Courtesy of Truman Library
From Left, Senator Harry S. Truman, Thomas J. Pendergast, James P. Aylward, James Farley, N. G. Robertson, and David Fitzgerald attend the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 24, 1936.
By Ron Soodalter
It is perhaps impossible to attain public office without incurring at least some political debts. Even when played cleanly, the game of politics requires a give-and-take that frequently places office-holders in positions that are at best uncomfortable and at worst compromising. Our chief executives are not even immune. From the time of Washington’s inauguration, presidents entered office in debt to their supporters, and Harry Truman, the only Missourian to be elected president, was no exception.
From the moment he decided to seek public office, Truman was closely linked with the most influential and corrupt political boss in Missouri. Throughout his career, his name was joined with that of the notorious Tom Pendergast, right up to the moment Truman took the oath of office as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president.
Many voters of the 1930s and 1940s and historians ever since have asked the question, “How can a man lay claim to honesty and diligence while owing his very career to a man who used the law as a mere tool for self-aggrandizement?”
A farmer, bank clerk, and failed businessman, the unostentatious Truman appealed to voters as the embodiment of the common man. He was admired for his plain speaking, which at times dangerously skirted character defamation. He once referred to Adlai Stevenson as “no better than a regular sissy” and called Richard Nixon a “no-good, lying bastard” who could “lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.”
Meanwhile, no one—least of all Truman himself—questioned that Truman owed his political career to the man who strong-armed voters, rigged elections, formed alliances with organized crime, ran the largest protection racket in Missouri, and virtually owned Kansas City and Jackson County. For decades, Tom Pendergast controlled the Kansas City police force and dictated how regional business and government would be conducted.
Courtesy of Truman Library
The Portrait of the Political Boss as a Young Man: this photo of Tom Pendergast dates back to 1900.
Large and beefy with a bulldog countenance, Thomas J. Pendergast was a daunting figure. He was born in St. Joseph in July of 1872, the ninth and last child of a poor immigrant couple from County Tipperary, Ireland. Although he later claimed to have attended college for two years, no evidence exists to indicate that he went to school beyond the sixth grade.
Few promising occupations were open to a young Irishman in nineteenth-century America, so Tom initially worked as a laborer, grocery wagon driver, and clerk. At twenty-two, he relocated to Kansas City to work as a bookkeeper for his older brother James, a successful businessman, saloonkeeper, and local politician. Two years before Tom’s arrival, James had been elected alderman of the working-class First Ward, and he used his position both to improve the lives of his constituents and to enhance his own personal fortunes.
The spoils system was alive and more than healthy throughout American politics at this time, and it was nowhere more faithfully practiced than in Kansas City. Before the advent of James Pendergast and others of his ilk, jobs had formerly gone to white American Protestants from established families. Now, they were being made available to Catholics, people of color, and immigrants. In exchange, political movers and shakers such as Pendergast benefited financially from their constituents in the form of bribes, kickbacks, and favors. The standard quid-pro-quo system benefited all involved and allowed many—who otherwise would not have had the opportunity—to advance. It was less about qualifications and more about connections, and James was a deft practitioner of the system. As the owner of a major saloon, he also oversaw and protected gambling, drugs, and prostitution in his district.
Shortly after Tom’s arrival in 1894, James secured him an appointment as deputy constable of the First Ward City Court. Young Tom learned Democratic politics at his brother’s elbow, and he was a quick study. By 1896, he was appointed deputy marshal for the county court and, four years later, superintendent of streets. The latter position was by mayoral appointment, a by-product of Mayor James A. Reed’s friendship with James Pendergast.
Apparently, James was not a healthy man, and when he began to flag, Tom stepped in to oversee his brother’s duties as alderman. When James died in 1911, Tom ran for his city council seat and won. Four years later, Tom resigned his position and, over the next ten years, proceeded to build the most powerful political machine in the city.
Tom had learned many valuable lessons from James, but none were more important than the need to take care of his constituents. During the Great Depression, Tom provided food, clothing, and fuel to countless people in and around Kansas City and sponsored Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for residents of the First Ward. Largely due to his efforts, Kansas City enjoyed what came to be called “Pendergast Prosperity” and was spared much of the desperation America endured during the Depression.
The people responded by voting for “Boss Tom’s” candidates, while the various projects he supported were often brought to fruition by his own construction companies. Meanwhile, Prohibition was still in full swing, and Tom ensured that vice flourished while he reaped substantial payoffs from the owners of brothels, speakeasies, and nightclubs.
To ensure the growth of his machine, Tom also courted the white-collar middle class through a program of favors and special events, social and sports clubs, picnics and dances. In fact, he was so deft at consolidating power that the governor’s mansion came to be referred to colloquially as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His organization grew so powerful that, by the early 1930s, Pendergast was in control of the city, the county, and—for at least a time—the state legislature in Jefferson City.
Courtesy of Truman Library
“Boss Tom” Pendergast talks with his nephew James “Jim” Pendergast, a close friend to Harry Truman.
The Truman-Pendergast relationship began around the turn of the century, shortly after Truman graduated from high school. His parents had lost their land and moved to Kansas City, directly across the street from Mike Pendergast— another of Tom’s older brothers and a small-time politician in his own right. Mike became good friends with Truman’s father, John A. Truman, and the friendship passed along to their sons. When the United States entered World War I, young Harry served in the same regiment as Mike’s son James—Jim for short—and the two formed a bond that lasted their lives long.
After the war, in 1922, Harry Truman was unsuccessfully running a men’s clothing store when Mike and Jim asked him to stand for the western judge position of the Jackson County Administrative Court. The name was something of a misnomer; it was not a judicial court but rather the combined executive and legislative arms of the Jackson County government. Thanks in part to the financial backing of Jim’s uncle Tom Pendergast’s machine, Truman was elected to a two-year term. Although he lost the election in 1924, he was elected presiding judge in 1926 and again four years later, largely through the money, influence, and vote-rigging of Tom Pendergast.
Clearly, Truman owed his budding political career to Tom Pendergast—in fact to three Pendergasts. Yet, it proved a mutually beneficial arrangement. For his part, Truman gave “Boss Tom” what Kansas City historian William Worley refers to as a “fig leaf of legitimacy.” Truman had a number of qualities that made him an ideal face of the organization. For one thing, he was not a slick, big-city politician. Voters and constituents responded to his everyman way of addressing them.
In addition, he had served during the recent war, belonged to the American Legion, and was a devout Baptist. By stopping the payoffs and kickbacks rampant in the court, he soon developed a strong reputation for honesty, too. At one juncture, Truman openly invited a grand jury investigation, stating, “I am proud of the record of the county court.”
Tom Pendergast benefited from basking in his light, despite the fact that Truman continually cost him money. No longer were Tom’s companies, or those of his supporters, the automatic choice for construction projects. Truman ensured that only the lowest bidders won the contracts, and he refused to be bribed or to countenance graft within the court. Truman came across as so incorruptible that he was actually known as a reformer.
However, the reality was far less clear-cut. Despite cleaning up the county court, Truman was a strong believer in the spoils system. He drew his own line between blatant corruption and favoritism, which he perceived as totally separate issues.
As chronicler Lyle W. Dorsett stated, “Truman [gave] the machine charge of the court’s patronage. He saw nothing wrong with that because he believed that the victors deserved the spoils.”
To Truman’s thinking, it was all part of the political game. He considered it appropriate to reward the right supporter with the right position—generally in the Roads Department, the county government’s biggest employer. And although he did so openly, without subterfuge or apology, he walked a fine—and somewhat invisible—line. Truman was, in the strictest sense, a willing functionary of Pendergast’s machine, kicking back jobs in return for the support that had placed him in office.
In 1934, Tom Pendergast put forth Truman’s name as the next senator from the state of Missouri. Ironically, Truman was The Boss’s third choice; the first two, chosen out of political patronage, refused to run for various reasons. But having finally picked Truman, Pendergast swung into action.
The Boss had been instrumental in the election of the current Missouri governor, Guy B. Park, and he now called in his marker. The governor put state employees throughout Missouri to work on Truman’s behalf. The governor wrote, “The Grain Department and Police Department are thoroughly organized, and there are few who have not fallen into line. ... All of we heads of departments are strong for and working daily for Mr. Truman.” Again, through Pendergast’s influence and the power of his machine, Truman won election, this time in a four-way race for the US Senate.
Once in Washington, Truman held fast to his belief in the patronage system. As he saw it, he owed a debt to Tom Pendergast and his political machine, and within the confines of both the law and good judgment, he continued to repay it.
When, for example, the freshman senator was approached by Missourians seeking employment in the federal government’s new relief programs, he would always confer first with Tom Pendergast.
The benefit to “Boss Tom” was enormous. Thanks in part to his well-placed new senator, he controlled the federal work relief effort in Missouri and profited hugely, both in political and financial matters. If he hadn’t been so before, he was now the most powerful man in the state, thanks in large part to Harry Truman.
However, not all of Truman’s senatorial colleagues shared Truman’s views on the patronage system. During his first term, Truman was viewed askance by several of his fellow senators, as well as by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was widely known that the new senator had gained office, at least in part, through the machinations of “Boss Tom.” No less a political scoundrel, Louisiana’s demagogic senator Huey Long publicly mocked Truman for his connections. Following the tradition that new senators give a speech to the assembled body, Truman gave his address, whereupon Senator Long stood and loudly welcomed “the Senator from Pendergast” to the US Senate.
For his part, Truman was far from naïve. After serving in public office for several years, he was a seasoned politician and well-versed in the art of self-preservation. By the time of Truman’s second senatorial campaign, Tom Pendergast had fallen from power, and it behooved the candidate to distance himself politically from his friend and former sponsor. On his own, and without the support of the now-defunct machine, Truman won re-election by a mere eight thousand votes.
Courtesy of Truman Library
In Independence, upon Truman's arrival from Washington, D.C., childhood friend James “Jim” Pendergast has the ear of the President.
“Boss Tom’s” political empire came crashing down in 1939. He had taken a bribe of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he had understandably neglected to declare. Governor Lloyd C. Stark, a politician whose career had ironically been forged by Tom Pendergast, launched an investigation. Charged with tax evasion, Tom entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to fifteen months in prison and five years probation. His political influence dissipated virtually overnight. Upon his release, the ill and aging boss retired to his home in Kansas City, where he lived quietly until his death in 1945.
Meanwhile, Truman was tapped to serve as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president. Again, he was the third choice— a compromise candidate strongly recommended by Democratic National Chairman Robert E. Hannegan, who happened to be from St. Louis.
“Boss Tom” died just two days after Truman took the oath of office of vice president of the United States, and Truman attended the funeral. He was much criticized for it. Yet, visibly unconcerned with either Washington pundits or wagging tongues, Vice President Harry S. Truman paid a final obeisance to the man whose influence had paved the way for his ascendancy. By fair means and foul, Tom Pendergast had created and supported the public Harry Truman, and Truman was well aware that this often involved the buying or coercing of votes. For his part, Truman had repaid his mentor whenever possible—and in accordance with his own code of ethics.
To learn more on Harry S. Truman and his legacy, visit the Truman Library and Institute in Independence.