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bossism

bossism, in U.S. history, system of political control centering about a single powerful figure (the boss) and a complex organization of lesser figures (the machine) bound together by reciprocity in promoting financial and social self-interest. Bossism depends upon manipulation of the voters and thus always has some aspects of corruption and fraud, even though particular bosses and particular machines may do much good service for the community, the state, or the nation. Control of blocks of votes enables boss and machine to secure the nomination and election or appointment of candidates for public office; the officers thus chosen respond by advancing the interests of the machine. The boss became important in U.S. political life in the mid-19th cent., when many poor immigrants crowded into the cities. In return for their votes the boss offered them protection; he saw that the newcomers got financial and other help. The contact was direct and personal; the boss and his cohorts gave away coal and food, got the sick into hospitals, obtained leniency for the wayward through the courts, and secured government jobs and other work for the unemployed. Bossism was primarily on the local level, but the machines in very large cities soon exerted state and national influence, sometimes very powerful. The highly invidious implications of the term date from the exposure of the Tweed Ring (see under Tweed, William Marcy) in New York City in 1872 (see also Tammany). Some of the men who came to nationwide notice as connected with bossism and machines in the late 19th and 20th cent. were Richard Croker and Charles Murphy of New York, Frank Hague of New Jersey, Thomas J. Pendergast of Kansas City, James M. Curley of Boston, William Hale Thompson of Chicago, William Vare of Philadelphia, and Abraham Ruef of San Francisco. The original sort of bossism gradually declined with the assimilation of older immigrant stocks and reduction of new immigration, growing literacy, extension of government into the social-welfare area previously cared for by the machine, and increase in the number of jobs falling under civil-service requirements. In contemporary politics a new and more sophisticated type of boss has come into being; he uses techniques of public relations rather than personal contacts to build up his power and that of the machine.

See H. F. Gosnell, Machine Politics (1937, repr. 1968); S. Lubell, The Future of American Politics (3d ed. 1965); E. C. Banfield and J. Q. Wilson, City Politics (1963, repr. 1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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