“Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself,” boasted George Washington Plunkitt, a New York politician and a member of Tammany Hall, one of the city’s infamous “political machines.”
At the turn of the 20th century, many U.S. cities were run by collections of self-serving political machines. These organizations controlled access to political power by rigging votes, buying people’s loyalty — and their ballots. Tammany Hall in New York City became the most famous, but Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago had their own political machines.
Local officials elected with the backing of political machines would use their positions to dispense favors — often jobs — to supporters. Unelected political machine bosses would snag lucrative contracts for big projects in their cities, which would make them and their followers rich.
It was so much money that Plunkitt wondered why anyone would resort to criminal behavior when there was so much “honest graft” to be had.
Starting around 1900, however, people power started to take apart political machines such as Tammany Hall. Nationwide, a progressive era began. Reform candidates called for an end to political patronage. Journalists exposed and lampooned the corruption of political bosses. Civil service examinations helped keep unqualified party loyalists from government positions.
Political machines around the world
Machine politics can crop up anywhere, as long as corrupt politicians feel compelled to buy votes or can get access to state funds and misuse them.
In Venezuela, the Maduro regime uses hunger to get votes. And in Iran, ostensibly charitable organizations such as the Bonyad Mostazafan use money to enrich their leaders. Bonyads often own hundreds of businesses whose profits flow to bosses. Bonyads are in the construction industry, too, building domestic airport terminals and infrastructure in other countries.
Historians attribute the eventual downfall of Tammany Hall to the anti-corruption platform of Fiorello La Guardia, who served as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. His term inspired a new political order that replaced the machines.
That tradition continues today in the way parties choose their candidates. During the Progressive Era, states began to adopt direct primary systems, in which citizens choose party candidates rather than political bosses. Today’s combination of primaries and caucuses that select U.S. presidential candidates is one legacy of this era.
The fall of “Boss Tweed”
One of the most notorious figures in New York’s Tammany Hall political machine was William M. Tweed.
“Boss Tweed” built and maintained a network of individuals known as the “Tweed Ring” who collectively cheated New York taxpayers of millions of dollars in the 1850s to 1870s and influenced courts, the legislature, the city treasury and electoral politics.
Law enforcement caught up with Boss Tweed and jailed him twice. He escaped to Spain and was reportedly caught by a Spanish military officer who recognized his face from a political cartoon.