Southern Tier Life: Legends & Legacies
Old News with Jack Bond
Ambition Drove David Bennett Hill from Elmira to Albany. Did he fight off corruption or did he fall for it?
Sometimes, as voters, it’s hard to recognize the importance of local politics. I know local politics is important, but it was hard to commit to the belief without evidence, so I decided to look for proof. After talking with, and researching at, the Schuyler and Chemung County Historical Societies, I found an interesting figure that I should’ve known about before.
Back before the village of Havana was renamed to Montour Falls, and before Watkins Glen was the County seat of Schuyler, a lawyer entered local politics and rose to governor of the state. David B. Hill was born and raised in Havana, New York in 1843. At public school Hill had many examples of great orators. He heard from both politicians and activists, which perhaps explains how Hill himself became interested in politics and learned to orate.
Photo of David Bennett Hill provided by Schuyler County Historical Society.
Hill started his career in law as a legal clerk, and eventually moved to Elmira to study at another law office. He worked tirelessly in his studies, dedicated himself to his job, and joined baseball clubs to establish himself locally.
Hill’s efforts are perhaps how he managed the miracle of passing the bar and being appointed the Elmira city attorney within two years.
Hill had a clear drive and interest in politics, one could argue his start in politics was at a local political convention. At the convention Hill was chosen as the substitute speaker and impressed the experienced audience with his oration. Not slowing down from his political participation, Hill was the second youngest elected to New York State Assembly at 27. This started a controversial time during Hill’s political career. One of Hill’s early allies was Boss Tweed, the leader of the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Hill defended Boss Tweed’s corrupt judges both politically and in reputation. In return, according to Schuyler County historians, Boss Tweed gave Hill enough money to buy one of the local Elmira newspapers. Many people took this to mean that Hill was, inherently, a corrupt politician, but something interesting happened his next term.
During his second term as an Assemblyman, Hill turned around and helped Grover Cleveland clean up the corruption of Tammany Hall. He served on the Judiciary Committee, personally impeached one of the corrupt judges he previously defended, and participated in the impeachment of Boss Tweed, helping New York purge Tammany Hall. This complex time in Hill’s life, of both being corrupted and working to expel it, will follow him for the rest of his career. For his political opponents, Hill was seen as a corrupt, oppressive, and ambitious politician, while among his allies he was seen as a hard working, meticulous, and fierce defender. But both saw him as clever and ruthless.
Hill took a break from politics but continued as a politically active lawyer. Later in life Hill was elected to the Common Council of Elmira as Alderman in 1880. He did this with the reputation he gained in the private sector helping Governor Samuel Tilden break up another corrupt group, the Canal Ring, in the Southern Tier. As Alderman, Hill didn’t rest on his laurels. He soon became Mayor and set his sights on becoming governor. He was not able to, running against Grover Cleveland. But Hill established himself well as a persuasive orator and was so friendly with Cleveland that Hill’s previous opponent appointed him as his Lieutenant Governor. Then Cleveland was elected President of the United States and Hill took his place as Governor.
Hill didn’t just coast on the seat handed to him. When his one year term was up he campaigned hard on many of the interests that he advocated early in his career. His campaigns appealed to labor organizations, liquor makers, and agricultural interests.
Hill served two full terms, for a total of seven years. As Governor, he was the first to sign the bill to establish Labor Day as a national holiday, set maximum working hours, and reneged on a campaign promise to support civil service reform. The New York public had just as many mixed feelings about him as when he was an assemblyman. Near the end of his Governor’s term Hill was elected to the Senate but did not immediately step down. He was the first and only legislator in New York to be both Governor and a Senator. Eventually he stepped down from Governor and his term as a Senator ended. While Hill was done with national politics he wasn’t done with all politics.
Some might assume that after reaching the “height” of his career that Hill would retire from politics entirely and retire. He did not.
Hill returned to Elmira and participated in local politics until his death. He had chronic Bright’s Disease, and even with treatment, he suffered the symptoms throughout his life. After his last speech at the Elmira Fair, three weeks before his death, a Watkins Glen politician said to him, “I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
During Hill’s political career, most people only cared about what he was doing and who he was when he was governor. It was very hard to find any news coverage of political accomplishments before then. But his political power didn’t start as governor, it was in the assembly and as a local lawyer where he came from. Hill didn’t have to be head of the executive branch of New York to have an impact on the state, because a state’s government is made up of representatives on the local level. Whoever you choose says something about your home, and as Hill’s oration proves, what you say matters a lot.
If you want to learn more about David Bennett Hill, reach out to the Schuyler or Chemung County Historical Society who can help you with finding answers to your questions.
About the author
Jack Bond is a writer and editor raised in Horseheads, New York. He has a fascination with Southern Tier History and wants to better understand — and share — the facets of these communities lost to time.
During his spare time Jack reads both speculative fiction and history.