Biography of Hon. John T. Hogeboom


History of Columbia County, New York

By Captain Franklin Ellis

Published by Everts & Ensign

Philadelphia, PA



Pages 342-344


      Hon. John T. Hogeboom was born in the town of Ghent, Columbia Co., N. Y., on the place where he now resides, Jan. 31, 1816.  His father--Tobias L. Hogeboom--was born on the same place, Nov. 3, 1770; and here also his grandfather, Lawrence J. Hogeboom, was born and reared his family.  They are descendants of the best Knickerbocker stock of the State, and among its earliest settlers,--the settlement at Claverack Landing having been made by Peter Hogeboom and others at no very long period after the settlement of New York and Albany.  On the maternal side they are descended from John Howland, of the "Mayflower," in one line, and in the other from Sarah Smith, the celebrated Quakeress, who suffered severe punishment for her faith during the persecution of the Quakers at Salem, Mass.  The mother of John T. Hogeboom was the only daughter of Joseph Power, a captain in the Revolutionary army, and Rebecca Smith.  His grandmother on his father's side was a Leggett, of Scotch descent, who left Scotland on account of religious persecution, and emigrated to Holland.  Of this family William Leggett, the noted political writer and journalist, was a descendant.

     John T. Hogeboom evinced in early boyhood great avidity for knowledge, especially of a scientific and mathematical character.  At the age of eleven he was in correspondence with some of the leading mathematicians of the country; at the age of fifteen he was a practical surveyor.  With what assistance he gained from the common schools and from the study of books, he prepared himself for the Van Rensselaer Institute, at Troy, N. Y., then under the management of Professor Eaton where he graduated with high honors in 1833, and immediately after began the study of law with Messrs. Wilcoxson & Van Schaack, at Kinderhook, and finished his legal studies with Messrs. McKay & Bramhall, in the city of Buffalo, N. Y., with whom he formed a partnership upon his admission to the bar in 1837.  He practiced his profession in the city of Buffalo till 1840, during which time he took an active part in politics, especially advocating measures for reforming the judiciary.  He was a member of the first association for that purpose formed in the State, and was noted for his ability as a public speaker and for his readiness and accuracy in drawing up forms for pleadings, etc.  In 1840 he removed to Nassau, Renselaer Co., where he was subsequently engaged in the practice of his profession till the fall of 1844.  During the campaign of that season his voice failed him on account of an attack of bronchitis, induced by excessive speaking in the open air.  He had addressed over sixty open-air mass-meetings in a voice of such singular clearness and strength that the multitudes who listened to him were delighted, and moved as few orators had the power to move them; but he paid the penalty for this extravagant use of his vocal organs in a hoarseness scarcely more audible for many months than a whisper.  In consequence of this he was obliged to retire from his profession, and chose the occupation most congenial to his taste and conducive to his recovery,--the pursuit of agriculture.

     His settlement on a farm, however, was by no means the signal for his retirement from public life; on the contrary, notwithstanding the impaired condition of his voice, he took at once an active and prominent part in the formation of public opinion on the question of African slavery, which was then assuming commanding importance in the politics of the State and nation.  Although the son of a slaveholder, and a descendant of slaveholding ancestors (for nearly all the leading families of Dutch extraction in the earliest settled parts of the State were slaveholders), he was a practical disciple of that democracy taught by Thomas Jefferson, and an earnest opponent of every form of slavery.  His views on this subject were greatly strengthened by the large influence of his father's teaching and example, who was himself a slaveholder, and yet an active advocate of the abolition of slavery in the State of New York.

     The issues upon the slavery question were fast ripening, and the efforts of both the leading political parties to allay the agitation in the public mind were futile while the power of Congress was constantly employed by the slaveholding class for the protection and extension of the "divine institution."  The Kansas and Nebraska legislation of Congress; the violations of the compact in relation to the Northwestern Territory; the new fugitive-slave bill, and the judicial decision of the United State Supreme Court, were certainly calculated to awaken the apprehension of the [P. 343]friends of freedom and to summon them to action, if the Republic was to be maintained as the asylum of the oppressed and the home of liberty.

     The important part taken by Mr. Hogeboom as delegate to national and State conventions, which has become part of the political history of our country, especially his untiring and zealous work performed within his native county, will form the chief basis upon which his reputation must rest as a public orator (sometimes rising to extraordinary power), as an honest, self-denying citizen, and as a public benefactor, employing his best faculties in their highest activity for the benefit of his fellow-men.

     The county of Columbia had in all its history shown itself as especially conservative in its political bias, and had uniformly contributed to the State convention delegates in favor of the policy of maintaining a cordial alliance with slavery.  The Democratic party in the county, under the leadership of the venerable Monell, was especially conservative.  It held nearly all the members of the bar, and not one in the Democratic party who had been willing to venture a protest in any convention against the uniform selection of pro-slavery delegates to State or Congressional conventions.  Within the county, it will be conceded without question that the influence of Mr. Hogeboom was much larger than that of any other man in carrying the county over from the conservative to the radical side of the pending political issues.  "The Apple-Tree Convention" of the Democratic party of the county marks the crisis of its political history.  The practice then prevailed of holding conventions unrestricted as to numbers, leaving each town to send as many delegates as it desired, and selecting from the assemblage a committee on nominations equally from the towns.  All other questions were decided by the "convention at large."  This was a form of convention very popular with the masses, and much preferred by the skillful politicians, who were the better enabled to mould and manipulate public opinion.  It had worked admirably in the suppression of all opposition to the ruling power; but the time had come when it was to furnish an opportunity for an effective and successful rebellion.  In the preparation for the convention a preliminary meeting of the radicals had been held, and it was resolved to demand that the coming county convention should be called at some more central place in the county an away form the city of Hudson.  The county committee, although conservative, were easily prevailed upon to call the convention at Claverack, in the hopes of avoiding complaints, while confident of an easy victory in the contest which was known to be approaching.

     The convention assembled, and as both parties or factions had exerted their strength in sending strong delegations from the several towns, in numbers as well as in character, it was found to be much too large for any building in the vicinity.  The weather was fine, and it was called together beneath the ample shade of an orchard.  The "Hunkers" were amply supplied with effective speakers; the "Barn-burners," by their preliminary meeting, had resolved to leave the discussion wholly to the single advocacy of Mr. Hogeboom.  A show of harmony had been exhibited by the committee in the selection of Mr. Tobias L. Hogeboom as the chairman of the convention; but the spirit of the concession was rendered apparent as the discussion went on.  He was personally arraigned as a "disturber of the public peace," and his son as a "breeder of discord."  Many of the friends of freedom were apprehensive of the result in seeing on the one side so formidable an array of experienced speakers, and on the other the sole and unpretending debater.  But the sagacity displayed by the "Barn-burners" in contenting themselves with a single advocate was fully justified by the result.  Conscious of the right, and never for a moment appearing to lose his self-control under the violent personal attacks made upon himself and his honored father, he successfully resisted the assault, and by his fervent appeal to the masses to stand by the faith of the fathers in the advocacy of freedom, the convention was carried by an overwhelming majority in support of resolutions pronouncing hostility to slavery, and declaring it the duty of the government, under the constitution, in all practical ways to encourage its abolition in the States, and to prevent by absolute legislation its extension into any of the Territories.

     The contest between the opposing elements of public opinion was only beginning.  In the Democratic party it was rapidly reaching its culmination in the open rupture of the party, too well known as part of the general history of the country to require any further mention here.  The name of the subject of this notice is so prominently identified with it as to render any sketch of his life very imperfect which did not deal somewhat with the political features of the times in which he was an earnest actor and worker.  He was one of the "hundred gentlemen," as the conservative press sneeringly designated William Cullen Bryant and his associates, who had been selected by a committee of "Barn-burners" to protest in behalf of the majority of the Democracy of the State against the nomination of James Buchanan, the means by which it was accomplished, and the platform upon which it was placed.  During all the controversies which agitated the Democratic party from 1846 to 1857, growing out of the slavery question, his position was marked as that of a prominent leader of public opinion,--tireless, energetic, and faithful to his convictions.  His voice, though somewhat impaired, had acquired much of its original vigor, and was often heard in every part of the county.  He was always a ready speaker, clear in his delivery, extremely plain in his language, and peculiarly logical and forcible in his statements.  His earnestness evinced the thoroughness of his convictions, while his well-established character for honesty added great weight to his otherwise effective oratory.  The people of his own county, irrespective of party, always gave him a willing ear, and were never weary of listening to him.  His audiences were uniformly the largest gatherings in the county.

     With such political antecedents, he was naturally and consistently led into association with the present Republican party at its formation.  He was offered by his new party a nomination for Congress, but he declined it upon the ground that he could better serve the cause out of harness than in; and afterwards, when compelled to retire from the canvass on account of a return of bronchial affection, an unsought nomination for member of Assembly found him in a forest [P 344] retreat of Pennsylvania, seeking the restoration of his health.  He returned home with the determination to decline the nomination, but his objections were overruled by the urgent solicitations of friends.  He was elected, and at once took a prominent position in the Legislature.  He served as chairman of the committee on railroads, and as member of the committee on ways and means.

     If was during this session that one of the most remarkable scenes took place on the floor of the House ever witnessed in a legislative assembly.  Mr. Hogeboom had been appealed to by several members and one prominent senator to seek the repeal of an odious law which had been passed by lobby influence "legitimatizing" certain children born in bastardy.  He remonstrated with the senator, as the Senate offered the best opportunity for the introduction of the new bill, nor would he assent to the proposition till the mother, with her children, seeking flight from the false legitimacy of the statute, appealed to him for protection.  He consented to make the attempt at the opening of the session next morning.  The time came, and at the conclusion of the roll-call he arose, and, addressing the speaker, demanded to be heard on a question of privilege.  It was not possible for several minutes to comprehend the drift of the member's remarks, so artfully was the attack concealed under a general dissertation upon the obligations and vagaries of legislation.  When he had succeeded in engaging the attention of the speaker and obtaining the ear of the House (we are using now the words of an eye-witness), the members of the lobby were at first very active in inducing members to object, and objections were poured in from every quarter.  But the one clear voice could be distinctly heard above all the uproar, fulminating the fiercest denunciations against the authors and abettors of unclean legislation, and the criminal methods by which an unwary Legislature had been inveigled into the accomplishment of their purpose, and supported the demand to be heard in behalf of the privileges of the House, whose dignity had been violated; in behalf of each member, whose honor had been compromised by unclean legislation; and that the House proceed immediately to the consideration of such means as should be deemed necessary and proper for its vindication.  The speaker decided to hear.  The speech which followed was not reported, the stenographer, Mr. Sherman Croswell, becoming so excited by the vehement and eloquent strain of the remarks of Mr. Hogeboom as to lose all self-command.  When afterwards asked for his report, his answer was, "My God! no living man could report that speech!"  It is almost needless to add that Mr. Hogeboom was successful.  The House passed the bill through all its stages in less than an hour; the Senate, members of which had largely been witnesses of what had passed in the House, passed the bill without debate; and the clerk of the House carrying the bill personally to the governor, it was signed and became a law in less than two hours from the introduction of the question of privilege.  The Albany press at the time alluded to that speech as the most eloquent and effective ever delivered in the House of Assembly, and one, perhaps, nowhere surpassed in the effectiveness of its delivery.

     We have found many in the county who have urged a more extended biography of our subject, but the plan of our work compels us to refrain, leaving many things unsaid which a complete sketch of his life would require to be inserted.  We subjoin the general statistics of the places of responsibility and trust which he has filled.

      Since the above service in the Assembly, he has been twice a member of that body, viz, in 1876 and 1877.  He was county judge for the first two terms under the constitution of 1846.  He was renominated unanimously for the third term by the Democratic party, and declined expressly upon the ground that he feared coming political events would force him to sever his connections with a party from which he was receiving a favor, and he could not consent to place one feather's weight against the obligations of duty which might upon an expected contingency intervene; and this was that the Democratic party might fail to declare itself hostile to the extension of slavery into the Territories of the United States.  He was one of the "Barn-burner" delegates to the Baltimore convention which nominated Lewis Cass for the presidency, and who, upon the admission of the "Hunker" delegates on equal terms, resigned their seats in the convention, and by a published address absolved themselves from responsibility to support its nominations.  He was a member of the Buffalo convention which nominated Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, and has survived them both in fidelity to the principles of "free soil, free men, and free speech."  He was a delegate to the convention at Chicago which nominated Abraham Lincoln for President.  He has held the offices of United States appraiser and general appraiser at the port of New York for some twelve years, in a period of general delinquency, without one suspicion upon his integrity.  To these positions he was named by the President because of their great importance during the tariff changes incidental to the necessity of large augmentations of revenue and the desire of reform in their organization.  Using language applied to him by a contemporary, "He has been in the furnace, and comes out of it without the smell of fire upon his garments."

     He is now engaged practically in the cultivation of his farm, where we found him among his men with the implements of husbandry in his hands.  He is now in his sixty-third year, in the enjoyment of good health, and with a fair promise of many years of usefulness before him.  His mother, nearly ninety-four years of age, is living with him, and she is in good health and in the possession of all her faculties.  His children born to him are all living,--three sons and two daughters,--and his youngest son, nineteen years of age, living with him, whom we saw upon the place on visiting it.  His wife, a daughter of the late Samuel McClellan, M.D., of Schodack, Rensselaer county, is a highly-educated and accomplished woman, and as earnest and ready as himself in the discharge of every duty.  They have in their lives applied to practice the homely virtues, and set the good example to all their neighbors and acquaintances, that the highest accomplishments are in accord with the performance of all the duties and obligations of life.