Machine Politics

Suffrage Political Cartoon
Senator Boies Penrose

Senator Boies Penrose, the Power Broker

Boies Penrose was born in 1860, educated at Harvard and entered politics in 1884 at the age of 24 he won a campaign for state legislature. Penrose had written a paper at Harvard in which he noted that Martin van Buren’s success was not because he was a Statesmen, but rather that his skill was in “managing the machinery of the party”. In 1897, Penrose was elected to the U.S. Senate and remained for 24 years, all the while, still controlling Philadelphia politics. While other machine politicians were interested in money, Penrose was interested in power. In Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, the Republican party organization was more concerned with consolidating its own power than dealing with “difficult and important matters as economic development and social welfare”.

When in office, the "Organization" concentrated on "giving the people something they could see," rather than attempting to fulfill the real needs of its supporters. It also prevented other groups from implementing programs which attempted to meet those needs, as the Women’s League for Good Government wearily pointed out in 1919: “the "Organization" is a sinister force that forms part of our "invisible government". If we attempt to analyze it, it seems to be more than anything else a tacit understanding of mutual helpfulness between men who make a business of using the machinery of popular government for the furtherance of their own personal ends…It results…in the quiet thwarting of measures urged by the public for the public good. As often in life, the innocent suffer for the guilty.”

Peter McCaffery, author of "When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine 1867-1933" concludes, “Their behavior would seem to indicate that they were power-brokers who were interested primarily in maintaining control over their affairs, and who were prepared to support (or oppose) reform measures when it was in their interest to do so. In other words, the selective approach adopted by Republican "bosses" towards social and structural reforms illustrates that they were not so much "for" or "against" reform, as they were concerned with their own self-interest and the life of their party machine.”

William Vare

What the Women Are Up Against

Machine politics in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular, is legendary. While the Pittsburgh suffragists had an inside track due to family connections like Mary Flinn’s father William “Boss” Flinn, the political machine in Philadelphia was beyond their reach. The scope and organization of the opposition is frequently left out, or at best minimized, in the story of women’s suffrage. Carrie Chapman Catt’s book “Woman’s Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” published in 1923 made the problem clear but the book had been out of print for years. Maud Wood Park’s “Front Door Lobby” spelled out the political situation at the national level. Kimberly Hamlin’s 2020 book “Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener” brings fresh awareness and details the behind the scenes political lobbying that went on in Washington during the attempts to pass the 19th amendment.

But during the effort to pass a suffrage amendment to the Pennsylvania state constitution from 1912 through 1915, the Republican Organization led by Boies Penrose wielded near-total power and was responsible for the defeat of the suffrage amendment on November 2, 1915.

We'll Win Without the Watchers

The "Organization" exercised this control through a variety of extra-legal and illegal practices. The former included control over key public bodies that were meant to be impartial and were responsible for safeguarding the purity of the ballot; for example, the registration boards whose duty it was to draw up lists of qualified voters; the divisional election boards who were responsible for ensuring that proper procedures were adhered to on election day, and finally the*County Commissioners who made all the preparations for the holding of elections, including the selection of polling places and the certification of watchers.

Control of the Polls

In Pennsylvania, the suffragists went to the trouble of trying to pass legislation in order to have women work as poll watchers (a poll watcher had to be a voter; therein lay the problem). But the “organization” made sure that the poll watcher bill was defeated in the primary election before November 2.

With regard to illegal practices, this usually involved registration frauds such as the wrongful issue of poll tax receipts to qualify voters for registration, and the padding of assessors lists and registration books. In the period prior to the 1906 Personal Registration Act, local newspapers and reformers estimated that the number of fraudulently registered voters in the city varied from between 30,000 to 80,000. As late as 1926, however, the Reed Senate Committee investigating William Vare's election to the U.S. Senate, found almost 25,000 false entries in registration books across the city. The forged signatures included dead people, non-naturalized foreigners and children. The Senate Inquiry also found evidence of election frauds such as the voting of phantoms (nonregistered voters), multiple voting (repeating), the miscounting of votes, the altering of ballots and ballot-box stuffing in election divisions throughout the city. The Committee concluded that the average chance of a Philadelphia voter having his vote for the U.S. Senate properly recorded was one in eight.

A final illegal practice was the coercion of voters as they entered polling places. Reform groups and contemporary observers maintained that it was, a notorious custom in Philadelphia for political workers to force voters who have no disability whatever to accept "assistance" with the result that many ballots are marked by the same person and the secrecy of the ballot becomes a mockery. An inquiry conducted in the wake of the 1909 city election by the "watchdog" reform group Committee of Seventy, for example, revealed that 38,000 votes, or more than 15 percent of the total votes cast, were marked by persons other than the voters. This complaint was specifically made in an article in the Woman’s Journal.

In addition to the control it exercised over the election machinery, the "Organization" also benefited from the problems that beset its opponents, one of which was public apathy. The Municipal League even claimed that "the criminally indifferent citizen" was a "more formidable" problem than that of "fraudulent voting". In its annual report for 1901-2, the League observed that the machine can always depend upon its vote; partly through the perfection of its organization; partly through its almost absolute control of the election officers; but its great source of strength we might almost say its bulwark is the indifference and apathy of the independent voter. League secretary, Clinton R. Woodruff, also conceded that a "revival of interest on the part of the 'stay at home' voter" was a "greater need" than "protection from the fraudulent vote." This argument was made frequently by the suffragists who spent significant amounts of time in “educating” voters about suffrage, and made much of what women would do with the vote – especially in terms of “municipal housekeeping” or cleaning up slums and eliminating public corruption.

The North American newspaper defined the opposition which the suffragists would face in an article from February 4, 1913. “The issue has been forced, not by the agitation of earnest women pioneers for non-existent “rights,” but by swift, vital changes in economic conditions. These have driven woman from the shelter of the home and the traditional protection of man. And as she has been brought into relentless contact and conflict with the remorseless system of the working world she has learned the need for effective self-defense against its wrongs and cruelties.”

Political Reality

The Leader newspaper in Pittsburgh was a progressive paper. Its Editor in Chief Alexander P. Moore was trying to purge the Republican party of the boss machine. He wrote about the difficulty facing the suffragists in combatting the political machine on March 16, 1915:

“Literally, it will be matching the practical political ability of the votes for women against the practical ability of the politicians – plus the assistance of a great political machine that is extremely practical, and against woman suffrage. Next to the liberation of the mass of mankind from economic bondage, the liberation of women from political bondage is the greatest labor of civilization. The women who are beginning to make their last battle for the ballot will have the support of all men who believe in freedom. The result will depend upon how well the women are able to win over those men who do not believe in freedom except for themselves.”

And The Public Ledger on October 21 1915 acknowledged the partnership between the Republican Organization and the Democrats who were content with the scraps thrown to them, as well as the prominent “anti” forces of the society women of Philadelphia: “In Pennsylvania the lords of the bipartisan machine have not yet openly stated their position; but word is being passed around quietly that the woman suffrage amendment must be killed. This hostility of the Gang was to have been expected. For the suffragists have nothing to offer the Gang except their opposition. “In addition, the Pennsylvania suffragists, like their New Jersey sisters, are opposed by the liquor interests and many women of wealth and high social position. This combination will be as hard to beat here as it was in New Jersey. But the Pennsylvania suffragists are well organized, and if they exert every effort during the coming two weeks they will have a fair chance to win. In any event, they are laying the foundations for a certain triumph in the near future.”

Penrose Pretends to be Neutral

The situation leading up to the vote was clear. Vare controlled about 30,000 Republican votes in the 26th ward. A straw vote indicated tremendous indifference seven months before the election. Governor Brumbaugh stated his support for suffrage. The liquor interests claimed to be hands off. Rumors as to their undercover activity flew thick and fast. They were contributing to anti suffrage causes, though. Suffrage was in the platform of both parties in 1914 but neither campaigned on it.

Ten days before the election Roessing met with Penrose who still claimed to be neutral. The New York Times warned against an optimistic view of Penrose’s apparent neutrality days before the election. “According to the best information obtainable here (reporting from Harrisburg), this should not be taken as an indication that Senator Penrose is favorably disposed toward the introduction of women as a factor to be reckoned with in the complex politics of Pennsylvania. From all accounts, he is not. In the best informed quarters, his ready acquiescence in the approval by the Republican Legislature this year of the woman suffrage referendum is regarded as a sure sign that he felt certain that the woman suffrage amendment would be defeated at the polls by a heavy majority, and votes for women consequently would be eliminated as political issue in Pennsylvania.” NYT Oct. 25, 1915.

Henchmen Attack Suffragists

The Public Ledger also weighed in: “Penrose’s sphinx-like behavior kept the entire state in suspense, but his side-kick James McNichol, was not as secretive. As early as March he had told reporters that the referendum would be a “hot fight”. "However, he would not divulge the plans of the organization for the campaign, but he made no secret of his opposition. At a meeting of the Republican City Committee on October 29, 1915, Congressman Vare delivered an address in which he explained the purposes of the proposed amendments 2, 3, and 4.

After he concluded with the suffrage amendment unmentioned, several committeemen, in a spirit of levity, began to fire questions at the congressman. How about amendment one; had he forgotten the first amendment? Whereupon Congressman Vare arose and said, “’Amendments 2, 3, and 4 are deserving of the support of every voter in the city;’” then he sat down. “The general and smiling appreciation of the situation, however, seemed to have cleared the smoke-filled atmosphere of the committee room of all doubt as to where the Organization stood in the matter.”” Public Ledger October 30, p 3.

The Woman’s Journal in fact reported that “Henchmen” had attacked suffragists with buckets of water and roman candles thrown at their dresses.


Submarine Hugger Muggery

By using statistics of past support for suffrage and votes of socialists, prohibitionists, support for Gifford Pinchot, pollsters predicted suffrage would lose by over 220,000 votes. Almost every county in the state was expected to go against the women in a ratio of at least two to one. P 113. Jennie Bradley Roessing predicted the loss would be no more than 50,000. The actual loss was only by 55,000 votes.

The result, considering the political character of the state, was regarded by many as the most notable victory yet won in the fight for political equality. See change in Philadelphia ward politics. P 115.

Wilmer Atkinson, the popular editor of the Farm Journal and president of the men’s league for suffrage wrote about the outcome of the election in “A Tainted Verdict”. “It was not the limp logic, nor the distorted facts, nor the flimsy arguments of those opposed to Woman Suffrage upon principle, that compassed the defeat of amendment no. 1, but the submarine hugger-muggery at the polls. It was indeed lamentable to observe great numbers of intelligent, educated and well-meaning men, themselves enjoying full political rights, unable to overcome their prejudices, turning deaf ears to the appeal of the women for the same privileges; but it was truly pitiful to witness great masses of men being directed to the polling booths as shepherds lead or drive their flocks of sheep to pasture.”

The image of shepherds driving their flocks of sheep is similar to a quote by Boies Penrose when a colleague admired a military unit in a parade. Penrose replied that the spectacle that he most admired was “a well-drilled body of voters marching in perfect and obedient order to the polls.” Heritage Mag.

With the exception of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had made a remarkable showing. Taking the state as a whole, it was clear that suffrage had been defeated by great majorities polled in a few counties, not by a general rejection by the voters at large. The central counties were dominated by PA Germans – conservative plus beer. Counties surrounding Philadelphia were dominated by machine politicians.

Submarine Suffrage Political Cartoon

The Post-Mortem

The North American provided a post-mortem on November 8, 1915 “Here are found all nationalities, large numbers of voters being held together by racial sympathies and being instinctively antagonistic to ideas that seem novel. Here are the greatest industrial corporations, whose policies are inimical to change, especially in the direction of broader democracy.

“Upon the liquor issue, Pennsylvania is one of the two states mapped in unrelieved black, and nowhere else have the rum interests – implacable foes of suffrage – so efficient an organization. The state has, too, its influential grundies, who find it to their purpose to cooperate with the liquor forces to resist the improving of working conditions for women and children.

“The numerous Pennsylvania German population must also be taken into account…they are the original, and the most sincere, adherents of the “woman’s place is in the home” theory. “Suffrage was also a hopeless cause among the Negro element. This vote, to a very large extent, may always be counted with the slums and tenderloins, not because it is essentially vicious, but because it is responsive to machine control and has no real interest in betterment of political or social conditions.

“Finally, the project had to withstand the opposition of the leadership in the dominant Republican party and of the vote – commanding leaders of the Democratic party, both supported by the liquor interests.”

The Scranton Republican November 4th 1915, commended the women upon their dignified, “clean” campaign. “The cause of woman suffrage is growing. One of the things it has to overcome to effect complete success in the opposition of many women who do not believe that their sex should share in the stress and strife and hurly-burly of election.”

Machine Politics