Garret Augustus Hobart was born Hobart was on June 3, 1844, the descendant of a long line of clergymen, with a family tree that dated back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the early seventeenth century. In 1841 his father had left New England to open a primary school in Long Branch, New Jersey, where Garret Hobart was born. Young Hobart attended his father's school and then went to boarding school. As a member of the Reformed Church, he attended Rutgers College, which was then under that church's control. He graduated at the top of his class in 1863.
Although the nation was deeply engaged in the Civil War, Hobart did not join the Union army. Instead, he studied law in Paterson, New Jersey, under the tutelage of Socrates Tuttle, a childhood friend of his father's. He became a lawyer in 1866, and on July 21, 1869, married Tuttle's daughter, Jennie. Hobart's family had long been Democrats, but marriage into the Republican Tuttle household converted the young man to the Grand Old Party
Socrates Tuttle was elected mayor of Paterson in 1871, and he appointed Hobart to the position of city attorney. In 1872, Hobart took a seat in the New Jersey legislature, becoming Speaker of the House in 1874. In 1876, he was elected to the Senate of New Jersey, serving as its president from 1881 to 1882. His legislative experience contributed to the success of his law practice, and Hobart was named director of several corporations. He also served as president of banks, railroads, and the Passaic Water Company.
It seems startling that someone who never held prior office outside of a state legislature could be nominated and elected Vice President of the United States, as was Garret Augustus Hobart in 1896. By the time convention delegates chose the last nineteenth-century vice president, they had come to regard that office as little more than a "fifth wheel to the executive coach." The nomination was in their view simply a device for balancing the ticket, either by ideology or by region. "Gus" Hobart, an easterner chosen to run with a middle westerner, William McKinley of Ohio, completely shared McKinley's conservative political philosophy. With warm feelings for Hobart, President McKinley decided to rescue the vice-presidency from its low estate. McKinley so embraced the vice president as his friend, associate, and confidant that Hobart's home on Lafayette Square became known as the "Little Cream White House," and Hobart as the "Assistant President."
Hobart himself felt ambivalent about the honor. Ambitious for national office, he was realistic enough to know what it would ultimately cost him. From the convention, he wrote to his wife: I have been too busy to be homesick, but, to tell the honest truth, I am heart-sick over my own prospects. It looks to me I will be nominated for Vice-President whether I want it or not, and as I get nearer to the point where I may, I am dismayed at the thought. . . . If I want a nomination, everything is going my way. But when I realize all that it means in work, worry, and loss of home and bliss, I am overcome, so overcome I am simply miserable.7 Unlike the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who barnstormed the country making speeches, William McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, running his campaign from his front porch. Hobart similarly limited his speaking to his portico in New Jersey. McKinley and Hobart stood firm for the gold standard and the protective tariff. Bryan, for his part, ran on a "Free Silver" platform and attracted many desperate farmers and debtors to his crusade. But economic conditions—and corporate interests—favored the Republicans. McKinley won by a half million votes, or 51 percent of the total cast. His Republican ticket carried 23 of the 45 states, including Hobart's New Jersey.
Beginning in early 1899, Hobart suffered from fainting spells triggered by serious heart problems. He never fully recovered. Yet that summer he performed a last major service for the McKinley administration when he helped the gentle president to fire his secretary of war, General Russell A. Alger. A large, affable man with presidential ambitions, Alger had become tarred by scandals that emerged during the Spanish-American war—particularly charges that unscrupulous war suppliers had fed "embalmed beef" to American soldiers. McKinley saw the need to sacrifice his secretary of war to the demands of public opinion, but could not bring himself to fire a friend. When Secretary of State John Hay declined to deliver the bad news, the task fell to Hobart. That summer, Alger and his wife regularly spent weekends with the Hobarts at their summe r house at Norwood Park, New Jersey. One evening, Hobart took Alger into the smoking room and suggested that he find some excuse for retiring from the cabinet. During the next week, newspapers published stories that Alger had been pressured to step down but that the president was standing loyally by him. The oblivious Alger returned to Hobart's seaside home the next weekend and insisted that in light of the president's loyal backing he had no reason to leave the cabinet. Now Hobart bluntly explained that the president would feel "very much relieved" if the secretary would resign. Alger could not believe what he was hearing until Hobart admitted that he was speaking with the president's authorization. The shaken secretary of war hurried back to Washington and at nine o'clock on Monday morning handed his resignation to President McKinley.
Garret Hobart died on November 21, 1899. He was the sixth American vice president to die in office. Arriving at the Hobart home in Paterson for the funeral, President McKinley told the family, "No one outside of this home feels this loss more deeply than I do."