Money gushed in Gilded Age


Politics: A Pennsylvania boss and a Philadelphia merchant prince began the process that led to today's soft money when they propelled Benjamin Harrison into the White House.

May 12, 2000|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Hard money. Soft money. In the Gilded Age presidential election of 1888, it was just plain money - boodles of it raised in unprecedented amounts and expended in masterful ways.

The key man in the making of President Benjamin Harrison, deservedly one of the lesser-known occupants of the White House, was Matthew S. Quay, the Republican boss of Pennsylvania. His grateful counterpart in New York, Thomas Platt, otherwise known as the "Easy Boss," called Quay "the ablest politician this country ever produced."

Hyperbolic praise, perhaps, but consider the circumstances. Four years earlier, to the consternation of all wavers of the bloody shirt, the Democrats had won the White House for the first time since the Civil War. They did so by crook as well as hook, importing untold numbers of "floater" voters into New York districts controlled by Tammany Hall.

Quay, who sat out that election in disapproval of the GOP ticket, could hardly have disapproved of such tactics since they were part of his own repertory. But as events were to demonstrate, he made sure that if New York were to be stolen again in 1888, it would not be the Democrats who did it.

Although Quay would have preferred a candidate other than Harrison, he threw himself into the 1888 campaign after getting the plum job of Republican national chairman. There were several reasons for his elevation: His triumph over other would-be bosses in Pennsylvania, his new eminence as a U.S. senator and, most important, his access to Philadelphia money, the chief source of all that glittered in the Grand Old Party.

There was, of course, a cultural divide between aristocratic old-money Philadelphians and politicians for whom money was as new as the latest payoff for a patronage job or a bill greased through the legislature in Harrisburg. Quay's first priority was to bridge this divide, and he did so by appealing to the ego and sentiments of John Wanamaker, a man whose name will live as long as the department stores he created.

It might have made sense for Wanamaker, as a retailer, to back Democratic President Grover Cleveland, a low-tariff man. But in rebuffing the lure of cheaper imports, he said, "I could never be anything but a Republican." And he willingly stayed with his high-tariff party when the wily Quay made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Wanamaker was appointed head of an "advisory committee" with complete authority to raise campaign money (which he did very well indeed) and control its expenditure (which really meant turning it over to Quay). This suited Wanamaker, a rather pious Sunday School superintendent who wound up as Harrison's postmaster general and an important dispenser of patronage.

Among his many achievements, Wanamaker could lay claim to the invention of "soft money," a term of only recent vintage in the political lexicon. For when queried about his hoard, he described it as money to be used in an "education fund" to enlighten the citizenry.

The merchant prince summoned 10 leading Philadelphians and assessed them $10,000 apiece, an astounding sum in those days, equivalent to $185,000 in today's money. This was the down payment on a war chest for Harrison that grew to an estimated $3 million - $55.5 million in current dollars. By comparison, George W. Bush raised $70 million to ensure his primary victories this year. It was a mountainous sum that converted Al Gore into a professed campaign-finance reformer.

Wanamaker always insisted that the money he raised had been put to legitimate use. Averting his eyes from the bipartisan practice of buying votes or sending the dead, the fictitious, the unregistered and the imported to the polls, he reasoned that businessmen ought to use their leverage to ensure good times. Others, less discreetly, referred to the Wanamaker-Quay form of extortion as "frying the fat" out of business beneficiaries of the GOP.

By the next election in 1892, fund raising had doubled to $6 million, according to Congressional Quarterly, and it has been growing exponentially ever since.

Historian Allan Nevins wrote that no one knows just how large were the sums raised in Pennsylvania because Quay and Wanamaker prudently destroyed all written records. Cries for full disclosure and transparency - today's unfulfilled cliches - did not arise until Theodore Roosevelt moved into the White House.

Simple fund raising, in amounts that made 1888 the launch pad for the ever-growing nexus of politics and money, was the least of Quay's innovations.

Five years earlier, the Pendleton Civil Service Act had been passed, ostensibly outlawing the old practice of forcing federal office holders to ante up for the party in power. Like so many reforms, the Pendleton law had unintended consequences. For if federal patronage payments were to be inhibited, the politicians had to turn elsewhere.

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