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Urban Politics: Machines and Reformes

These questions and documents can be used in conjunction with the New York State Education Department standard curriculum for grades 7&8 Social Studies: United States and New York State History. This lesson can also be used with unit eight: The United States as an Independent Nation in an Increasingly Interdependent World. Students will be able to discuss immigration patterns to the United States with emphasis on New York City’s ethnic neighborhoods.

Main Points:
-What are Machine politicians?
-How is the election process presented in today’s New York Times

Tammany Hall leaders: Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr. George Olvany, Governor Alfred E. Smith and Mayor James J. Walker examining a ticker tape giving election returns, 1927.

In the mid-19th century, American cities grew rapidly, fueled by immigration and an increase in manufacturing and commerce. Immigrants arrived with great needs and few resources. Party organizations in these growing cities, known as political machines, offered immigrants help in exchange for political support. Loyal voters and party workers might receive patronage jobs, money or food in times of distress.

Machine politicians controlled access to public jobs and contracts through a system of graft and corruption. Kickback schemes were common. Real estate interests, public works builders, and aspiring judges often paid large sums of money to machine politicians to win offices, favors, and city contracts. At their worst, political machines sometimes fixed elections by stuffing or destroying ballot boxes in districts where the opposition was popular; although they often had majority support without such methods.

In 1961 Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. broke with Tammany Hall leader Carmine De Sapio and ran a campaign against the Bosses. This poster shows how a Wagner victory will defeat Tammany Hall and De Sapio. Wagner won re-election easily in an upset victory.

Reformers opposed the machine, calling for such improvements as civil service tests for jobs, closer control over how the city spent its money, and watching the polls on Election Day. Over time, such reforms weakened the power of political machines. But reformers rarely won elections since their appeals to higher principles were not as compelling to voters as the concrete benefits of jobs, help with the police, or money. Only the uncommon reformer, like Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York City, served more than one term. La Guardia was able to use the relief and public works projects of the 1930s New Deal to provide benefits for his working class and immigrant voting base. Indeed, it was the rise of the welfare state and the services it provided that greatly weakened political machines in the post-World War II period.

Judge Samuel Seabury interrogates New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker during an investigation into municipal corruption that will force Walker to resign. The revelations of corruption led to the election of reformer Fiorello H. La Guardia and to the defeat of Tammany Hall. Circa 1932.






 

 
 
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