Boss Rule in the Gilded Age: Matt Quay of Pennsylvania

By James A. Kehl | Go to book overview

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IN a two-party system the party boss, either as an arbiter or as an enforcer, must demand compromise from his constituent factions, candidates, and officeholders. He always prefers to be the arbiter, but not every decision can be finessed. Regardless of which role is required, he must maneuver to keep his methods and intrigues as secret as possible. That way he can obscure his own heavy-handedness and preserve the dignity of those from whom he extracted the necessary compromise, whether by friendly word or hidden bludgeon.

Matt Quay, Tom Platt, Mark Hanna, the Camerons, as well as many other state and local leaders, were most comfortable when maneuvering clandestinely behind the scenes. Although they possessed the talent to move directly to the crux of almost any issue, their course of action was generally circuitous in order to bewilder the public and mislead the opposition. This obfuscation has also complicated the task of researchers attempting to explain why newspaper editorials, dogmatic pronouncements by local politicians, platform declarations, and public opinion might point in one direction, but the nineteenth-century boss was able to redirect the party in contradiction of all of these indicators.

The reconstruction of Matt Quay's impact on society is particularly difficult because of his daughter's feeling that she had to protect his reputation. Coral Quay had witnessed the devastating attacks against him during his lifetime and was determined that they would not be perpetuated after his death. In her opinion the revelations in the New York World, written by Willaim Shaw Bowen in 1890 with funds supplied by Quay's enemies, were a national embarrassment that lingered for more than a year, partly because the press insisted on rehashing the details. On the state level, John Wanamaker published speeches on Quayism and Boss Domination in Pennsylvania Politics (c. 1898) cast another dark shadow over Quay's professional reputation. Coral agonized over these exposés, as well as over the constant filing of charges, publishing of defaming pamphlets, and delivering of vitriolic attacks on the senator's conduct by Republican rivals and independent reformers.

In 1904, the same year that Senator Quay died, Coral was shocked by a different kind of revelation. Another determined young woman, Ida Tarbell, with equal vehemence for her cause, published her History of the Standard Oil Company assailing the great name of Rockefeller. To aspiring American families at the turn of the century -- proud of their accomplishments (as Coral

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