Ron Paul Curriculum, English 1, Lesson 80
Writing assignment: 500 words on this topic: “Why do you think Plunkitt was so open about how he made his money?”
“Stop them d—ed pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them d—ed pictures!”
– William “Boss” Tweed,
Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall
from 1858 to 1871
George Washington Plunkitt was a New York City machine-politician in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He seemingly dedicated his whole life to Tammany Politics and graft. He did not write his own autobiography, and instead authorized one by William L. Riordon. Unfortunately for him, however, he didn’t learn much from history. His autobiography was written with his own trusting constituents as the intended audience. This false sense of security made him extremely open with how he obtained his money, due to justifications, intentional mislabelings, and the influence, of all people, of Riordon.
Plunkitt’s very first chapter, “Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft,” is dedicated to differentiating what Plunkitt did, and what bad people did. He gives a detailed example of “honest” graft, what he did, but oddly enough, never gives any example of “dishonest” graft, referring to it vaguely as, “but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.” This is essentially saying: “I’m always right, but you don’t need to know exactly where the wrong starts.” If the reader has no conscience of their own or completely trusts him, the fuzzy line of right/wrong allows Plunkitt to evade criticism in decisions of questionable morality.
Then comes a time-honored tradition of Plunkitt’s party: Giving a pretty name to something bad, or giving an ugly name to something good. In his case: “Gratitude.” Plunkitt’s “gratitude” was the buying of votes and nominations. It means “reliance” in English. Chapter 6, “To Hold Your District: Study Human Nature and Act Accordin’,” is about “philanthropy’s” connection to politics and vote-getting. Plunkitt was always the first to offer aid when a fire burned someone’s house down, got jobs for the poor, and made children associate him with candy. “It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too – mighty good politics.” (His claim of philanthropy is a lie. It’s just vote-gathering.) “The poor are the most grateful people in the world, and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich have in theirs.” In Chapter 18, “On the Use of Money in Politics,” Plunkitt described how politicians’ “gratitude” worked: If you didn’t send money back to your organization once you were nominated/elected, the Tammany Boss wouldn’t nominate you again. If you failed to display proper gratitude, a guy named Dan would “shiver” at you. That’s why Plunkitt hated the Civil Service reform. Because the job security made Dan’s shivering ineffective at obtaining “gratitude” for Tammany.
Finally, it’s obvious that Riordon had a tremendous amount to do with how much Plunkitt confesses (Riordon’s own word in the Preface). Riordon was intentionally making Plunkitt look silly and vulnerable to his Republican opposition. His strategy for obtaining Plunkitt’s approval involved justifying “honest” graft in the first chapter, then slamming civil service reform in the third, and the state hayseeds in the fourth. Plunkitt would greatly approve of what was said in those chapters, then simply skim over the rest of the book. He said himself that bookworms were a very unimportant part of politics, only used by Tammany as “ornaments.” Thus, he likely did not do much reading in general, possibly including his own autobiography…
George Washington Plunkitt was not the average politician. He was far more honest and ignorant. He belittled scholars and highly educated people, while at the same time publishing an autobiography to be read by his illiterate supporters. Riordon went along with it, and the results were failed justifications, unintentional confessions about crimes, and “philanthropy.”