In 1905 a New York publisher brought out the remarkably frank memoirs of a Tammany ward boss, George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924), as recorded by his Boswell, William L. Riordon of the New York Evening Post . They have just been republished in a Button Paperback, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall , with a perceptive introduction by Arthur Mann. The following excerpts—witty, cynical, and shrewd—show how machine politics operated in the wild and woolly heyday of one of its most skillful practitioners.—The Editors
Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.
There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. … Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared for before.
Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.
If my worst enemy was given the job of writin’ my epitaph when I’m gone, he couldn’t do more than write:
“George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took ’Em.”
Some young men think they can learn how to be successful in politics from books, and they cram their heads with all sorts of college rot. They couldn’t make a bigger mistake. Another mistake: some young men think that the best way to prepare for the political game is to practice speakin’ and becomin’ orators. That’s all wrong.
I guess I can explain best what to do to succeed in politics by tellin’ you what I did. After goin’ through the apprenticeship of the business while I was a boy by workin’ around the district headquarters and hustlin’ about the polls on election day, I set out when I cast my first vote to win fame and money in New York City politics. I had a cousin, a young man who didn’t take any particular interest in politics. I went to him and said: “Tommy, I’m goin’ to be a politician, and I want to get a followin’; can I count on you?” He said: “Sure, George.” That’s how I started in business. I got a marketable commodity—one vote. Then I went to the district leader and told him I could command two votes on election day, Tommy’s and my own. He smiled on me and told me to go ahead. If I had offered him a speech or a bookful of learnin”, he would have said, “Oh, forget it!”
I soon branched out. Two young men in the flat next to mine were school friends. I went to them, just as I went to Tommy, and they agreed to stand by me. Then I had a followin’ of three voters and I began to get a bit chesty. Whenever I dropped into district headquarters, everybody shook hands with me, and the leader one day honored me by lightin’ a match for my cigar. And so it went on like a snowball rollin’ down a hill. Before long I had sixty men, and formed the George Washington Plunkitt Association.
What did the district leader say then when I called at headquarters? I didn’t have to call at headquarters. He came after me and said: “George, what do you want? If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Wouldn’t you like to have a job or two for your friends?”
As time went on, and my association grew, I thought I would like to go to the Assembly. I just had to hint at what I wanted, and three different organizations offered me the nomination. Afterwards, I went to the Board of Aldermen, then to the State Senate, then became leader of the district, and so on till I became a statesman.
This civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age. It is the curse of the nation. There can’t be no real patriotism while it lasts. How are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them while they work for their party?
Say, let me tell of one case. After the battle of San Juan Hill, the Americans found a dead man with a light complexion, red hair and blue eyes. They could see he wasn’t a Spaniard, although he had on a Spanish uniform. Several officers looked him over, and then a private of the Seventy-first Regiment saw him and yelled, “Good Lord, that’s Flaherty.” That man grew up in my district, and he was once the most patriotic American boy on the West Side. He couldn’t see a flag without yellin’ himself hoarse.
Now, how did he come to be lying dead with a Spanish uniform on? I found out all about it, and I’ll vouch for the story. Well, in the municipal campaign of 1897, that young man, chockful of patriotism, worked day and night for the Tammany ticket. Tammany won, and the young man determined to devote his life to the service of the city. He picked out a place that would suit him, and sent in his application to the head of department. He got a reply that he must take a civil service examination to get the place. He didn’t know what these examinations were, so he went, all lighthearted, to the Civil Service Board. He read the questions about the mummies, and the bird on the iron, and all the other fool questions—and he left that office an enemy of the country that he had loved so well. The mummies and the bird blasted his patriotism. He went to Cuba, enlisted in the Spanish army at the breakin’ out of the war, and died fightin’ his country. Ah, how many young men have had their patriotism blasted in the same way!
A big city like New York or Philadelphia or Chicago might be compared to a sort of Garden of Eden, from a political point of view. It’s an orchard full of beautiful apple trees. One of them has got a big sign on it, marked: “Penal Code Tree—Poison.” The other trees have lots of apples on them for all. Yet the fools go to the Penal Code Tree. Why? For the reason, I guess, that a cranky child refuses to eat good food and chews up a box of matches with relish. I never had any temptation to touch the Penal Code Tree. The other apples are good enough for me, and O Lord! how many of them there are in a big city!
I acknowledge that you can’t keep an organization together without patronage. Take me, for instance, When [Seth] Low [reform Mayor of New York, 1901–03] came in, some of my men lost public jobs, but I fixed them all right. I don’t know how many jobs I got for them—several hundred.
I placed a lot more on public works done by contractors, and no Tammany man goes hungry in my district.
Let me tell you, too, that I got jobs from Republicans in office—Federal and otherwise. When Tammany’s on top I do good turns for the Republicans. When they’re on top they don’t forget me. The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time. 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 roi!”
Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics. The people won’t stand for it. Above all things, avoid a dress suit. You have no idea of the harm that dress suits have done in politics. They are not so fatal to young politicians as civil service reform and drink, but they have scores of victims. I will mention one sad case.
A bright young West Side politician, who held a three-thousand-dollar job in one of the departments, wore a dress suit for the first time in his life. It was his undoin’. He got stuck on himself. He thought he looked too beautiful for anything, and when he came home he was a changed man. As soon as he got to his house every evenin’ he put on that dress suit and set around in it until bedtime. That didn’t satisfy him long. He wanted others to see how beautiful he was in a dress suit; so he joined dancin’ clubs and began goin’ to all the balls that was given in town. Soon he began to neglect his family. Then he took to drinkin’, and didn’t pay any attention to his political work in the district. The end came in less than a year. He was dismissed from the department and went to the dogs. The other day I met him rigged out almost like a hobo, but he still had a dress-suit vest on. When I asked him what he was doin’, he said: “Nothin’ at present, but I got a promise of a job enrollin” voters at Citizens’ Union headquarters.” Yes, a dress suit had brought him that low!
The civil service gang is always howlin’ about candidates and officeholders puttin’ up money for campaigns and about corporations chippin’ in. They might as well howl about givin’ contributions to churches. A political organization has to have money for its business as well as a church, and who has more right to put up than the men who get the good things that are goin’? Take, for instance, a great political concern like Tammany Hall. It does missionary work like a church, it’s got big expenses and it’s got to be supported by the faithful. If a corporation sends in a check to help the good work of the Tammany Society, why shouldn’t we take it like other missionary societies? Of course, the day may come when we’ll reject the money of the rich as tainted, but it hadn’t come when I left Tammany Hall at 11:25 A.M. today.