Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question 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
Politics (web)

Video: Back to School

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

2. Why Women Should Vote

Buying Elections and Political Corruption

Daily Class Outline

1. Urban Political Corruption in the Gilded Age

2.  Modern Political Corruption

3. Democracy and Political Corruption

  • Are special interests controllable?

  • Can democracy work without competing
    special interests?

  • Is political corruption inevitable in our
    modern industrial society?

4.  Campaign Finance Reform

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.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 30 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/graft.htm
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