US Political Machines at the Turn of the 20th Century

During the Gilded Age, rapid urbanization put extreme stress on urban dwellers, many of whom were immigrants. To get what they needed, they turned to political machines.

Jan 5, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
american political machines history
A photograph of the Democratic Party headquarters in Manhattan, New York, commonly known as Tammany Hall, via National Public Radio (NPR)


Rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization in the northern United States in the decades after the Civil War (1861-65) led to growing problems in cities like New York. Overcrowding was common, crime was rampant, and government services were insufficient. Political machines developed in many cities during the Gilded Age (late 1860s-1890s), using partisan loyalty to reward certain groups with government jobs, services, and business contracts. During this era, the patronage system was common, and winners of political office had a relatively free hand to reward political supporters with the “spoils” of victory. Critics accused political machines of corruption, nepotism, and protecting incompetent loyalists, while supporters argued that they helped immigrants and the poor when nobody else would.


Setting the Stage: Rapid Urbanization

political machine eviction 1900
A painting of an urban family being evicted around the year 1900, via the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Washington DC


After the US Civil War (1861-65), immigration to the United States from Europe increased dramatically due to the rapid growth of industry. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were lured to America by the promise of readily-available factory jobs. Arriving in east coast cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, these immigrants did not have to travel far to find work. However, urban conditions quickly declined due to the mass influx of immigrants: unable to keep up with the pace of newcomers, cities became overcrowded and riddled with problems like crime, pollution, and terrible health conditions.


The crowding caused by immigration was compounded by many Americans leaving rural farms and moving to the cities as well. With immigrants coming from Europe and farmers coming from rural areas, cities’ infrastructures were overwhelmed by the 1890s. New transportation innovations like cable cars and subway systems allowed people outside the cities to commute to the cities during the day for work, intensifying crowded conditions during working hours. Not surprisingly, there was soaring demand for new urban infrastructure: streets, railways, sewers, public schools, and police and fire stations.


Patronage Politics Circa 1900

political machine spoils system
A political cartoon criticizing US President Andrew Jackson for expanding the spoils system, also known as the patronage system, via the Library of Congress


Decades earlier, the expansion of direct democracy in the United States had a negative effect of increasing the use of patronage. Also known as the spoils system, the patronage system featured an elected executive (mayor, governor, president, etc.) using appointment power to fill government jobs. US President Andrew Jackson expanded the patronage system in federal jobs to reward faithful voters, helping ensure his popularity. Voters enjoyed the patronage system because it could potentially grant them lucrative positions and government contracts. Thus, by the 1840s, many voters were voting out of a desire for financial and political gain rather than purely on principles and values.

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The popularity of patronage politics and the spoils system arose in large cities as well. During this era, the federal government was much smaller and performed a smaller percentage of the work of government. Local governments were a majority of American government, with almost 60 percent of all government spending in 1902 being performed by municipalities–cities, towns, and counties. As a result, elected officials like city mayors and county commissioners had significant power around the turn of the twentieth century. They rewarded political supporters with government jobs and contracts, contributing to the entrenchment of political machines.


Immigrants Struggle & Seek Assistance

anti immigration sentiment
A political cartoon highlighting the hypocrisy of native-born Americans in their disdain toward current immigrants, via The Ohio State University


The rapid increase in immigration during the decades after the Civil War, an era known as the Gilded Age, resulted in lots of hostility toward immigrants. Gilded Age immigration featured a majority of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who often had considerably different cultures from those of native-born American Protestants. Previous immigrants from England and Germany were much culturally closer to native-born Americans, resulting in less overt hostility toward them. Quickly, immigrants to east coast cities during the late 1800s experienced nativism, or discrimination against immigrants.


Partially as a result of nativism, immigrants during the last decades of the nineteenth century often struggled to settle down in America. Local politicians realized they could win loyal voters if they assisted these new immigrants. Immigrants arriving in New York City, for example, were often visited by local political officers within weeks of arrival. These well-connected political party members could help find immigrants housing, jobs, and government services…with the expectation of partisan loyalty in exchange.


Lack of Secret Ballot Benefits Patronage System

voting no secret ballot
A painting of a nineteenth-century election in America, before the era of the secret ballot limited political pressure on voters to display loyalty, via the National Endowment for the Humanities


Up through the 1880s, elections in the United States did not typically feature the secret ballot. Voters cast their votes orally to someone who recorded it, resulting in both political pressure and fraud. Elected officials controlled vote-tallying through patronage, virtually guaranteeing that their respective political parties would remain in power despite public opinion. Voters also knew that their oral votes could be overheard by local political bosses, employers, neighbors, and friends. Breaking party loyalty could result in loss of jobs and connections, or potentially even violence!


The late 1800s and early 1900s also saw blatant partisan advertising by government employees. Only in the 1930s, with the passage of the Hatch Act, were public sector employees banned from behaving in a partisan manner. In addition to having their votes overheard or overseen, voters in cities were also faced with overt electioneering by local government employees, such as police officers. Today, this political campaigning by government employees would be considered coercive, as voters would fear a lack of government services, such as police protection and fair treatment of their children in public schools, if they opposed the dominant party.


Popular Support: Political Machines Provide Services

political machine government contracting
An image promoting businesses seeking government contracts, via Iowa State University


Political machines did not just benefit from intimidation and coercion–they did maintain popular support because they provided services and jobs to often marginalized groups of immigrants. Construction companies could receive lucrative contracts to build roads, bridges, and government buildings…often in exchange for kickbacks and/or bribes. Neighborhoods (called “wards” for political purposes) that displayed strong political loyalty could receive infrastructure improvements like roads, sidewalks, sewers, and government offices.


The selective provision of government services and corrupt nature of awarding government contracts had both ardent critics and outspoken supporters. George Washington Plunkitt, a political boss in New York City, famously described the workings of a political machine as “honest graft.” It was argued that such “corruption” was inevitable and that the political machines were providing necessary services that others were not. And, going all the way back to Jacksonian Democracy (the pro-patronage, populist democracy supported by Andrew Jackson), shouldn’t the winner of elections get to make decisions on behalf of his majority of voters?


New York City Political Machine: Tammany Hall

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A political cartoon featuring the controversial Tammany Hall political machine in New York City, with political boss William “Boss” Tweed at front left, via the City of New York


Not surprisingly, the most famous political machine in the late 1800s existed in America’s largest city: New York City. The Democratic Party dominated New York City politics through its Tammany Hall machine, with Tammany Hall being the name of the party’s headquarters in the city. In the early 1870s, powerful political boss William “Boss” Tweed became one of the first political machine figures convicted in the United States. Although Tweed’s conviction weakened the Tammany Hall machine, it continued to dominate New York City into the early 1900s.


In the 1930s, New Deal legislation under Democratic US President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally weakened political machines, including Tammany Hall, by shifting much government spending from local and state to federal. After 1933, the ability of unemployed young men to work for federal agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) removed some political machine power. The federal government had no incentive to allocate resources selectively, in the manner of political machines, and thus public expectation shifted toward greater fairness and equality in the provision of government services during the New Deal era.


Political Machine in Chicago

political machine chicago machine
A chart showing the operations of the political machine of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, via the University of Illinois at Chicago


America’s second largest city during the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era was Chicago. Unlike New York City, Chicago had a competitive two-party political system. The first lasting political machine did not emerge until the 1920s under Democrat Anton Cermak, but patronage was certainly the name of the game in the late 1800s. Both parties were accused of abusing patronage during the era to win votes. Although Chicago did not have a single dominant political machine like New York City, it quickly became known for political corruption.


The dominant machine in Chicago politics, the Daley machine, did not emerge until the 1950s. It did evolve, however, from two previous Democratic machines: the Cermak machine of the 1920s and the Kelly machine of the 1930s. Democratic mayor Richard J. Daley, who held the office for 21 years from 1955 to 1976, was a master of manipulating the intricacies of city, county, and state government regulations to maintain control of many budgets. Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, later served as mayor from 1989 to 2011, matching his father’s lengthy tenure.


Other Political Machines

hugh obrien boston
An image of Hugh O’Brien, elected in 1884 as the first Irish mayor of Boston, via Mass Humanities


A third major city that was a destination for immigrants was Boston, which was located on the east coast like New York City. In 1884, Irish-born immigrant Hugh O’Brien was elected mayor, shifting political power from native-born Protestants toward the predominantly Irish immigrant class. A popular figure, O’Brien’s sudden death in 1896 led to rampant political infighting as political ward bosses struggled for control. Still, the large Irish immigrant population remained politically united, concerned about losing power if nativist Protestants returned to dominance. The Irish political machine strengthened until the 1930s, when it suddenly faced the same struggles against federal New Deal power as the Tammany Hall machine in New York.


Cincinnati, Ohio was also known for machine politics. The Cox political machine, controlled by George Cox, headed a city that struggled with rapid growth from immigrants who first tried farming and then moved to Cincinnati. Cox became popular by centralizing city decision-making to eliminate political infighting, making government services more efficient…but less democratic. At its peak around 1900, mayor Cox controlled about 5,000 government jobs that could influence many votes. Facing united political opposition and criminal investigations, the Cox machine eroded significantly by the early 1910s. In 1915, Cox retired from politics, and passed away the following year.


End of Patronage System: Civil Service Reform

pendleton act 1883
An image of the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, via PBS & GBH Educational Foundation


Several factors contributed to the decline of political machines in the early 1900s, but the strongest was likely civil service reform that began in the federal government. In 1881, popular US President James Garfield was assassinated by an angry federal job-seeker who had been rebuffed for a political post. Critics blamed the patronage system that had led angry and unstable citizens to feel entitled to government jobs in exchange for political loyalty. Congress responded to Garfield’s death and public criticism of patronage by passing the Pendleton Act of 1883, which reclassified some federal government jobs.


Although the initial introduction of a merit system in federal employment was small, it started a trend in favor of a professional bureaucracy as opposed to appointed patronage. Over time, most government jobs became filled through competitive hiring that required applicants to demonstrate skill and ability. This spread to state and municipal hiring as well, especially as the New Deal and its use of grants extended federal requirements to state and local government agencies that accepted federal money. In order to receive federal financial support, cities had to meet federal requirements of merit-based hiring and promotion for government employees.


Continued Struggle Between Patronage & Merit

political machine bureaucracy hierarchy
An image of the bureaucratic hierarchy, via Lesley University


Despite the collapse of political machines in favor of merit-based government bureaucracies, where government jobs are filled using merit instead of patronage, disputes remain about the importance and value of elected officials’ appointment power. The US President gets to appoint thousands of executive branch positions, and state governors also get to appoint many executives. Some argue that civil service protections unfairly limit the ability of governors and presidents to exercise their power by allowing government employees to refuse to carry out new executive orders and laws.


During the recent Republican presidential administration of Donald Trump, critics of the federal bureaucracy alleged that a “deep state” of career bureaucrats allowed government employees to resist Trump’s initiatives. In 2020, Trump signed an executive order establishing a new classification of federal employees–Schedule F–that would be considered appointees rather than civil service employees. This expanded the patronage system, and was rescinded in 2021 by new US President Joe Biden. If Trump returns to the White House in 2025, it is assumed that he will reinstate this Schedule F expansion of the patronage system, prompting resistance from Democrats.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.