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Urban History Essay, Research Paper

During the 19th century there was a rapid growth of American cities due to immigration and migration from rural areas. This rise in the population created enormous problems for city governments, which were often unable to provide for the people and lacked any type of structure. In these conditions we begin to see the emergence of political machines, such as Tammany Hall in New York City. These groups were able to build a loyal voter following, especially among immigrant groups, by performing such favors as providing jobs or housing. Political machines are characterized by a disciplined and hierarchical organization, reaching down to neighborhood and block organizers, that enables the machine to respond to the problems of individual neighborhoods, or even families, in exchange for loyalty at the polls.They were called machines because of their power to get candidates elected and their mechanical like efficiency when doing business. Political machines are local political party organizations capable of mobilizing or “manufacturing” large numbers of votes on behalf of candidates for political office. The traditional American political machine consists of three elements: a county committee, which governed the machine; an army of ward and precinct leaders who mobilized and organized support at the neighborhood level; and party loyalists who supported the machine with votes and financial support in return for benefits provided by ward and precinct leaders. The county committee consisted of professional politicians and the party’s top office holders within the county. In some cases, a single leader, called the “party boss”, would dominate the committee. In the 20th century, individuals such as Kansas City’s Thomas J. Pendergast, Boston’s James Michael Curly, and Chicago’s Richard J. Daily exercised a controlling influence on their city’s political affairs through their command of the county committee. The county committee’s control of government jobs and its ability to secure contributions from businesses enabled it to establish and maintain the machine’s second organizational tier, the precinct or ward organization. Benefits at the ward and precinct level provided the machine’s link to the foundations of its organization, the party loyalists in the electorate. It was this type of political structure that was the back bone for machine politics and it was this type of politics that inspired Edwin O’Connor’s popular novel “The Last Hurrah” in 1956. This novel chronicles the career of Frank Skeffington, the longtime Irish-American mayor of a major eastern city, as he begins an unsuccessful reelection campaign. Skeffington is modeled on James M. Curly, the longtime mayor of Boston, and his power is built on personal relationships and patronage, with his charm and kindness making his corruption seem less dangerous. Frank Skeffington is a typical political machine boss and his political dealings can be compared to other big bosses like; Boss Tweed, Tim Sullivan, and Richard Croker. These bosses all provided the city with the programs and relief that it needed, even though, some provided it using more legal methods than others did. This was a time when the federal government did not provide any type of relief programs or aid for the poor. Because of this lack in government programs the public was left empty and without hope; these bosses came into their lives and delivered what they promised, relief. The reason for their success was that they made their power known and they were accessible to all that needed them. As Skeffington put it, “I am available to every man and women in the state, all they need is a little patience, and, of course, the vote.” (O’Connor p.11)

Support for the political bosses came mostly from the immigrant population, because they viewed politics as an extension of the family. The bosses kept the public feeling this way because they upheld the values that working-class immigrants had learned from their families. Even though there were few legal regulations on the election process, machines did not depend on good will alone to ensure success at the polls. (Chud. 156) Frank Skeffington, and the machine politicians that he resembled, had to deal with more than just being popular; they had to satisfy the neighborhood constituencies, as well as, satisfy the business community and deal with the changes brought about by Roosevelt’s New Deal if they wanted to remain in public office.

Neighborhood constituents formed one special interest group served by political machines; the business community was the other. (Chud. 157) By securing public offices and the patronage attached to them, machines could distribute favors to their advantage. (Chud. 156) It was these favors to the constituents that helped to keep Skeffington and others in office. Skeffington, like Tim Sullivan, liked to show his gratitude to the public by giving parties and having parades. The chowder began with Tim himself leading a street parade; the celebration typically included dinner, beer, band music and dancing, and a late night return with torch light parade and fireworks. (Czit. 136) Sullivan also started the tradition of feeding poor people on holidays and gave away shoes and clothing to the needy. But, it was famous for its total lack of conditions- no distinctions made between the deserving and the undeserving, no home investigations, no questions asked. (Czit.137) Skeffington also employed tactics such as these to satisfy the neighborhood constituents. He would see the public every morning to hear their problems and complaints. He would provide for those who needed it and, in most cases, it came out of his own pocket. But, like Sullivan, Skeffington always made sure to satisfy all of the constituents making sure that he never sided with one group and left out another. A good example of this is when Skeffington is going to build a statue in the park. Several different groups want him to erect a particular statue, so instead of siding with one group he decides to put up a statue that won’t upset anyone. This was typical of the way Skeffington dealt with the neighborhood constituents to assure that he remained popular. He also remained popular by being a friend to those that needed one. For example, when Knocko died Frank was there for his widow. Not only did he provide her with some financial relief, out of his own pocket, but he also gave her the moral support she needed. Frank did this to bring a crowd to Knocko’s wake so the widow would feel a little bit better. (O’Connor 194) It was acts like this that would continually make the public feel like Frank Skeffington was indeed a friend. Ironically, it was the way that Skeffington would obtain these favors that led to a decrease in his liking.

The Sullivan machine was not all bread and circuses, (Czit.137) nor was Skeffington’s. The political machine had to do more than give parties and deal with neighborhood groups to stay in power; it had to conduct business and make money. Unfortunately, the way that they conducted business was something to be desired. They could juggle tax assessments, select banks and other firms to receive city business. (Chud.157) Outsiders called the practice bribery. Another popular method of conducting business was by blackmail. Skeffington used this practice to accomplish several of his political goals. Two examples of this would be when he blackmails the undertaker and Cass, the banker. The first would be at Knocko’s funeral when Frank tells Mr. Degnan that the cost of the funeral should be thirty-five dollars and that he should comply if he wanted to keep his license. (O’Connor 211) The second is when Skeffington blackmails Cass the banker. Cass refuses the city a loan for a housing development, so Frank decides to appoint Cass jr. as fire commissioner to embarrass his father. This pressures Cass sr. to provide Skeffington with the loan for the city. (O’Connor 150) Like Curly, Skeffington centralized the powers of patronage in his own hands and distributed public-works jobs in such a way as to retain the loyalty and support of his working-class electoral base. As mayor, he spent enormous sums of money on city projects to satisfy his constituents and, as a result, he caused the city to have poor credit. But, this way of politics and doing business would soon come to an end with the introduction of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seek the democratic nomination for the presidency in 1932 and Tammany Hall and machine politicians fought him bitterly. Once elected, Roosevelt decided to destroy Tammany’s power. He would do this through his New Deal. The New Deal programs were aimed at the three R’s; relief, recovery, and reform. The government established short-term goals that provided relief and immediate recovery, especially in the first year. They then set up long range goals which were aimed at permanent recovery and reform of the current government programs. One short lived program was the National Recovery Administration(NRA) that was designed to provide a nationwide comeback. The program was designed to assist industry, labor, and the unemployed by setting standards for prices, wages, and hours. It also created the right to form unions which helped to make the machine politician obsolite. The NRA was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme court and was removed. The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) was another major program, introduced by congress, to cope with the millions of people who were unemployed. The main component of this was immediate relief of economic disaster rather than long range recovery. This agency was to cooperate with the states by helping to relieve hardships caused by unemployment. The goal of this program was to help the unemployed to become self-sufficient by bringing them to a higher level. The New Deal slowly took away the power once held by Tammany Hall by introducing and institutionalizing such programs as social welfare. As these programs grew, the capacity of the machine to secure support by providing social services began to diminish as well. It was situations such as these that began to challenge politicians, such as, Skeffington and John Kelly to obtain the vote that they had once so easily received. This was because they provided nothing extra; citizens were now entitled by law to receive relief. No longer did they have to look to the big bosses for help, but instead they received it from the federal government. Because of these new laws machine politicians began to also lose their control over government jobs and had difficulty recruiting workers and activists. The New Deal and the changes it brought greatly effected the political machine and by the 1960’s only a small number of political machines remained in the United States. The old way of politics that Frank Skeffington had known was gone, taken over by Roosevelt’s New Deal and the changes that resulted from it. Today, most party organizations in the United States are sustained by social ties and ideology, rather than by control of jobs, services, and political favors. This has reduced governmental corruption, but there are some places that the loss of the strong leadership of the machine has made it difficult to develop and implement coherent solutions to municipal problems.


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