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7.3: The Progressives and Corruption

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In addition to poverty and social vices, the progressives worked against corruption. In the late 19^{\mathrm{th}} 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.

Now, the typical American citizen is the business man....The commercial spirit is the spirit of profit, not patriotism; of credit, not honor; of individual gain, not national prosperity; of trade and dickering, not principle. “My business is sacred,” says the business man in his heart. “Whatever prospers my business, is good; it must be. Whatever hinders 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; a weakness right where we think we are strongest. Oh, we are good—on Sunday, and we are “fearfully patriotic” on the Fourth of July. But the bribe we pay to the janitor to prefer our interests to the landlord’s, is the little brother of the bribe passed to the alderman to sell a city street, and the father of the air-brake stock assigned to the president of a railroad to have this life-saving invention adopted on his road.

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 municipal democracies into autocracies and our republican nation into a plutocracy. We cheat our government and we let our leaders loot it, and we let them wheedle and bribe our sovereignty from us.... [W]e are content to let them pass also bad laws, giving away public property in exchange.

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, consequent, he gets things all mixed up.... For instance, I ain’t no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my pile 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 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....

One reason why the Irishman is more honest in politics than many Sons of the Revolution is that he is grateful to the country and the city that gave him protection and prosperity when he was driven by oppression from the Emerald Isle.... His one thought is to serve the city which gave him a home. He has this thought even before he lands in New York, for his friends here often have a good place in one of the city departments picked out for him while he is still in the old country. 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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Date Created:

Feb 23, 2012

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Sep 02, 2014
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CK.SOC.ENG.SE.1.History-U.S.-Adv.7.3

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