The Gilded Age was a time in which political parties were at their strongest, voter participation was at its highest, the legislative branch was dominant, and the politics were corrupt often as a matter of routine. The ultimate man for this age was Senator Matthew Stanley Quay (1833-1904) of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania was one of the most reliable states for the Republican Party in this time, and this was due to the machine that operated out of Philadelphia. The machine had been started by Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War who although was never indicted, had a reputation for corruption so strong that Thaddeus Stevens once stated to President Lincoln in response to his question regarding his honesty, “I do not believe he would steal a red hot stove” and when Cameron demanded he retract it, he stated to Lincoln, “I believe I told you he would not steal a red hot stove. I will now take that back” (Mr. Lincoln’s White House). Cameron would go back to the Senate after his incompetent stint as Secretary of War and retired in 1877, leaving both his seat and the machine to his son, J. Donald Cameron. However, the younger Cameron lacked the political skills of his father and was not known to be charismatic. During the 1880s, Matthew Quay surpassed him in influence and became the machine’s boss.
Quay had gotten his rise in politics through his outstanding service in the Civil War as a colonel, earning the Medal of Honor for his heroism at the Battle of Fredericksburg. This placed him into contact with Governor Andrew Curtin, and as his secretary he gained a reputation for being second to none in organization and his ability to help soldiers with questions regarding their enlistments. In 1885, he was elected Treasurer of Pennsylvania, and was able to maintain control of it past his time in that position. Quay found access to the Treasury to be his most powerful political weapon, stating, “I don’t mind losing a governorship or a legislature now and then, but I always need the state treasuryship” (ExplorePAHistory). He was not known for making public speeches or bold declarations, indeed, he kept as publicly quiet as possible.
Quay excelled in behind-the-scenes activity and gaining promises from politicians individually. He was meticulous in keeping track of the favors he doled out in little packets known as “Quay’s coffins”, so he always knew who owed him. He was not perfect, however. On one occasion he directly pressured Governor Henry Hoyt to pardon legislators who had been convicted of accepting bribes from the Pennsylvania Railroad, the incident helped in the election of the only Democrat who would serve as governor between 1861 and 1935. In 1887, he was elected to the Senate.
Quay was neither an ideologue nor a policy wonk and was responsible for no significant legislation, but he was a masterfully shrewd politician and loved the process of it all. His view of politics was that it was “the art of taking money from the few and votes from the many under the pretext of protecting the one from the other” (ExplorePAHistory). As a senator, he was popular with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and became the chair of the Public Buildings and Grounds Committee, resulting in his fellow senators having to gain his favor for the construction of post offices. Quay also proved to be quite possibly the GOP’s greatest electoral asset, and no case demonstrated this more than in his running of Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 campaign. He had examined the 1884 election and realized that the Democratic source of victory was New York, a swing state at the time. Quay, who ran a machine that regularly employed ballot stuffing, bribes, and other forms of voter fraud served this time to combat Tammany Hall corruption. Quay had behind-the-scenes formed an apparently non-partisan organization to tally up all the registered voters in New York City. Two weeks before the election, he announced that he had a list of all registered voters in New York City and that he would know of any voter fraud and enforce the law. Quay also sent poll watchers to New York City precincts to watch for fraud. Similarly, he hired Pinkerton detectives to deter intimidation and violence against black voters in the South. His efforts countered voter fraud in New York City in the 1888 election (while his own voter fraud machine in Philadelphia chugged along), tipping the state to Harrison, who dubbed Quay a “kingmaker”. When Quay was informed by Philadelphia reporters that Harrison attributed his victory to Providence, he shot back, “He ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it” and went on to state that he would “never know how many Republicans were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president” (ExplorePAHistory). Harrison, however, was not a corrupt president and didn’t deliver on the rewards that he and other bosses like him were expecting. As a result, efforts to reelect him in 1892 were not nearly as vigorous and he lost reelection.
Although Quay was known most for his machine politics, there were other elements to his legacy. Having American Indian heritage, he was known as an advocate for American Indians and called for voting rights enforcement in the South (but carried favor with southern senators when he shelved the Lodge Bill in 1890). He backed high tariffs and pro-business legislation but voted with some independence from party line.
In 1898, Quay was indicted for misappropriating state treasury funds but was acquitted. Despite his acquittal, resistance to him had built up and the state legislature refused to elect him. Governor Daniel Hastings reappointed him, but in the Senate he lost a vote on April 24, 1900 to seat him by one. Ohio’s Mark Hanna, who had run William McKinley’s 1896 election, paired against his seating. However, Quay would not have to wait long to get even with him.
The previous year McKinley’s first Vice President, Garret Hobart, passed away. Running for reelection, he sought a replacement. In New York, Senator and political machine boss Thomas C. Platt had a problem, and his name was Theodore Roosevelt. As Governor of New York, Roosevelt was a reformer and opposed said political machines, so Platt had devised a solution: kick Roosevelt upstairs. However, Platt could not arrange this on his own, and he sought the aid of Quay. Platt and Quay arranged to have Theodore Roosevelt nominated Vice President. Hanna couldn’t stand Roosevelt, and he was livid at the news. Quay had gotten his revenge on Hanna, and would ultimately return to the Senate anyway in 1901 when the new state legislature voted him in. However, by this point he was no longer in control of the machine, as it had been taken over by his colleague, Boies Penrose.
Quay’s health had never been good: he inherited a susceptibility to tuberculosis (his parents and siblings died from it) and struggled with recurring bouts of it throughout his lifetime, being painfully aware that he was likely to eventually die from it. He would regularly take trips to St. Lucie, Florida, to reinvigorate his health, which resulted in the highest absenteeism rate among his colleagues in the Senate. Additionally, during the Civil War he had contracted typhoid fever, and this would also return from time to time. However, Quay didn’t meet the same fate as his family: in 1903, his stomach began to progressively deteriorate due to chronic gastritis and was he losing weight from being increasingly unable to absorb nutrition. By early 1904, he knew he was going to die, writing to his son on February 16th, “In the week ending yesterday noon I lost something like one pound and a quarter…This cannot go on very long. Say nothing about it. I thought you ought to know” (FLGenWeb). The most powerful and effective boss of the Pennsylvania Republican machine and possibly in American history died on May 28th of that year, aged 70.
P.S.: Boss Quay had a rule for any candidate for public office, and this was to “keep your mouth shut”, a wise bit of advice and a marked contrast to the politics of today (FLGenWeb).
Croly, H.D. (1965). Marcus Alonzo Hanna: His life and work. Hamden, CT: Archon Books
Matthew S. Quay Historical Marker. ExplorePAHistory.
U.S. Sen. Matthew Stanley Quay. St. Lucie County FLGenWeb.
Visitors from Congress: Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). Mr. Lincoln’s White House.