Municipal Government

Author: Bird Sim Coler  | Date: 1900

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The Machine and the Boss (1900)


THE political machine is sometimes made odious to good citizens, but it is never wholly bad in itself. It is a fixture in American politics, and while it may be broken and rebuilt, cleaned and reformed, it can not be eliminated. The men who rail loudest against it, as a rule, are ever ready to use it or its broken parts as stepping-stones to place and power, even to a boss-ship. Its reputation for evil is in every case due to party leaders who have used it for personal purposes and made of it an instrument to defeat the wishes of the people who created it. Contrary to popular belief, a party leader can not make a political machine. The party makes the machine, the machine makes the leader, and then the latter makes himself a boss. A leader of a party is never a boss, because leadership implies followers, and a boss does not lead: he drives, and the machine is his vehicle, the individual members of it his driven cattle.

The corrupt political machine of to-day, controlled by a boss, is contrary to the American system of government, and were it not a terrible reality its creation would be deemed an impossibility. It is, in its present state of perfection, rule of the people by the individual for the boss, his relatives, and friends. It is the most complete political despotism ever known, and yet the political machine on which the boss rises as dictator and despot is based on the fundamental principle of democracy—that system of government wherein all men are supposed to be equal and every voter a sovereign. It is the multiplicity of voting sovereigns that makes the machine a necessity for concerted political action; and when sovereignty has been centralized by organization, the great majority of our constitutional rulers go about their private affairs, careless of their rights and powers until their personal or property interests are affected by the ukase of a party boss. For a century the division of the voters into political parties has been a part of our system of being governed by the man who runs the machine of the party in office. This division has been carried up or down, according to the point of view, from national politics to the election of township constables. When the sovereigns are divided on party lines the work of partisan organization is made easy, and the majority need not think or act for themselves; they can leave all such details to the committees. The building of the political machine begins whenever a question of policy seems to demand united party action. The frame is laid in the party caucus or mass meeting, where every voter may be heard. There the necessity for organization is made apparent, and a committee is created. That is the work of the voters of a party in a particular locality, and the first committee is the creation of a majority. So far the plan of procedure is perfect. It is essentially democratic—majority rule. But the committee is too large, and a subcommittee is detailed to carry on the work of the organization. From a subcommittee the task passes to individuals—one, two, or three—and behold, in a day a political machine stands complete, awaiting the guiding hand of a boss!

The committee of the township, county, town, or city mass meetings develops into a small machine, which for a time does its work so welt that the people are pleased. When the time comes for holding another mass meeting the voters do not turn out. They are busy with their own affairs, and their confidence in the committee is unshaken. Then the machine grows stronger, and the leader of the first meeting is the boss of the second, dictating nominations and dividing patronage. The smaller committees are represented in the State or city organization, and along the same lines a larger machine is built. It is merely the local and political interests and ambitions merged into one harmonious whole—the machine finished and ready for business.

The party organization created in this way is not wrong in itself, and has no power to move contrary to the wishes of its creators. It is the mechanism of a party ready for work; but there must be a guiding hand, a directing force provided by the voters as a whole or by a boss. It Is only when the rank and file of the party cease to take an active interest in the machine they have created that it ceases to obey their wishes and becomes the tool of the despot. To maintain the organization necessary to keep a political party alive and get out a full vote a large amount of routine work must be done by some one. Men of business have no taste for this labor, and are glad to leave it to those who have no other occupation. When a man takes up politics as a profession usually he expects to make money out of it, and to make money he must get into office himself or put his friends there. It is perfectly natural that the professional politician should become unscrupulous as to means to accomplish his end.

When civic pride and public spirit are withdrawn from the party organization, the modern political machine remains. It stands before the public disguised as a committee; but every member is there for business, and his first thought is to get all he can out of the party before he is succeeded by some one more unscrupulous. In the scramble for spoils that follows the boss is developed. He is a man with enough force of character to bend the other members of the organization to his will and make the machine a weapon of offense and defense. Once a boss is firmly established in his place his first thought is to take care of the machine, to keep it in good working order, for without it he can not longer retain power.

Bird S. Coler, (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1900), 189–194.

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Chicago: Bird Sim Coler, Municipal Government in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 7, 2022,

MLA: Coler, Bird Sim. Municipal Government, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 7 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Coler, BS, Municipal Government. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 7 July 2022, from