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Political boss

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1869 tobacco label featuring Boss Tweed

In politics, a boss is a person who controls a faction or local branch of a political party. They do not necessarily hold public office themselves; most historical bosses did not, at least during the times of their greatest influence. Numerous officeholders in that unit are subordinate to the single boss in party affairs. Bosses may base their power on the support of numerous voters, usually organized voting blocs, and manage a coalition of these blocs and various other stakeholders. When the party wins, they typically control appointments in their unit, and have a voice at the higher levels.

Reformers typically allege that political bosses are corrupt. This corruption is usually tied to patronage: the exchange of jobs, lucrative contracts and other political favors for votes, campaign contributions and sometimes outright bribes.


The appearance of bosses has been common since the Roman Republic and remains fairly common today. In Spanish America, Brazil, Spain, and Portugal political bosses called caciques hold power in many places,[1] while in Italy they are often referred to as ras.[2] Bosses were a major part of the political landscape during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, such as the political machine of Tammany Hall, which controlled financing of campaigns and influence via owing of favors to arrange patronage public appointments.

In the Southern United States, charismatic populist politicians like Huey Long commanded large networks of supporters. Similar practices existed in the northern cities, particularly New York City, where Boss Tweed (arguably the most infamous political boss) wielded control over the powerful Democratic political machine. In Denver, Colorado, during the 1890s Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith operated as the Republican party boss and political fixer.

Charles Brayton exercised great influence over the politics of turn of the 20th century Rhode Island.[3] He exemplified rural bossism within the Republican Party. Chicago had numerous colorful bosses, such as Democrats Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John.[4] Chicago's Republican counterparts included Big Bill Thompson, who became mayor in the 1920s.[5] One of Chicago's most iconic figures was longtime mayor and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee Richard J. Daley,[6] who had a major voice in state and national Democratic politics. With a few exceptions in the Southwest, such as Phoenix, most large cities of 100,000 or more in the early 20th century had machine organizations, and usually claimed one or more local bosses, most of whom were Democrats. Some had a major impact and hold on state politics, such as E. H. Crump in Memphis, Tennessee.[7] A few bosses had reputations as reformers, such as Frank Hague of Jersey City.[8]

Political bosses exist today. Politico in 2019 described insurance executive George Norcross as New Jersey's "most powerful unelected official", with "nearly uncontested control of South Jersey's Democratic machine".[9] An October 2020 article in The Bulwark argued that Donald Trump's appeal to white working-class voters in the 2016 United States presidential election was driven by the same kind of paternalistic and localist mentality that was exploited by the Democratic political bosses of the early 20th century.[10] An April 2022 New York Times article portrayed him as a modern party boss during his post-presidency.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Boss Jim W. Gettys, portrayed by Ray Collins, is a secondary character in Citizen Kane and Charles Foster Kane's political rival for the post of Governor of New York.

The television series The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–1985) featured a character named Boss Hogg, played by Sorrell Booke.

Boss Tweed was portrayed by Philip Bosco in the 1986 TV movie Liberty, and by Jim Broadbent as a major supporting character in the 2002 film Gangs of New York.[12] Tweed is portrayed as a defender of the rights of minorities and helper of those in need in Pete Hamill's 2003 novel Forever.

The HBO television series Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014) focuses on Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (based on the historical Enoch L. Johnson), a fictional Republican Party boss and gangster who controls Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition period (1920–1933).

Notable individuals[edit]

In the United States[edit]

In the United Kingdom[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Kern, The caciques: oligarchical politics and the system of caciquismo in the Luso-Hispanic world. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press [1973]
  2. ^ I ras del voto "personale" che ondeggiano tra gli schieramenti
  3. ^ John D. Buenker, "The Politics of Resistance: The Rural-Based Yankee Republican Machines of Connecticut and Rhode Island". New England Quarterly (1974): 212–237.
  4. ^ Lloyd Wendt, and Herman Kogan, Lords of the Levee: The story of Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink (1944).
  5. ^ Douglas Bukowski, Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the politics of image (1998).
  6. ^ Mike Royko, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971)
  7. ^ G. Wayne Dowdy, Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2006)
  8. ^ Mark S. Foster, "Frank Hague of Jersey City: 'The boss' as reformer." New Jersey History 86#2 (1968): 106–117.
  9. ^ Hutchins, Ryan (2019-05-21). "Governor's feud with party boss rocks New Jersey politics". Politico. Retrieved 2023-03-04.
  10. ^ Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields, The Other Democratic Party, The Bulwark, October 4, 2020
  11. ^ Goldmacher, Shane (April 17, 2022). "Mar-a-Lago Machine: Trump as a Modern-Day Party Boss". The New York Times.
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (2002-12-20). "Gangs of New York". suntimes.com. Archived from the original on 2013-03-23. Retrieved 2009-05-17.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allswang, John M. Bosses, machines, and urban voters (JHU Press, 2019) online.
  • Banfield, Edward C. and J. Q. Wilson, City Politics (1963, repr. 1966)
  • Colburn, David R., and George E. Pozzetta. "Bosses and machines: Changing interpretations in American history." History Teacher 9.3 (1976): 445–463. online
  • Connolly, James J. An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America (Cornell UP, 2010),
  • Cornwell Jr, Elmer E. "Bosses, machines, and ethnic groups." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 353.1 (1964): 27–39. online
  • Dorsett, Lyle W. "Kansas City Politics: A Study of Boss Pendergast's Machine." Arizona and the West 8.2 (1966): 107-118. online
  • Foster, Mark S. "Frank Hague of Jersey City: 'The boss' as reformer." New Jersey History 86#2 (1968): 106–117.
  • Gosnell, Harold F. Machine Politics (1937, repr. 1968), on Chicago
  • Lessoff, Alan, and James J. Connolly. "From political insult to political theory: The boss, the machine, and the pluralist city." Journal of Policy History 25.2 (2013): 139–172. online
  • Luconi, Stefano. "The Machine Boss as a Symbolic Leader." Oral History Review 26.1 (1999): 45-66. online
  • McCaffery, Peter. When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867-1933 (Penn State Press, 2010) online.
  • Miller, Zane, and Scott Greer. "Bosses, machines, and the urban political process." in Ethnics, machines, and the American urban future (1981): 51-84.
  • Trounstine, Jessica. Political monopolies in American cities: The rise and fall of bosses and reformers (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • Walsh, James P. "Abe Ruef Was No Boss: Machine Politics, Reform, and San Francisco." California Historical Quarterly 51.1 (1972): 3-16. online
  • Yu, Wang. "“Boss” Robert La Follette and the Paradox of the US Progressive Movement." Journal of American History 108.4 (2022): 726-744. online