Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Hill

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VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

David Bennett Hill

David Bennett Hill[edit]

U. S. Senator from New York

“I am a Democrat,” was the superfluous declaration of United States Senator David Bennett Hill some time since, for, among all the leading Democrats of the country, there is no more pronounced party man than he. It was Samuel J. Tilden, the Sage of Greystone, who ten years before said to him: “You have never failed me; you have always been loyal and honorable; you can be trusted; you are honest; you have brains; such men are rare. The American people appreciate power and manliness and ability, and you possess all three. I am proud of you. Whatever you do in public life, never forget that you are a Democrat.” And Mr. Hill has never forgotten it.

“I Don't Want to be an Angel”[edit]

Caleb Hill was a Connecticut farmer who removed to the State of New York early in the present century, and David Bennett, the youngest of five children, was born in 1843, in the town of Havana, Schuyler county. His mother was a woman of rare intelligence and force of character, and her example and training had much to do with the success of her son in after life.

David was a weak, sickly boy and his parents did not believe he would live to reach maturity. It is said that nearly every crone who met him had a habit of chucking him under the chin and solemnly remarking: “Poor boy, he will not be with us long, but I suppose he will be better off among the angels.” “I don't want to be an angel,” angrily protested the lad, who up to the present has had his wish gratified.

His weak health made young Hill a studious boy and he developed a marked talent for composition. He was the pupil always selected to read a composition or deliver a speech at school celebrations, and, when he was still quite young, many of the shrewd neighbors prophesied a brilliant future for the youth. At the age of seventeen years he attended a political meeting at Watkin's Glen. He had just been graduated from the High School, and like the others had gone to the Glen to listen to the address of a famous political orator.

The orator did not appear, much to the disappointment of the multitude. When they were about to separate, the committee observed young Hill in the crowd, and aware of his skill as a speaker, urged him to go upon the platform. He consented and delivered a speech, full of good sense and displaying such a familiarity with politics that the audience was surprised and delighted. “He's made of the right stuff,” remarked one of the old men; “he'll be heard from again.”

Fortunately by this time Hill had acquired sound health, and the old women and pessimists agreed that the time for his becoming an angel would have to be postponed indefinitely.

Launched Upon the Sea of Politics[edit]

His father died while he was a lad and his mother eked out a living as best she could from the heavily mortgaged farm. David contributed all the help he could, selling papers and candies on the New York Central Railway before he had entered his teens. Having passed through the High School, he now entered a law office in Elmira and began the study of law. He was a hard student, and did two years' work in one, being admitted to the bar when he had barely reached the age of twenty-one. Two months later he was appointed city attorney, and was thus fairly launched upon the sea of politics, where he has made a brilliant reputation. His sound judgment, his great ability and his aggressive nature caused him to forge to the front quickly, and he was selected as a delegate to the Democratic State convention in 1868. Two years later, he was elected to the Legislature and attracted the attention of Samuel J. Tilden.

At the expiration of his term, Hill returned to Elmira, where he became alderman. His record was so satisfactory that he was nominated for mayor and defeated one of the most popular of Republicans. His course brought him before the State convention in 1882, and he was elected lieutenant-governor on the ticket which placed Grover Cleveland in the gubernatorial chair. In 1885, he was chosen governor by a large majority, being re-elected, and holding the office until 1891. In the latter year he was chosen United States Senator, for the term expiring in 1897.

The Republican “Landslide” of 1894[edit]

In the face of his earnest protest he was forced to take the nomination for governor in 1894, against Levi P. Morton. It was the Republican “landslide” year, when there was no earthly hope of success for the Democrats, but Hill went into the canvass and fought to the end with his accustomed energy and skill. He had the determined support of a minority in the convention which placed Grover Cleveland in nomination for the Presidency in 1892, and has often been named since in connection with that high office.

Senator Hill has reached success by study, hard work, integrity, and the momentum of natural ability. He is not a brilliant speaker, and rarely are his addresses lit up by flashes of humor; but they are solid, full of fact, and logical. He is extremely popular with his own party, which would be proud to honor him with any office within its gift. He is respected for his talents, and commands the attention of the Senate when he rises to speak. It is to his credit that he does not use tobacco in any form, and he never tasted liquor but once, which was simply to learn what sort of flavor the poison has. He is averse to female society, finding his greatest pleasure in his books and the company of his own sex. Now and then there are mysterious reports of his engagement to some lady, but if ever he does take to himself a wife, it will be the most unexpected act of his life.