Urban Political Machines

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Digital History ID 3820

Urban Political Machines

Interpreting Primary Sources

An army led by a council seldom conquers: It must have a commander-in-chief, who settles disputes, decides in emergencies, inspires fear or attachment. The head of the Ring is such a commander. He dispenses places, rewards the loyal, punishes the mutinous, concocts schemes, negotiates treaties. He generally avoids publicity, preferring the substance to the pomp of power, and is all the more dangerous because he sits, like a spider, hidden in the midst of his web. He is a Boss.

Lord James Bryce

Have you ever though what would become of the country if the bosses were put out of business, and their places were taken by a lot of cart-tail orators and college graduates? It would mean chaos. It would be just like takin' a lot of dry-goods clerks and settin' them to run express trains on the New York Central Railroad. It makes my heart bleed to think of it.

George Washington Plunkitt

The Alderman...bails out his constituents when they are arrested, or says a good word to the police justice when they appear before him for trial; uses his "pull" with the magistrate when they are likely to be fined for a civil misdemeanor, or sees what he can do to "fix up matters" with the State's attorney when the charge is really a serious one. Because of simple friendliness, the Alderman is expected to pay rent for the hard-pressed tenant when no rent is forthcoming, to find jobs when work is hard to get, to procure and divide among his constituents all the places which he can seize from the City Hall....

The question does, of course, occur to many minds, Where does the money come from[?]...He...sells out the city franchises...he makes deal with the franchise-seeking companies...he guarantees to steer dubious measures through the [City] Council, for which he demands liberal pay....

Jane Addams

Boss Magee's idea was not to corrupt the city government, but to be it; not to hire votes in councils, but to own councilmen; and so, having seized control of his organization, he nominated cheap or dependent men for the select and common councils. Relatives and friends were his first recourse, then came bartenders, saloon-keepers, liquor dealers....

Businessmen came almost as cheap as politicians, and they came also at the city's expense....The manufacturers and the merchants were kept well in hand by little municipal grants and privileges....

Lincoln Steffins on corruption in Pittsburgh, 1904

The civil service of the government has become a mere instrument of partisan tyranny and personal ambition, and an object of selfish greed. It is a scandal and reproach upon free institutions, and breeds a demoralization dangerous to the perpetuity of republican government. We therefore regard such thorough reforms of the civil service as one of the most pressing necessities of the hour; that honesty, capacity, and fidelity, constitute the only valid claims to public employment....

Liberal Republican Platform, 1872

Questions To Think About

1. Were urban political machines evil?

2. What functions did they serve?

3. Which groups opposed the political machines? Why?


Interpreting Statistics

Ethnocultural Voting Patterns, 1870-1892 

Proportion Democratic 

Proportion Republican 
  Dutch Reformed   30  70 
  German Catholic  85  15 
  German Lutheran  55  45 
  Irish Catholic  95 
Irish Protestant   95 
  Polish Catholic  95 
  Swedish Lutheran  10  90 
Native Born   


Baptist  45  55 


Congregational  10  90 
  Methodist  10  90 
  Presbyterian 30  70 


Baptist   60  40 
  Disciples of Christ  60  40 
  Presbyterian  55  45 

Questions To Think About

1. Which groups were most likely to vote Democratic? Republican?

2. Is there a connection between religion and ethnicity and voting patterns?

3. Do the same patterns hold true today?

The Rise of the City

Interpreting Statistics

Today, what is a tenement? "It is generally a brick building from four to six stories high on the street, frequently with a store on the first floor which, when used for the sale of liquor, has a side opening for the benefit of the inmates and to evade the Sunday law; four families occupy each floor, and a set of rooms consists of one or two dark closets, used as bedrooms, with a living room twelve feet by ten. The staircase is too often a dark well in the center of the house, and no direct through ventilation is possible, each family being separated from the other by partitions. Frequently the rear of the lot is occupied by another building of three stories high with two families on a floor."

It no longer excites even passing attention, when the Sanitary police report counting 101 adults and 91 children in a Crosby Street House....Or when a midnight inspection in Mulbury Street unearths a hundred and fifty "lodgers" sleeping on filthy floors in two buildings....The tenements today are New York, harboring three-fourths of its population....

Jacob Riis, 1890

In most large cities...there are too many scattered efforts, aiming in a desultory manner at this and that particular evil, resulting from the condition of the children of the streets. There is no unity of plan and of work....So threatening is the danger in every populous town from the children who are neglected, that the best talent ought to be engaged to study their condition and devise their improvement....We would not breathe a word against the absolute necessity of Christianity in any scheme of thorough social reform....To attempt to prevent or cure the fearful moral diseases of our lowest classes without Christianity, is like trying to carry through a sanitary reform in a city without sunlight.

Charles Loring Brace, 1872

Heretofore the church has addressed itself to the inner life and left the home to supply a healthy environment; but this the congested tenement cannot do; the socialized church therefore provides certain home conditions which are absolutely essential to normal life and growth....Under the assimilating influence of the Parish House, foreigners are being Americanized....Another admirable institution is the Loan Association which has saved many from falling into the clutches of Shylock....Clinics,--medical, surgical, dental, eye, ear, throat, and nose,--are held daily except Sundays.

Josiah Strong

Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets....Never before have such numbers of young boys earned money independently of the family life, and felt themselves free to spend it as they choose in the midst of vice deliberately disguised as pleasure....Let us know the modern city in its weakness and wickedness, and then seek to rectify and purify it until it shall be free at least from the grosser temptations which now beset the young people who are living in its tenement houses and working in its factories.

Jane Addams

Questions To Think About

1. What political, economic, and moral problems were raised by the late 19th and early 20th century city?

2. How did reformers propose to solve the problems of the city?

The Growth of Cities

Interpreting Statistics

Urban Growth 
  1860  1900 
Number of Cities 



500,000 or more 

Percent of total population 


500,000 or more 


Questions To Think About

1. What factors contributed to the growth of cities in the late 19th century?

2. How does life in a very large city differ from that in smaller cities and towns?

Interpreting Statistics

Deaths per 100,000
Boston, New York, New Orleans, and Philadelphia
  Tuberculosis  Intestinal Disorders Diphtheria  Typhoid
1864-1888  365  299  123  66  53 
1899-1913  223  196  58  19  25 

Questions To Think About

1. Why were death rates so high in 19th century cities?

2. What factors contributed to a decline in urban death rates?

Interpreting Statistics

Concentration of Immigrant Groups in Cities, 1890 
  Percent in Cities of 25,000 or more 
Native Born Americans  18 
Chinese  40 
Germans  48 
Irish  56 
Poles  57 
Russians  58 



Questions To Think About

1. Which groups of Americans were most likely to live in cities? least likely?

2. What difference might it have made that native born Americans were unlikely to live in large cities?

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