George Frisbie Hoar: An Honorable Senator

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On March 11, 1874, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts lay on his deathbed and he supposedly instructed one of his last visitors thrice, “You must take care of the civil rights bill – my bill, the civil rights bill – don’t let it fail!” (U.S. House of Representatives). This man was his protégé, Congressman George Frisbie Hoar (1826-1904) of Massachusetts, and he would valiantly try to continue Sumner’s legacy and succeed in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed albeit in a weak form.

Hoar was a grandson of Founding Father Roger Sherman, and saw it as his imperative to stick with the Constitution as Sherman and other founders intended. This included a belief that slavery was meant to be eventually abolished and in the early 1850s he joined the Free Soil Party and he subsequently joined the Republican Party. Elected to Congress in 1868, Hoar was a Radical Republican, strongly supporting Reconstruction efforts. He, like Sumner, maintained a lifelong commitment to opposing racial discrimination. On economics, Hoar was decidedly conservative, opposing inflationary policies such as increasing the money supply, maintaining the use of greenbacks unbacked by gold after the war, and free coinage of silver. Hoar stated on the matter in 1893 that “A sound currency is to the affairs of this life what a pure religion and a sound system of morals are to the affairs of the spiritual life” and regarded silver as an “inferior metal” (Kazin, 73). He also embraced the orthodox Republican position favorable to the protective tariff.

Hoar and Discrimination

In 1877, Hoar was appointed a member of the Electoral Commission to determine the outcome of the election, which narrowly went to Hayes. That same year he was elected to the Senate. As the 19th century progressed, the push for restricting immigration grew and grew. Pressure especially was building up for it in California and Oregon against Chinese immigrants. This resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which although vetoed by Rutherford B. Hayes, a compromise version would be signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882. Hoar voted against both versions as he regarded America as a land that ought to be free of legal distinctions based on race and color. Yet, he was not the sort we would think of as favoring “open borders” either; in 1897 he voted for the Lodge Immigration Bill that if enacted would have had a literacy test as a prerequisite for immigration. This bill was vetoed by President Cleveland but a literacy test would ultimately be incorporated into the Immigration Act of 1917.

In 1886, he was one of the first members of the Senate to openly call for women’s suffrage and four years later he was the Senate sponsor of the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, which if enacted would have provided for effective enforcement of the 15th Amendment in the South. Unfortunately, Democratic resistance to it, in the North and South, combined with several Republican defections in the Senate resulted in the bill’s demise. The Republican Party would undertake no serious and coordinated efforts for civil rights legislation until 1922.

Maintaining the Senate

For much of Hoar’s Senate tenure, he served as chair of the Judiciary Committee and drafted the Presidential Succession Act in 1886. Given his direct family link to the Founding Fathers, he saw it as his duty to preserve the Senate as Roger Sherman and people like him intended. He thus was a leading opponent of the direct election of senators and in 1897 he wrote an article, “Has the Senate Degenerated?” Most notable in the article was the following, “The Senate . . . was created that the deliberate will, the sober second thought of the people might find expression. It was intended that it should resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people. This hasty passion and intemperance is frequently found in the best men as in the worst. But so long as the political management of the country excites eager interest, so long these feelings will be excited; and when they are excited the body whose function it is to resist them will be, for the time being, an object of dislike and attack. It has, therefore, always been true, is true now, and always will be true, that the Senate is an object of bitter denunciation by those persons whose purposes are thwarted or delayed. That will be especially true when the House and Executive, the popular majority, are of one way of thinking and the Senate, representing the will of the majority of the States, is of another way. It is fair, therefore, that the Senate should be judged not by considering its conduct or its composition at the time when the judgment is to be expressed, but by a review of a whole century of its history.

. . . The President represents the majority of the whole people; the House of Representatives, the present and immediate popular desire of the constituencies. But the Senate stands also for the will of the American people. It stands for its deliberate, permanent, settled desire,—its sober, second thought” (United States Senate).

Hoar also feared that the adoption of this amendment would result in other proposals he thought destructive to the constitutional system, including the abolition of the Electoral College and popular election of judges. In 1902, a brawl broke out between Senators Benjamin Tillman and John McLaurin of South Carolina over their increasing political differences. Hoar in response successfully pushed for the adoption of a Senate rule that banned senators from denigrating each other on the floor.

Hoar and Imperialism

In 1870, Senator Charles Sumner had crossed the Grant Administration when his opposition to the annexation of Santo Domingo proved critical in its defeat, and Hoar likewise crossed the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations in opposition to American imperialism, unlike Henry Cabot Lodge, the junior senator from Massachusetts. On February 6, 1899, he along with Eugene Hale of Maine and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania were the only three Republican senators to vote against the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War and granted the US control over the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam while surrendering control of Cuba. As Republican critics of imperialism, they were later joined by William Mason of Illinois and George Wellington of Maryland. Hoar also called for the independence of the Philippines, which would not happen until 1946. Although he was unpopular with some of the younger Republicans for this, his reputation in Massachusetts was such that he remained politically safe unlike Sumner, who had been penalized for his opposition by loss of his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Hoar wrote a few works, including the introduction to Charles Sumner; His Complete Works and his autobiography, Autobiography of Seventy Years (1903). After enjoying a life of good health, Hoar fell ill in June 1904 and declined until his death on September 30th. His MC-Index life score is an 89%, with his score from 1869 to 1897 being a 96% while his 1897 to 1904 score was 66%, reflecting his increasing dissent with conservative Republican policies. He had been a much revered senator given his direct ties to the Founding Fathers and despite his frequent partisanship he placed the institutional integrity of the Senate above it.


Civil Rights Act of 1875. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Kazin, M. (2006). A Godly hero: The life of William Jennings Bryan. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

The Idea of the Senate: A Place of “Sober Second Thought”. United States Senate.

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To Agree to the Conference Report on H.R. 7864, The Immigration Laws Bill Amending the Immigration Laws of the United States. Govtrack.

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To Pass H.R. 5804 (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Govtrack.

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To Pass the Resolution to Ratify the Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain Signed at the city of Paris on December 10, 1898. Govtrack.

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2 thoughts on “George Frisbie Hoar: An Honorable Senator

  1. What I find most interesting is that Hoar was an early member of the GOP “Half-Breed” faction as opposed to the Stalwarts. This was attributed to his disdain for corruption, and he subsequently differed sharply from President Grant. However, unlike other Half-Breeds such as William A. Wheeler (who coldly turned his back on Southern blacks in 1876, from what I read), Hoar did not seem to betray GOP roots, given his vocal support for the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, as you mention in this entry.

    In addition, I believe Hoar supported the Pendleton Act primarily if not exclusively on anti-corruption grounds.

    1. Hoar definitely seemed to me an honorable partisan. He opposed corruption that surrounded the Grant Administration without bolting to the Liberal Republicans like Charles Sumner did, which would frankly have been a terrible career move and not in keeping with his Reconstruction views. I certainly believe Hoar’s vote on the Pendleton Act was out of conviction, unlike the Stalwarts who voted for it to give the Republicans a short-term advantage and credit for an at the time modest reform. They might as well have done so though as they had already gotten a thrashing in the 1882 midterms.

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