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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 acuity of his mind was extraordinary. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his considerable learning, Penrose developed an early disdain for the presentations of the Harvard professorate. He was a vigorous youth, with powerful appetites, physical as well as mental. His father, who had an exaggerated conviction about the virtues of dieting, became ever more withdrawn. The young Boies went out, night after night, to oyster houses and steakhouses where he would sit, solitary and saturnine, downing large quantities of food and drink. During the day he was that most proper of Philadelphians, a young lawyer in a city celebrated for its legal aristocracy. Yet he soon became bored with the conventionality of the law. “My offices,” he recalled later, “were always full. On one side of the waiting room the politicians gathered. Across the other side were my clients. After a few months I decided to choose between them and I chose the least stupid and the more honest.” He chose the politicians.
Penrose wrote two short treatises during his early twenties, with enough stuff in them to establish him as an American political historian of considerable rank. They reflect, again, the consistency of his political ideas. His history of the city government of Philadelphia remains to this day the most brilliant and concise summary of the topic. He wrote it together with his then law partner Edward P. Allinson; but it carries overbearing marks of Penrose’s own style:
“We shall, in these pages, avoid the puerile error of complaining of the wickedness and corruption of professional politicians. It is very common to speak of that class as something outside of and apart from the ordinary citizen. … The politician, professional or otherwise, follows the stamp of his age; he is just what his age or environment demands or permits, neither better nor worse. The rules of his morality may differ from those of the clergyman or the merchant, but it weighs about as many ounces to the pound, and we are inclined to think that, from his intimate acquaintance with human nature, he gives better weight.”
Penrose and Allinson published another masterful exposition, Ground Rents in Philadelphia , which examined the opportunities in Philadelphia for all kinds of people to own their homes. The number of citizens living in their own, separate houses was greater in Philadelphia than in any other great city in the world. Boies Penrose, who began his political career as Karl Marx died, recognized early one of the basic failures of the Marxist assumption: the failure to see that the so-called working classes, instead of being the most revolutionary and radical, were in reality the most conservative and property-minded elements of industrialized society, of the mass democratic state.
This was the last of Penrose’s literary efforts. In the family history he wrote for the Harvard Class Record in 1881, he had called the early Penrose family “commercial rather than literary.” The career he had chosen was neither commercial nor literary. Other people in politics, including certain proper Bostonians, could combine politics with literature. Penrose would not.
Two years after that frozen January day in 1885 when Penrose had taken the train to Harrisburg, he was elected state senator. Four years later, at the age of twentynine, he presided over the Pennsylvania Senate. Six years after that, in 1897, he was elected to the United States Senate, where he remained, growing ever more powerful, for twenty-four years; his was a political career that was spectacular at its outset, and solid for its duration, an impressive combination.
There was a curious duality about this career. In one sense it was not very different from that of the other political bosses of his period. While he governed the legislative process in a magisterial manner, his name was not connected with much important legislation. He reigned over his party in the Senate with the sleepy eyes of a grand vizier who had seen everything. Yet when legislation came before him, he spent hours examining it, making sure that it contained not even the smallest of legal loopholes. He shared none of that obsession with money that was typical of other bosses, and not only because he had inherited enough of it to keep him comfortable. Penrose presided over large secret financial transactions, involving the party machine, but none of his enemies could ever accuse him of having taken money for himself. This impressed the politicians around him. They cared for money. Penrose cared for power. This alone ensured their cooperation. When he found that politicians of his party, frenzied for loot, had gone overboard and were thrashing in deep water, Penrose said: “They’re damned fools, not criminals.” Yet he, who did not suffer fools gladly, went to considerable lengths to eet them out of trouble.