Honest Graft

Usually associated with New York, Boston, and Chicago, although also found in St. Louis and a host of other big cities, honest graft was criminality that had public benefits. Even the great civic reformers like Lincoln Steffans admitted that it had some good aspects, as they decried it and tried to make it go away. Graft was part and parcel of big-city politics, especially where large numbers of immigrants settled during the Gilded Age. This is a very, very superficial overview of old-fashioned city corruption. You can find a lot more detailed histories out there with a little digging, or watch the movie Gangs of New York for a taste of what New York City (Manhattan) was like before and during the Civil War.

The term itself comes from that bastion of corruption and Irish settlement, Tammany Hall in New York City. Tammany Hall is used today as shorthand for a crooked city government that provides city services in exchange for kickbacks, votes, and “small favors.” Unlike the Mafia, this was not for the good of one or a few families, but for larger numbers of political personages. Also, Tammany Hall focused on the larger urban networks, rather than protection rackets, and out-and-out illegal activities. (Yes, there was overlap in some cities. Not in the early days.)

The term was coined by George Washington Plunkitt. He argued that there was absolutely nothing wrong with someone in office taking advantage of information and their position to gain personal benefits. The term later expanded to include the idea of skimming a little off of contracts for government services, but providing those services properly and promptly. Political machines such as Tammany Hall were corrupt and everyone knew it. They drove up the dollar cost of city government and services. They also made sure that the streets got repaired, sewers laid, water service functioned, and garbage collected (most of the time). Since everyone was on the take, and bribe prices were well known, it was just one of those things.

Honest graft also helped immigrants assimilate, to an extent. People from southern and eastern Europe understood “help from Uncle Bobski”. Someone did a favor for you with an apartment, or getting your kid out of trouble, and you voted for them, or donated a little to the police fund. The Irish, being first and numerous, tended to dominate City Hall in New York, Boston, and later Chicago. People hired their relatives and siblings because they knew each other, and to support the family. Today we call this “nepotism” and it is supposed to be illegal and corrupt.

This was not a good system, for a lot of reasons. But it lasted because it worked. Reformers hated it, but they admitted that yes, cities got the services they needed, just at much higher cost and with threats of trouble. Also, the quality would probably be better if graft were eliminated.

Thomas J. Pendergast of Kansas City, MO can serve as an example of honest graft gone dishonest. Pendergast kept one foot in city politics, and one in organized crime, as well as types of voter fraud that would have made Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed blush. Pendergast started out keeping bar in the immigrant section of Kansas City, Missouri at a time when lots of Eastern Europeans were moving to the area because of the packing plants. Italians also came, and the Mafia, and Pendergast allied with the “families.” From there he began his rise to political fame (and infamy) as the Boss of KC. All went well, sort of, until he lost control of the street-level action and the Feds got interested. Pendergast was also in failing health. His machine lasted after his death, but not too much longer.

Richard J. Daley of Chicago was one of the most famous 20th Century politicians of this ilk. A nearly stereotypical Irish politician, he started as a lawyer and Democrat Party worker. From there he rose through the political ranks. No one questioned that he was one of the preeminent old-style Bosses. He was also one of the canniest, in that he carefully separated power and money. Those who had political power in the city couldn’t touch money. Those with the money did not get access to the levers of political power. It prevented a lot of problems and the creation of fiefdoms (to an extent). He was a great mayor for Chicago, that everyone pretty much agreed on, even if he was a little crooked. His was very much honest graft, and he kept other kinds within tolerable bounds. Chicago’s ethnic mix likely also helped dilute things to a degree.

The point of all this is that corruption is not good. However, corruption when controlled and channeled could produce decent governance and keep enough people satisfied or even happy that cities (and states) functioned decently to pretty-darn-well. It wasn’t efficient, it left a lot of people outside the system, and raised the costs of doing business. It made openings for less genteel types of crime (see: Mafia and other groups). Today, dishonest graft seems to have taken over. I suspect part of it is how modern crime and criminal organizations operate and the difference between legal immigrants who were not afraid of being “sent back,” or who had come just to make money and then go home, versus the culture of illegal immigration networks today. Another part is the loss of the separation of power from funds.

The original speech about “Honest Graft”: https://www.panarchy.org/plunkitt/graft.1905.html


12 thoughts on “Honest Graft

  1. I’ve heard about the Ward Bosses “being there” to help out immigrants.

    They gave real help to people with real needs.

    • Yes, they did. And people remembered. When you didn’t have things like Hull House in Chicago and similar institutions, the ward bosses really filled a need. Alas for what they wanted in exchange, and how rotten things became by 1900.

  2. My copy is long gone, but Mike Royko (newspaper reporter/columnist when that wasn’t a swear word) did a great biography: Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Let’s just say that they didn’t like each other.

    • The contemporary joke was that people in other cities only hated their mayors at election time, but in Chicago they hated their mayor “Daley”…

      • In the ’60s, the Chicago Tribune was the die-hard conservative paper, and the Daily News and Sun-Times were liberal ones. Royko wrote for the Daily News (afternoon broadsheet), then the Sun-Times (morning tabloid) when the DN stopped. He quit when Murdoch bought the S-T and switched over to the Tribune. (FWIW, the WGN superstation stands for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. The joys of media conglomerates.)

        The San Jose Murky News didn’t carry Royko, and I wasn’t aware of a national column. He had some devastating columns for Chicago. One was sarcastically calling for a celebration of the Mob’s XXXth hit that year. I think he was also the one who wrote that the SW Expressway under construction (now the Stevenson, and for Californians, “Chicago Expressway” == “California Freeway”) had a mob hit corpse buried every mile under the pavement.

        I never saw Continental Divide, but I heard that Belushi’s character was based on Mike Royko. Wiki is silent on that bit.

  3. Truman came out of the Pendergast machine. He did spend the rest of his life trying to distance himself from it.

  4. Royko’s book is excellent! Re Truman, that is why he was basically penniless when he left the White House. He was determined NOT to be used by anybody. It was so bad he moved back in with his mother-in-law!!! That’s BAD!!!

  5. Another example was San Franciso’s Abe “Boss” Ruef, a brilliant man (started college at 14, graduated from law school and passed the bar by 21. “Those aren’t bribes, those are legal fees.”

    He served prison time and died broke. Then there’s Willie Brown.

  6. Yeah Willie Brown. The city I worked for at one time paid him $30,000 to insert a line in a bill exempting the city from certain landfill regulations. I wrote the exemption sent it to Willie and he got it inserted in the bill.

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