Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Philadelphia Politics
Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.

Literary Philadelphia

When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia

A young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, once wandered around 19th Century America, went home to write a book about what he observed, and had as much impact on American sociology as any American author ever did. We now observe a young Englishman, Peter McCaffery, setting out to do the same thing. His insightful book, written from the sanctuary of Great Britain, is called When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia .

One must forgive his concluding fifty pages of notes and bibliography, and the first fifty pages of fumbling around, as signs of stage fright when the message is both novel and unwelcome. It's likely that an English study which purports to dissect American politics might really be a disguised attack on some English situation. But who cares. Once McCaffrey gets going, he tells a Pennsylvania story succinctly and remorselessly.

When Bosses Ruled

On one level, McCaffrey satisfactorily settles two nagging questions of American political bossism: Why are big-city political machines almost always Democrats, and why was Philadelphia for seventy years the one Republican exception to this rule? To do so, he forces the reader to examine the sins and merits of urban politics, and to ask the ultimate question of democracy: why do decent citizens of a decent city, put up with it? When he is done, the author leaves the reader with a feeling of grudging admiration for the cleverness, as well as horror at the unscrupulousness, of hard-ball urban politicians.

The Philadelphia Republican machine was really two machines, a feudal barony started by James McManus, followed after a few decades by a dictatorship run by Matthew S. Quay. These names are quaintly unfamiliar, unlike Penrose and Vare, as if the author of our book might have pointedly chosen to refer to the Franklin Roosevelt era as the era of Jim Farley. He is indeed making a pointed observation. One of the time-honored rules for being effective as a political boss is to remain outside the nominal hierarchy of government, for the very practical reason that it permits political bribery without any direct bribing of elected officials. Public outrage would be strong, and the laws are quite specific that you mustn't give bribes to a politician. McCaffrey is here pointing out that it really isn't necessary to give the money to a politician.

There really seems to have been quite a lot of graft in Philadelphia's past. Some of it was pretty crude, but the biggest source of the graft was known as "clean graft", where an adjustment of zoning laws, or public construction, or urban redevelopment can be shifted in the direction of putting favored friends in a position to exploit advance knowledge or win the bidding on public contracts. The author cites the Gas Works, the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Roosevelt Boulevard, and a list of other public achievements as primary vehicles for rewarding those who reward you. There probably is a lot of awful truth buried in those fifty pages of footnotes.

But that's the lesser half of it. What emerges here is the disheartening reality of the bosses relentlessly controlling the nomination process, ensuring that pliable, "cooperative", elected officials are placed in a position to divert the public bidding process in one direction, and the public investigative process in another. Colorless candidates are definitely preferred; public leaders who acquire a public following are disagreeably hard to control. The bosses positively liked to see some personal flaws; alcoholism, woman-chasing, and similar peccadilloes mean that the bosses "had something on them". The appalling consequence of such a system is that it deliberately sets out to avoid good public leadership, and intentionally prefers incompetence to competence.

In the early, or McManes, days of this system, the city was ruled by a hundred fierce warlords, who duked it out with vigor. Many recent sociologists have praised the urban machines for serving a useful function in providing needed social services to politically isolated groups. Our author McCaffrey will have none of that. These bosses were in it for the power and the money and had almost no interest in the ideological issues which purportedly supported the political party they nominally served. They were neither Republicans nor Democrats, they were members of the political class. In his opinion, the transformation of the Darwinism of McManes to the dictatorship of Quay was inspired by the growth of utility corporations, with the names of Widener and Elkins prominently featured. Large, geographically scattered trolley, electricity, gas utility, telephone, and similar corporations could not afford to negotiate innumerable bribes with every local bartender's brother. They didn't mind the cost, which could be passed on to the consumer. The new goal was not an absence of graft, but rather efficient one-stop graft. From the briber's perspective, that goal requires a powerful boss in charge of local government, able to keep lesser officials in line so they will remain largely satisfied with how he distributes the tribute.

And the reformers? Well, Philadelphia had one huge convulsion of municipal reform in 1911, when Mayor Blankenhorn drove the money-changers from the Temple. But our English author tells us this brief episode had a little lasting effect because a few officials at the top cannot transform an organization which is organized among thousands of city officials, right down to the humblest clerk. According to McCaffrey, the political bosses simply manipulated Blankenhorn's election to rid themselves of many of their own uncooperative enemies, and then patiently waited for public indignation to subside. It only took one election cycle. The technique for controlling reform types is quite standard: deflect them in the direction of state and national politics, where they won't get in the road. And where they don't matter.

One comes away from this book with an appalling realization how difficult it is for simple honest souls to root out corruption in their local governments. Unless you are part of the game, you don't even know the rules. In fact, you even have to wonder if having a large earnest and honest population might actually be a magnet for con artists.


When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: Peter Mc Caffery ISBN-13: 978-0271034300 Amazon

Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019