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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
Between 1881, when Penrose returned from Harvard, and 1884, when he chose to enter politics, the city of Philadelphia underwent a political revolution: a complete turn of the wheel. Prominent citizens had roused themselves in the cause of reform. A Committee of One Hundred raised the banner against the corrupt Gas Ring which ruled City Hall. In 1881 they succeeded in electing a reform mayor and a reformist receiver of taxes. They did not succeed in reforming either the habits of the municipal bureaucracy or the voting habits of the electorate. In 1883 the voters rejected the reform controller; the next year, they turned the amiable reform mayor out of office. The machine was back in power. There were a few new faces among the leaders. The wheel had gone full circle: the Ring remained at the hub.
Boies Penrose was both witness and participant in these events. He saw the Gas Ring for what it was: artless and corrupt, shameless and vulgar. He was reading law in a firm whose senior partners were champions in the struggle for municipal regeneration, as was the senior partner of the firm Penrose would join when he was admitted to the bar. In the municipal election of February, 1884, the young Penrose stepped up to the battlements. He stood at the polling places, tall—six feet four—and defiant, sporting a large reform badge on his overcoat; he held a no less impressive copy of the Voters’ Register in his hand. The toughs of the ward leaders growled and snapped around him, but to no avail. There were no tricks at the polls that day. In a ward which had been one of the safest for the machine, its candidate lost three to one. Everyone saw that this was due mostly to Penrose. He had intimidated the intimidators. He was the civic hero of the day.
It was a turning point in his life. The proper people of Philadelphia were impressed. So were the politicians and the ward leaders. There occurred now a marriage of convenience. Penrose was interested in politics; the politicians were interested in Penrose. The ward leaders did not merely take to him; they took to him on his terms. He wanted to be chosen for the state legislature; they nominated and elected him. On a raw January day in 1885 Penrose took the train to Harrisburg. His political career was launched.
Many people later suggested that this turning point had coincided with a transformation of his character. Penrose chose a career in politics at a time when Lord Bryce was asking “Why the Best Men Do Not Go into Politics.” Yet the young patrician did not go in as a reformer; he became voracious, cynical, and impenitent. Penrose threw himself into the muddy pool of politics, the theory goes, because he liked low company. This may be too simple an explanation. Within the family there was a precedent. His grandfather, whose career he studied and admired, had been a politician. Charles Bingham Penrose, with his noble brow and his breathtakingly beautiful wife, had enjoyed the rude sounds and smells of the political arena. First state senator, then president of the Pennsylvania Senate, he had been instrumental in electing Simon Cameron, one of the most ruthless and corrupt politicians of the era, to the United States Senate in 1857; he was a close friend of Thaddeus Stevens; he was one of the founders of the Republican party in Philadelphia. He was largely indifferent to those proper Philadelphians who disapproved of him. He may have had a taste for low company; he certainly had an appetite for power.
His grandson Boies, too, believed in power; he thought in terms of it, as was evident from his earliest political writings. The contrast between the young patrician and the corrupt politician may be intellectually and logically attractive; but it will not stand. As a twenty-year-old Harvard student, Penrose had delivered an oration on “Martin Van Buren as a Politician.” This terse, opinionated, and clear paper dealt with the origins of bossism; it also contained, in a nutshell, the lifelong political philosophy of Boies Penrose.
“Martin Van Buren,” Penrose began, “was the first and the greatest of American politicians; of that class of statesmen who owe their success not so much to their opinions or characters, as to their skill in managing the machinery of party. … He marks the transition in American politics from statesmen like Adams and Webster to the great political bosses and managers of today.…Adams was the last statesman of the old school who was to occupy the White House, Van Buren was the first politician president.” This was “the inevitable outcome” of the development of the country. “The voters of the United States were no longer the same voters who had founded the Constitution. In the rivalries of parties, the mechanical arts of electioneering were soon reduced to a system.… Political opinions, in fact, were a secondary consideration. All the statesmanship that the times required was the artful adaptation of general propositions to the existing temper and opinions of the masses.
“We can now understand the contempt which the practical politician bestows too often upon the civil service reformer.…” The preaching “by a certain class of political amateurs” amounts to little; it is often “peculiarly unjust. By management and not by statesmanship are questions generally decided in the Legislatures.…When management is all that is essential have we a right to be disappointed if Van Buren is not Webster?”
All of Penrose’s political career was consistent with this conclusion.