Home / Most Prominent Politicians / Most Prominent Politicians (III): New Jersey

Most Prominent Politicians (III): New Jersey


New Jersey has had a somewhat weak group of national politicians throughout its history with an obvious choice for the top. I suspect a lot of this is getting overshadowed by New York and Pennsylvania. That the Frelinghuysen family has dominated New Jersey politics from its early days, a family that has long aspired to mediocrity in office, has certainly not helped.

This list is so weak, I feel like I must have missed some people. But I don’t think so. If I have, I’m sure you all will let me know in comments.

1. Woodrow Wilson. A native of Virginia, but his political career was in New Jersey. Certainly one of the most important presidents in U.S. history, though one I also find pretty unlikable.

2. William Paterson. Key player in the Constitutional Convention, 2nd governor of New Jersey, early Supreme Court justice. Put the hammer down on the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion while a Justice.

3. George McClellan. We usually think of McClellan as a failed general, and indeed he was. But he was also the Democratic candidate for president in 1864 and later governor of New Jersey from 1878-81. His big post-war political ambition was to be Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State, but he failed to get the position.

Paterson and McClellan are fairly lame 2 and 3 choices for the 3rd oldest state, but the other possibilities are also pretty underwhelming.

Frederick Frelinghuysen–Chester Arthur’s Secretary of State, senator, general Republican hack who helped decide the disputed 1876 election.

William Pennington–Governor of New Jersey in the 1830s and 40s, later elected to the House of Representatives where he served as Speaker of the House in 1860 and early 1861. He also once turned down the chance to be governor of Minnesota Territory. Pretty hot stuff.

John Griggs–Governor. William McKinley tapped him to be Attorney General in 1898, where he served until 1901.

Thomas Kean–Like many other long-time New Jersey politicians, solid and remarkably unspectacular. Governor of the state from 1982-90, most known for his service on the 9/11 Commission. That alone separates him from the pack of mediocrity known as New Jersey.

Bill Bradley–Senator from 1979-97. Launched a particularly lame campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2000. Mostly I found him to be an annoying blowhard. He seems like the kind of Democrat who would be on Fox News, but he seems to avoid the spotlight these days. Which I find in his favor.

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  • Warren Terra

    No mention for Whitman? I can’t point to any actual accomplishments, but I wouldn’t place her below Kean or Bradley. Nor Griggs, based solely on your profoundly underwhelming description of his career. Despite her lack of apparent accomplishment, and her having apparently disappeared down a hole some time in 2002 or so, for a few years there she was the go-to rhetorical device for those wanting to posit the existence of moderate-friendly, woman-friendly Republicanism, and was widely touted as a future Presidential hopeful.

    And no love for Robert “The Torch” Torricelli, for his services to unapologetic fundraising? I don’t think he was a great innovator in the field, nor was he even the greatest, dirtiest fundraiser of his political generation (Tom Delay, hands down), but his enthusiasm was impressive.

    • You could definitely make a case for Whitman I guess, given the lackluster history of New Jersey politicians. Had she not been completely marginalized at the EPA, I’d feel more strongly for her. Not her fault on that of course.

    • snarkout

      Well, Whitman did start the fuse on a 15-year time bomb by cutting taxes and paying for it out of payments to the state pension funds. So she had something going for her!

      I think Jestak is right that Paul Volcker is more important than the bulk of your runners-up.

      • CapnMidnight

        Whitman also helped, with Bill Weld, launch the not-quite trend of reasonable-seeming northeastern (but not actually liberal)Republicans. It petered out pretty fast, leaving us just those two from Maine.

    • CapnMidnight

      The Torch was certainly memorable. That 2003 flame-out was so memorable, I don’t even remember why he resigned!

    • R. Johnston

      In a list of a top three with random discussion of some unordered and unnumbered list of runnerups totaling somewhere in the single digits, leaving off Whitman is neither here nor there. She’s somewhere from 6-12, so you could include her or not, but, especially considering an effort to avoid bias in favor of modern politicians, leaving her off such a list/discussion is not particularly notable. She was a lackluster two term governor whose most prominent claims to fame were being a she and being dragged under a table for beating by Wimp, offspring of Even Wimpier.

  • Murc

    His big post-war political ambition was to be Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State, but he failed to get the position.

    That may be the single best sentence ever written about George McClellan. Kudos on your ice burn, sir!

  • Jestak

    A few other names to consider:

    -Longtime Senator Clifford Case, the last Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate (back when there were actual, for-real liberals in the Republican Party).

    -Justice Samuel Alito, who was born and grew up in NJ, went to Princeton, and was US Attorney for New Jersey prior to his judicial career.

    -Paul Volcker, likewise born and grew up in NJ and graduated from Princeton, and has remained connected to Princeton during his public service career.

    • Volcker I didn’t think of. Good choice. Guys like that are people I am going to miss when I think of these lists. Reminds me to look up Greenspan’s history.

      Alito will probably deserve a spot here too when all’s said and done.

      • Murc

        Just so I’m clear on this, being a native son of a state isn’t enough, you have to have actually built your political career there, right?

        Like, Prescott Bush gets Connecticut, but his son and grandson, despite being born in New England and living there for large chunks of their lives, get Texas?

      • Brett Turner

        Is Volcker really a politician, as opposed to an economist?

        • DocAmazing

          You call that an economist?

          • Warren Terra

            I don’t remotely know enough to judge his status as an economist. Perhaps “policy entrepeneur with focus on the economy and budget” might cover it, though it doesn’t fall trippingly off the tongue.

            Still, despite the political and especially governmental nature of his life’s work, I don’t think Volcker’s ever held elective office – though as we’re counting Supreme Court Justices, maybe that’s immaterial.

          • Malaclypse

            Volcker? Yes, I’d call him an economist, and the last genuinely competent Fed chair.

        • pol·i·ti·cian
          a. One who is actively involved in politics, especially party politics.
          b. One who holds or seeks a political office.
          2. One who seeks personal or partisan gain, often by scheming and maneuvering: “Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President, but . . . they do not want them to become politicians in the process” (John F. Kennedy).
          3. One who is skilled or experienced in the science or administration of government.

          I’d say yes.

        • Jestak

          Volcker is far more important for as a policy-maker than as an academic economist, which is why I suggested him.

    • Joshua

      -Justice Samuel Alito, who was born and grew up in NJ, went to Princeton, and was US Attorney for New Jersey prior to his judicial career.

      Sorry about that, folks.

      -New Jerseyan.

  • Tyto

    No love for Justice William Brennan?

    • If I’m not mistaken, Brennan was the last Supreme Court Justice to have come from a state court. I’d put him right after Woody.

      • CapnMidnight

        O’Connor had been an Arizona judge before she was elected to Legislature, and Souter was on the trial and Supreme court in New Hampshire. Brennan may be the last one to come directly from a state court.

    • Jestak

      How’d I miss Brennan! Good choice, Tyto.

    • anonymoose

      I actually have dreams of Zombie Brennan and Zombie Marshall coming back to wreak havoc on a Federalist Society gathering. That’s the type of dream I try to fall asleep to continue when I wake up from it.

  • CapnMidnight

    Do pre-politics activities count? Because Bradley would deserve a bump up not just for his basketball career but for being the subject of a book about it by John McPhee.

    Also, during that 2000 campaign, I saw Patti Smith play at one of his rallies. “The People Have the Power.” In Judson Church on Washing Square Park. Which is really weird, if you think about it.

    And, I must admit, I voted for him, solely because I was pissed about Gore sewing up the nomination so swiftly and denying us an entertaining primary. That doesn’t go to Bradley’s prominence, though.

  • I remember reading that Theodore Frelinghuysen was a controversial pick as Clay’s Vice Presidental candidate in 1844, and might have helped cost him the election, but I’m not sure exactly why.

    Of course, the most famous New Jersey politican after Wilson has to be Frank Hague.

    • j_h_r

      Of course, the most famous New Jersey politican after Wilson has to be Frank Hague.

      This. There’s a great essay on him in a history-for-tens book my grandpa got me a long time ago which uses Hague as the archetypal “machine” politician. The essay goes as far as to credit Hague with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency because his machine dominated the 1912 Democratic convention.

      • j_h_r

        history for TEENS

        but you knew that :-/

  • elm

    Part of the issue with NJ is that its governor is one of the most powerful governors in the country and so while in most states governors run for the Senate, in NJ, Senators try to run for governor. As a result, the most prominent NJ politicians tend to stay in state politics (Kean, Whitman, Byrne, McGreevey) and Erik has acknowlwedged that he’s largely discounting state accomplishments. The other problem is rampant corruption, which tends to end careers early (the Torch, to name just one.)

    To add another name to the list, though: Clifford Case, who preceeded Bradley in the Senate, serving from 53 to 79 after spending 8 years in the House. A liberal Republican, he opposed McCarthy, cosponsored the Case-Church Amendment that prohibited military action in Vietnam and Laos in 73, sponsored an act requiring presidents to submit executive orders to Congress, and co-sponsored an act which monitored compliance with the Helsinki Accords. So, anti-McCarthy, anti-war, pro civil rights, pro human rights, supported curbs on executive authority. And he managed to get passed legislation in a lot of these areas. Not a bad Senator, even if he was a Republican. (Oh, and he ran for Pres. in 1968, finishing just being Romney in the also-ran category at the convention.)

    • elm

      And Jestak beat me to the Case nomination. But I gave more details!

  • rea

    Frank “I am the law” Hague, long-time boss of Jersey City, deserves prominent mention–but i see Devin McCullen beat me to it.

  • Mudge

    I certainly hope you keep the phrase “annoying blowhard” in a safe place to use with Joe Lieberman, should he make your Connecticut list. Joe makes Bill Bradley look like an amateur in this regard.

  • rbcoover

    I think Jim Florio deserves a mention, just for the Superfund legislation.

  • rbcoover

    Also, does Grover Cleveland not count because though he was from NJ his political career began in New York?

  • jackd

    Although she’s probably no top-ten material, I must demonstrate some affection for Millicent Fenwick if only because she was the inspiration for Doonesbury‘s Lacey Davenport.

  • ploeg

    The other issue with NJ is that it is next door to two states that are much more influential in federal politics (New York and Pennsylvania), so promising politicians tend to jump ship. For example, Aaron Burr is most closely associated with New York, but he was born in Newark and is buried in Princeton.

    • ploeg

      It does, of course, help to read the original post. Duh.

      I suspect a lot of this is getting overshadowed by New York and Pennsylvania.

    • Anonymous

      Steal Cleveland and Burr back from NY state. It’s not like they don’t have plenty to spare.

  • rbcoover

    Just one more: Robert F. Stockton, although his achievements were more military than political.

  • mac

    Millicent Fenwick tops my list. She was one classy congresswoman, one of the last of the old-school Republicans. And yes, she was from Freulingheisen territory.

    • Millicent Fenwick certainly would have solved one problem with my NJ list–a lack of quality names.

  • Hogan

    One of my favorite Onion headlines ever: Gay Man Admits to Being Governor of New Jersey.

  • Murphy

    I enjoy this series, but I’m beginning to worry about how my state will shape up.

  • wengler

    Fuck Woodrow Wilson.

  • Jestak

    I’d say that with Brennan, Volcker and Case added to the top 5 along with Wilson and Paterson, New Jersey is looking a little less weak.

  • Daniel

    I think Theodore Frelinghuysen deserves consideration, though I can’t place him above McClellan. It was a losing effort, but he came very close to defeating the Indian Removal Act and was one of the key figures linking the Whigs to the evangelical movement.

  • Jestak

    Another Supreme Court Justice of some note from New Jersey was Joseph Bradley. Bradley is best known for his role in the Electoral Commission of 1876, which gave the Presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes, and for his opinion in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and effectively opened the door for Jim Crow.

  • cmurphy9059

    How about Kenneth Gibson, he was one of the first black mayors of a large American city at a time when Newark was considerably larger and more important than it is now. And “Nucky” Thompson from Atlantic City, have to admit I only came up w this one because of the HBO series.

  • Red Jenny

    How about Springsteen? I know he doesn’t technically fit the qualifications, but he’s more important and certainly more respectable than anyone else save Wilson (than whom he’s only more respectable).

  • Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, who made the first proposal for a black military unit in the American Revolution, defended New Jersey’s version of the Boston Tea Party, so radical in 1793 that John Adams claimed that only the yellow fever [which killed him and James Hutchinson] saved the United States from revolution.

    His teacher, and James Madison’s: Dr. John Witherspoon, the Signer.

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