Wednesday, October 31, 2018

G.W. Plunkitt (of Tammany Hall) on Patronage...

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George Washington Plunkitt

The great political sage George Washington Plunkitt was a fascinating character and an astute observer of humans and human nature.
Now, I grew up in the days of the Civil Service Merit System and like my late father, I appreciated a system in which anyone could prepare for and take any exam they wanted, regardless of who you knew, how much money your family had, or what political affiliations you shared.

However, even I have to admire the plain-spoken wisdom of this Tammany elder, who reviled the idea of what was then (1903) called "Civil Service Reform." He clearly supported patronage.
I've begun thinking in a like-minded manner since the standards today, are effectively no standards at all and more often than not jobs are doled out by lottery.

Under these conditions, I say, "Why NOT go back to the old patronage system"?

Here's our friend George W Plunkitt's take on it, from a piece entitled, "The Curse of Civil Service Reform"; "This civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age. It is the curse of the nation. There can’t be no real patriotism while it lasts. How are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them when they work for their party? Just look at things in this city today. There are ten thousand good offices, but we can’t get at more than a few hundred of them. How are we goin’ to provide for the thousands of men who worked for the Tammany ticket? It can’t be done. These men were full of patriotism a short time ago. They expected to be servin’ their city, but when we tell them that we can’t place them, do you think their patriotism is goin’ to last? Not much. They say: “What’s the use of workin’ for your country anyhow? There’s nothin’ in the game.” And what can they do? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what I do know. I know more than one young man in past years who worked for the ticket and was just overflowin’ with patriotism, but when he was knocked out by the civil service humbug he got to hate his country and became an Anarchist.

"This ain’t no exaggeration. I have good reason for sayin’ that most of the Anarchists in this city today are men who ran up against civil service examinations. Isn’t it enough to make a man sour on his country when he wants to serve it and won’t be allowed unless he answers a lot of fool questions about the number of cubic inches of water in the Atlantic and the quality of sand in the Sahara desert? There was once a bright young man in my district who tackled one of these examinations.

"The next I heard of him he had settled down in Herr Most’s saloon smokin’ and drinkin’ beer and talkin’ socialism all day. Before that time he had never drank anything but whisky. I knew what was comin’ when a young Irishman drops whisky and takes to beer and long pipes in a German saloon. That young man is today one of the wildest Anarchists in town. And just to think! He might be a patriot but for that cussed civil service." (

It should be known, that by "patriotism," Mr. Plunkitt really meant, "devotion to Party," his being the Tammany Democrats.

Unlike today's milqtoasts, George W. was an unabashed supporter of what he saw as best for Tammany, best for NY and best for the Country; "When the people elected Tammany, they knew just what they were doin’. We didn’t put up any false pretenses. We didn’t go in for humbug civil service and all that rot. We stood as we have always stood, for rewardin’ the men that won the victory. They call that the spoils system. All right; Tammany is for the spoils system, and when we go in we fire every anti-Tammany man form office that can be fired under the law. It’s an elastic sort of law and you can bet it will be stretched to the limit. Of course, the Republican State Civil Service Board will stand in the way of our local Civil Service Commission all it can; but say! - suppose we carry the State sometime, won’t we fire the upstate Board all right? Or we’ll make it work in harmony with the local board, and that means that Tammany will get everything in sight. I know that the civil service humbug is stuck into the constitution, too, but, as Tim Campbell said: “What’s the constitution among friends?”

Indeed...what is a little old Constitution among friends?"

Hell, today you hardly ever hear about that old document. Politicians themselves, just flat out ignore it. At least old Plunkitt acknowledged it.

"And he was not without evidence to back up his claims neither, "I have studied politics and men for forty-five years, and I see how things are driftin’. Sad indeed is the change that has come over the young men, even in my district, where I try to keep up the fire of patriotism by getting’ a lot of jobs for my constituents, whether Tammany is in our out. The boys and men don’t get excited any more when they see a United States flag or hear “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They don’t care no more for firecrackers on the Fourth of July. And why should they? What is there in it for them? They know that no matter how hard they work for their country in a campaign, the jobs will go to fellows who can tell about the mummies and the bird steppin’ on the iron. Are you surprised then that the young men of the country are beginnin’ to look coldly on the flag and don’t care to put up a nickel for firecrackers?
"Say, let me tell of one case. After the battle of San Juan Hill, the Americans found a dead man with a light complexion, red hair and blue eyes. They could see he wasn’t a Spaniard, although he had on a Spanish uniform. Several officers looked him over, and then a private of the Seventy-first Regiment saw him and yelled, “Good Lord, that is Flaherty!” That man grew up in my district, and he was once the most patriotic American boy on the West Side. He couldn’t see a flag without yellin’ himself hoarse.

"Now, how did he come to be lying dead with a Spanish uniform on? I found out all about it, and I’ll vouch for the story. Well, in the municipal campaign of 1897, that young man, chockful of patriotism, worked day and night for the Tammany ticket. Tammany won, and the young man determined to devote his life to the service of the city. He picked out a place that would suit him, and sent in his application to the head of department. He got a reply that he must take a civil service examination to get the place. He didn’t know what these examinations were, so he went, all lighthearted, to the Civil Service Board. He read the questions about the mummies, the bird on the iron, and all the other fool questions-and he left that office an enemy of the country that he had loved so well. The mummies and the bird blasted his patriotism. He went to Cuba, enlisted in the Spanish army at the breakin’ out of the war, and died fightin’ his country.

"That is but one victim of the infamous civil service. If that young man had not run up against the civil examination, but had been allowed to serve his country as he wished, he would be in a good office today, drawin’ a good salary. Ah, how many young men have had their patriotism blasted in the same way!"

It's sad that George Washington Plunkitt is a largely forgotten man in America, today, which, sad to say, is a very different country than the one GW stomped around in...and I don't just mean "simpler times," but a freer, more optimistic nation.

Reading that passage in my youth would've riled me to disgust against Plunkitt's support of the political patronage he called "Tammanyism," devoted as I was to the Civil Service Merit System, he referred to as "humbug," BUT today, seeing clearly, that there is no longer any real "merit" in the Merit System, why not return to patronage, where the Party in power rewards those who toiled for it with Police, Fire, Building Inspection jobs and all the other positions available?

It DOES indeed keep up Party loyalty ("patriotism") and puts all involved in the position of having some "political skin in the game."

What some might say is, "What once was old, seems new again," or, "the wheel is round." Both are true enough. I'd prefer a return to the traditional merit based Merit System...short of that, even the spoils system Plunkitt espoused is better than what we have now.

Anyone really interested in the political ideas that forged a bygone age and STILL influence our own, should read George Washington Plunkitt's, "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall" (…/0…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_MKqRBbAWKCQ43), it's an excellent read.

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