Machine policy: definition and examples (2023)

In the 19th century, powerful bosses controlled the political machines that dominated politics. In the hands of these bosses, political outcomes became the product of secret deals and patronage rather than public decision. How did these men manage to manipulate the American political system so completely?

Machine policy: definition and examples (1)Fig.1 - Political cartoon about machine politics

City machine policy

In the 19th century, the United States experienced a period of rapid urbanization. Both rural Americans and foreign immigrants came to the cities and sought work in America's factories. As city governments were unable to provide the necessary support for this growing population, and immigrants struggled to adjust to their new communities, political machines stepped in to fill the gaps. In return for votes, the political machines worked to provide social services and jobs to their followers.

party leaders

The heads of political machines were called party chiefs. The main goal of the bosses was to keep their machines in power at all costs. To achieve this goal, the party bosses exchanged their patronage for political support. Many of these bosses became wealthy through corrupt practices, including bribery for public contracts and even embezzlement of public funds. Since corruption was an open secret in most cities, the success of party leaders depended on providing sufficient service to their followers to maintain their popularity despite their known faults.

patronage: Occupation of government posts with political supporters.

Machine policy: definition and examples (2)Abb.2 – Tammany Hall

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Examples of political machines

America's largest cities housed political machines whose actions led to scandals and prison sentences. These machines also often offered benefits to their followersweighedvoters' concerns about possible criminal activity.New York. Chicago and Boston were home to some of the most notorious political machines.

Tammany Hall

Perhaps the best known example of a political machine is Tammany Hall in New York City. For nearly 200 years, from 1789 to 1966, the organization was a powerful force in New York politics. For most of that time, Tammany Hall had significant control over the city's Democratic Party.

Progressive work by Tammany Hall

In 1821, Tammany Hall greatly increased its own power by campaigning for the right to vote for all white men. Previously, only those who owned property could vote. With this massive increase in suffrage, Tammany Hall formed a whole new block of voters who owed them allegiance. Because of his close ties to government contracting, Tammany Hall has been able to help many of his unemployed supporters find jobs and provide them with holiday shopping baskets. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy, Tammany Hall finally gained support to push through progressive labor reforms that gave workers better wages and working conditions.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 killed over 140 workers in a factory fire. Management had locked all emergency exits to prevent workers from taking breaks.

Machine policy: definition and examples (3)Abb.3 – „Boss“-Tweed

Korruption i Tammany Hall

The height of corruption in Tammany Hall occurred under the leadership of William "Boss" Tweed from 1868 until his imprisonment in 1873. Under Tweed, between $30 million and $200 million was embezzled from the city in false, unnecessary or padded payments from the city to contractors and suppliers . Tammany Hall also controlled the courts. With its ability to control the appointment of judges through Democratic Party appointments, Tammany Hall was able to influence judges in deciding specific cases. Tammany Hall's ability to handle legal issues not only ensured that she provided more exemplary assistance with jobs and food security, but also ensured loyal support.

Tammany Hall and the Irish

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About a quarter of Ireland's population fled their homes during a great famine in the mid-19th century. Many of these Irish came to America, where natives saw them as cultural outsiders unable to assimilate due to social and religious differences. Although the organization had initially espoused the then-popular nativist views, a revolt by Irish immigrants who wanted to join the organization forced them to reconsider. Tammany Hall recognized that the Irish people were arriving in large numbers and that if their votes could be secured Tammany would have a strong ally. Tammany Hall's support of the Irish people won their loyalty.

The emphasis on individualism in American culture has long been identified as a product of the influence of the Protestant form of Christianity. Protestants in America viewed Catholicism as a foreign religion that emphasized collectivism. Not only because of specific religious teachings, but also because of this perceived cultural barrier of individualism versus collectivism, American Protestants viewed Catholics as unable to properly assimilate into American society.

A clear example of this is the US presidential election of 1928. That year, Republican Herbert Hoover ran against Democrat Al Smith. Smith was a Catholic, half-Irish, half-Italian-American politician who had been elected governor of New York in 1919. A native of New York City, Smith had political ties to Tammany Hall.

Concerns about Smith's religion became a major issue in the election and led to his defeat. Catholics made up a large part of the population in the industrialized cities of the north, but they faced strong opposition in the deeply Protestant south. The Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington, D.C. and burned crosses across the country over the idea of ​​a Catholic running for president. Some feared that Smith would be more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. His failure to quell concerns about his Catholic faith was a major factor in Smith's race.

Kritik i Tammany Hall

Although Tammany Hall was complicit in corruption, he also supported the marginalized communities of the time. In the mid-19th century, the powerful financiers and nativists controlled New York's newspapers. Much of the criticism in editorials has been directed not only at corruption but also at fears of newfound political power in the hands of immigrantsethnic and religious minorities. Many political cartoons of the time created against Tammany Hall contained racist depictions of the Irish and Italians.

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Tammany Hall was one of the main subjects of the popular political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Chicago political style

Violence and corruption became an important part of Chicago politics in the early 20th century. "Chicago Style Politics" was the name given to the local variety of machine politics. Although founded later than Tammany Hall, Chicago's machine politics was just as infamous. The power of multimillionaire industrialists controlled Chicago for most of the 19th century, but no political party succeeded in fully controlling the city until the 1930s.

Machine policy: definition and examples (4)Abb.4 – William Hale Thompson

Major William Hale Thompson

"Big Bill" was the mayor of Chicago who introduced some of Chicago's most corrupt elements of machine politics. Thompson appealed to large German and Irish immigrant groups and constantly proclaimed his disregard for the British. After his first two terms as mayor, from 1915 to 1923, public knowledge of widespread corruption forced Thompson to sit out a third term. In 1928, Thompson returned to mayoral politics in the so-called Pineapple Primary. Thompson's successor as Chicago mayor vigorously enforced the ban. Thompson developed a close relationship with mobster Al Capone, whose mob supported political violence and restored Thompson to office.

"Pineapple" was contemporary slang for a hand grenade.

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Democratic political machine

Anton Cernak took control of the Democratic Party and defeated Hale for mayor in 1931. He did so with an even larger coalition of immigrants living in Chicago. His successors, Patrick Nash and Edward Kelly, kept the Democratic Party in power with patronage jobs and political appointments and ensured the city weathered the Great Depression on a mix of federal and mob money. During his tenure from 1955 to 1976, Mayor Richard Daley managed to keep the political machine alive much longer than in other cities.

Daley used a number of loopholes, such as temporary job creation, to keep jobs in patronage despite civil service reform.

Machine policy: definition and examples (5)Abb.5 – James Curley

Boston Machine Politics

While the Irish were often a powerful force in machine politics, in Boston machine politics they were the only dominant force. From Ireland's first mayor, Hugh O'Brien, in 1884, to James Curley losing re-election in 1949 because of a rebuke of the political machine. The political machinery of the Irish Democrats had finally failed as other ethnic groups such as Italians and black Americans gained more power in the city.

Despite several prison sentences, Curley was a very popular politician for over 35 years. In fact, his crimes endeared him to his voters when he passed a civil service exam for one of his supporters and managed to turn the crime into the campaign slogan "He did it for a friend."

the importance of the political machine

The long-term effects of political machines are surprisingly contradictory. They produced some of the strongest political reforms in favor of marginalized people, but opposition to their abuses led to more progressive reforms. Immigrants, those who did not own property, and various minority groups gained a political voice and support for their communities. The inefficiency and outright corruption of politically appointed officials who lacked the ability or desire to perform their duties properly led to a civil service reform that severely weakened the political apparatus.

Machine policy – ​​Important insights

  • Mainly active from the 19th to the early 20th century
  • Party bosses controlled city politics to stay in power
  • Led to rampant corruption and ineffective political appointees in government offices
  • To provide jobs and welfare for immigrants and other minorities who supported the machine
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