Government was the powerful local ruler who could help or hurt you

Plunkitt in his \'office\'

I was browsing at the used bookstore recently and came across a book called Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, which looked interesting enough to pay 25ยข for. It is a series of 'very plain talks' given by George Washington Plunkitt, a ward boss for Tammany Hall, first published in newspapers in 1905 and then collected into a book. I'll let you know if Plunkitt says anything good.

The reader needs background, and this is supplied by Arthur Mann in an introduction about the history and role of Tammany Hall. It includes this bit of insight into the New York political system in the second wave of mass immigration which seems also to fit a good many other places:

The immigrants brought from their peasant villages that politics was a personal affair; government was vested in the powerful local ruler who could help or hurt you. In the district Tammany chieftain the newcomers found a replica of the kind of authority they had respected in Europe. Neither there nor in America did they think of politics in terms of issues. This was also true of Tammany. Plunkitt broke into politics in the 1850's, yet he has not a word to say about the most explosive issue of the decade: slavery. Richard Croker, one of the county chairmen under whom Plunkitt served, when asked for his opinion of free silver, the most controversial political question of the 1890's, merely said: "I'm in favor of all kinds of money—the more the better."


If one grasps the point that to most New Yorkers government meant what the leader could do for you, not his party's stand on some "fool issue" like free silver or the annexation of the Philippines, then one must admit that men like Plunkitt gave the people the kind of government they wanted. You went to the district leader with your personal problems, and all he asked in exchange for his help was your vote. He was the man to see for a job, a liquor or a pushcart licence, a bucket of coal when there was no money to buy one, help in making out citizenship papers, or in bailing a husband or son out of jail.

These last things, of course, becoming easier as Tammany got more votes.

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