School Successes.....The Party Machine

Sunday night, I wrote a test essay to submit for my American History II class. Typically, it takes a day or two for the instructor before I get back my grades, and yesterday I learned I received full credit for the test.  She also had this comment:

J, absolutely fantastic! With your permission, I would like to use your essay as a sample of an exemplary essay in this and future classes.  If you agree, please email me to confirm.  I will not use your essay without your permission.

Nice!  The question asked?

Discuss the activities of the urban political machines, noting not only the corruption present but also the social reforms they helped institute. After evaluating both facets of the machines, do you believe they were good or bad for the development of America? Why?

(And here is my response.....)

The force and power of the urban political machines at the turn of the century was both positively and negatively awe inspiring. Laying claim to some of the most corrupt periods in local government histories and setting the stage for future societal strength and power struggles in major urban areas such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit, these machines would use measures of corruption and illegality to combine into positive social reform and change.

According to Faragher, Buhle, Czitrom, and Armitage, a “successful machine politician viewed his work as a business, and he accumulated his capital by serving people who needed assistance” (2009, p. 565). As altruistic as this sounds, the implementation of capital accumulation through “serving people” more occurred at the expense and yet benefit of the people.

With “close ties to organized prostitution and gambling” (Faragher et al., 2009, p. 565), and a strong penchant for trading contracts and jobs for bribes, the Democratic Party machines held sway on these large urban centers and controlled all services and actions within their boundaries. The desire to remain in power was great, and often the politicians extended their reach through jobs and services in exchange for voter support; appointments to city service departments including the Police and Fire departments (Faragher et al., 2009) were the normal “thank you for being my constituency” rewards.

For all of the corruption, cronyism and patronage, the machines also served to bring about real societal reforms and change. Machine politicians developed extensive city services including garbage collection and fully funded and staffed emergency services. These services brought about a truly paternalistic responsiveness of the government to its citizens. Further, free community events were offered in thanks to the citizens for support. From entertainment to parades, the largely immigrant populations enjoyed the sense of community in direct response to the machine politician’s ingratiation tactics.

These urban political machines were both a positive and a negative influence on the development of America. As Lord Acton said in 1887, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” (Martin, 1996). This is the case with the urban political machine. Blending activities that were corrupt at best and illegal at worst with real societal reform and change served to solidify the party machine power base. These great men, were also bad men. Yet, because of the tradeoff of votes for contracts or jobs, the party machine was able establish and staff staff a strong police, fire, and refuse service. Further, understanding the immigrant populations and their struggles with their employers, progressive machinists drove welfare legislation, labor and safety laws that are still in effect today (Faragher, et al, 2009). In a nutshell, the machines ability to maintain control over every aspect of life within the political district established the largest urban centers in the United States.

As Acton postulated however, this power has corrupted as well. The strides made and the balance that ensued from those early urban machines seems today to have moved to a power-hungry, “what is in it for me” mindset. Corruption no longer has an offsetting positive driver. The strength of the political machine established at the turn of the century appears now to hold no sway over societal issues; the power simply exists to maintain capital cronyism and line the pockets of the politician himself. No longer a balance between corruption and the greater good, party machines have little similarities to their predecessor; and for the future development of America, that presents the largest negative of all.

Faragher, J. M., Buhle, M. J., Czitrom, D., & Armitage, S. H. (2009). Out of many: A history of the American people, Volume II (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Martin, G. (1996, April 7). The phrase finder. Retrieved from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html


I have to admit, I am pretty proud of the recognition, and pleased that my writing can serve as an example to folks.


The Girl Next Door said...

Oh Cousin, I have no doubt your writings are awe inspiring beyond anything you ever hear. This is truly awesome - sad but true and awesome. Congrats! how you are doing all this simultaneously is beyond me!!

JO said...

Awww...thanks GND! How I am doing it all simultaneously is beyond me as well! :-)

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