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7.3: The Progressives and Corruption

Created by: CK-12

In addition to poverty and social vices, the progressives worked against corruption. In the late 19th century and beyond, many cities were run by political ‘machines,’ which traded political favors and government contracts for votes and money. The heads of these machines were called ‘bosses.’ The machine in New York City was called Tammany Hall, and the most famous boss was Boss Tweed.

The Shame of Cities - Lincoln Steffens

Source: Excerpt from a book by muckraker Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of Cities, published in 1904.

New advances in printing technology during the 1890’s made magazines and other publications inexpensive to print. Magazines became available to a broader middle-class audience. Lincoln Steffens was well known for writing magazine articles about child labor, prisons, religion and political machines.

Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities (New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1904), 1–18.

The typical American citizen is a business man…. The spirit of business is profit, not patriotism; individual gain, not national prosperity. “My business is sacred,” says the business man in his heart. “Whatever helps my business, is good; it must be. Whatever hurts it, is wrong; it must be. A bribe is bad, that is, it is a bad thing to take; but it is not so bad to give one, not if it is necessary to my business.”

And it’s all a moral weakness. Oh, we are good—on Sunday, and we are “fearfully patriotic” on the Fourth of July. But the bribe we pay to the janitor is the little brother of the bribe passed to the councilman to sell a city street, and the father of the deal made by the president of the railroad, who agrees to use air-brakes only if he is given stock in the air-brake company.

We are responsible, not our leaders, since we follow them. We let them divert our loyalty from the United States to some “party”; we let them boss the party and turn our democracies into autocracies. We cheat our government and we let our leaders loot it, and we let them bribe our sovereignty from us. We are content to let them pass bad laws, giving away public property in exchange for money.

Vocabulary

Divert
redirect, change
Autocracy
rule by one person
Sovereignty

independence

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who created this document? What was the intended audience?
  2. Contextualization: What else was going on at this time in history?
  3. Contextualization: Why might this document not give you the whole picture?
  4. Close Reading: What was the author trying to convince the reader of? What words does he use to do so?

“On the Shame of Cities” – George Plunkitt

Source: Excerpt from a talk by George Plunkitt, a political boss in New York City. The talk was called “On the Shame of Cities,” recorded in 1905. (Graft is another word for corruption and bribes). In this talk, Plunkitt responds to Lincoln Steffens’s book, The Shame of the Cities.

I’ve been readin’ a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities. Steffens means well, but like all reformers, he don’t know how to make distinctions. He can’t see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequently, he gets things all mixed up.... For instance, I ain’t no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my money in politics, but at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin’ man.

Steffens made one good point in his book. He said he found that Philadelphia, ruled almost entirely by Americans, was more corrupt than New York, where the Irish do almost all the governin’. I could have told him that before he did any investigatin’ if he had come to me. The Irish was born to rule, and they’re the honestest people in the world. Show me the Irishman who would steal a roof off an orphanage! He don’t exist. Of course, if an Irishman had the political pull and the roof was in bad shape, he might get the city authorities to put on a new one and get the contract for himself, and buy the old roof at a bargain-but that’s honest graft…

One reason why the Irishman is more honest in politics than many Americans is that he is grateful to the country and the city that gave him protection and prosperity when he was driven by oppression from Ireland. His one thought is to serve the city which gave him a home. His friends here often have a good place in one of the city departments picked out for him while he is still in Ireland. Is it any wonder that he has a tender spot in his heart for old New York when he is on its salary list the mornin’ after he lands?

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who created this document? What was the intended audience?
  2. Contextualization: What else was going on at this time in history?
  3. Contextualization: Why might this document not give you the whole picture?
  4. Close Reading: What was the author trying to convince the reader of? What words does he use to do so?

Section Questions:

  1. What do Steffens and Plunkitt disagree about? Who do you find more persuasive? Why?
  2. How do you think Steffens would respond to Plunkitt’s arguments?

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