- Historic Sites
The Long, Stormy Marriage Of Money And Politics
… or why in America campaign-finance reform never succeeds
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
While pulling off his banking coup, Burr also managed to politicize a lower-middle-class chowder and marching group called the Society of St. Tammany. As Tammany Hall it soon dominated New York City’s government. Along with polling the dead, stuffing ballot boxes, and hiring Irish immigrant toughs to cast ballots half a dozen times per election and beat up would-be opposition voters, it became a major source of campaign cash.
As the relatively genteel electioneering of the Revolutionary War generation encountered the politics of mass democracy under Andrew Jackson, money became more rather than less important. President Jackson waged war against the Bank of the United States, which, to hear him tell it, had half of Congress on its payroll. It unquestionably had Daniel Webster and other conservatives. The bank and its well-heeled backers spent thousands trying to paint Jackson as a dictator in the election of 1832.
Fighting the rich cost money; the slogan of a New York Jacksonian Democrat, William Learned Marcy, “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” suggests one way in which they raised it. Public offices were up for grabs in every election; it seemed logical to expect the officeholders to kick in a percentage of their salaries to protect their jobs.
Jackson and his methods annihilated the opposition in 1832, and by the time James Buchanan ran for President, in 1856, money had become important enough in a campaign to prompt the Republican boss of New York, Thurlow Weed, to define the difference between the winner (Buchanan) and the loser (John C. Frémont) as $50,000. When Abraham Lincoln ran for President four years later, the Republicans were determined not to fall short again. In pivotal states, such as Indiana, local Republicans welcomed money from Weed’s ample New York coffers. Lincoln himself once said, “In a political contest, some use of money is both right and indispensable.” Early in 1860 he paid out of his own pocket to help one friend visit Chicago to push his candidacy.
Lincoln’s uphill 1864 election campaign depended heavily on contributions from thousands of companies that the government had enriched with war-production contracts. The return of peace dried up this flow of cash, but government employees continued to be the major source of campaign funds. In Pennsylvania, where the Republicans developed a formidable political machine under Simon Cameron, every state employee received an annual letter ordering him to contribute 2 percent of his pay; its menacing final sentence read: “After the campaign we shall place a list of those who have not paid in the hands of the head of the department you are in.” Cameron’s political philosophy can be summed up in the aphorism for which he has achieved a certain fame: “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought, stays bought.”
Under Jacksonian mass democracy, spending became more, not less, important. Fighting the rich cost money.
Ironically—a word that might well be applied to almost every paragraph of this tale—the Democrats, the party of the common man, introduced the habit of running very rich men for office. This began when they nominated Samuel Tilden for President in 1876. They had already learned the advantages of enlisting the support of the rich. August Belmont, James Buchanan’s principal backer in 1856, a suave New Yorker who was the American spokesman for the immensely wealthy Rothschild banking clan, had helped pay for the creation of the Democratic National Committee in 1852.
Tilden, a highly successful corporate lawyer, reportedly bankrolled two-thirds of his $150,000 Democratic campaign against Rutherford B. Haves. Scarred by the scandals of the Grant administration, the Republicans looked vulnerable. But The New York Times , the Republican flagship newspaper, led a ferocious counterattack on Tilden’s ethics, and the Presidency came down to the electoral votes of three Southern states. Tilden’s nephew and several leading Democrats schemed to buy these undoubtedly acquirable assets, foolishly urging one another on in telegrams that the Republicans later obtained and published. Meanwhile, the GOP put men on trains to head south with carpetbags full of money. “Rutherfraud,” as hostile newspapers called Hayes, became President by a single electoral vote.
The stench wafting from the 1876 election, combined with the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield, inspired a cadre of Eastern Republicans to take action. Eager to break the grip of the corrupt old guard on the GOP, they portrayed the deranged assassin as an office seeker driven insane by the status quo and used him to belabor the spoils system and the custom of forcing civil servants to finance elections with a percentage of their salaries.
In 1883 they prodded the Pendleton Act through Congress, making some government jobs winnable (and keepable) on merit alone and banning the solicitation of funds from federal officeholders. But Pendleton had no bearing on state and city government employees, and payor-else letters continued to flow from Republican bosses in Pennsylvania, while Tammany Hall and other Democratic machines went on collecting their tithes from civil servants and anyone who did business with the city or state.