“Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics” contained the musings of George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924), the powerful Irish-American politician. It would never be associated with works by Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson, but the book became a classic piece of American literature that explained the workings of the Irish-dominated urban political machine.
George Washington Plunkitt was born on November 17, 1842 to Patrick and Sarah Plunkitt, immigrants from Ireland. The Plunkitt family, which included George, his twin brother David, and a younger brother Daniel, was quite poor and lived in the mixed African American and Irish settlement of Seneca Village in Manhattan. George attended public school until age eleven when he left to work as a horse cart driver. In his early teens he became a butcher’s apprentice and by 1865 he owned his own butcher shop.
Well spoken and ambitious, Plunkitt tried his hand at politics in 1866, running on an independent ticket for a seat in the State Assembly. Losing that election, he soon came to realize that any hope for future success in politics required that he join the Tammany Hall political machine. Tammany had been founded back in 1788 as a fraternal organization and evolved in the 1820s and 1830s into a political organization. By the 1840s Tammany was a major force in city politics, thanks in large measure to its successful wooing of the large and growing Irish vote. Tammany politicians practiced so-called “ward politics” in which they provided their constituents with jobs, business contracts, no-questions-asked charity, and protection from nativists who opposed, sometimes violently, the rising power of Irish Catholics. In return, the Irish provided Tammany with votes — many times in quantities exceeding the “one man, one vote” rule. Tammany could afford this largesse because it annually raked in huge sums of money from construction kickbacks, “fees” collected from workers on the city payroll, protection money from saloons and brothels, and good old fashioned plundering.
Plunkitt joined Tammany and went on to become the most outspoken proponent of rough and tumble ward politics. In 1868 he won election to the State Assembly, an office he held for many years, even as he also won elections to the New York City Board of Alderman (precursor to the City Council) and Board of County Supervisors, and appointment as a Police Magistrate and Deputy Street Commissioner. In 1883 he won election to the State Senate, an office he held (with a few interruptions) until 1904. Plunkitt also rose to key leadership positions within the Tammany organization, most notably District Leader of Manhattan’s West Side. By 1876 he was doing so well in politics he sold his butcher shop and invested heavily in the politically connected fields of real estate and construction. By the time he retired from politics, he would be worth an astonishing $2 million.
Plunkitt’s retirement came much earlier than he anticipated. In 1904 he lost his re-election bid for the State Senate to a Republican upstart. Although Plunkitt didn’t realize it, American politics was changing. The turn of the century would be known as the Progressive Era for the widespread commitment to reform in the economy, society, and politics. The same year Plunkitt lost the election, reformer Lincoln Steffens published his famous book, “Shame of the Cities,” which railed against the corrupt urban machine government he represented. Plunkitt, with his style of Robin Hood charity and honest graft, had become a dinosaur. A new era of Tammany rule was dawning and its face was a young Irish American politician named Alfred E. Smith, recently elected to the state assembly.
Nonetheless, ever optimistic, Plunkitt decided in the aftermath of his 1904 defeat to publishing a book containing his political wisdom. Back in the late 1890s he’d sat for a few interviews with reporter William Riordan that were published in the New York Post. Now he and Riordan teamed up to publish a full-length book. Written in a lively, often hilarious off-hand style, Plunkitt held forth on all aspects of politics in chapters with titles like “The Curse of Civil Service,” “On the Use of Money in Politics”, “The Successful Politician Does Not Drink,” and most famously, “Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft.”
Plunkitt’s book sold well and garnered much commentary, but it failed to revive his political career. In 1905 he lost his position as District Leader of Manhattan’s West side to Thomas J. McManus. He died in 1924 having lived long enough to see, of all things, Tammany Hall become a proponent of reform.
Sources: William L. Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (Bedford, 1994)
Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm