Matthew S. Quay

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Matthew S. “Matt” Quay
Matthew S. Quay LOC picture.png
Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania
From: January 16, 1901 – May 28, 1904
Predecessor (vacant)
Successor Philander Knox
Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania
From: March 4, 1887 – March 3, 1899
Predecessor John I. Mitchell
Successor (vacant)
Former Chair of the Republican
National Committee

From: July 12, 1888 – July 19, 1891
Predecessor Benjamin Jones
Successor James Clarkson
Former Treasurer of Pennsylvania
From: 1886–1887
Predecessor William Livsey
Successor William Livsey
Former Secretary of the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

From: 1879–1882
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Former Secretary of the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

From: 1872–1878
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Former State Representative
from Pennsylvania

From: 1865–1867
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Party Republican
Spouse(s) Agnes Barclay
Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Union Army
Service Years 1861–1864
Rank Colonel
Unit 134th Pennsylvania Infantry
Battles/wars American Civil War
• Battle of Fredericksburg
Awards Congressional Medal of Honor

Matthew Stanley Quay (September 30, 1833 – May 28, 1904), also known as Matt Quay,[1] was a Pennsylvania Republican who ran a powerful political machine in the post-Reconstruction Gilded Age era. Succeeding J. Donald Cameron in the prominent position, he was later elected to the United States Senate, serving until his death in office in 1904.

A crafty, shrewd and tactical politician, Quay was known to have expertly handled machine politics behind the scenes in contrast to his predecessor Don Cameron, who proved unable to maintain sufficient party unity.[2]


Quay was born in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania on September 30, 1833. The son of a poor Presbyterian minister,[3] he attended Beaver and Indiana Academies, later enrolling in Jefferson College, graduating in 1850. After a period time where he taught and studied law, Quay was admitted to the state bar in 1854, proceeding to commence practice.

In the Civil War, Quay served as a Colonel in the 134th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers.[3] Even after contracting typhoid fever, he insisted on remaining with his command. Quay also became a private secretary to Governor Andrew G. Curtin, who was impressed with his organizational skills.[3] Quay's reported "fine work" made him popular among the state's soldiers.

Political career

Right before the Civil War broke out, Quay had been elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Beaver County.[4] During Quay's tenure in the state legislature following the war when elected in 1865,[5] a power shift caught him off guard as the decline of Governor Curtin's power prevented him from being House Speaker of the lower body.[6] Simon Cameron, who had been Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln, regained power in Pennsylvania and was elected to the Senate by the legislature that year.[7]

Although initially opposing the political machine of Simon Cameron, Quay allied with the Republican boss in the post-war era and became Secretary to the Commonwealth from 1872 to 1878 in addition to a period from 1879 to 1882.[3]

In the 1880 presidential election, Quay did not enthusiastically support Ulysses S. Grant (who the Camerons had eagerly backed as Stalwarts) for a non-consecutive, third presidential term though proved to be adaptive, writing to a correspondent:[8]

I am not a Grant man but recognize the popular sentiment and the necessities of the times.

—Quay to an unknown correspondent, 1879

In 1882, mistakes by Quay cost the state GOP a gubernatorial race. During the railroad strike five years previously, Quay had pressured the Republican governor to pardon legislators involved in bribes.[3] The corruption subsequently alienated pro-civil service reform Liberal Republicans, referred to by the machine as "Half-Breeds,"[9] who voted for John Stewart in the 1882 gubernatorial race; the contributing vote-split enabled a rare Democrat victory by Robert Pattison, who would fight the Cameron-Quay machine.[3]

Ascendancy to machine boss role, U.S. Senate seat

Stalwart Republicans



Other members:

Related topics:

Amidst discord among the Pennsylvania GOP, Quay developed a shrewd strategy to prevent another party demise. He raided the state treasury, exerting sharp control over the office and dispensed patronage in the forms of loans to political allies.[10] Quay would state on the matter:

I don't mind losing the governorship or a legislature nowand then, but I always need the state treasuryship.


Quay raids the treasury and executes a developed strategy

Although such actions were considered robbery, treasury-raiding was prevalent during the era due to treasurers often being selected by state legislatures.[10] However, growing demands for civil service reform in the 1880s would eventually lead to elections of state treasurers by popular vote. Quay's strategy emphasized three principles:[11]

  1. Ensuring his own victory of the Treasurer election.
  2. Electing Beaver Governor of Pennsylvania.
  3. Getting himself elected U.S. senator from Pennsylvania by the legislature.

In Quay's view, securing a Republican victory in the state treasurer election of 1885 would bolster party efforts in the 1886 midterms, which, if successful, could coalesce a solid party base that sweeps him to victory in 1887.[11] He began in 1885 by meeting with newspapers and independent voters who had opposed the main GOP candidate in the 1882 gubernatorial election, successfully ensuring in most circumstances that they would be supportive or would only voice minimal opposition. The New York Times commented:[11]

. . . Quay had managed during his political life to do a favor for some strong political worker in each district in the State....

The New York Times, 1885

Following the 1885 victories came spring of 1886, where Quay worked to elect Beaver. Aside advising Beaver to emphasize the protective tariff in speeches, Quay admonished him to remain quiet and stay behind the scenes, asserting:[11]

Your policy is to stand aside and allow the procession to pass until this convention is safely in hand and then only to interfere in case a disaster is imminent.

—Quay to Beaver, 1886

J. Donald "Don" Cameron, who Quay replaced as machine boss.

At the GOP convention held in July that year, Beaver clinched the nomination and would proceed to emerge victorious in the general election.[12] Pennsylvania Republicans thus returned to power in the state government, and Quay would be rewarded the following year.

U.S. Senate

In the 1886–87 midterm elections, Quay ran for and won election to the U.S. Senate,[13] his victory ensured by grateful Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature.[12] He soon became the leader of the powerful Pennsylvania political machine, replacing the relatively weak leader Donald "Don" Cameron.[3] A newspaper favorable towards the Democratic Party commented:[14]

He is neither orator nor a debator, but a man of good practical sense, an excellent judge of human nature, and is always loyal and true in his friendships.

—Democratic Party-aligned newspaper, 1887

"Practical" referred to a tendency to use "whatever means necessary" in order to be elected and maintain power.[14] "Loyal" meant granting patronage to political allies and followers.

In the Senate, Quay, who had American Indian heritage,[15] notably emerged as a defender of Indian tribes and opposed excluding the Chinese from immigrating to the United States.[5] He voted for higher protective tariffs and bills friendly to business interests, though on other issues maintained an independent streak.[15]

Despite having long advocated for blacks, Quay did little to help pass the Lodge Federal Elections Bill of 1890 (introduced by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr.) in the Senate and, along with Pennsylvania senatorial colleague Don Cameron, instead emphasized the issue of protective tariffs.[15]

1888 elections

During the 1888 presidential election, Quay was selected by party leadership to serve as the campaign chairman.[3] New York, run statewide by GOP machine boss Thomas C. "Tom" Platt though controlled in New York City by Democrats, was viewed as a crucial state to target. Due to the fact that New York voted for Bourbon Democrat Grover Cleveland in the previous presidential election cycle, Quay established national headquarters for the GOP campaign in New York City.[12]

On election day, poll watchers were sent by Quay to New York City to inspect Democrat election fraud, ironically concurrent with election fraud also taking place unchecked in Pennsylvania cities controlled by the senator's machine.[15] Quay also started a fund that paid for information leading up to voter fraud convictions, and compiled lists of residents used to determine if voters were "imported" from other states.[12] Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison ultimately won the election, defeating Cleveland.

In the concurrent congressional elections of 1888, Quay ensured a Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. He funded Republican campaigns in swing Southern districts, where detectives were also sent to safeguard the voting rights of blacks and white Republicans from Democratic Party violence.[3]

1890 elections

In the 1890 midterms, Quay proved unable to adapt to the "political winds" of the Pennsylvania GOP leadership and the voter base.[14] There were theoretically at least 14,000 job posts he could have overseen, though likely would have been unable to single-handedly manage all of them. Although Quay knew the importance of putting party unity over personal priorities, he did not follow this principle in 1890 and faced disastrous consequences.[14]

Amidst criticisms by the media of Quay's handling of the treasury, the senator attempted to ram through his personal choice for governor, who lost due to national pressure and pushback from cities in the state.[14] According to A Practical Politician: The Boss Tactics of Matthew Stanley Quay:

Quay needed to control key components in a state. What he could not manage, he would set against each other so they would not unite against him.

—Blair, p. 83

Quay maintains GOP patronage through loopholes

In 1895, Quay publicly advertised himself as an advocate of reform to bar the "enslavement" of public offices, denouncing "municipal thieves," stated the importance of using public office only for benefiting the public, and opposed influence by public employees in determining their own salaries.[8]

Quay then pushed for four pieces of legislation that would supposedly end such practices, though the bills intentionally left loopholes that let corruption persist.[8]

1899–1901 vacancy

In 1899, the Pennsylvania legislature refused to re-elect Quay[5] due to his misappropriation of state funds the previous year.[15] The governor subsequently appointed him to the same post, only for the U.S. Senate refusing to seat Quay by a narrow one-vote margin, with Ohio Republican Mark Hanna pairing against.[15] It took until two years later for Quay to return to his Senate seat,[5] elected in a 1901 special election to the same post.[16]

By the time Quay returned to the Senate, he lost control of the Pennsylvania GOP machine, which at this point was led by Boies Penrose.[15]

Death and legacy

While in office, Quay died in 1904. Some press outlets gave a negative coverage, though a journalist in Philadelphia recognized him as a:[17]

. . . friend and foe bowed regretfully over the grave of Pennsylvania's ablest and most chivalrous political gladiator.

—Unnamed Pennsylvania journalist


  1. Koenig, Louis W. Benjamin Harrison. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  2. Blair, William Alan. A Practical Politician: The Boss Tactics of Matthew Stanley Quay. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Matthew S. Quay Historical Marker. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  4. A Practical Politician, p. 77.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Matthew Stanley Quay. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  6. A Practical Politician, p. 78.
  7. PA US Senate Race - Jan 15, 1867. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 A Practical Politician, p. 84.
  9. J. Donald Cameron Historical Marker. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 A Practical Politician, p. 80.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 A Practical Politician, p. 86.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 A Practical Politician, p. 87.
  13. PA US Senate Race - Jan 18, 1887. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 A Practical Politician, p. 82–83.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 August 11, 2019. Matthew Quay: The Political Boss Who Made Two Presidents! Mad Politics: The Bizarre, Fascinating, and Unknown of American Political History. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  16. PA US Senate - Special Election Race - Jan 15, 1901. Our Campaigns. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  17. A Practical Politician, p. 89.

External links

  • Profile at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Profile at Find a Grave