George Washington Plunkitt and the Value of Honest Graft

Thomas Nast Cartoon Depicting the "Thought Process" Behind Tammany Hall

It is a rare person who can make being a scoundrel seem like a completely respectable way to make a living. Occasionally, this sort of scoundrel works his way into politics.  Most corrupt politicians today bathe themselves in the murky oil of self-righteousness.  It is quite unique to find a man completely devoid of principals and willing to make that a matter of public record. George Washington Plunkitt was such a man.

Plunkitt was a State Senator in New York during the heyday of Tammany Hall.  The Tammany political machine ran New York City for over a century by offering jobs and protection for new immigrants in exchange for votes and political influence.  Tammany produced some of New York’s most influential politicians (William Mallory “Boss” Tweed being the best known) and even counted a Vice President (Aaron Burr) and a Presidential candidate Al Smith among its ranks.

The organization had many outspoken, charasmatic politicians, but Plunkitt was probably the best at explaining “The Tammany Way”. Plunkitt’s book “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, from his Rostrum—the New York County Courthouse Bootblack Stand” contains some of the most intriguing justifications for corruption that have ever been written.  His distinction between honest and dishonest graft is deeply flawed but amazingly compelling.

Here is an excerpt that captures Plunkitt’s belief about how the system works…

Everybody is talkin‘ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin‘ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.

There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin‘: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft. Or supposin‘ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.

Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin‘ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it, too.

I’ll tell you of one case. They were goin‘ to fix up a big park, no matter where. I got on to it, and went lookin’ about for land in that neighborhood.

I could get nothin’ at a bargain but a big piece of swamp, but I took it fast enough and held on to it. What turned out was just what I counted on. They couldn’t make the park complete without Plunkitt’s swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it. Anything dishonest in that?

Up in the watershed I made some money, too. I bought up several bits of land there some years ago and made a pretty good guess that they would be bought up for water purposes later by the city.

Somehow, I always guessed about right, and shouldn’t I enjoy the profit of my foresight? It was rather amusin’ when the condemnation commissioners came along and found piece after piece of the land in the name of George Plunkitt of the Fifteenth Assembly District, New York City. They wondered how I knew just what to buy. The answer is—I seen my opportunity and I took it. I haven’t confined myself to land; anything that pays is in my line.

For instance, the city is repavin’ a street and has several hundred thousand old granite blocks to sell. I am on hand to buy, and I know just what they are worth.

How? Never mind that. I had a sort of monopoly of this business for a while, but once a newspaper tried to do me. It got some outside men to come over from Brooklyn and New Jersey to bid against me.

Was I done? Not much. I went to each of the men and said: “How many of these 250,000 stones do you want?” One said 20,000, and another wanted 15,000, and other wanted 10,000. I said: “All right, let me bid for the lot, and I’ll give each of you all you want for nothin’.”

They agreed, of course. Then the auctioneer yelled: “How much am I bid for these 250,000 fine pavin’ stones?”

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” says I.

“Two dollars and fifty cents” screamed the auctioneer. “Oh, that’s a joke Give me a real bid.”

He found the bid was real enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot for $2.50 and gave them their share. That’s how the attempt to do Plunkitt ended, and that’s how all such attempts end.

I’ve told you how I got rich by honest graft. Now, let me tell you that most politicians who are accused of robbin’ the city get rich the same way.

They didn’t steal a dollar from the city treasury. They just seen their opportunities and took them. That is why, when a reform administration comes in and spends a half million dollars in tryin’ to find the public robberies they talked about in the campaign, they don’t find them.

The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right. All they can show is that the Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let me tell you that’s never goin’ to hurt Tammany with the people. Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend. Why shouldn’t I do the same in public life?

Another kind of honest graft. Tammany has raised a good many salaries. There was an awful howl by the reformers, but don’t you know that Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin’?

The Wall Street banker thinks it shameful to raise a department clerk’s salary from $1500 to $1800 a year, but every man who draws a salary himself says: “That’s all right. I wish it was me.” And he feels very much like votin’ the Tammany ticket on election day, just out of sympathy.

Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into believin‘ that it worked dishonest graft. They didn’t draw a distinction between dishonest and honest graft, but they saw that some Tammany men grew rich, and supposed they had been robbin’ the city treasury or levyin‘ blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin’ in with the gamblers and lawbreakers.

As a matter of policy, if nothing else, why should the Tammany leaders go into such dirty business, when there is so much honest graft lyin’ around when they are in power? Did you ever consider that?

Now, in conclusion, I want to say that I don’t own a dishonest dollar. If my worst enemy was given the job of writin’ my epitaph when I’m gone, he couldn’t do more than write:

“George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took ‘Em.”

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  1. #1 by Jim Wheeler on February 15, 2011 - 12:24 PM

    Excellent stuff, Keith, and I submit, a fine example of why no pure philosophy can work. Pure democracy can’t work because the body politic has not the attention span nor the time to consider every decision wisely and vote on same. That’s why we have a representative democracy. Messy as it is, we drive down the political highway of life pretty well and, if we see bad driving in the rear-view mirror, we change drivers.

    Same with financial regulation. Someone’s got to watch the Plunkitts.

    Good post.

    Jim W.

  2. #2 by Keith Spillett on February 15, 2011 - 1:08 PM

    Well put Jim! Tammany Hall really understood how to keep the same bad drivers in the drivers seat. Plunkitt, Tweed and the rest were anti-democratic charlatans who managed to use their leverage to stay in power for a very long time. That was their biggest flaw.

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