Governor George B. McClellan:
The McClellan Regime in the 20th Century

by Dimitri Rotov

George McClellan was a political scientist, something of a theoretician and constitutionalist, whose major forays into political practice brought him into contact with devotees of operational politics. This stereotype of statesman shadowed by grubby allies and adversaries occurs twice in McClellan's life, first in the Civil War, second as governor of New Jersey. McClellan was stereotyped by friends as a heroic outsider called to political service, and in this he foreshadowed certain self-dramatizing aspects of 20th Century movement conservatism and conservative governance. To the culture of 1945 (when Dr. Myers wrote his piece), McClellan's might appear to be a clean but undistinguished 19th Century administration. But by the early 1950s, an astute observer would already note echoes of McClellan's story in the unfolding Eisenhower saga. By the end of the 1990s, the McClellan Administration casts a bright, eery light on the political players of at least two generations.

Trenton in McClellan's timeMcClellan took office in January, 1878, 14 years after his run for the presidency. During his campaign against Lincoln, McClellan, in a private talk, predicted that he would make great enemies all around in his first year in office as he dispensed the pain necessary to win the war. These are starkly anti-political sentiments, from a practical point of view. And they were fulfilled quickly in his governorship when McClellan's principled behavior evoked retaliatory deadlock from the legislature.

Anti-politics and 1864

McClellan's wartime political writings are filled with anti-political content. He had positive political principles but they were often expressed, like those later reacting to the New Deal, in negatives. His revulsion at the conduct of the war was undoubtedly energizing. This feeling was shared by large segments of the public and its arguments took the form of critique: charges that Republicans sought a "Northern Confederacy," that prosecution of the war was subject primarily to political considerations, that Republicans were persecuting dissenters, etc. A related strain of criticism was that the Republicans were a revolutionary party seeking to subordinate society to the state. McClellan early on encountered evidence in Secretary of State Seward's referrals to him -- for military positions -- of European socialist revolutionaries (Seward called this recruiting the making of "a people's war"). Significantly, McClellan's assignments to his personal staff favored European monarchists, who in the polities of the 19th Century, represented profoundly "anti-political" viewpoints.

The various streams of anti-Republican criticism came together in the Democratic Party of the 1860s. They were crystallized in the McClellan's lucid formula, "The Constitution as it is, the Nation as it was." McClellan became a living emblem for a comprehensive, principled critique of the Republican Party, its apparatus, and its operatives. McClellan's presidential mission can be stated as a series of negatives: he would end waste, fraud and mismanagement in the war; he would end the nation's division; he would end Party tyrrany; he would restore friendly foreign relations; etc. The scope and depth of this "negativity" finds no national echo until the Wilson and FDR periods. It took steps towards institutionalization in the Goldwater candidacy of 1964 and the subsequent Reagan (counter) revolution. We have called this, for 35 years, "running against the government."

Governor McClellan

McClellan's operations in the governor's office suggests answers to two questions, one historical -- what might a McClellan presidency have entailed? -- and one philosophical -- how can one govern from a quintessentially reactionary or negative philosophy? McClellan answered this last question much more convincingly than many modern conservatives.

McClellan's coattails brought Democrats into majorities in both New Jersey chambers. The first order of business would normally be, in the best 19th Century fashion, the removal of Republicans and the stocking of offices with Democrats. In this, McClellan simply resisted, firmly resisted, immediately resisted all impositions of jobbers and hacks proposed by the Party establishment, starting with certain state Senators' requests (immediately alienating the Senate). Reviewing his official correspondence from that period, one is overwhelmed with the quantity of McClellan's polite but curt job refusals.

The second order of business one might expect after a 19th Century election would be the quick passage of legislation favoring friends and allies and punishing opponents. He here, again, fulfilled the prediction of his aborted presidency by angering allies. Some of the early bills sent him were designed to ensure ongoing Democratic control of the State (and must have reminded him of the Republican's many Civil War power grabs). He vetoed them. Others bills aimed at seizing a headline or currying popularity met similar ends (an extended example is given elsewhwere on this site). One law typically gerrymandered the state to Democratic advantage: McClellan killed it. Another law proposed the disenfranchising of college students (generally Republicans) and although I encountered such a law in effect in the New York State of 1969-74, McClellan vetoed it in the New Jersey of 1878.

These developments might be interpreted as the ordinary signs of an ordinary power struggle, except that McClellan never got into the power business. He did not build a power base. He did not cultivate powerful local political personalities. He acted in what has become the modern style of a man of principle with a popular mandate governing against a political establishment. He destroyed his relations with the Democratic legislature but unlike his modern counterparts, McClellan did not dramatize or publicize this struggle. He quietly went about vetoing nonsense.

Policies and programs

I mentioned earlier that "gridlock" marked the Adminsitration from the beginning. It took a turn for the worse when voters ran Democrats out of the upper and lower Houses at the next election. The Republicans who replaced them settled immediately into opposition to their governor. Despite this, and despite his vetoes, McClellan was able to envision and have enacted positive policies that were true to his conservative principles.

In the area of government and business cycles, McClellan's economics powerfully evoke present practices. New Jersey suffered an incomplete recovery from the Panic of 1873. Contrary to popular belief in make-work projects, then and now, McClellan pictured a restoration of economic vigor through the lowering of taxes, the elimination of public debt, and the reduction of state spending. Despite a Republican legislature, he succeed in enacting these. Where modern conservatives divide into respective camps over spending, tax-cutting, and debt, McClellan unified all positions in one incumbency that delivered on principles. His anti-tax rhetoric speaks for itself: "it is far better for us to leave the money in the pockets of the people, for by them it will be best employed in increasing the wealth of the State and in the development of its resources."

This tax policy comment is striking in its modern flavor. He does not appeal to property rights ("what is mine is mine") but proposes tax relief as a utilitarian choice for a State embarked on developing the economy. Like the later "supply side" theory, it does not reject intervention in principle, but instead endorses specific kinds of interventions.

We see more of this, perhaps even the outline of what is now called "industrial policy," in McClellan's other economic initiatives. Governor McClellan thought job training schemes could alleviate unemployment and that state schools were suitable vehicles for what is now known as vocational education. Moreover, he wanted votech oriented to the local economy: agricultural training for farmers' children, etc. He was disturbed by unemployment in the midst of the skilled labor shortages and sought training partnerships between businesses and schools. When these failed to materialize, he argued for the establishment of votech schools with state money, and the enabling legislation passed before he left office. He viewed the scheme as "clearly good political economy."

"Good political economy" is not a term much heard in conservative circles today, where laissez faire must still be given its due, but McClellan was as fiscally conservative as a man could be without crossing the line into laissez faire economic practice. He thought in terms of policies and as in his military career, he innovated. In 1878, he moved to create a bureau of industrial and labor statistics, the very necessary first step in doing "good political economy." He succeeded again and New Jersey's was the second state in the country to have such an office. McClellan proposed and received funding for experimental state agricultural facilities. He had libraries stock technical literature appropriate to local industries. He wanted government assistance for (a few) targeted industries. He sought the creation of a sort of industrial museum for foreign-made pottery as a means of educating the thriving Trenton-based New Jersey pottery industry. These measures were taken against a backdrop of reducing spending and borrowing and abolishing direct taxes.

Like today's so-called "flat taxers" (who are generally advocating simpler taxes not flat taxes per se), McClellan took steps in the direction of simplifying the State's tax laws, but left the study and recommendations of such to a commission. Perhaps his motivation in using a commission was technocratic or bipartisan, but the commission's recommendations died in the legislature.

As with modern conservatives, McClellan showed particular interest in the military and undertook a major modernization of New Jersey's National Guard that included an expansion in size, issue of new weaponry, and the attainment of certain proficiencies.

Throughout his three-year administration, McClellan applied fairly strict Constitutional interpretations to the bills he received and sponsored. He was diligent in attending to business whenever the legislature was in session, going so far as to rent rooms in Trenton, an move favorably commented on at the time. He ran a clean administration and successfully backed a measure to open local government books to public inspection.

McClellan left office in 1881, writing his mother that he was satisfied with his own performance and glad to be back in private life (N.J. governors served one term only). He flirted briefly with President Grover Cleveland's Administration over an appointment as Secretary of War, but his embittered N.J. Democratic Party foes soured Cleveland on the idea. He is credited with being the first New Jersey governor to think in terms of economic development policies.


This essay has pointed toward McClellan's actions and some modern conservative practices. But there are differences as well, and they may constitute lessons.

And as the Grover Cleveland business proved, virtue will have to be its own reward.


Ely, Charles T., Taxation in American States and Cities, New York, T.Y. Cromwell & Co., 1886

McClellan, G.B., Correspondence, NJ State Library

Myers, William Starr, The Story of New Jersey, Vol. 1, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1945 

Reddy, Jerome C., untitled essay, The Governors of New Jersey, 1664-1974: Biographical Essays, Stellhorn and Birkner (Ed.), Trenton, NJ Historical Commission, 1982

(c) 1998 The McClellan Society