could be prosecuted with a reasonable hope of success. Under these circumstances an unusual number of distinguished names were canvassed by the delegates. Sanford E. Church, Henry C. Murphy, William F. Allen, John T. Hoff-man, Henry W. Slocum, John A. Dix, William Belly, and others were mentioned as available candidates. After a fair interchange of opinion it was found that a majority of the Convention favored the choice of Mayor Hoffman, and on the second day he was nominated by acclamation, amidst the wildest enthusiasm. The Convention then adjourned until afternoon, and on reassembling it was addressed by the candidate himself, who had been telegraphed for. His manly speech on that occasion made a lasting impression on the minds of the delegates, many of whom saw him then for the first time.

After his nomination, Mayor Hoffman canvassed the State, speaking at Elmira, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Brooklyn, New York and other places. His earnest and convincing arguments were well received by the masses of the people everywhere. But frequent defeat had engendered amongst the Democrats a want of confidence in their ability to succeed, and the ill-timed tour of Johnson and Grant united the columns of the opposition, while it injured rather than benefited the party whose interests the President sought to subserve. But, notwithstanding these disheartening circumstances, the election returns showed a decided gain in the Democratic vote over the preceding year. After the election the Democrats awoke to the knowledge of the fact that, had they made more effort, they might have overcome the small majority by which Governor Fenton was reelected. The lesson came late, but it was not altogether lost, as the next year's contest showed.

In the fall of 1867 Mayor Hoffman was chosen temporary chairman of the Democratic State Convention, and delivered a speech on that occasion in which he enumerated with admirable succinctness the governing principles of' the party, and defined its attitude in relation to current questions with remarkable clearness.

Mr. Hoffman's first term as Mayor was then drawing to a close. The popularity which be had gained in the discharge of his duties made his renomination a foregone conclusion. The Tam-many Convention met on the Saturday evening succeeding the State election. A great concourse of people gathered around the hall, and when it was announced that Hoffman had Been nominated without a dissenting voice, the air rang with the cheers of the satisfied populace. In this canvass Mayor Hoff-man had two competitors, Fernando Wood, Mozart Democrat, and Wm. A. Darling, Republican. The result of the election was significant. Hoffman carried every ward in the city. His vote was the largest ever given to any candidate in New York. His majority over both his competitors was nearly equal to the total vote of either. With this unmistakable indorsement he entered upon his second term as Mayor, on the 1st of January, 1868.

His third annual message as Mayor contained a reiteration of his views on the question of city government ; which views were simplv the old theory of Jefferson, that in local affairs the local authorities should rule. Simple and sensible as this doctrine appears, its enunciation gained the Mayor some vigorous abuse from his political opponents.

But in despite of this, his popularity had grown so great that when the National Democratic Convention met at New York, in July, Mayor Hoffman's name was suggested by many of the Western delegates in connection with the Vice-Presidency. But he neither sought nor desired this honor, and the nomination of Governor Seymour for President placed it out of the power of the Convention to urge it upon him.

On the 13th of August, 1868, the State Committee, together with many prominent Democrats, met in Utica, for consultation. This meeting developed the fact that Mayor Hoffman would again be the Democratic candidate for Governor. The canvass of 1866 had brought him in contact with the people who, every-where, felt that he had earned this honor, by the earnest and effective service he performed in that disastrous year.

When the Convention met, in September, the name of Senator Murphy, who was Mayor Hoffman's chief competitor, was withdrawn, and John T. Hoffman was, for a second time, nominated by acclamation, for Governor of the State of New York.

The Republicans had previously placed in nomination John A. Griswold, of Rensselaer. He was heralded as the builder of the first " Monitor," and this service, together with his record in Congress, were dwelt upon until considerable enthusiasm was aroused among the people in his behalf.

Both the candidates were young men, and the personal quali fications of each were admitted by all ; but the canvass was one of peculiar bitterness. Victory seemed within the grasp of either party, and the pendency of the Presidential campaign roused partisans to extraordinary efforts, and lent additional interest to the gubernatorial contest. Mayor Hoffman canvassed the State in person, and addressed the electors at many of the principal towns. His presence inspired confidence among his supporters, and his speeches, although they evoked sharp criticism from Republican sources, cemented the elements of his strength.

At the election, which occurred on the 2d of November, 1868, he was chosen Governor by a majority of 27,946. But opposition to Governor Hoffman did not cease with the closing of the polls. The cry of "fraud" was set up and persisted in by those whose candidates had met defeat. This cry is no new catch-word for politicians of either party ; but the vigor with which it was pressed in this particular instance made it somewhat effective in producing a feeling of popular prejudice against Governor Hoffman.

How quickly this feeling was dissipated, after the Governor had taken his seat, is a matter of common knowledge. His bitterest enemies became his eulogists; Republican newspapers commended his course, and an opposition Legislature indorsed, almost without a dissenting voice, every veto message which he submitted to their consideration.

These vetoes were numerous, and were aimed chiefly at the evil system of Special Legislation, which cumbers our statute books with innumerable unnecessary laws that seldom prove beneficial except to individuals whose personal schemes are accomplished at the cost of the tax payers.

In three sessions of the Legislature, he vetoed, in all, four hundred and two bills. In every instance when the Legislature was in Session, and had an opportunity, under the Constitution, of passing the bill, notwithstanding his veto, they acquiesced in his reasons, and allowed the bill to die. Part of this time his political opponents held control of both houses. The popular judgment has with rare unanimity approved of all his numerous vetoes, his political opponents never venturing to find fault with them. His is the most extensive and most successful exercise of the veto power in the history of the United States.

In 1870, he was again elected Governor by a majority of 33,096, over Stewart L. Woodford. In July, 1871, occurred the so-called Orange riots. A procession of Orangemen had been arranged in the city of New York, for the 12th of July, but in consequence of threats of its being seriously disturbed by a combination of disorderly men, the city authorities had forbid-den the procession. Their order to this effect was made public on the morning of the eleventh. Governor Hoffman left the capital of the State, and came to the city in person, induced the city authorities to revoke their order, issued a proclamation promising the Orangemen protection, took personal command of the militia, being at his headquarters fifteen hours that day, and gave the procession such efficient protection that it marched over its proposed route uninjured, although in the riot created by its assailants, four soldiers of the escorting force were killed. Of the mob, about thirty were killed and many wounded.

Governor Hoffman has introduced a valuable reform in the administration of the pardoning power. During every year of his administration he has submitted to the Legislature (and thus to the public) a report of the pardons granted, and of the reasons which, in each case, governed his action. The law re-quires no such reports ; but it is easy to see that his wholesome example will have to be followed by his successors.

During the excitement of 1871 and 1872, over the frauds of T weed, Connolly, Sweeny, and others, in New York city, zealous efforts were made by Governor Hoffman's enemies to implicate him in these frauds; but when subjected to searching investigation, these efforts failed to sustain a single charge made against him. That he had been politically affiliated with these men was unquestionable ; that some of them, before he knew of their wrong-doing, had been his personal friends, was also true ; but as those who knew the Governor best were satisfied beforehand, not an iota of evidence could be produced to show that his hands had ever been soiled with bribes, or that he had ever participated in the slightest degree in these gigantic frauds.

In personal appearance Governor Hoffman is above the medium height, and has a strong, well-knit frame. His weight is 180 pounds. His hair is dark and abundant; his forehead is broad and particularly developed in what phrenologists call perceptive faculties; his eyes are of a deep brown color; his nose is large; his chin prominent, and his mouth shapely and indicative of firmness. He wears a full moustache but no beard.

As a speaker he is plain, clear and straightforward in manner as well as in matter. His voice is full, round and sonorous, but he practises few of the tricks of the orator, and seldom embellishes his speeches with rhetorical flourishes.

As a writer he is argumentative rather than imaginative, and his style is too analytical to be florid. He possesses, however, a certain happy power of poetical description, which he displayed to good advantage in the Agricultural Address delivered by him before the Ulster County Fair, September, 1869.

In his intercourse with his fellow man, Governor Hoffman is frank and genial; he has nothing of the demagogue's overbearing pomposity, and he is free from the sycophant's affectation of cordiality. He makes no promises which he does not keep ; - he holds out no false hopes to applicants for his favor; he is loyal to truth, and he cherishes his personal integrity as some-thing more valuable than any political power.

Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872 

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