Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, 1905 George Washington Plunkitt was a professional politician associated with the powerful Tammany Hall organization of the Democratic Party in New York City. In the following excerpt from “a series of very plain talks on very practical politics,” Plunkitt describes the “distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.” Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m getting’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft – blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. – and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place. I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course it is. Well, that’s honest graft…. I haven’t confined myself to land; anything that pays is in my line.
For instance, the city is repavin’ a street and has several hundred thousand old granite blocks to sell. I am on hand to buy, and I know just what they are worth. How? Never mind that. I had a sort of monopoly of this business for a while, but once a newspaper tried to do me. It got some outside men to come over from Brooklyn to bid against me. Was I done? Not much! I went to each of the men and said, “How many of these 250,000 stones do you want?” One said 20,000 and another wanted 15,000 and another wanted 10,000. I said, “All right, let me bid for the lot and I’ll give each of you all you want for nothing.” They all agreed of course. When the auctioneer yelled, “How much am I bid for these 250,000 pavin’ stones?” “Two dollars and fifty cents,” says I. “Two dollars and fifty cents!” screams the autioneer. “Oh, that’s a joke! Give me a real bid.” He found the bid was ral enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot for $2.50 and gave them their share. That’s how the attempt to do Plunkitt ended, and that’s how all such attempts end.
I’ve told you how I got rich by honest graft. Now, let me tell you that most politicians who are accused of robbin’ the city get rich the same way. They didn’t steal a dollar from the treasury. They just seen their opportunities and they took ‘em. The Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let me tell you that’s never going to hurt Tammany with the people. Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend. Why shouldn’t I do the same thing in public life?
Plunkitt refers to his operations as “philanthropy.” Explain. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
How does Plunkitt distinguish between honest and dishonest graft?