19th Century Political Machines Essay

During the 19th century our governments were running under an organized group called political machines. These political machines had controlled the activity of a political party in the city. These groups had functioned like a pyramid, they had a political boss at the top who controlled most activity in the city, in the middle of the pyramid was the ward boss who controlled votes, and at the bottom of the pyramid, the local precinct workers and captains had worked streets to gain votes. The political boss had many roles, but whether these roles were beneficial or harmful to the cities was often debated.

In the late 19th century, political machines were mostly beneficial, due to helping the people and solving urban problems, but they also harmed cities with the use of graft. To begin political machines were beneficial because they had helped the poor, and people in need. They would often support the people in the city and help them until they could get back on their feet and support themselves. In document 7 George Plunkitt, once a politician in New York, and a member of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City, describes how he used his power as a political machine for the good, by helping out others in need. I just get quarters (places to live) for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes are burned up, and fix them up till they get things humming’ again,”(Document 7).

He was explaining how he would help a family if they had a fire, this supports the fact that political machines had helped people if they needed it, whether it was just giving them clothes, or shelter, political machines were there for the people. Document 5 was written by Jane Addams, and although her perspective on olitical machines was that they were harming the cities, she does provide a point that shows that political machines had sometimes helped people to get them out of trouble. “The Alderman [City boss]… bails out his constituents when they are arrested, or says a good word to the police justice when they appear before him for trial… “(Document 5). In addition to helping people who had lost a home, or couldn’t provide basic needs or themselves, political machines had also helped people get out of trouble with authorities.

Although this may seem to be a bad thing, people may be extremely thankful for that good word a political machine put in for them, and learn from what they had done wrong. Overall not only did political machines help the poor, they also help to keep people out of trouble with the authorities. In addition to helping people, political machines had sometimes used their power to help solve urban problems. They would often repair damaged structures, or provide the finances needed to build new ones.

In another source from George Plunkitt he defends himself from a book that Lincoln Steffens had wrote about dishonest graft, and he explains how political machines would help use their power to help build a new roof, or repair one that is worn and sell the old one for a bargain. “Show me the Irishman who would steal a roof off an almhouse! He don’t exist. Of course, if an Irishman had the political pull and the roof was much worn, he might get the city authorities to put on a new one and get the contract for it himself, and buy the old roof at a bargain- but that’s honest graft… (Document 2). This helps to show how political machines had provided the money to fix any structures that were in bad shape, like a roof that had needed to be fixed up. Not only did political machines help to fix structures, they also used their money and political power to build new ones.

A magazine cover from the Scientific American Magazine with pictures of New York City’s new structures had been shown the public, to help inform them of different structures that had been built in New York, as well as structures that were projected. The front cover features a map of New York City’s elevated train line-the precursor to the modern subway system, a view of Manhattan showing several important stations and bridges, and a close up of the 155th Street Viaduct with the new ‘Manhattan Field (later called Polo Ground), and of the never-built Union Station on West 42nd Street,”(Document 8). New York City was ruled by political machines, and many of these structures pictured in the magazines were built with the help of political machines.

These structures had helped created easier ways to travel which was an urban problem in the late 18th century, and because of political bosses, structures were built to help solve this. Overall political machines had helped to provide proper contracting and finances to help build new structures or fix them in the city to help solve urban problems during the 19th Century. Although political machines had benefitted the city, they had also used graft which had harmed our cities.

Graft was the illegal use of political influence for their own personal gain. Some examples of graft that political machines used were using fake names to cast multiple ballots, and helping people but expecting votes in return. The use of these grafts and frauds had ultimately resulted in the creation of the Tweed Ring, a group of corrupt politicians lead by Boss Tweed to help defraud the city. In many instances people had referred to political bosses as “commanders”.

In document 3, Lord James Bryce had written about the leader of the Tweed Ring Scandal in 1903, this was over 30 years after the Ring had been broken, which shows how significant the scandal was. “He dispenses places, rewards the loyal, punishes he mutinous, concocts schemes, negotiates treaties,”(Document 3). This illustrates some things that political bosses did that harmed the cities.

Thomas Nast had begun to create political cartoons about the Tweed Ring, and his one political cartoon, “Let us Prey” pictures Boss Tweed and the ther people in the group standing on a crumbling cliff on a gloomy day, but they are standing on skulls, and bones that have the words law, Justice, New York Treasury, and Liberty written on them. (Document 4) This is comparing Boss Tweed and his the other Tweed Ring members to vultures who had feasted on law, justice, the New York City treasury, and taxpayers, and leaving the remains under their feet. Under the political cartoon Thomas Nast had written,”A group of vultures waiting for the storm to ‘Blow Over,”(Document 4).

This message is illustrating how boss Tweed and his members are watching the city fall apart after they had defrauded it, waiting for someone to fix the mess they had caused. Therefore, although political machines had helped, they had also harmed our city because of the constant use of graft. In conclusion although political machines had done many things to benefit the cities they had also done many things to harm cities. An example of political machines doing good and bad would be when they had helped out the people living in the city, and then expected to get votes in return for doing a favor.

Yes, in many ways the political machines had abused the power they had, but they also did use it to benefit the city and the people living in the city. These political machines had often helped cities grow, and were very organized but sometimes they were involved with bribes, and fraud. Overall political machines benefitted the city because of their involvement and help with the people and urban problems, but they also were bad because they had used political graft and often times participated in bribes.