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chapter 63: Rings and Bosses - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Rings and Bosses
This is the external aspect of the machine; these the phenomena which a visitor taken round to see a number of primaries and nominating conventions would record. But the reader will ask, How is the machine run? What are the inner springs that move it? What is the source of the power the committees wield? What force of cohesion keeps leaders and followers together? What kind of government prevails among this army of professional politicians?
The source of power and the cohesive force is the desire for office, and for office as a means of gain. This one cause is sufficient to account for everything, when it acts, as it does in these cities, under the condition of the suffrage of a host of ignorant and pliable voters.
Those who in great cities form the committees and work the machine are persons whose chief aim in life is to make their living by office. Such a man generally begins by acquiring influence among a knot of voters who live in his neighbourhood, or work under the same employer, or frequent the same grog shop or beer saloon, which perhaps he keeps himself. He becomes a member of his primary, attends regularly, attaches himself to some leader in that body, and is forward to render service by voting as his leader wishes, and by doing duty at elections. He has entered the large and active class called, technically, “workers,” or more affectionately, “the boys.” Soon he becomes conspicuous in the primary, being recognized as controlling the votes of others—“owning them” is the technical term—and is chosen delegate to a convention. Loyalty to the party there and continued service at elections mark him out for further promotion. He is appointed to some petty office in one of the city departments, and presently is himself nominated for an elective office. By this time he has also found his way on to the ward committee, whence by degrees he rises to sit on the central committee, having carefully nursed his local connection and surrounded himself with a band of adherents, who are called his “heelers,” and whose loyalty to him in the primary, secured by the hope of “something good,” gives weight to his words. Once a member of the central committee he discovers what everybody who gets on in the world discovers sooner or later, by how few persons the world is governed. He is one of a small knot of persons who pull the wires for the whole city, controlling the primaries, selecting candidates, “running” conventions, organizing elections, treating on behalf of the party in the city with the leaders of the party in the state. Each of this knot, which is probably smaller than the committee, because every committee includes some ciphers put on to support a leader, and which may include one or two strong men not on the committee, has acquired in his upward course a knowledge of men and their weaknesses, a familiarity with the wheels, shafts, and bands of the party machine, together with a skill in working it. Each can command some primaries, each has attached to himself a group of dependents who owe some place to him, or hope for some place from him. The aim of the knot is not only to get good posts for themselves, but to rivet their yoke upon the city by garrisoning the departments with their own creatures, and so controlling elections to the state legislature that they can procure such statutes as they desire, and prevent the passing of statutes likely to expose or injure them. They cement their dominion by combination, each placing his influence at the disposal of the others, and settle all important measures in secret conclave.
Such a combination is called a ring.
The power of such a combination is immense, for it ramifies over the whole city. There are, in New York City, for instance, more than forty thousand persons employed by the city authorities (without counting the eleven thousand school teachers), the large majority dismissible by their superiors at short notice and without cause assigned. Of the large number employed by the national government in the customhouse, post office, and other branches of the federal service,1 many are similarly dismissible by the proper federal authority; and there are also state servants, responsible to and dismissible by the state authority. If the same party happens to be supreme in city politics, in the federal government, and in the state government, all this army of employees is expected to work for the party leaders of the city, in city primaries, conventions, and elections, and is virtually amenable to the orders of these leaders.2 If the other party holds the reins of federal government and state government, then the city wire-pullers have at any rate their own ten thousand or more, while other thousands swell the army of “workers” for the opposite party. Add those who expect to get offices, and it will be seen how great and how disciplined a force is available to garrison the city and how effective it becomes under strict discipline. Yet it is not larger than is needed, for the work is heavy. Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.
In a ring there is usually some one person who holds more strings in his hand than do the others. Like them he has worked himself up to power from small beginnings, gradually extending the range of his influence over the mass of workers, and knitting close bonds with influential men outside as well as inside politics, perhaps with great financiers or railway magnates, whom he can oblige, and who can furnish him with funds. At length his superior skill, courage, and force of will make him, as such gifts always do make their possessor, dominant among his fellows. An army led by a council seldom conquers; it must have a commander in chief, who settles disputes, decides in emergencies, inspires fear or attachment. The head of the ring is such a commander. He dispenses places, rewards the loyal, punishes the mutinous, concocts schemes, negotiates treaties. He generally avoids publicity, preferring the substance to the pomp of power, and is all the more dangerous because he sits, like a spider, hidden in the midst of his web. He is a boss.
Although the career I have sketched is that whereby most bosses have risen to greatness, some attain it by a shorter path. There have been brilliant instances of persons stepping at once on to the higher rungs of the ladder in virtue of their audacity and energy, especially if coupled with oratorical power. The first theatre of such a man’s successes may have been the stump rather than the primary; he will then become potent in conventions, and either by hectoring or by plausible address, for both have their value, spring into popular favour, and make himself necessary to the party managers. It is of course a gain to a ring to have among them a man of popular gifts, because he helps to conceal the odious features of their rule, gilding it by his rhetoric, and winning the applause of the masses who stand outside the circle of workers. However, the position of the rhetorical boss is less firmly rooted than that of the intriguing boss, and there have been instances of his suddenly falling to rise no more.
A great city is the best soil for the growth of a boss, because it contains the largest masses of manageable voters as well as numerous offices, and plentiful opportunities for jobbing. But a whole state sometimes falls under the dominion of one intriguer. To govern so large a territory needs high abilities; and the state boss is always an able man, somewhat more of a politician, in the European sense, than a city boss need be. He dictates state nominations, and through his lieutenants controls state and sometimes congressional conventions, being in diplomatic relations with the chief city bosses and local rings in different parts of the state. His power over them mainly springs from his influence with the federal executive and in Congress. He is usually, almost necessarily, a member of Congress, probably a senator, and can procure, or at any rate can hinder, such legislation as the local leaders desire or dislike. The president cannot ignore him, and the president’s ministers, however little they may like him, find it worth while to gratify him with federal appointments for persons he recommends, because the local votes he controls may make all the difference to their own prospects of getting some day a nomination for the presidency. Thus he uses his congressional position to secure state influence, and his state influence to strengthen his federal position. Sometimes, however, he is rebuffed by the powers at Washington and then his state thanes fly from him. Sometimes he quarrels with a powerful city boss, and then honest men come by their own.
It must not be supposed that the members of rings, or the great boss himself, are wicked men. They are the offspring of a system. Their morality is that of their surroundings. They see a door open to wealth and power, and they walk in. The obligations of patriotism or duty to the public are not disregarded by them, for these obligations have never been present to their minds. A state boss is usually a native American and a person of some education, who avoids the grosser forms of corruption, though he has to wink at them when practised by his friends. He may be a man of personal integrity.3 A city boss is often of foreign birth and humble origin; he has grown up in an atmosphere of oaths and cocktails. Ideas of honour and purity are as strange to him as ideas about the nature of the currency and the incidence of taxation. Politics is merely a means for getting and distributing places. “What,” said an ingenuous delegate at one of the national conventions at Chicago in 1880, “what are we here for except the offices?” It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so. Sometimes he does not rob, and like Clive, wonders at his own moderation. And even the city boss improves as he rises in the world. Like a tree growing out of a dust heap, the higher he gets, the cleaner do his boughs and leaves become. America is a country where vulgarity is sealed off more easily than in England, and where the general air of good nature softens the asperities of power. Some city bosses are men from whose decorous exterior and unobtrusive manners no one would divine either their sordid beginnings or their noxious trade. As for the state boss, whose talents are probably greater to begin with, he must be of very coarse metal if he does not take a polish from the society of Washington.
A city ring works somewhat as follows. When the annual or biennial city or state elections come round, its members meet to discuss the apportionment of offices. Each may desire something for himself, unless indeed he is already fully provided for, and anyhow desires something for his friends. The common sort are provided for with small places in the gift of some official, down to the place of a policeman or doorkeeper or messenger, which is thought good enough for a common “ward worker.” Better men receive clerkships or the promise of a place in the customhouse or post office to be obtained from the federal authorities. Men still more important aspire to the elective posts, seats in the state legislature, a city aldermanship or commissionership, perhaps even a seat in Congress. All the posts that will have to be filled at the coming elections are considered with the object of bringing out a party ticket, i.e., a list of candidates to be supported by the party at the polls when its various nominations have been successfully run through the proper conventions. Some leading man, or probably the boss himself, sketches out an allotment of places; and when this allotment has been worked out fully, it results in a slate, i.e., a complete draft list of candidates to be proposed for the various offices.4 It may happen that the slate does not meet everybody’s wishes. Some member of the ring or some local boss—most members of a ring are bosses each in his own district, as the members of a cabinet are heads of the departments of state, or as the cardinals are bishops of dioceses near Rome and priests and deacons of her parish churches—may complain that he and his friends have not been adequately provided for, and may demand more. In that case the slate will probably be modified a little to ensure good feeling and content; and it will then be presented to the convention.
But there is sometimes a more serious difficulty to surmount. A party in a state or city may be divided into two or more factions. Success in the election will be possible only by uniting these factions upon the same nominees for office. Occasionally the factions may each make its list and then come together in the party convention to fight out their differences. But the more prudent course is for the chiefs of each faction to arrange matters in a private conference. Each comes wishing to get the most he can for his clansmen, but feels the need for a compromise. By a process of “dickering” (i.e., bargaining by way of barter), various offers and suggestions being made all round, a list is settled on which the high contracting parties agree. This is a deal, or trade, a treaty which terminates hostilities for the time, and brings about “harmony.” The list so settled is now a slate, unless some discontented magnate objects and threatens to withdraw. To do so is called “breaking the slate.” If such a “sorehead” persists, a schism may follow, with horrible disaster to the party; but usually a new slate is prepared and finally agreed upon. The accepted slate is now ready to be turned by the machine into a ticket, and nothing further remains but the comparatively easy process of getting the proper delegates chosen by packed primaries, and running the various parts of the ticket through the conventions to which the respective nominations belong. Internal dissension among the chiefs is the one great danger; the party must at all hazards be kept together, for the power of a united party is enormous. It has not only a large but a thoroughly trained and disciplined army in its officeholders and office-seekers; and it can concentrate its force upon any point where opposition is threatened to the regular party nominations.5 All these officeholders and office-seekers have not only the spirit of self-interest to rouse them, but the bridle of fear to check any stirrings of independence. Discipline is very strict in this army. Even city politicians must have a moral code and moral standard. It is not the code of an ordinary unprofessional citizen. It does not forbid falsehood, or malversation, or ballot stuffing, or “repeating.” But it denounces apathy or cowardice, disobedience, and above all, treason to the party. Its typical virtue is “solidity,” unity of heart, mind, and effort among the workers, unquestioning loyalty to the party leaders, and devotion to the party ticket. He who takes his own course is a kicker or bolter; and is punished not only sternly but vindictively. The path of promotion is closed to him; he is turned out of the primary, and forbidden to hope for a delegacy to a convention; he is dismissed from any office he holds which the ring can command. Dark stories are even told of a secret police which will pursue the culprit who has betrayed his party, and of mysterious disappearances of men whose testimony against the ring was feared. Whether there is any foundation for such tales I do not undertake to say. But true it is that the bond between the party chiefs and their followers is very close and very seldom broken. What the client was to his patron at Rome, what the vassal was to his lord in the Middle Ages, that the “heelers” and “workers” are to their boss in these great transatlantic cities. They render a personal feudal service, which their suzerain repays with the gift of a livelihood; and the relation is all the more cordial because the lord bestows what costs him nothing, while the vassal feels that he can keep his post only by the favour of the lord.
European readers must again be cautioned against drawing for themselves too dark a picture of the boss. He is not a demon. He is not regarded with horror even by those “good citizens” who strive to shake off his yoke. He is not necessarily either corrupt or mendacious, though he grasps at place, power, and wealth. He is a leader to whom certain peculiar social and political conditions have given a character dissimilar from the party leaders whom Europe knows. It is worth while to point out in what the dissimilarity consists.
A boss needs fewer showy gifts than a European demagogue. His special theatre is neither the halls of the legislature nor the platform, but the committee-room. A power of rough and ready repartee, or a turn for florid declamation, will help him; but he can dispense with both. What he needs are the arts of intrigue and that knowledge of men which teaches him when to bully, when to cajole, whom to attract by the hope of gain, whom by appeals to party loyalty. Nor are so-called social gifts unimportant. The lower sort of city politicians congregate in clubs and barrooms; and as much of the cohesive strength of the smaller party organizations arises from their being also social bodies, so also much of the power which liquor dealers exercise is due to the fact that “heelers” and “workers” spend their evenings in drinking places, and that meetings for political purposes are held there. Of the 1,007 primaries and conventions of all parties held in New York City preparatory to the elections of 1884, 633 took place in liquor saloons.6 A boss ought therefore to be hail fellow well met with those who frequent these places, not fastidious in his tastes, fond of a drink and willing to stand one, jovial in manners, and ready to oblige even a humble friend.
The aim of a boss is not so much fame as power, and not so much power over the conduct of affairs as over persons. Patronage is what he chiefly seeks, patronage understood in the largest sense in which it covers the disposal of lucrative contracts and other modes of enrichment as well as salaried places. The dependants who surround him desire wealth, or at least a livelihood; his business is to find this for them, and in doing so he strengthens his own position.7 It is as the bestower of riches that he holds his position, like the leader of a band of condottieri in the fifteenth century.
The interest of a boss in political questions is usually quite secondary. Here and there one may be found who is a politician in the European sense, who, whether sincerely or not, purports and professes to be interested in some principle or measure affecting the welfare of the country. But the attachment of the ringster is usually given wholly to the concrete party, that is to the men who compose it, regarded as officeholders or office-seekers; and there is often not even a profession of zeal for any party doctrine. As a noted politician once happily observed, “There are no politics in politics.” Among bosses, therefore, there is little warmth of party spirit. The typical boss regards the boss of the other party much as counsel for the plaintiff regards counsel for the defendant. They are professionally opposed, but not necessarily personally hostile. Between bosses there need be no more enmity than results from the fact that the one has got what the other wishes to have. Accordingly it sometimes happens that there is a good understanding between the chiefs of opposite parties in cities; they will even go the length of making a joint “deal,” i.e., of arranging for a distribution of offices whereby some of the friends of one shall get places, the residue being left for the friends of the other.8 A well-organized city party has usually a disposable vote which can be so cast under the directions of the managers as to effect this, or any other desired result. The appearance of hostility must, of course, be maintained for the benefit of the public; but as it is for the interest of both parties to make and keep these private bargains, they are usually kept when made, though of course it is seldom possible to prove the fact.
The real hostility of the boss is not to the opposite party, but to other factions within his own party. Often he has a rival leading some other organization, and demanding, in respect of the votes which that organization controls, a share of the good things going. The greatest cities can support more than one faction within the same party; thus New York has long had three Democratic organizations, two of which are powerful and often angrily hostile. If neither can crush the other, it finds itself obliged to treat, and to consent to lose part of the spoils to its rival. Still more bitter, however, is the hatred of boss and ring towards those members of the party who do not desire and are not to be appeased by a share of the spoils, but who agitate for what they call reform. They are natural and permanent enemies; nothing but the extinction of the boss himself and of bossdom altogether will satisfy them. They are moreover the common enemies of both parties, that is, of bossdom in both parties. Hence in ring-governed cities professionals of both parties will sometimes unite against the reformers, or will rather let their opponents secure a place than win it for themselves by the help of the “independent vote.” Devotion to “party government,” as they understand it, can hardly go farther.
This great army of workers is mobilized for elections, the methods of which form a wide and instructive department of political science. Here I refer only to their financial side, because that is intimately connected with the machine. Elections need money, in America a great deal of money. Where, then, does the money come from, seeing that the politicians themselves belong to, or emerge from, a needy class?
The revenues of a ring, that is, their collective, or, as one may say, corporate revenues, available for party purposes, flow from five sources.
I. The first is public subscriptions. For important elections such as the biennial elections of state officers, or perhaps for that of the state legislature, a “campaign fund,” as it is called, is raised by an appeal to wealthy members of the party. So strong is party feeling that many respond, even though they suspect the men who compose the ring, disapprove its methods, and have no great liking for the candidates.
II. Contributions are sometimes privately obtained from rich men and especially from corporations (though statutes are now attempting to prevent this) who, though not directly connected with the ring, may expect something from its action. Contractors, for instance, have an interest in getting pieces of work from the city authorities. Railroad men have an interest in preventing state legislation hostile to their lines. Both, therefore, may be willing to help those who can so effectively help them. This source of income is only available for important elections. Its incidental mischief in enabling wealth to control a legislature through a ring is serious.
III. An exceptionally audacious ring will sometimes make an appropriation from the city or (more rarely) from the state treasury for the purposes not of the city or the state, but of its own election funds. It is not thought necessary to bring such an appropriation into the regular accounts to be laid before the public; in fact, pains are taken to prevent the item from appearing, and the accounts have often to be manipulated for that purpose. The justification, if any, of conduct not authorized by the law, must be sought in precedent, in the belief that the other side would do the same, and in the benefits which the ring expects to confer upon the city it administers. It is a method of course available only when ring officials have the control of public funds, and cannot be resorted to by an opposition.
IV. A tax used to be levied upon the officeholders of the party, varying from one to four or even five per cent upon the amount of their annual salaries. The aggregate annual salaries of the city officials in New York City amounted to $11,000,000, and those of the two thousand five hundred federal officials, who, if of the same party, might also be required to contribute,9 to $2,500,000. An assessment at two per cent on these amounts would produce over $220,000 and $50,000 respectively, quite a respectable sum for election expenses in a single city.10 Even policemen in cities, even office boys and workmen in federal dockyards, have been assessed by their party. As a tenant had in the days of feudalism to make occasional money payments to his lord in addition to the military service he rendered, so now the American vassal must render his aids in money as well as give knightly service at the primaries, in the canvass, at the polls. His liabilities are indeed heavier than those of the feudal tenant, for the latter could relieve himself from duty in the field by the payment of scutage, while under the machine a money payment never discharges from the obligation to serve in the army of “workers.” Forfeiture and the being proclaimed as “nithing,” are, as in the days of the Anglo-Norman kings, the penalty for failure to discharge the duties by which the vassal holds. Efforts which began with an order issued by President Hayes in 1877 applying to federal offices have been made to prevent by administrative action and by legislation the levying of this tribute on federal officials, but it is believed that the evil has not yet been extirpated. Indeed, some officials do not wait to be “assessed,” but think they “earn merit” (as the Buddhists say) by sending in their contributions ultroneously before any suggestion reaches them.
V. Another useful expedient has been borrowed from European monarchies in the sale of nominations and occasionally of offices themselves.11 A person who seeks to be nominated as candidate for one of the more important offices, such as a judgeship or a seat in the state Senate, or in Congress, is often required to contribute to the election fund a sum proportioned to the importance of the place he seeks, the excuse given for the practice being the cost of elections; and the same principle is occasionally applied to the gift of nonelective offices, the right of appointing to which is vested in some official member of a ring—e.g., a mayor. The price of a nomination for a seat in the state legislature is said to run from $500 up to $1,000, and for one of the better judgeships as high as $5,000; but this is largely matter of conjecture.12 Of course much less will be given if the prospects of carrying the election are doubtful: the prices quoted must be taken to represent cases where the party majority makes success certain. Naturally, the salaries of officials have to be raised in order to enable them to bear this charge, so that in the long run it may be thrown upon the public; and an eminent boss of New York City defended, before a committee of the legislature, the large salaries paid to aldermen, on the ground that “heavy demands were made on them by their party.”13
 The state of things under which rings first developed was worse, because then everybody was dismissible. Now many federal posts and (in some places) some city posts have been brought under civil service rules, but there are still a great many officials who are expected to work for the party.
 Assuming, as one usually may, that the city leaders are on good terms with the federal and state party managers.
Federal statutes and civil service rules made under them now provide that no person in the public service shall be compelled to contribute service or money for political purposes; and that persons in the competitive service shall take no active part in political campaigns, or use official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or controlling the result thereof. These rules, however, do not cover the whole field, and it is believed that they are not always observed.
 So too a rural boss is often quite pure, and blameworthy rather for his intriguing methods than for his aims.
 A pleasant story is told of a former boss of New York State, who sat with his vassals just before the convention, preparing the slate. There were half a dozen or more state offices for which nominations were to be made. The names were with deliberation selected and set down, with the exception of the very unimportant place of state prison inspector. One of his subordinates ventured to call the attention of the boss to what he supposed to be an inadvertence, and asked who was to be the man for that place, to which the great man answered, with an indulgent smile, “I guess we will leave that to the convention.”
 As for instance by packing the primaries with its adherents from other districts, whom a partisan chairman or committee will suffer to come in and vote.
These remarks all refer to the old-fashioned primaries. The new statutory primary, as already observed, is a different thing, whose defects, as well as its merits, are different.
 Where primary laws are in force, primaries are no longer held in saloons.
 “A Boss is able to procure positions for many of his henchmen on horse railroads, the elevated roads, quarry works, etc. Great corporations are peculiarly subject to the attack of demagogues, and they find it greatly to their interest to be on good terms with the leader in each district who controls the vote of the assemblyman and alderman; and therefore the former is pretty sure that a letter of recommendation from him on behalf of any applicant for work will receive most favourable consideration. The leader also is continually helping his supporters out of difficulties, pecuniary and otherwise: he lends them a dollar now and then, helps out, when possible, such of their kinsmen as get into the clutches of the law, gets a hold over such of them as have done wrong and are afraid of being exposed, and learns to mix bullying judiciously with the rendering of service.”—Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, in an article in the Century magazine for November 1886.
 In one great state it was recently well understood that the Democratic boss of the chief city and the Republican boss of the state were in the habit of trading offices with one another.
 Federal officials would, as a rule, contribute only to the fund for federal elections; but when the contest covered both federal and city offices, the funds would be apt to be blended.
The totals of salaries of officials now are of course far larger, but as it is impossible to ascertain today on how much of them an assessment is paid, the figures in the text have been allowed to stand.
 To make the calculation complete we should have to reckon in also the (comparatively few) state officials and assessments payable by them.
 As judicial places were sold under the old French monarchy, and commissions in the army in England till 1872.
 “A judgeship,” said (writing in 1883) Mr. F. W. Whitridge, “costs in New York about $15,000; the district attorneyship the same; for a nomination to Congress the price is about $4000, though this is variable; an aldermanic nomination is worth $1500, and that for the Assembly from $600 to $1500. The amount realized from these assessments cannot be exactly estimated but the amount raised by Tammany Hall, which is the most complete political organization, may be fixed very nearly at $125,000 (£25,000). This amount is collected and expended by a small executive committee who keep no accounts and are responsible only to each other.”—Article “Assessments” in Amer. Cyclop. of Political Science. In 1887, the City Chamberlain of New York estimated the average minimum assessment levied on a candidate for mayor at $20,000, for comptroller at $10,000, for district attorney at $5,000. However, in 1887 the Democratic rings in New York City demanded $25,000 for the nomination to the comptrollership, and $5,000 for that to a state senatorship. The salary of the comptroller is $10,000 for three years, that of Senator $1,500 for two years, i.e., the senatorial candidate was expected to pay $2,000 more than his total salary, a fact suggestive of expectations of gain from some other source.
 “Before a committee of the New York legislature the county clerk testified that his income was nearly $80,000 a year, but with refreshing frankness admitted that his own position was practically that of a figurehead, and that all the work was done by his deputy on a small fixed salary. As the county clerk’s term is three years, he should nominally receive $240,000, but as a matter of fact two-thirds of the money probably goes to the political organizations with which he is connected.”—Mr. T. Roosevelt in Century magazine for November 1886. A county officer answered the same committee, when they put what was meant to be a formal question as to whether he performed his public duties faithfully, that he did so perform them whenever they did not conflict with his political duties(!), meaning thereby, as he explained, attending to his local organizations, seeing politicians, “fixing” primaries, bailing out those of his friends who were summoned to appear before a justice of peace, etc.