Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

FAQ: How was Pendergast associated with the career of Truman?

Mr. Trumanís first run for public office was for the position of Eastern District Judge of Jackson County in 1922. In the Democratic primary, he was backed by Tom Pendergastís "goat" faction, and thereafter won election to that office. However, he lost a reelection bid in 1924, because of a split between the two Democratic factions (Pendergastís "goats" and Joe Shannonís "rabbits") regarding job patronage. With Pendergastís support again in 1926, Truman was elected Presiding Judge of Jackson County, a position he held until 1934. In 1934, Truman asked Pendergast to support him for the position of Missouri State Treasurer, but he found that Pendergast was already pledged to support another candidate. Pendergast suggested to Truman that he run for United States Senate, and provided the backing of his Kansas City machine in Trumanís 1934 successful primary and general election races.

According to noted Truman historian, Robert H. Ferrell,

"Harry S. Truman, one surely must say, enjoyed an honorable relationship with the Democratic boss of Kansas City, Thomas J. Pendergast, during the years when he was a county official in Missouri, down to the time in 1939 when as a U.S. senator he saw the boss sent to Leavenworth for income tax evasion. In Jackson County and in faraway Washington he cooperated on patronage issues with Boss Tom, but did not involve himself in the illegalities and especially the financial dealings that put Pendergast in prison and destroyed the Kansas City machine. Indeed he did not know about most of them.

It is a tangled story, Truman and Pendergast. In its first phase it involved an armís length relationship that Trumanís later political opponents chose to ignore. The subtleties of Jackson County politics, the distinction in government between the county, which Truman ran, and the city wherein Pendergast conducted political and other business, did not fit the point they wished to make."

Truman & Pendergast, 1999, Introduction, at pages 1-2.

a. Did Truman rely on Tom Pendergast after he went to the Senate?

According to noted Truman historian, Robert H. Ferrell,

"In Trumanís first Senate term he was loyal to the machine, as he had reason to be, but Pendergast did not ask him for favors he should not have granted. Patronage, yes, but that was the stuff of politics in those years of bosses and machines and loyalty. When Truman voted on Senate issues he voted his own judgment, not that of Boss Tom.

Truman & Pendergast, 1999, Introduction, at page 2.

Also according to Ferrell, by the time of, "the primary of 1940, Truman was on his own, for Tom Pendergastís machine was in shambles." (Truman, 1984, p 99).

b. How much influence did Tom Pendergast use to help President Truman get to the White House?

By 1944, Pendergast was in no position to help anyone politically. He had been convicted of income tax evasion in 1939, served 15 months in prison, and was still subject to a 5-year probation. However, the bosses of other big cities, supported by the labor vote, would throw their support behind Truman as a vice presidential candidate.

c. Did Pendergast influence any of Trumanís presidential decisions?

Pendergast died on January 26, 1945, just after Trumanís inauguration as Vice President of the United States; consequently he was not alive, when Truman ascended to the presidency in April, 1945.