“Honey Fitz”: Presidential Mentor

The first place in which the Democratic Party rose in Massachusetts was in Boston, and it was through Irish Catholics that this phenomenon occurred. One figure they produced was John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (1863-1950). The politics of Massachusetts in Fitzgerald’s heyday were not Democratic, they were Republican. The Republicans were WASPs while the Democrats were Catholics. In two of his three terms he was the single Democrat to represent New England, a stark contrast to today in which Maine’s Susan Collins is the only Republican to represent New England on a federal level. Fitzgerald’s time was different, and as he was a Grover Cleveland Democrat, but he voted against the Gold Standard Act of 1900. As an Irish Catholic Democrat, he clashed with the WASP establishment, and 1897 he opposed Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s (R-Mass.) legislation to require that immigrants can read at least twenty words of the Constitution in English or their own language, which was vetoed by President Cleveland on his advice. The veto was upheld, and after Fitzgerald delivered a speech denouncing Lodge for his stance, Lodge said to him, “You are an impudent young man. Do you think the Jews and Italians have any right in this country?” to which Fitzgerald retorted, “As much as your father or mine. It was only a difference of a few ships” (PBS). In his six-year time in Congress his MC-Index score was a 52%.

Mayor of Boston

In 1905, Fitzgerald was elected Boston’s mayor for the first time, and despite using the machine system to rise, he ran against the ward system. Unlike other major cities, Boston didn’t have anyone “boss”, rather many who controlled their own wards and had their own political machines. The machines exchanged with voters jobs and financial aid for votes and in some cases assistance during election years. He campaigned with the slogans “The People Not the Boss Should Rule” and “Bigger, Better, Busier Boston”. Fitzgerald declared this victory to be the “first hurrah of the dynasty to come” (DeCosta-Kilpa). At the time, even he probably had no idea how prescient this declaration would be. The machine system didn’t go away under “Honey Fitz”, indeed corruption was rife per Francis Russell, “In Johnny Fitz’s first administration, graft was blatant in all departments. During those two years the city lost $200,000 in dealings with a single coal company, whose manager later absconded. In subsequent investigations the Finance Commission discovered that Boston had been paying sixty cents a barrel more than the going price for cement—a $240,000 annual waste. There were dozens of strange land deals in which the city ended up paying three times more than anyone had imagined a given property was worth” (2). However, his charming and outgoing personality won over many people in Boston and he absolutely relished in the role. Democratic Party infighting which produced two candidates for mayor in Fitzgerald and state representative John Coulthurst resulted in Republican George A. Hibbard winning the election, a “good government” (or “googoo”) candidate who served only one term and cut expenditures, reducing the city’s debt and halving the cost of street maintenance. The reformers also lengthened the mayor’s term from two years to four years. However, as happened so often, “googoo” governments would not last long, as people who had benefited from the old ways would come back in force. This force was Fitzgerald and ward leaders Martin Lomasney and Jim Curley. An agreement was struck that they would back Fitzgerald for mayor, and that Curley would run for Fitzgerald’s old Congressional seat and succeed him after his term as mayor was done. What Lomasney got out of the bargain is unknown. Fitzgerald was returned to office in 1909 narrowly; the anti-Fitzgerald forces put their weight behind another Democrat in James J. Storrow, but “Honey Fitz” had persuaded a terminally ill Hibbard to run again, and he diverted enough votes from the anti-Fitzgerald forces for Fitzgerald to win. He had some achievements in his second term; he directed the construction of Fenway Park and the Franklin Park Zoo, and his nickname came from both his personality and his propensity to sing in public. Fitzgerald was said to be the only politician who could sing “Sweet Adeline” sober and get away with it. In 1913, he decided that he enjoyed being mayor so much that he decided to go back on his word with Curley. This was a big mistake, as Curley was both corrupt and ruthless.

As mayor, he had been spending a lot of time with a cigarette girl named “Toodles” Ryan. Fitzgerald was married and had several children. Although close friends of Fitzgerald held that this was not an affair, rather a malicious joke that they were having one, this didn’t stop Curley from blackmailing him over it by announcing lectures that contrasted famous figures from history with Fitzgerald, including “Graft in Ancient Times vs. Graft in Modern Times” and “Great Lovers: From Cleopatra to Toodles” (Russell, 6). Fitzgerald quit the race before Curley was to deliver the lectures, only three weeks after entering.
In 1916, Fitzgerald attempted a comeback by running against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in his first race in which the Brahmin of Boston Brahmins faced the popular vote. However, he lost by six points. Fitzgerald would try again in 1918.

The 1918 Election

Fitzgerald looked like he was making a comeback in his win to Congress. He defeated the incumbent, Peter F. Tague, in the primary by 50 votes. Tague chose to run a write-in campaign and lost by 238 votes. However, he challenged the election in Congress. An investigation into the primary uncovered evidence of extensive voter fraud in three precincts, including goons supporting Fitzgerald who intimidated Tague supporters. After those precincts were eliminated from the count, Tague was the victor. On October 23, 1919, Congress voted unanimously to seat Tague. Fitzgerald again tried his hand at returning to elective office in 1922 when he ran against conservative Governor Channing Cox, but lost by 60,000 votes. His career was over.

Supporting FDR; His Grandson

In 1932, Fitzgerald and Curley put their energies behind supporting the candidacy of FDR for the president and attempted to get the now old boss Martin Lomasney to go along, but he declined. Roosevelt would appoint Fitzgerald’s son-in-law as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later Ambassador to Great Britain. In 1942, the 79-year-old Fitzgerald ran a quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Senate, which was alleged to have been done to spoil the rise of one of his son-in-law’s rivals, with the nomination going to Congressman Joseph Casey, who proceeded to lose to incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Fitzgerald then committed his energies to advising and encouraging his grandsons to enter into politics. One of these grandsons was named after him, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who he helped win the 1946 election. He would campaign for him at public events and on the streets. Also helping was an arrangement made with Fitzgerald’s old rival, Curley, to run again for mayor in 1947, allowing Kennedy to succeed him in Congress. After his grandson’s election to Congress, Fitzgerald made another prediction, that the young Kennedy would one day be president.

Fitzgerald did not live to see his grandson be president or defeat the grandson of the man who defeated him in 1916, which would have most certainly tickled him pink. On the upside, he did not live to see his grandson’s fate. Fitzgerald’s widow, Mary, however, did live to see Kennedy become president. She even outlived JFK himself but was never informed of his assassination. Fitzgerald had not been happy that his first grandchild had been named after his father rather than him. Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II, while his namesake got to have the political career that Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was hoping for his firstborn. In truth, JFK was more politically influenced by his grandfather than Joseph, a man far more politically conservative than his sons.


The Presidency: Man of the New Frontier. (1960, November 16). Time Magazine.

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John Fitzgerald: Mayor of a Bigger, Better, Busier Boston. National Park Service.

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John Francis Fitzgerald: American Experience. PBS.

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DeCosta-Kilpa, N. (2017, May 17). Meet Honey Fitz: The ‘pixie like’ mayor of Boston (and JFK’s grandfather). Boston.com.

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Russell, F. (1968, August). Honey Fitz. American Heritage, 19(5).

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