Plunkitt of Tammany Hall

To one observing the political campaign of nearly any candidate for office in modern times, it would appear that, mudslinging aside, the most important facet of the campaign would be the political issues of the time. This observation is not true of Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth century, however, and specifically not true of George Washington Plunkitt. Tammany Hall succeeds because it takes care of itself and of its own, insuring its own continuity. Even Plunkitt, who is largely focused on personal profit, concentrates a large measure of his attentions on the continuing success of Tammany Hall. He does so, however, without touching upon political issues in more than a desultory manner.

Plunkitt’s main desire is that the Civil Service Examination be banished to the eight circle of Dante’s Inferno. He feels that the examination is unfair to begin with, and that it prevents patriotic young men from obtaining jobs in recognition of their hard work. He asks how it is possible to “interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them when they work for their party.” (54) This interest in patriotism demonstrates an interest not only in personal profit, but in the strength of Tammany Hall. If there is a shortage of patriotic young men, then not only is Plunkitt’s reelection in danger, but the entire foundation Tammany Hall begins to sway.

According to Plunkitt, reformers, such as those behind the Civil Service Examination, appear on the scene, perhaps become wildly popular for a time, and then vanish. If these reform parties are lucky, their ideals remain for a time after the actual reformers have been forgotten. This fact, Plunkitt says, is because the reformers “haven’t been trained to politics.” (58) While this statement may at first seem an argument for a college education or even a time spent observing people and political trends, it in actuality says something quite different, and about Plunkitt himself.

It is easy to see that Plunkitt works tirelessly to keep himself and his fellow Tammany Hall men in office. However unconsciously, when he says that reformers haven’t been trained in politics, he means that they have not been trained to firmly establish their own futures in politics. In the mad rush to make a change and to topple those they see to be the root of the problem, reformers give little or no thought to how they will stay in power after the change has occurred. Even if they did stay in power, they would not be successful, having, like the Progressive party in later years, reformed themselves to death.

One of Plunkitt’s ways of assuring his own continuity is to not forget the “little people” around him, if only for the fact that each of them, or at least each white male of age, has a vote. Even those without votes of their own can possibly influence others, and he leaves no citizen untouched. He boasts that he “know(s) every man, woman, and child in the Fifteenth District, except them that’s been born this summer.” (62) He then approaches each possible vote in the manner he feels will best convince them, including flattery, patronage, and philanthropy. Not even children can escape his attentions, as he has discovered that children “are the best kind of vote-getters.” (64) These little “roses of the district” (64) have great influence over their parents, and, unable to separate Uncle George from candy, suddenly become quite interested in politics.

Plunkitt believes that people do not care about politics unless they influence their day-to-day lives, such as the young children with the candy. He says that “people can get all the political stuff they want to read . . . in the newspapers.” (63) Quite possibly he is correct. Political issues are often distant and hard to conceptualize for even those with a vehement standpoint. People are much more concerned with issues such as where their next meal is coming from than with whether or not the U.S. becomes an imperialist nation. Plunkitt bases his campaign quite successfully on the personal, almost never touching actual political issues.

Not only is Plunkitt a great humanitarian, no matter his reasons, he is also loyal to his fellow politicians. He says that “the politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends.” (68) Here Plunkitt is showing some common sense, seeing that one needs friends to succeed. Although an election may be easily won by mudslinging and stepping on another’s toes, this way of behaving will cause a much greater loss in the future.

A prolonged argument against a college education is another characteristic of Plunkitt’s writings, for various reasons. One of these reasons is that he sees a college education as standing in the way of common sense, saying that “if illiterate means havin’ common sense, we plead guilty.” (73) He also says that “Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics.” (76) Both of these statements support Plunkitt’s contention that political issues are issues only to the learned, and that the common voter is uninterested, and indeed offended, when these issues are brought to him for consideration. This belief may be the reason, much more than laziness or indifference, that Plunkitt avoids political issues and instead invites young men to join the Glee Club.

The idea of preserving the legacy of Tammany Hall and one’s own position as a politician appears not to be a harmful one to those affected. The men of Tammany Hall are highly patriotic, even though the Civil Service Examination often prevents them from obtaining rewards for their patriotism. For example, Plunkitt says that the Tammany men, spending four hours each fourth of July in the sweltering heat while listening to the Declaration of Independence (instead of drinking), are practicing “the highest form of patriotism.” (86) Whether or not these men would do the same if Tammany Hall was centered more strongly around political issues is impossible to say, but Plunkitt seems to feel that they would not.

Because of the men of Tammany Hall, according to our dear friend Plunkitt, the city of New York has prospered. These men have centered their goals on the needs and wants of the people in the city, not on large issues that have little or no affect on the people. In support of the bosses, Plunkitt says that the bosses have built up Tammany Hall, and that “the organization has built up New York.” (92) Because there is a strong and ever-present force in government, disagreements are quickly resolved, and things can move forward unhindered.

Without these bosses and the strength of Tammany Hall to support the city and assure that the people get the things they want and care about, Plunkitt fears what could happen. He claims that the primary election law will turn city government into a “menagerie.” (93) This new law, along with the Civil Service Examination and college education, are the things to be feared in New York City, as well as the rest of the country. Things like patronage and a little “honest graft” are small and necessary compared to these great evils.

George Washington Plunkitt and the organization of Tammany Hall are quite successful, and do many great things for the city and the people of New York throughout the late nineteenth century. The manner in which these things are accomplished is not necessarily one which would be condoned today, but it is effective. Plunkitt sees to the present needs of the people in order to remain in office and to strengthen Tammany Hall for the future. He does this almost entirely without touching upon the political issues of the time, and however unconventional this approach may seem to the observer of today, it must be admitted that it gets votes and it keeps votes.

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