Though most of the key figures of the New York City political machine known as Tammany Hall tended to avoid reporters, George Washington Plunkitt proved the exception to the rule. In 1904, William L. Riordan, a reporter for the New York Evening Post who had befriended Plunkitt, recorded a series of talks by the former State Senator in which Plunkitt presented his political philosophy and provided a defense for the politics of Tammany Hall. After the publication of these speeches in several prominent newspapers, Riordan collected these talks and compiled them into a book: Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics.
In order to better understand Plunkitt’s political philosophy, we must first take a look at the man. Born in 1942, Plunkitt had a rather humble beginning, serving as a cart-driver, and then entering into the butchering trade. He seemed to have always had an interest in politics, even as a young boy, “workin’ around the district headquarters and hustlin’ about the polls on election day.”
Soon after his first vote, Plunkitt raced to “win fame and money in New York City politics.” He entered the New York State Assembly, and eventually served several terms on the State Senate. Plunkitt held office of some kind for over forty years in the Tammany Hall political machine until beaten in the 1904 elections. Plunkitt benefitted greatly from this political career, saying, “I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day.” In summing up his career in politics, Plunkitt declared, “I seen my opportunities and I took em’.” He died a millionaire in 1924.
In Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, Plunkitt bluntly lays out the political philosophy that governed his actions in politics as well as the actions of the infamous Tammany Hall. We can summarize Plunkitt’s political philosophy into two key areas: the purpose of politics and the place of the people in politics.
The fundamental idea that governed Plunkitt’s political career is the idea that the end of politics is personal benefit. Plunkitt declared this philosophy is his famous statement: “I seen my opportunities and I took em’.” This mindset of looking for personal benefit from every opportunity marked Plunkitt’s political career.
This thinking lead Plunkitt to support what he calls “honest graft,” or corruption that is not explicitly illegal. One example he presents is an occasion on which his party planned to “fix up a big park.” Plunkitt, having made use of his political power to gain information on this plan, set out to buy all the cheap land he could in the area of the planned renovations. When time came for renovation work to begin, “[t]hey couldn’t make the park complete without Plunkitt’s swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it.” In Plunkitt’s view, any action, so long as it is not illegal, is permissible for a politician. Honest graft, he says, is “just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market.” In Plunkitt’s mind, honest graft is justifiable, for in his political philosophy, politics is merely a game and the politician’s goal is to win. Put simply, Plunkitt believed, “when a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.” The end of politics, according to Plunkitt, is personal benefit.
The people, on the other hand, argues Plunkitt, are merely a means to the end of personal benefit. This does not mean that he does not seek to benefit the people. Far from it, he says, “What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them in the different ways they need help.” Indeed, he describes how he would watch for a fire in his district and arrive as soon, if not sooner, than the fire engines. Once on the scene, he would immediately seek to provide the now homeless family with lodging, clothes, and then “fix them up till they get things runnin’ again.” Similarly, Plunkitt always sought to offer aid to any family that was in need, offering generous gifts of food, clothes, shelter, and employment. Yet as he declared himself, “It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too – mighty good politics. Who can tell how many votes one of these fires bring me?” For Plunkitt, the people were merely a means to the end of personal benefit. His entire purpose in aiding the poor in his community was in order that they “don’t forget him on election day.”
These two fundamental ideas affected every portion of Plunkitt’s thinking in politics, whether in the area of civil reform, which he adamantly opposed due to its restrictions on politicians’ powers, or the use of patronage in politics, which Plunkitt viewed as simply another means of personal benefit. Plunkitt believed that the end of politics is personal benefit and that the people are merely a means of achieving this end.
However, these two fundamental ideas are flawed.
First, contrary to Plunkitt’s view, the people rather than the politicians ought to be the goal and focus of politics. Political philosopher John Locke argued this truth, declaring, “...the whole trust, power and authority of the magistrate is vested in him for no other purpose, but to be made use of for the good, preservation, and peace of men in that society over which he is set” (Toleration). Locke argued that without government, humans exist in a state of nature in which each person is free, forming his own government. This state is what some refer to as a state of anarchy. However, in this state of absolute freedom, each person’s natural rights (which Locke defines as life, liberty, and property) are constantly at risk, and the enjoyment of these rights is “very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others.” The purpose, then, in establishing government is the protection of these natural rights. As Locke declared, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their [lives, liberties, and estates].” The Lockian theory of government stands in stark contrast with Plunkitt’s political philosophy. Plunkitt argues that without personal benefit, no one would care to involve himself in politics, and thus, personal benefit is necessary to politics. However, he then makes a logical leap, declaring that due to this, the people are secondary to the governors. While personal benefit may be necessary in politics, the purpose and duty of government remains the protection of the people. Whereas Plunkitt claims that the purpose of government is to benefit the governors, Locke argues that government originated to protect the people, and that “this alone is and ought to be the standard and measure according to which he ought to square and proportion his laws, model and frame his government.”
Secondly, based on his premise that the personal benefit of politicians is the end of politics, Plunkitt concludes that politics is a business like any other. Thus, Plunkitt argues, “Who is better fitted to run the railroads and the gas plants and the ferries than the men who make a business of lookin’ after the interests of the city?” Plunkitt quickly removes all doubt as to who he believes is fit to govern as he expresses his “fondest dream”: “Just think how lovely things would be here if we had a Tammany Governor and Legislature meetin’, say in the neighborhood of Fifty-ninth Street, and a Tammany Mayor and Board of Aldermen doin’ business in City Hall!” Plunkitt argues for an oligarchic system in which a few elite govern, unaccountable to the people: “The people wouldn’t have to bother about nothin’. Tammany would take care of everything for them in its nice quiet way.” His fond dream is a far cry from the visions of the founders, who believed that “[a] dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” The founding fathers recognized that “every magistrate ought to be personally responsible for his behavior in office.” Instead of government that represented the people, Plunkitt sought the creation of a political machine that cared about the people only insofar as it benefitted them. His support of patronage and staunch opposition of civil reform, despite widespread corruption in government, demonstrates this view. Plunkitt opposed civil reform, not out of concern for the people, but because it took way his power. Plunkitt preferred a system in which the people were accountable to the government, in which politicians dole out rewards to those that voted the “right” way, arguing that this was what the founders had intended. Yet it is a far cry from the nation the founders envisioned, where government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Finally, Plunkitt incorrectly held that the ends justify the motives. He declares his actions of self-interest moral because they resulted in good. Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant describes the problem with this view as he writes of the “good will,” declaring, “[n]othing can possibly be conceived in the world… which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.” No action is morally praiseworthy unless performed “not from inclination or fear but from duty.” Even those actions consistent with what duty requires have no moral worth unless performed simply because it is the right thing to do. Thus, while we may applaud the results of Plunkitt’s actions, we recognize that his actions have no moral worth. Plunkitt sought to benefit only those that could return the favor. He cared nothing for the people, and he would quickly abandon them if they ceased to serve his purpose. Plunkitt’s political philosophy does not reflect a “good will” but rather a selfish ambition.
Plunkitt’s views on politics are inherently flawed, for they reject the true purpose and duty of government and endorse a faulty view of morality. While Plunkitt viewed his “Tammany Hall” as an indispensable benefit to America, the political philosophy that reigned in this institution posed a great threat to the nation.