Tammany Hall, a New York City political organization operating in the early twentieth century, was a powerful machine that included most prominent Democrats. One of the most renowned politicians and influential leaders was George Washington Plunkitt, who gave his speeches from the bootblack stand. The series of talks were written down by journalist William Riordan, later published in the book Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. It is structured as a series of autobiographical reflections and presents the main political ideas and views promoted by Plunkitt. Nowadays, some of his views may be labeled debatable if not openly illegal. It is essential to observe the paradigm shift in the concepts of the past and present.
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First of all, the main idea of the talks is to present technically legal but immoral scenarios in order to gain the support of the crowd. Plunkitt of Tammany Hill may be read as an apology for machine politics, meaning that a group of elected officials use their positions to solidify power through dubious means. According to Klinghard, Tammany Hall’s corruption was a topic for hot debates at the time (488). Plunkitt did not deny the accusations but prosed to find a bright sight in the situation as he met his constituents’ needs and did not require of them any personal virtue or civic education. Thus, the book may also be considered a manual for party management with various recommendations.
The most notorious aspect of Plunkitt’s views is his perspective on honest and dishonest graft. The main difference is that dishonest graft involves “robbin’ the city treasury or levyin’ blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin’ in with the gamblers and lawbreakers” (3). In contrast, honest graft is knowledge of city politics used for investments. Today this extract can be examined as a distinction between soft and criminal corruption. As Schluter claims, soft corruption is the exploitation of political and governmental activities for personal gain (4). This issue still prevails in modern politics and is more pervasive than many people realize.
That is precisely the course of action set by Plunkitt, who used his position to become richer every day. In his speech, Plunkitt proposed such examples of honest graft as bribing auction participants to receive a profitable deal and buying a small piece of land to prevent the park construction until a more significant sum of money is paid (72). In short, he made most of his financial status by purchasing land needed for public projects and then reselling them at an inflated price. While technically legal, his actions were intended for personal gain, and, what is more, they harmed the city’s development. Although more than a century has passed since that time, it is still challenging to combat such type of corruption, despite the creation of special laws regulating corruption, such as Criminal and Civil Laws on Corruption. While it is doubtful that Plunkitt’s views on the matter may be considered illegal even today, it is certain that they are highly immoral.
Furthermore, Plunkitt had his perception of patronage as an acceptable course of action. According to Schluter, patronage “covers the perks, benefits, and favors doled out by government” and may result in hiring personnel, purchasing goods, or providing positions to unqualified people (8). Little changed since the times of Plunkitt when he had placed his men on public works after the lost election, calling it private patronage. The politician also dwelled on the matter of reciprocity between Democrats and Republicans, saying that “he and the Republicans are enemies just one day in the year – election day” (71). Plunkitt did not cover the corrupted relations between the two parties, stressing that a man working in politics should gain something of it.
Plunkitt is remembered as a fervent supporter of the spoils system that rewarded allies with government positions and jobs in return for support. Thus, he obviously spoke against such reform as the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which regulated the distribution of posts based on merit. The politician believed that “Civil service would gobble up everything, politicians would be on the bum, the republic would fall and soon there would be the cry of ‘Vevey le roil’” (Plunkitt, 70). Naturally, the national level reform had an impact on local organizations, and the decline in Tammany Hall would follow, resulting from the struggle for power within the party itself. Plunkitt deprecated civil service examinations, claiming that they propagate anarchists instead of patriots. He believed that his political machine was much kinder as it provided poor people with jobs and loans and created a sense of community.
It should be mentioned that immigrants played a special role in Plunkitt’s politics because his system provided an accessible way of integration into American society. The immigrants provided politicians with votes, and in return, they gained lodging and jobs. Thus, Irishmen dominated Tammany Hall and took advantage of the surplus of votes. According to Klinghard, “Plunkitt – and, again, Tammany leaders more broadly – feared a breakdown of the Democratic party’s capacity to represent and empower the common men in an otherwise alienating national political system” (508). The politician is also known for his passage about “morning glories” that depictures reformers, who look lovely but quickly wither. Plunkitt probably believes that reformers cannot be called real politicians as they lack endurance in the long run. He saw as folly the fact that reforms provided party elites with justifications for innovations by revising traditional practices.
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Lastly, Plunkitt’s politics may be called personal, and anti-intellectualist and anti-modernist, because he addressed the masses with the set of populist phrases aimed at projecting him in a positive light. He was against wearing suits, fearing the people’s disapproval, and suggested it only if politicians reached a high position. Plunkitt also admitted having illiterate people among the members of Tammany Hall. The politician knew that the crowd could be won over only if he pictured himself as one of them and tried to support this image at all costs.
In conclusion, the late nineteenth century was a period of significant political changes. Plunkitt may not be the key figure in the events, but the politician possesses a bright personality and represents a certain mindset that could be found at the time. Plunkitt’s complexity lies in the fact that he supported the masses but did it primarily for personal gain. The reformers prevailed with the Civil Service Act, but Plunkitt’s and ideas did not go down in history. Today his outlook composes the term of soft corruption and still prevails in American politics despite the creation of special services and laws. It is crucial to examine the historical examples of such people as George W. Plunkitt not to repeat the same mistakes twice.
Klinghard, Daniel. “Reading Plunkitt of Tammany Hall in the Context of Late Nineteenth Century Party Nationalization.” Polity, vol. 43, no.4, 2011, pp. 488-512.
Riordan, William L. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A series of very plain talks on very practical politics. McClure, Phillips, 1905.
Schluter, William E. Soft corruption: How unethical conduct undermines good government and what to do about it. Rutgers University Press, 2017.