By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
With high rates of immigration, American cities grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The city government was dominated by ethnic machines—organizations that traded basic services for immigrant voters’ loyalty, while enriching their leaders.
The Tweed Gang
The most famous of these urban machines was the Tweed Ring.
Tweed Ring was the Democratic Party in New York City, an organization at Tammany Hall. Any work that was done in the city, any municipal contract had to include in its price a bribe paid to the boss and to all his subordinates.
In its way, though, the Tweed Gang was a very highly organized and quite effective organization. The city bosses did provide services that poor immigrants needed, and the local functionaries, the so-called ‘ward-heelers’, got to know every inhabitant of a locality. Sometimes, each tenement building would have its own machine representative, and they’d know exactly what was going on in the building, who was in need, who’d got a crisis, who’d just had a baby, who was sick, who was out of work, and so on.
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Plunkett of Tammany Hall
In 1905, William Reardon, an investigative journalist, interviewed one of these ward-heelers, a man named George Washington Plunkett, and wrote a book called Plunkett of Tammany Hall, in which one of these ethnically Irish New York City bosses described how the machine worked.
Plunkett said, “If ever there’s a fire in my neighborhood, I’m always the first one on the scene day or night, and the people who’ve been burned out of their apartment, I don’t ask them whether they’re deserving. I simply give them some money, and I give them a place to stay, and I give them some food to help them get back on their feet, and of course my expectation is that they’ll repay my help with loyalty to the Democratic Party machine on Election Day, which ensures that our people will stay in power.”
Votes in Return of Help
One of the things the machines were notorious for was paying people for their votes and also getting them to vote more than once.
These were organizations that came to embrace nearly all of the city government and the police force and so on, making it very difficult for honest government reformers to break in. Jobs that were at the dispensation of the city government were nearly always given to relatives, and Plunkett describes the way in which his relatives and the relatives of the other bosses worked for the government.
We can imagine that when European immigrants, many of them coming from places where they previously had no political rights at all, found that they were entitled to become cities and to vote, and that somebody was willing to pay them for their vote, it was a highly attractive proposition, especially because these people turned out to be so helpful to them in their everyday life.
‘Good Government’ Campaigns
This was the kind of conduct of city life that enraged the Anglo-Saxon reformers, the good government people who believed that bribery and corruption ought to be eliminated from city government so that city contracts could be done much more efficiently, so that tax money wouldn’t be wasted, and also so that rather than having cronies get the jobs, people who were most qualified for the jobs could run municipal work.
Regularly, from 1870 right through until 1910 or 1915, there were periodic ‘Good Government’ campaigns in the cities, where usually Anglo-Saxon Progressive reformers tried to displace what they thought of as the very corrupt ethnic machines.
George Washington Plunkett dismissed these people and called them ‘Morning Glories’. He said, “They don’t offer the electorate enough. We’re the ones who’ve got the voters’ loyalty, because we give them so much.”
Introduction of Civil Service Exams
Sure enough, it was very difficult indeed for the Good Government people to say to the voters, “You mustn’t accept bribes. Don’t let them pay you for your vote. We’re not going to give you something special in return for our vote, because we’re standing for a principle.” It takes a while to become sufficiently high-minded, especially if you’re right on the brink of subsistence, as most of these working-class immigrants were.
But bit by bit, reforms did begin to catch on, particularly the introduction of civil service exams, whereby any candidate for a city government job had to show that he was capable of doing the job, and the examinations tested their literacy, their general knowledge, and so on.
Plunkett did recognize that these exams were a real threat, because people who hadn’t been to school or weren’t sufficiently literate clearly couldn’t pass the exams, and thereby were excluded from city jobs.
Common Questions about Urban Machines and ‘Good Governance’ in Early American Cities
The city government was dominated by ethnic machines, which were organizations that traded basic services for immigrant voters’ loyalty, while enriching their leaders. The most famous of these urban machines was the Tweed Ring.
The good government people were Anglo-Saxon reformers who believed that bribery and corruption ought to be eliminated from city government so that city contracts could be done much more efficiently, so that tax money wouldn’t be wasted, and also so that rather than having cronies get the jobs, people who were most qualified for the jobs could run municipal work.
With the introduction of civil service exams, any candidate for a city government job had to show that he was capable of doing the job, and the examinations tested their literacy, their general knowledge, and so on.