17
Mar
15

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall – George Washington Plunkitt

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical PoliticsPlunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics by George Washington Plunkitt

The name Tammany Hall doesn’t really mean anything anymore and most people recognize it as a relic of the distant past. But about a century ago, it was the biggest political machine in New York and arguably the United States.

There are plenty of books about Tammany, but there are remarkably few primary sources out there about it. It’s mostly court transcripts, newspaper columns, that sort of thing. There are few political memoirs by Tammany’s movers and shakers, which seems almost impossible in an age where every would-be political leader seems to publish a memoir during their candidacy.

But maybe this is less unexpected than you’d think: as this book shows, not only was Tammany wildly corrupt, they had a very loose sense of ethics. And just about reveled in it.

George Washington Plunkitt was born in New York in 1842 and died there 82 years later. He served in both the State Assembly and the State Senate and for years was part of the Tammany machine. And unlike just about everyone else there, he left a record of his time. Sort of.

Plunkitt is less of a memoir than a series of off-the-cuff lectures, delivered at a shoeshine stand outside a courthouse and recorded by a reporter. I’m a little confused if these were delivered to a crowd or just to Riodon, but they all have the air of an informal talk. In these, Plunkitt lays down his theories and thoughts on how to govern, how to run for office and what to do once you’re there.

These talks are an interesting mix of corruption and canny insight. Plunkitt wasn’t really an educated guy – at times, he rails against getting a university education and at “bookworms” who try to run for office – but he was a clever one. As he puts it himself, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

For example, there’s Plunkitt’s take on graft: it can be either honest or dishonest. The difference? I’ll let him explain:

“… 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… It’s honest graft and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year.” (pg 4)

It might come as no surprise that Plunkitt once drew four different public salaries in a calendar year, three of them at the same time, and saw no problem with it. He even brags about it!

His other thoughts and observations on government run along similar lines: the civil service is ruining the country; the Irish are genetically inclined to run governments, etc. What’s most illuminating are his origins in politics: he got some friends together and got them to say they’d vote the way he wanted them to, then sold his services to Tammany Hall.

Indeed, vote getting is a common thread here, in ways both legitimate and illegitimate. One way involves chasing ambulances and finding people suffering personal ruin. Then you can conspicuously help them, both ensuring their vote and that of people sufficiently impressed by your generosity. Conversely, you can support people going through personal highs; Plunkitt relates having a man stationed at the courthouse to report on who’s getting married; he then vies to be first to send them a gift.

Every once in a while, he touches on dirty tricks: hiring people to sway voters one way or the other by money or force; having people go around and impersonate voters and vote in as many districts as possible.

There are a few places where his views haven’t just dated, but veer into the repugnant; he’s a through racist and drops more than a few nasty epithets, particularly against Asians. While I suppose his views aren’t uncommon for people of his social class and time, they’re still really, really ugly.

Taken as a whole, the book comes across as boasting and a series of talks. There aren’t really any lessons on how to acquire or use political power, unless you want to make a quick buck. In my mind, I expected something along the lines of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Machiavelli or even Frank Underwood. Instead, I got a series of lectures on the uselessness of bookworms and the civil service.

And while they’re interesting, and there are a few interesting examples how Tammany worked, largely the book’s introduction provided more history and insight into this era of politics. It’s a short, quick read and ultimately, I didn’t think it really offered much more than brief glimpse into this world.

Rating: 4/10. It’s an interesting companion to books like Gangs of New York, but I think most people would be better served by a larger history of these times, not by these talks.

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