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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
In 1914 the president of a Pennsylvania manufacturers’ association declared that the divine purpose of the United States was, simply and squarely, to maintain “the best market on earth.” Penrose did not really think of the United States in these terms; but he accepted, and welcomed, this kind of capitalist support as well as the support that had come to his party from the slush funds of small capitalists, even from the assessment of saloon keepers and brewers. His voting record was not moved by any consistent principle. He opposed four constitutional amendments: the income tax, the direct election of senators, woman suffrage, and prohibition; but he often changed his votes, backing away from causes when he sensed they had become unpopular. At times he would even propose and support reformist legislation. On occasion he actually led the fight against corruption. The Philadelphia Public Buildings Commission was a source of public robbery on a vast scale; and when, after long years, it was finally abolished, Penrose wired his crony in Philadelphia, State Senator James P. “Strawberry Jim” McNichol: “Splendid But What Steps Taken To Compel Commission To Take City Hall With Them?” He hated Philadelphia City Hall. There is an irony in this. That white-marbled, French-Victorian pile has become increasingly appreciated since Penrose’s day as a national monument to the municipal mansard era, while Penrose Bridge and Penrose Avenue in South Philadelphia have remained the most depressing of thoroughfares, lined by dumps and the metallic filth of junkyards.
He did not hate reform, but he hated reformers. He would have agreed with Ambrose Bierce that a conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguised from a liberal who wishes to replace them with new ones. Was he a conservative? It is at least arguable that his opponent, the Progressive Pinchot, an early conservationist and a stern upholder of civic virtues, including prohibition, was a truer conservative. Penrose abhorred what he saw as the dry, the thin, the abstract virtues Pinchot represented. “Somebody told me that the man never had a drink in his life. If that’s.the fact, there’s no use arguing with him. The man needs a drink.” “You are a liability,” Pinchot once wrote Penrose, “the most perfect living representative of the worst kind of politics in America.” Penrose did not deign to answer but said that “Pinchot is as important as any cheap side show outside the fence of a county fair. He’s as important as the tattooed man or the cigarette fiend.” Penrose would have agreed with Burke’s principle that politics must be adjusted not to reason but to human nature, of which reason is an important part but only a part. But Penrose was too much of a cynic to believe in principles; and in the age of democracy and of universal education, Boies Penrose had a lower estimate of human nature than had Edmund Burke of the untutored people of the eighteenth century. Burke said that the people must never be regarded as incurable. “The people are all right,” Penrose said, “but their tastes are simple: they dearly love hokum.” Penrose dearly believed in the efficacy of hokum. In 1919 a Washington newspaperman asked Penrose who would be the ideal Republican candidate for President. “We shall select a man of lofty ideals,” Penrose said. “He shall be a man familiar with world problems. … He will be a man who will appeal warmly to the young voter—the young men and women of our country. A man of spotless character, of course.… A man whose life shall be an inspiration to all of us, to whom we may look as our national hero.…The man I have in mind is the late Buffalo Bill.”
Penrose was a nationalist. He had a contempt for the foreign-born; he pushed through several acts to forbid or curtail their employment on public projects. He spoke out against the Yellow Peril, and introduced a Senate resolution in 1913 to send American troops into Mexico. In one of his rare foreign policy speeches, in 1914, Penrose said that the Mexicans were a bunch of shiftless Indians. At least the Spaniards had “compelled the Indian to work instead of lying comfortably, on the ground and letting ripe bananas drop into his mouth.” He distrusted Europeans, and wanted to keep the country out of World War I. Yet by 1917 he realized that Americans were itching for war, and he chose not to swim against the current. After the war, he approved of the national revulsion against internationalism: “As far as I can ascertain, the League of Nations occupies an obscure place in the political cemetery of dead issues,” he said. Disarmament was “a purely idealistic and nebulous theory.” He may have been right, but for the wrong reasons. He had no interest in Europe, and disapproved of those who had, or pretended they had. When the Harding administration came in, one of Penrose’s old Pennsylvania allies, Cyrus E. Woods, yearned to become ambassador to Spain. Penrose supported his nomination. Woods wrote an effusive thankyou letter, to which Penrose replied: “Dear Woods, I have your letter of June 15th, and am glad to hear from you. I congratulate you upon your appointment, although I frequently doubted the wisdom of your going abroad. I shall hope to see you before you leave. Yours sincerely, etc.”