for Discussion: What are the major
problems facing American cities in the late
Reading: Plunkitt "Honest
Graft" (web); Steffens "The
Shame of the Cities" (web) ; The
Corruption of Urban
Video: Back to School
Political Corruption in
the Gilded Age
Progressive Writers uncover
Writings by Jacob Riis:
How the Other Half Lives
Writings by Jane Addams
Subjective Necessity for Social
2. Why Women
Buying Elections and Political
1. Urban Political Corruption
in the Gilded Age
2. Modern Political
3. Democracy and Political
Are special interests
Can democracy work without
Is political corruption
inevitable in our
modern industrial society?
4. Campaign Finance
1. What does George Plunkitt mean by "honest
2. What does Plunkitt mean by "dishonest
3. Do you accept Plunkitt's distinction between
and dishonest graft?
4. What are some of the major ways in which
made his fortune as a politician?
5. What does Plunkitt mean by he is a man
his opportunities and he took 'em"?
6. Why is Plunkitt so against Civil Service
7. What does Lincoln Steffens think is the
cause of urban political corruption?
8. Why is Steffens so worried about the role
businessmen in politics?
9. What would Steffens think of Plunkitt's
distinction between honest and dishonest graft?
10. What does Steffens believe is the cure
rampant and widespread political corruption
facing America in the late 1800s?
11. According to Hymowitz, why did women
become so involved in reform movements in the
12. What were some of the major reforms that
these women's groups fought for?
13. Why was urban poverty and women's and
children's welfare so important to women reformers
such as Jane Addams?
What were the major problems facing
American cities in the late 1800s? In his essay, "The Cancer
of Corruption," Ernest Griffith argues that the major problem
facing cities was political corruption and graft. While John Teaford
in his essay, "Trumpeted Failures and Unheralded Triumphs,"
argues that the major problems facing cities were rapid growth and
meeting the demands for city services such as water, sewage, housing,
recreation, and transportation. Faced with these growing demands,
Griffith argues that political corruption made city government "a
conspicuous failure" in the late 1800s. However, Teaford argues,
despite a little corruption and graft, cities were successful at
meeting the increasing demands for services caused by rapid growth.
So whose argument, Griffith's or Teaford's, should we accept?
The major difference between Griffith
and Teaford comes down to a disagreement about the nature of American
politics and the responsibility of government. Griffith believes
that politicians are responsible to represent and serve the interests
of all the people, not just their own supporters and special interests.
While Teaford believes that politicians compete with each other
in government to serve and promote their supporters and special
interests. Teaford believes that out of this political competition
between politicians and special interests comes compromises that
the government then is responsible to enforce. For Teaford, by supporting
a wide variety of competing special interests through compromise
and bargaining government serves the interests of the people. But
Griffith would challenge Teaford here, arguing that by supporting
special interests governments often hurt the larger interest of
the American people.
In order to further evaluate the debate
between Griffith and Teaford, let's first look at how Teaford describes
the workings of city government in the late 1800s. He argues that
there are three competing interests that city governments serve:
Big Business, ethnic neighborhoods and small businesses, and city
workers and civil servants. Teaford argues that the Mayor is often
elected and controlled by Big Business interests; the city councilmen,
or ward politicians, are dominated by ethnic neighborhoods and small
businesses; and civil servants are dominated by professional engineers
and experts. For Teaford, city government is the result of a ongoing
series of compromises between these three dominant interests. He
argues that the Mayor supports a strong civil service dominated
by professionals who are trained to do their job; whereas, the ward
politicians like Plunkitt want to place their supporters in these
city jobs, many of whom aren't qualified for these technical jobs.
As a result of this conflict between competing interests, the Mayor
is able to get some of the expert professionals placed in important
city jobs, while Plunkitt and other city councilmen are able to
get some of their supporters in other city jobs. As a result, all
sides are satisfied with this compromise between their opposing
Teaford argues that the parks, libraries,
roads, water and sewer systems, housing, and transportation systems
built and supported in these growing cities is testament to the
success of city government. Moreover, he argues, cities were able
to build all these new costly improvements without going bankrupt
or being unable to pay off their debts. Finally, Teaford argues
that all these new improvements were built and supported as a result
of compromise between these competing interests. Without these compromises,
without each interest getting some of what it wanted, these city
improvements would not have been built. Thus, where Griffith sees
political corruption and graft, Teaford sees success and improving
conditions in these growing industrial cities.
But in his description of city government
and politics, Teaford leaves out much of the corruption and graft
that Griffith focuses on. Let's see how Teaford's model of city
government and politics works if we put back in the corruption and
graft that often lay at the heart of what Teaford calls political
compromises. Ward politician and New York city councilmen, George
Plunkitt, offers a good inside perspective on how city government
Plunkitt argues that many of the ward
politicians and city councilmen he as worked with "have grown
rich in politics." He states: "I've made a big fortune
out of the game, and I'm getting richer every day." But Plunkitt
doesn't see anything wrong with politicians becoming rich while
in office. He claims that his wealth hasn't come from taking dishonest
graft: "blackmailing gamblers, saloon-keepers, disorderly people,
etc." He argues that he didn't need to get money this way,
because there were so many other opportunities for a politician
to become rich through what he calls "honest graft." For
Plunkitt, politics works by honest graft.
Plunkitt made this fortune this way.
He gets inside tips about where the city is going to expand, where
it is going to build parks, bridges, roads, etc. He then buys up
the land around where the city is going to expand. When the city
comes to buy the land it needs in order to expand, Plunkitt now
demands a high price for the land the city must have. As a result,
he has made tens of thousands of dollars from his real estate ventures.
But let's look a little closer at Plunkitt's
actions. Does a New York city councilmen really have the money required
to buy up vast tracts of city land in order to profit from the city
expansion? No, not likely. But this wouldn't stop a politician like
Plunkitt. He would go to Bankers or real estate brokers and ask
to borrow the money from them in return for a cut of the profits
when the city buys the land. But, more likely than not, Plunkitt
doesn't even need to put up his own money. He can go to wealthy
land brokers, and offer to tell them where the city will expand
and what land to buy in exchange for a cut of their profits. As
a result, Plunkitt and wealthy Bankers and real estate interests
profit from city expansion. But where do Plunkitt's profits come
from? Because the city has to pay a whole lot more for the land,
the increased cost comes out of the taxpayer's pocket. Plunkitt's
wealth is coming from some of the very people he is supposed to
be representing in city government. Is this right? Is Plunkitt serving
the interests of the public by becoming rich while in office? Teaford
would say that this is simply how city governments works, competing
interests take their cuts and profits.
Griffith gives countless examples of
corporations bribing city officials to get government contracts.
One train company paid each of the New York city councilmen $25,000
to be awarded the city contract to run trains. What are the results
of corporations and business interests paying off or helping politicians
like Plunkitt become wealthy in office? The larger result is higher
prices to the public for city services and lower quality services.
If these companies don't have to compete in a free and open market,
they don't have to provide the best service at the lowest price.
These costs are then passed on to the people in the city. But Teaford
would say that this is just the result of competing interests in
city politics. He would have to conclude that New York city got
a new train system as a result of this corrupt deal, and the citizens
should be happy.
Griffith also notes all the examples
of corruption in the civil service and in city jobs. Politicians
like Plunkitt don't like civil service laws; they want to place
their supporters in these jobs after they are successfully elected.
Plunkitt believes that this is simply how politics works. But let's
look at the result of this system. First of all, many urban politicians
were able to successfully get around the civil service laws. They
would only tell their supporters when and where the exams would
be held, give them the answers to the exams, and leniently grade
the exams of their supporters. The result is that many people were
given jobs in the water, sewer, fire, police, and housing inspection
departments who weren't qualified to do these jobs. Teaford would
say that this is just the product of compromises between competing
interests, and this is just the way city government works. But Griffith
would argue that hiring city workers who aren't qualified for their
jobs threatens the public's health and safety, and costs the city
a lot of money as a result of the sloppy job these unqualified workers
would do. Griffith concludes that the general public in these cities
doesn't deserve to be cheated out of high-quality city services
by corrupt politicians and incompetent city workers.
If all this corruption, graft, and
bribery is going on in these industrial cities, why don't the local
newspapers cover these stories. By revealing this corruption and
the real costs is imposes on the city, newspapers could help the
general public put a stop to this. But newspapers are all too often
owned by Big Business and special interests. In addition, these
newspapers depend on advertising from Big Business and city government.
If they covered these stores, they could lose this valuable advertising
revenue. In addition, city governments would often threaten to increase
the property taxes of newspapers who too critically covered their
actions. As a result of this pressure, the newspapers didn't cover
these stories and protect the larger public interest.
In the final analysis, the difference
between Griffith and Teaford come down to their expectations of
government and politicians. Griffith would argue that Teaford's
model of good city government hurts the general public through higher
taxes, poorer city services, and dangerous conditions that are the
direct result of this corruption. But Teaford would argue that despite
this corruption and its costs, city governments in the late 1800s
managed to provide their citizens more and higher quality services
than any other cities in the world. Teaford would conclude this
is the result of compromises between competing interests. But Griffith
would argue that these competing special interests profit and their
political hacks profit at the expense of the general public and
the health and well-being of the city. Griffith believes that by
rooting out the corruption in government, and demanding that politicians
serve and protect the general interest of the public, that city
governments can better serve the public. But can we expect politicians
and city governments to work this way? Should we expect them too?
Can the public and the cities, states, and the nation afford politics
and governments as compromises between competing interests, with
all the corruption and graft that goes along with it? These are
questions that Americans are still struggling with to this day.