The reform-minded journalists of the early 20th century were the ancestors of today’s investigative reporters. Known as “muckrakers” (so named by President Theodore Roosevelt after the muckrake in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who could “look no way but downward, with a muckrake in his hands”), these journalists published their sensational articles in the inexpensive mass circulation magazines that became possible and popular in the 1890s. The “muckrakers” wrote on many subjects, such as child labor, prisons, religion, corporations, and insurance companies, but urban political corruption remained a particularly popular target. Lincoln Steffens was famous for his investigations of urban politics. In 1904 he collected his writings on St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York into The Shame of the Cities. New York political boss George Washington Plunkitt offered his own skeptical and humorous view of Steffens' book as one chapter in a series of “Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics,” published in 1905.
On The Shame of the Cities
I’ve been readin' a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities. Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don’t know how to make distinctions. He can’t see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin‘ their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time. See the distinction? For instance, I ain’t no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my pile in politics, but, at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin' man. And I never monkeyed with the penal code.
The difference between a looter and a practical politician is the difference between the Philadelphia Republican gang and Tammany Hall. Steffens seems to think they’re both about the same; but he’s all wrong. The Philadelphia crowd runs up against the penal code. Tammany don’t. The Philadelphians ain’t satisfied with robbin‘ the bank of all its gold and paper money. They stay to pick up the nickels and pennies and the cop comes and nabs them. Tammany ain’t no such fool. Why, I remember, about fifteen or twenty years ago, a Republican superintendent of the Philadelphia almshouse stole the zinc roof off the buildin’ and sold it for junk. That was carryin' things to excess. There’s a limit to everything, and the Philadelphia Republicans go beyond the limit. It seems like they can’t be cool and moderate like real politicians. It ain’t fair, therefore, to class Tammany men with the Philadelphia gang. Any man who undertakes to write political books should never for a moment lose sight of the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft, which I explained in full in another talk. If he puts all kinds of graft on the same level, he’ll make the fatal mistake that Steffens made and spoil his book.
A big city like New York or Philadelphia or Chicago might be compared to a sort of Garden of Eden, from a political point of view. It’s an orchard full of beautiful apple trees. One of them has got a big sign on it, marked: “Penal Code Tree—Poison.” The other trees have lots of apples on them for all. Yet the fools go to the Penal Code Tree. Why? For the reason, I guess, that a cranky child refuses to eat good food and chews up a box of matches with relish. I never had any temptation to touch the Penal Code Tree. The other apples are good enough for me, and O Lord! how many of them there are in a big city!
Steffens made one good point in his book. He said he found that Philadelphia, ruled almost entirely by Americans, was more corrupt than New York, where the Irish do almost all the governin‘. I could have told him that before he did any investigatin’ if he had come to me. The Irish was born to rule, and they’re the honestest people in the world. Show me the Irishman who would steal a roof off an almhouse! He don’t exist. Of course, if an Irishman had the political pull and the roof was much worn, he might get the city authorities to put on a new one and get the contract for it himself, and buy the old roof at a bargain—but that’s honest graft. It’s goin‘ about the thing like a gentleman, and there’s more money in it than in tearin’ down an old roof and cartin' it to the junkman’s—more money and no penal code.
One reason why the Irishman is more honest in politics than many Sons of the Revolution is that he is grateful to the country and the city that gave him protection and prosperity when he was driven by oppression from the Emerald Isle. Say, that sentence is fine, ain’t it? I’m goin' to get some literary feller to work it over into poetry for next St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
Yes, the Irishman is grateful. His one thought is to serve the city which gave him a home. He has this thought even before he lands in New York, for his friends here often have a good place in one of the city departments picked out for him while he is still in the old country. Is it any wonder that he has a tender spot in his heart for old New York when he is on its salary list the mornin' after he lands?
Now, a few words on the general subject of the so-called shame of cities. I don’t believe that the government of our cities is any worse, in proportion to opportunities, than it was fifty years ago. I’ll explain what I mean by “in proportion to opportunities.” A half a century ago, our cities were small and poor. There wasn’t many temptations lyin‘ around for politicians. There was hardly anything to steal, and hardly any opportunities for even honest graft. A city could count its money every night before goin’ to bed, and if three cents was missin‘, all the fire bells would be rung. What credit was there in bein’ honest under them circumstances? It makes me tired to hear of old codgers back in the thirties or forties boastin‘ that they retired from politics without a dollar except what they earned in their profession or business. If they lived today, with all the existin’ opportunities, they would be just the same as twentieth-century politicians. There ain’t any more honest people in the world just now than the convicts in Sing Sing. Not one of them steals anything. Why? Because they can’t. See the application?
Understand, I ain’t defendin‘ politicians of today who steal. The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent. The point I want to make is that if there is some stealin‘ in politics, it don’t mean that the politicians of 1905 are, as a class, worse than them of 1835. It just means that the old-timers had nothin’ to steal, while the politicians now are surrounded by all kinds of temptations and some of them naturally—the fool ones—buck up against the penal code.
Source: William L. Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (1905; reprint, New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1963).