Governor George B. McClellan:
An Overview of His Election, Administration, and Succession

by William Starr Myers, Ph.D.
author of

A Study in Personality: General George Brinton McClellan

In the year 1877 the selfish personal politics in both parties, that has been described as the continued curse of New Jersey government, received a temporary setback through the nomination and election as Governor of the State by the Democratic party of no less a person of national prominence than the celebrated Union general, George B.McClellan. Already this popular hero had made a somewhat disastrous experiment in the political field when he ran for President of theUnited States against Abraham Lincoln, in the year 1864, the story of which has been told. Since then, he had spent three years abroad, and upon his return had made his permanent home at Orange, New Jersey. He engaged in various business enterprises of engineering and others of more or less professional character, and was looked upon as one of the most prominent citizens of his adopted State, for he had been born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1826. As so often is the case when a man of high and independent character enters the political field, he was induced to do so as the result of a keen personal rivalry between two leading Democratic politicians, who each desired to become Governor of the State. And these two rivals were no less persons than Leon Abbett, and another man from Hudson County, Orestes Cleveland.

Abbett [pictured at right] had wanted the nomination three years before, when Governor Bedle won the nominationLeon Abbett, foiled by McClellan's nomination and election, and he was ready to try again to fulfill his great ambition. This time he was determined to win, but Cleveland was just as determined to prevent his doing so. The latter was a man of large financial interests, who was born in Duanesburg, Schenectady County, New York, moved to Jersey City, and became identified with various manufacturing interests. He had been a member of the Board of Aldermen and, then Mayor of his home city and a Democratic member of the United States Congress from 1869-1871. He claimed that Abbett had not played fair with him in past campaigns and political manipulations, so he used his keen mind and real managerial ability to check the ambitions of the latter. The right-hand man of Cleveland in his campaign to prevent the nomination of Abbett was Henry C. Kelsey, already mentioned as a leader of the long powerful "State House Aristocracy" as it then was known. He came from Newton, Sussex County, and had been discovered and appointed Secretary of State in the year I870 by Governor Theodore F. Randolph. This office is looked upon as one of great power and influence and is considered by practical politicians to be a most important subject of patronage. Nevertheless, Kelsey managed to hold onto it for more than twenty-five years. He was described as small and thin in stature and he posed as deaf. This gave him the opportunity to find out a great many things in conversation which he was not supposed to hear and his store of political knowledge was consequently very extensive. Some time before the meeting of the Democratic State Convention at Trenton a number of party leaders who were opposed to Abbett's nomination met in New York and worked out a plan which was to prove completely successful in checking Abbett's ambition, at least for the time. Cleveland is said to have been the man who first suggested General McClellan be used to block Abbett.

Nomination and Election

Three years before this time at the Democratic Convention of1874, Mr. Cleveland had been present as a delegate and had made careful note of the fact that when a delegate by the name of McClellan had been announced as a representative on one of the committees, the Convention had mistakenly supposed that the celebrated general was the person to whom reference was made and had broken out into great applause. Cleveland stored this up in his mind and now made the present suggestion that the General be used as a candidate. The plan was kept so quiet that Abbett and his followers were totally ignorant that the name of the Civil War leader was to be presented to the Convention. Furthermore, Cleveland, Kelsey, and the other conspirators controlled the State Democratic Committee. They arranged for a chairman, favorable to themselves, and took care that the main floor of the Taylor Opera House in Trenton, where the Convention was to be held, was occupied by their followers and that the chairman would not make a ruling that would throw them out. The regular delegates, who were favorable to Abbett, were crowded out and no attention was given to their protest. They either stood up or took any seats that were available.

There was great disorder in the hall when the meeting was called to order and when the balloting began no less than nine different names were placed before the Convention. A "thin piping voice" then spoke up and with great distinctness called attention to the fact that with so many candidates who were bitterly contesting the nomination it would be difficult to unite upon any one of them for a successful campaign. The voice then went on to give a most glowing description of a great Democratic soldier and hero which so aroused the delegates that there were loud shouts to name him. The voice then said: "I name him-I name George B. McClellan of Essex." The Convention went into a wild ovation and bedlam broke loose. All this had been arranged and was now engineered with great skill. Even the followers of the clever Abbett, who himself was known as a first-class manipulator, were swept from their feet. The whole Convention, both delegates and intruders, were speedily turned into an enthusiastic mob. Then the same "thin piping voice" was heard to say: "I move that General George B. McClellan be nominated by acclamation." The balloting was disregarded, a vote was at once taken and McClellan's nomination was pronounced unanimous.

It is not known how far McClellan was aware that his success was the result of such manipulation. At any rate, the nomination did come to him unanimously and it is thought he had no part in the plan unless his acceptance of the nomination had been made certain beforehand. Kelsey was most active in the management of the campaign which went forward smoothly and with a well united party behind it. The Republicans nominated a weak but respectable candidate in the person of Dr. William A. Newell of Cumberland County who was an unwilling sacrifice on the altar of the national fame and prominence of McClellan. McClellan toured the State with a popular response that was remarkable. His meetings were crowded and he was followed and cheered through the streets. The November election was decidedly in his favor, his majority over Newell being 12,753. This was good for those days. His successor, George C. Ludlow, the Democratic candidate in 1880, only carried the State by a majority of 651 and this in the year of a Presidential campaign.

McClellan's Term

McClellan was inaugurated on January 15, 1878, and was met by a Legislature which for the first time since 1870 was Democratic in both Houses. It was to be supposed that he would receive good party support in his policies but, while the State Senate contained members above the average of legislative capacity, the General Assembly was decidedly below the average and not much credit to a State like New Jersey with its great importance in national affairs and advanced material interests. McClellan, in spite of his best efforts, was continually having difficulty when he attempted to force through the passage of good legislation and to prevent by his influence and his veto the passage of "strike" bills or corrupt or blackmailing legislation. He clashed with the Senate over nominations and several times retaliated upon the followers of Abbett and McPherson who opposed him more or less consistently. The result was such disgust among the people of the State on account of the inefficiency of the Democratic Legislature that they elected Republican majorities in both Houses for the Legislatures of 1879 and 1880.

McClellan's service as Governor was above reproach and of good quality of judgment. The State, as well as the rest of the country, was slowly recovering from the results of the depression of 1873 and he had the good sense to see that while it was impossible to legislate prosperity a government can cooperate with constructive economic forces and hasten its return, rather than hinder this by half-baked measures of reform and unwise experiments. He turned his attention for the most part to three things. These were, taxation and public expenditures, public education, and the national guard. All three were efforts in a sound constructive direction, well worthy of a man of his great ability and fine reputation.

McClellan was successful in lessening the State taxes and even in abolishing them in large part. Also, he especially was interested in the advancement of commercial, industrial and agricultural training and especially in technical training for industries such as silk and cotton manufacturing in the northern part of the State, glass-making in the southern part, and for the potteries located at Trenton. Finally, he much improved the discipline, organization and marksmanship of the State militia so that it ranked among the very best in the United States. He much increased his popularity by renting a home in Trenton during a session of the Legislature and by giving his entire attention to his work as Governor. Nevertheless, he was glad when his term was up and he was relieved from the burdens of his office in January, 1881, and was succeeded by Governor Ludlow. He wrote to his mother that he had gotten "through with my governorship all right and am glad to be done with it as it was becoming a nuisance to be obliged to go to Trenton in all matters." As a final judgment upon McClellan as Governor it may be said that he had completed a good piece of administrative work, that was solid, but undistinguished.

His Succession

True to form, Abbett and Cleveland entered into a desperate fight for the control of the Democratic State Convention that met at Trenton on September 1, 1880, to nominate a candidate for Governor to succeed McClellan. Cleveland had made up his mind that he now would secure the prize, but Abbett was too clever for him and, setting aside his own ambitions, he joined with the State House Crowd who were his former enemies, in order to block Cleveland. After one of the most disorderly sessions any Democratic convention ever had held, George C. Ludlow, State Senator from Middlesex County, was nominated and defeated his Republican opponent Frederic A. Potts, by the small plurality of 651. This was the year of a national Presidential election, in which New Jersey was carried for Winfield S. Hancock of Pennsylvania and William H. English of Indiana, the Democratic candidates, over James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.

This essay was taken from: Myers, William Starr, The Story of New Jersey, Vol. 1, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1945 

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