Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion:
What are the major problems facing American cities in the late 1800s?

Reading: Plunkitt "Honest Graft"; Steffens "The Shame of the Cities";
Griffith, "The Corruption of Urban Politics"
; VOA, "Corruption in America
Politics has Long History"

Video: YouTube: Back to School Scene;
Rodney Dangerfield goes to Economics Class
Rodney Dangerfield's First Economics Class

Daily Class Web Links

Political Corruption in the Gilded Age

Progressive Writers uncover Urban Corruption

Writings by Jacob Riis:

1. How the Other Half Lives

Writings by Jane Addams

1. The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements

2. Why Women Should Vote

Buying Elections and Political Corruption

Daily Class Outline

1. The Growth of Industrial Cities in the late 1800s

2. Urban Political Corruption in the Gilded Age

  • Politics in the Gilded Age:

    Both political parties used machines to mobilize voters and manipulate the system. Shady tactics were openly pursued, and the charge to “vote early and often” started in this era, when political operatives sent their minions all over the cities voting in as many precincts as they could manage. In Philadelphia one ward politician boasted that, “One hundred years ago our forefathers voted for liberty in this city, and they vote here still!” The names of the signers of the Great Declaration had been placed on the voter rolls. One curious journalist noticed that a large number of voters listed the same address as their residence, and upon checking, the journalist discovered that the location was that of a house of ill repute.

    Political leaders did not seem particularly embarrassed by the open corruption. Republican Stalwart and machine leader Roscoe Conkling of New York stated: “Parties are not built by deportment, or ladies' magazines, or gush!” To Benjamin Harrison's claim that Providence had helped him get elected, Pennsylvania Senator Matthew Quay responded, “Providence didn't have a damn thing to do with it!” (Harrison later discovered that his support had been bought by the machine: “I could not name my own cabinet. They had sold out every position in the cabinet to pay the expenses.”)

  • Political Machines dominate Urban Politics in the late 1800s

  • Tammany Hall - Political Machine Known as Tammany Hall

  • Nast Cartoon: "The Brains of Tammany Hall"

  • Nast Cartoon: "Who Stole the People's Money"

  • Plunkitt of Tammany Hall

  • Plunkitt "Honest Graft"

  • Plunkitt: On Money in Politics:

  • Plunkitt on Politics as a Business:

    "The fact is that a reformer can't last in politics," he said. "He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business. You've got to be trained up to it, or you're sure to fail.

  • What is Boodle?

  • Organized crime - Wikipedia

  • American Mafia - Wikipedia,

  • Steffens "The Shame of the Cities"

  • Plunkitt On the Shame of the Cities

    I've been readin' a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities. Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don't know how to make distinctions. He can't see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There's the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin' their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin' his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization's interests, and the city's interests all at the same time. See the distinction? For instance, I ain't no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my pile in politics, but, at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin' man. And I never monkeyed with the penal code.

  • Griffith, The Corruption of Urban Politics

  • The Spoils System:

    When a political party comes to power, its leaders tend to place many of their faithful followers into important public offices. The use of public offices as rewards for political party work is known as the "Spoils System." The system is popular in numerous nations.

    Many consider this practice warranted when capable persons are appointed to high places where policy is made. They hold that the party in power must craft policy to meet its constituents' needs. On the other hand, it is unwarranted when political leaders dismiss able persons from positions that do not make policy. They do this to haul aboard others whose merit consists merely of party loyalty, thus compromising governmental effectiveness.

  • U.S. Civil Service Reform - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  • Civil Service Reform - Digital History

  • A Heck of a Job, Brownie

  • Corruption in American politics has long history

    If they are benefiting personally from bribes, extortions and campaign finance contributions, then they essentially have a conflict of interest,” Redfield says. “The question is: are they trying to pursue the public interest to do what’s best in terms of their office… or are they shaping policy in ways that guarantee they get the most money?

    “So this distorts public policy. And if citizens ultimately believe that everything is for sale and it’s corrupt, then they have no reason to support the political system.

  • Why is Chicago so corrupt? - By Daniel Engber - Slate Magazine:

    Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan received a sentence of six and a half years in prison on Wednesday, after being convicted on charges of racketeering, mail fraud, filing false tax returns, and lying to investigators. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that in the last three decades, at least 79 local elected officials have been convicted of a crime, including three governors, one mayor, and a whopping 27 aldermen from the Windy City. What makes Chicago so corrupt?

  • Why Is Illinois So Corrupt? - Chicago magazine - December 2010:

    Money seems to be at the root of almost every public corruption scandal that bursts into the news. And despite some minor tweaks to campaign finance and ethics laws, Illinois remains a place where campaign contributions can serve as legal graft and politicians still operate brazenly under troubling conflicts of interest....

    Over the years, Illinois voters have shown themselves to be a tolerant lot, viewing corruption as the grease that helps get things done. “It’s worked well enough for most of the people,” says Cindi Canary. “It’s been seen as the price you pay for relatively efficient government.”

    Indeed, some people treat the crookedness of local politics as a badge of honor—a perverse form of Chicago (or Illinois) exceptionalism. “In a masochistic sort of way, we’re proud of it,” says Adlai Stevenson III.

2.  Modern Political Corruption

  • The Alienated American Voter Are the news media to blame?

  • What Tammany Hall Can Tell Us About Sacramento:

  • Reich, America is becoming a Plutocracy:

    Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into advertisements for and against candidates -- without a trace of where the dollars are coming from. They’re laundered through a handful of groups. Fred Maleck, whom you may remember as deputy director of Richard Nixon’s notorious Committee to Reelect the President (dubbed Creep in the Watergate scandal), is running one of them. Republican operative Karl Rove runs another. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a third.

    We’re back to the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators. The public never knew who was bribing whom.

    Just before it recessed the House passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be publicly disclosed. But it couldn’t get through the Senate. Every Republican voted against it. (To see how far the GOP has come, nearly 10 years ago campaign disclosure was supported by 48 of 54 Republican senators.)

  • Republicans don't want Corporate Donors to be Revealed:

    That's what Republican campaign fundraising groups are doing by concealing their donors from the public. The GOP does not trust Americans to handle the information. Republican operatives want to shield voters from knowing who is actually paying for GOP attack ads. The GOP fears the consequences if Americans know the truth -- exactly which giant corporations and Wall Street banksters are funding vicious screeds against Democrats because those covert donors believe Republicans will deliver for big business.

  • The Solution to Pay-to-Play Politics:

    It is difficult to tell the difference between legal contributions to political candidates and contributions made with an express quid pro quo. Today’s big-money-fueled campaign finance systems create an environment ripe for corruption involving the promise of campaign contributions in return for specific government action, whether in the form of regulations or government contracts. As Congress prepares to pass perhaps a $1 trillion stimulus package that will feature road work and other infrastructure projects in the states, we are likely to see this pay-to-play culture get even worse.

    Many lobbyists, who work to influence legislation that affects their clients, are deeply involved in the fundraising process for public officials. At the national level, lobbyists act as bundlers, performing the role of fundraiser for a candidate by soliciting contributions from friends and associates, allowing them to funnel huge sums of money to the candidate(s).

  • Industries have spent $585.7 million since 2007
    on lobbying and campaign contributions

  • Industry Cash Flowed To Drafters of Reform

  • Dear Sen. Baucus: Don't sell out Americans

  • Max Baucus: Money from Lobbyists

  • Baucus earns his healthcare industry funding

  • Health industry bolts Dems for GOP - Sarah Kliff - POLITICO.com (2011)

3. Democracy and Political Corruption

4.  Campaign Finance Reform

  • Paul Starr, "Democracy v. Dollar"

  • OpenSecrets.org: Money in Politics --
    See Who's Giving & Who's Getting

  • Whitehouse For Sale.org (in-class)

  • Political Money Line

  • The Money Culture in Washington Politics:

    Striving for and obtaining money has become the predominant activity-and not just in electoral politics-and its effects are pernicious. The culture of money dominates Washington as never before; money now rivals or even exceeds power as the preeminent goal. It affects the issues raised and their outcome, it has changed employment patterns in Washington; it has transformed politics; and it has subverted values. It has led good people to do things that are morally questionable, if not reprehensible. It has cut a deep gash, if not inflicted a mortal wound, in the concept of public service.Private interests have tried to influence legislative and administrative outcomes through the use of money for a long time. The great Daniel Webster was on retainer from the Bank of the United States and at the same time was one of its greatest defenders in the Congress. But never before in the modern age has political money played the pervasive role that it does now By comparison. the Watergate period seems almost quaint.

  • Most Companies paid no Taxes during the Boom

  • Corporate Welfare Information Center

  • Ending Corporate Welfare As We Know It

  • Cato Handbook for Congress: Corporate Welfare:

    It seems as if everyone is opposed to corporate welfare. The problem is that not everyone defines it in the same way. Corporate welfare should be carefully defined as any government spending program that provides unique benefits or advantages to specific companies or industries. That includes programs that provide direct grants to businesses, programs that provide research and other services for industries, and programs that provide subsidized loans or insurance to companies.

    There are more than 100 such corporate subsidy programs in the federal budget today, with annual expenditures of roughly $75 billion. Terminating those programs could save taxpayers more than $400 billion over the next five years.

  • Public Citizen: Corporate Welfare:

    Each year, U.S. taxpayers subsidize U.S. businesses to the tune of almost $125 billion, the equivalent of all the income tax paid by 60 million individuals and families. These corporations receive a wide range of favors: special corporate tax breaks; direct government subsidies to pay for advertising, research and training costs; and incentives to pursue overseas production and sales

  • TIME Study of Corporate Welfare:

    That makes the Federal Government America's biggest sugar daddy, dispensing a range of giveaways from tax abatements to price supports for sugar itself. Companies get government money to advertise their products; to help build new plants, offices and stores; and to train their workers. They sell their goods to foreign buyers that make the acquisitions with tax dollars supplied by the U.S. government; engage in foreign transactions that are insured by the government; and are excused from paying a portion of their income tax if they sell products overseas. They pocket lucrative government contracts to carry out ordinary business operations, and government grants to conduct research that will improve their profit margins. They are extended partial tax immunity if they locate in certain geographical areas, and they may write off as business expenses some of the perks enjoyed by their top executives.

Daily Class Questions

1. What does George Plunkitt mean by "honest graft"?

2. What does Plunkitt mean by "dishonest graft"?

3. Do you accept Plunkitt's distinction between honest and dishonest graft?

4. What are some of the major ways in which Plunkitt made his fortune as a politician?

5. What does Plunkitt mean by he is a man who "seen his opportunities and he took 'em"?

6. Why is Plunkitt so against Civil Service Reform?

7. What does Lincoln Steffens think is the major cause of urban political corruption?

8. Why is Steffens so worried about the role of 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 to the 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
late 1800s?

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?

Daily Class Notes

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 interests.

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 actually worked.

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.

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© 2000 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 1 June 2000:  Last Modified: 3 October, 2013
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/1025/index.htm

American History 1025