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The Plunkitt of Tammany Hall Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Dec 13th, 2018

The Plunkitt of Tammany Hall was an insight of street politics in New York published in 1905.The book is a brave explanation on the differences between what was called honest graft and dishonest graft by George Washington Plunkitt.

He was a member of the Tammany Hall that was in power in the City of New York. Some members of this group died rich, others went to jail, but Plunkitt was lucky and brave to face the media. Plunkitt was born in 1842 in New York. He held several political positions from 1869 to 1893 before his death in 1924. He served as a senator as well as sitting in the state legislature.

Plunkitt practiced what he called honest graft. He was frank in using his political power for personal gains. He defined honest graft as being when a politician champions for party interests, followed by state interests and then personal interests in that order of priority. On the other hand, politicians who practiced dishonest graft only pursued their interests.

Plunkitt could buy a parcel of land that he knew would be needed later for public development for example building a hospital, a water reservoir or a bridge then resell it at an inflated price. The difference between his buying price and selling price would be his profit. To him that was not theft. It was an opportunity seen and taken.

He believed fully in patronage. Giving people jobs, receiving extended welfare services and getting priority when opportunities occurred, rewarded political loyalty. Party members and associates were given first priority. This was a symbol of patriotism.

In his explanation, when people got chances for example singing in a glee club or the youths playing baseball, then they had to vote according to the direction that he gave. His response to calamities such as fire was first and fast to assess the situation. He would then supply victims with the basic needs i.e. food, shelter, and clothing. According to him, this was being human and was the responsibility a leader.

Through this type of relationship, Plunkitt controlled thousands of voters. He wielded so much power both in the private and public sectors, such that even a construction company in need of a contract in his area of jurisdiction, had to hire his supporters as laborers. This power came with authority such that no tenders with his name or approval could be rejected.

Plunkitt held that one did not need formal education to become a political leader. Formal education according to him gave one, a one percent chance of succeeding in politics. Quoting the examples of John Kelly and Charlie Murphy, he noted that oratory and communication skills never added to qualities of political supremacy.

These two politicians were among the very silent senators but yielded so much power that their decisions could be taken as law in the senate. During that period, orators were few in the state legislation assembly and their contributions were insignificant. He asserted that his education to win votes and money in New York was by apprenticeship. Power in politics according to him emanated from the power to command votes. Controlling votes in it dictated the way the big boys respected you.

He was a strong opponent of the civil service law; in fact, he called it the curse of the nation. Plunkitt explained the law would kill patriotism since patronage took care of the interests of young men in the country. The civil service law had introduced a system of recruitment where interviews were conducted before employment. This was rubbish as far as he was concerned because most of his supporters would never qualify. To him this would eventually break the Republic into pieces.

This man was against reforms and reformers claiming that they would never last. Through out his entire political career that spanned over forty years, he had seen many of them rise but they never lived to see the light of the day. He called such initiatives morning glories. They would blossom in the morning and wither before end of day.

His examples of such movement were the Peoples’ Municipal League, the Committee of Seventy and the Citizens’ Union. According to him, the difference between reformers and politicians lay in resilience. Politicians were more accustomed to the game than reformers. Plunkitt explained in the Plunkitt of Tammany Hall that The New York City was ruled and controlled by hayseed legislators. It was also the hub of development and that it would be very difficult for Republicans to seize its political control from Democrats.

He compared the difference in hard work between residents of New York and the rest in the US to the bitterness that existed between the North and South before the break of the Civil War. Following on the same it was his dream and prediction that New York would break from the US and become a state itself. He even felt that it would happen during his lifetime.

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