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Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
The history of politics is a history of words. “Boss” is as American as “Santa Claus,” both words being Dutch in origin. “Boss,” wrote the English captain Thomas Hamilton, was a peculiar Americanism, a substitute for “master.” Hamilton’s book, Men and Manners in America , was published in 1831, roughly coincident with the rise of machine politics in the United States. It was during the 1830’s, too, that “big” became a favorite Americanism, an adjective suggesting quality as well as quantity; power and prestige, not merely size. Yet it was not until after the Civil War, when the era of the big bosses was opening, that “boss” and “bossism” acquired a political significance. Most bosses ruled the swelling cities; a few perfected their machinery in order to run an entire state. Most were Democrats; a few were Republicans. Many exercised a politically disputable, yet practically unchallengeable power over their local legislatures; a few were able to extend their power over their party in the United States Senate. Most had risen from the lower middle class; a few descended into politics from the upper classes. Most believed that power followed money; some believed money followed power. A few, having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else—very different from the power brokers of today. Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out. Intellectually as well as physically, he was the biggest boss of his day.
His public life was an exaggerated representation of his times. He was born November 1,1860, five days before Lincoln was elected President; when he died, Wilson already had one foot in the grave. He was handsome and healthy in his youth; later he grew bloated and corpulent, like the Republic. Like the big engines, the big bankers, the gold watch chains, the national heavies, the solid citizens, Penrose looked, and in many ways was, a period piece. In other ways he was not. An exaggerated representation is not necessarily a caricature; and Penrose cared little for his image. He was loath to pay tribute to virtue. This, in an age marked by gross hypocrisy, was one of the more remarkable features of his character.
Childhood photographs of Boies Penrose show an extraordinarily beautiful child. Except for his clothes, and except for the inevitable atmosphere which such images breathe, there is nothing very Victorian about him. He has a Regency face, almost porcelain in its fineness: a remarkable forehead, clear strong eyes, a slightly pouting lower lip, an expression that is disdainful rather than contemptuous, rather English, and very different from his later senatorial countenance, which had something Germanic about it and not only because of his enormous bulk.
He was born an Anglo-American aristocrat. This word has been misused in recent times, promiscuously attributed to families who, no matter how successful and rich, are but one generation removed from the middle class. The founder of the family in America, Bartholomew Penrose, came from a Cornish family of a certain distinction. His son Thomas became a rich shipowner in colonial Philadelphia. His son married the daughter of a most prominent Philadelphia family; his grandson married the granddaughter of a younger son of the Duke of Norfolk. The grandson of this grandson was Boies’s father, Dr. Richard Alexander Pullerton Penrose, who married Sarah Hannah Boies—among whose ancestors were two graduates of the first Harvard College class in 1642; the secretary to Lord Baltimore; and the Earl of Charteris.
The portraits of Boies’s father show a patrician, dignified, kind physician. His wife was lovely, learned, and strong. They were a handsome, intelligent, successful couple, yet they chose to withdraw from the greater world. Everything about their lives suggests a curious and melancholy reticence, an odd mixture of shyness and pride, a withdrawal into a kind of interior life, as if this were the only decent way to live at the time of the booming blossoming of the American democracy. They lived at 1331 Spruce Street, in a comfortable house of small dimensions, few ornaments, and no pretensions. In the 1860’s this house stood on the edge of the fashionable portion of the eighth ward of Philadelphia, most of the prominent and rich families having moved farther west, across Broad Street. The Penroses did not participate in this social migration. In spite of her great beauty and intelligence and family connections, Dr. Penrose’s young wife showed little interest in society. She bore him seven sons within ten years.
Her two oldest sons, Boies and Charles Bingham, were tutored at home. They graduated from Episcopal Academy with equally high marks. Although fifteen months apart in age, they entered Harvard University together. Here the parallel ends. While his brother advanced from honor to honor, Boies Penrose was on the verge of being expelled at the outset of his senior year. His parents were disturbed. Letters passed between Spruce Street and Cambridge. He learned that his mother was dying, and his purposeful character asserted itself. He rallied and graduated with honors, only to return from Boston to a house halfempty. His mother had died.