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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
He was born, he lived, he died in the same house. The furnishings were somber. He slept late, never engaged a cook, relied on a minimum of maid service. Penrose had no interest in traveling, even within the United States. His protectionist and isolationist preferences in politics were also the preferences of his private life. In 1915 he let himself be persuaded to buy a yacht, a broad-beamed, comfortable boat rebuilt to accommodate his dimensions. Around the Betty all kinds of legends sprang up, including one which had her anchored in the swells with a nude Penrose aboard, surrounded by politicians and floozies. According to others, Penrose never entertained a woman on his boat. The second version seems as believable as the first.
Were there two Penroses, a public and a private one: the tight-fisted, taciturn senator during the day, and the drunken orgiast at night? No, he was too much of a piece. His impassive face eventually congealed into a mask: but unlike other public personages in this century, it was his face that became the mask, not the public mask that became his face.
Penrose was a national figure for a quarter of a century. He entered politics at a moment when the generational guard was changing. McClellan, Grant, Arthur, Hancock, Seymour, Tilden—the Presidents and the presidential candidates of the period following the Civil War—all died within a year of Penrose’s arrival in Harrisburg. He was a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt and of Woodrow Wilson. He did not like either of them. The first was “a cock-eyed little runt,” the second “a schoolmarm.” He had no liking for Progressives of whatever stripe. He preferred the older type of boss, such as his ally Matthew Quay. He and Quay had considerable respect for one another, even though Quay was compulsive about money. (“A plum” and “to shake the plum tree” were politico-financial metaphors that he brought into the American language. Penrose is reputed to have said that Quay “made it his policy always to keep at least one hand on the public purse. Only once in twenty years was there a state treasurer [Quay] could not control while he was in power. That state treasurer was Matthew Stanley Quay.”) It is ironic that Penrose and Quay together played a decisive role in furthering the career of Theodore Roosevelt. They were behind Roosevelt’s nomination to the vice presidency on the ticket headed by William McKinley in order to spite Quay’s opponent Mark Hanna, the puissant boss from Ohio.
Penrose’s association with corrupt politicians did little harm to his popularity. The secret (then called “Australian”) ballot was enacted by reformers in Pennsylvania in 1891, with the intention of abolishing voting fraud. Penrose never had much trouble getting elected. The Pennsylvania legislature elected him to the United States Senate in 1896. Before the nomination Quay and his friends persuaded him to take on the front-running candidate, the merchant prince John Wanamaker, in a primary contest for popularity in Huntingdon County: Penrose won by nearly two to one. In 1913 the Progressives pushed through the constitutional amendment for the direct election of senators. It did not bother Penrose. In 1914 he beat his vocal opponent, the Progressive Gifford Pinchot, two to one again. His popularity was such that in 1915 the Republican organization considered carving a new county out of Luzerne and Schuylkill counties, to be called Penrose County. Penrose was not much interested, and the matter was dropped. In the taverns of the Philadelphia tenderloin district, autographed photographs of Penrose hung side by side with those of John L. Sullivan. The fact that Penrose considered it politic to support the city machine, even when it was proven to be awarding contracts to high bidders and charging the taxpayers double, hurt Penrose not at all. So much for the argument that people, expecially in the age of materialism, vote according to their pocketbook.
Penrose believed in the practicality of the capitalist credo. He supported large industries; he believed they made the United States great, since they provided ample work and high wages for the masses. He knew that industrial health depended on governmental rules and regulations, foremost among them the high tariff walls that protected American industry from foreign competition. Like most Republicans, he did not believe in free trade or free competition; he thought the government ought to intervene on behalf of the industrialists. He advised steel magnate Henry Clay Frick not to fight the strikers. “Give ’em a little extra gravy till they settle down, then raise prices or the tariff to pay for it”—an inflationary philosopy of which Richard Nixon would have approved. At times Penrose could sound downright demagogic, thundering, for example, against the insidious invasion of margarine: “We are not willing that the profits of our domestic animals shall be taken away from their legitimate sources and given to a select syndicate of capitalists, in order that they may become inordinately rich.” For “the profits of domestic animals” read the Pennsylvania dairy industry, as powerful in 1910 as it is today.