Bosses and Bossism, Political

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BOSSES AND BOSSISM, POLITICAL. A pejorative typically applied to leaders who control the selection of their political party's candidates for elected office and dispense patronage without regard for the public interest. The power of a boss turns on his ability to select single-handedly the candidates who will win an election. Indebted elected representatives then turn the reigns of government over to the boss, who makes policy decisions and uses government jobs and revenue to employ party loyalists and fund party functions.

The strongest bosses augmented their power as political party leader with an elected post. Among the most famous political bosses were the Chicago mayor and head of the Cook County Democratic Party, Richard J. Daley (1955–1976); Frank Hauge, mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey (1917–1947); and Edward Crump, mayor of Memphis (1910–1916) and congressman from Tennessee (1931–1935). Many other bosses maintained power without holding any official office, including the New Yorker William Marcy Tweed, head of the Tammany Hall political club in the 1860s, and Tom Pendergast, who ran the Jackson County Democratic Club and bossed Kansas City, Missouri, from 1911 until his incarceration for tax fraud in 1939.

Bossism is most closely associated with big cities, but bosses have also controlled political party organizations at the state level as well as in suburban and rural counties. Harry Flood Byrd, for example, dominated the Democratic Party in Virginia from the 1920s to the 1940s. Boss power has occasionally been exercised in presidential politics, too. A group of big city bosses helped secure the nomination of Harry Truman for vice president at the 1944 Democratic convention, and Richard Daley's support was considered critical to John F. Kennedy's election in the close 1960 presidential race.

The conditions for bossism were most widely present from the 1860s until World War II, with the waves of immigration that marked that period. Political machines and their bosses provided immigrants with jobs, small favors, and a sense of ethnic solidarity, forging personal relationships with new voters. In exchange, voters loyally supported machine candidates. At the turn of the twentieth century, Progressive reformers and many newspapers successfully attacked the inefficiency and immorality of the big city bosses. Civil service legislation forced bosses either to reform or have their candidates turned out of office.

The decline in machine strength after World War II has been attributed to changes in immigration policy and big city demography, the spread of federal social welfare programs, and the decline in voter loyalty to party organizations. In addition, the rise of media such as television and radio allowed individual candidates to reach voters

directly, thereby undercutting the need for political clubs and other boss-controlled institutions to "deliver the vote" in a primary election.

Academic evaluation of the phenomenon of bossism is riddled with ambivalence. In the early twentieth century, the academy heaped scorn on bosses and big city political machines for perpetuating corruption and inefficiency, and called for civil service and electoral reform that would drive bosses out of power. As the power of the more prominent city bosses began to wane in the 1950s, revisionist historians pointed to the class bias and nativism of the reformers as a counterbalance to the admitted faults of the bosses. In the late twentieth century, scholarship focused on such matters as the widespread machine practice of electoral exclusion of minorities, the collusion between machines and the economic elite, and the stalled economic mobility of ethnic groups closely associated with political machines.


Erie, Steven P. Rainbow's End: Irish Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Richard M.Flanagan

J. LeiperFreeman

See alsoCorruption, Political ; Immigration ; Machine, Political ; Tweed Ring .