Memorandum Regarding Relations with Pendergast Machine

Harry S. Truman

January 10, 1952

There has been much speculation about my relationship politically with T. J. Pendergast (Tom). He became a powerful political boss in Missouri after 1926. His career ended in the early 1940’s.

I joined a new National Guard Battery of Light Field Artillery on June 14, 1905. It was Battery B, 1st Battalion Missouri Field Artillery.

When World War I came on April 6, 1917–that was the date the United States declared war on the Central Powers–Battery B in Kansas City and Battery C in Independence were expanded into a regiment of six batteries and Headquarters and Supply Companies. This regiment became the 129th F.A. 35th Division. It was trained at Camp Doniphan, Ft. Sill, Okla.

In Battery B at Camp Doniphan was a young man by the name of James M. Pendergast, son of Michael J. Pendergast, older brother of T. J. Pendergast.

I became very well acquainted with young Jim during the war and when I came back I married and established my residence at Independence.

In 1922, it became necessary to elect an Eastern Judge for the County Court, an administrative body similar to County Commissioners in other States.

Along in July or August 1921 Jim Pendergast brought his father M.J. to see me at the little store Eddie Jacobson and I were operating on West 12th Street in Kansas City.

Mike Pendergast was head of the “goat” organization in the old 10th Ward of Kansas City and was recognized in the country part of Jackson County as the head of the Pendergast organization outside Kansas City.

M.J. asked me if I would consider the nomination to the County Court from the Eastern District. I told him I would. I had been road overseer in Washington Township where the family farm is located and Postmaster of Grandview before World War I came along.

Well, to make it short I filed for Eastern Judge at the proper time in 1922. There were four other candidates.

A banker at Blue Springs, Lyman Emmett Montgomery, a fine man, was endorsed by the “rabbits,” another Democratic faction in the City and County headed by Joseph B. Shannon, afterward Congressman from the 5th Mo. District for a long time. A road building contractor by the name of George Shaw was another candidate. He had no factional backing. Tom Parent, a road overseer at Oak Grove, had the backing of Miles Bulger, Presiding Judge of the County Court, and a number of road over-seers. James Compton, an Independence real estate man, was the fifth candidate.

I made a house to house canvass, went to every political meeting and won the nomination. Even the “goat” organization didn’t think I could do it. When it came time for reelection in 1924 the “rabbits” bolted the ticket because of differences over patronage and I was defeated by a nice old Republican harness maker in Independence, who afterwards became locally famous for that feat.

I went to work after my defeat but kept up my political contacts. In 1926 the factions patched up their difference. In the spring Kansas City adopted a new city manager style charter and the Democrats elected five of the nine councilmen and appointed Henry McElroy City Manager. He had been my colleague on the County Court from the Western District which was Kansas City.

I was nominated and elected Presiding Judge of the County Court in the fall election and took office Jan. 1, 1927.

Then I had my first contacts with T. J. Pendergast and Joseph B. Shannon. They were interested in county patronage and also in county purchases. The Court appointed the purchasing agent, a county welfare officer, a county auditor, heads of homes, approved the budgets of elected officials of the county, such as Treasurer, County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, County Collector, County Assessor, County Highway Engineer. The Court also appointed road overseers and various other officials. There were about nine hundred patronage jobs and they could be the foundation of a political organization.

T. J. Pendergast was interested in having as many friends in key positions as possible but he always took the position that if a man didn’t do the job he was supposed to do, fire him and get someone who would. I always followed that policy and I never had a cross word with him. T.J.P.

In 1928 the “city” decided to ask for an election to authorize a bond issue for traffic ways, an auditorium, a city hall, a sewer system and several other things including a water plant and the purchase of a bridge across the Missouri River.

I decided to ask for a County bond issue, at the same time for a road system, two new Court Houses, and a County hospital. Pendergast told me that a County bond issue would not carry. I told him that if I told the voters how I would handle it that it would carry.

I went to the people and told them that I would appoint a bi-partisan board of engineers to oversee the road construction and that I would employ the two best known firms of architects in town to handle the building program, with a consulting architect from out of the State.

The county bond issue carried by a three fourths majority instead of the required two thirds. I appointed the engineers and the local architects. Then I took my private car–not a county one–and drove to Shreveport, Denver, Houston, Racine, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Lincoln, Baton Rouge and several other places and looked at the new public buildings, met the architects and contractors, inspected the buildings and finally decided to employ the architect of the Court House at Shreveport as consulting architect for our county buildings.

When the Court was ready to let the first road contracts Mr. Pendergast called me and told me that he was in trouble with the local road contractors and would I meet and talk with them. I told him I would. I met them with T.J.P. present. They gave me the old song and dance about being local citizens and taxpayers and that they should have an inside track to the construction contracts.

I told them that the contracts would be let to the lowest bidders wherever they came from and that the specifications would be adhered to strictly. T.J. turned to his friends and said “I told you that he’s the contrariest man in the County. Get out of here.” When they were gone he said to me “You carry out your commitments to the voters.” I did just that. But there was a three man Court and the two bosses, Pendergast and Shannon, could have ruined me if they’d wanted to. Tom Pendergast was a man of his word and he kept it with me. My handling of the County business became an asset to the Democratic Organization.

After 8 years as Presiding Judge I left the County with a road system equal to any in the country, refinanced its floating debt and a set of public buildings that the people could be proud of.

I was elected to the Senate in 1934 over severe opposition in the primary.

Two distinguished Congressmen ran against me. [The] Hon. John Cochran of St. Louis, the Post Dispatch candidate, and the Hon. Jacob L. Milligan of Richmond, Mo., the Kansas City Star and Bennett Clark candidate.

 

By going into sixty of Missouri’s 114 counties I won the nomination by a plurality of over 40,000 votes and was easily victorious in the general election on a support Roosevelt platform–which I did when I arrived in Washington.

T. J. Pendergast never talked to me about my duties as County Judge except in matters of patronage but the one time on the bond issue contracts and then he supported me. He only talked to me once about my work in the Senate and that was when Senator Alben Barkley was running for floor leader. Jim Farley called Mr. Pendergast and asked him to call me and “tell” me to support Barkley. Well he called me from Colorado Springs and I told him that I was pledged to Pat Harrison of Mississippi because Pat had asked me to vote for him and that Pat had made some speeches for me in the Missouri campaign, that I’d stand by Senator Harrison. T.J. said “I told Jim that if you were committed you’d stand by your commitment, because you are a contrary Missourian.” I voted for Pat and told Barkley in advance that I would. When Barkley was elected I supported him loyally.

 

On no other occasion did T. J. Pendergast ever talk to me about my actions in the Senate. He was an able clear thinker and understood political situations and how to handle them better than any man I have ever known. His word was better than the contracts of most men and he never forgot his verbal commitments. His physical breakdown in 1936 caused all his trouble.

I never deserted him when he needed friends. Many for whom he’d done much more than he ever did for me ran out on him when the going was rough. I didn’t do that–and I am President of the United States in my own right!

Because Pendergast was persecuted over his financial difficulties and was convicted of income tax fraud and went to federal prison at Leavenworth, he has been used by people opposed to me in an effort to discredit me. The opposition people whether in the Democratic Party in 1940 or in the sabotage press or the lying columnists or the poor old wrecked Republican Party and its present day character assassination methods have never been able to hurt me politically by slander and abuse. They never will.

After I was through in the County at home several Grand Juries both State and Federal went over my career as a County Judge with a fine tooth comb, and they could only give me a clean bill of health. That’s the answer.

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