Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by Jeff Broxmeyer, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Toledo

When the political leader “Boss” Tweed was arrested in New York on corruption charges in the fall of 1871, among his many assets was a luxury hotel.

Located up the road from City Hall, the Metropolitan[1] was a 400-room, five-story building described at its 1852 opening as a site that “fairly dazzles and bewilders the visitor, and causes him to think of the palaces of ‘Arabian Nights’ tales[2].” Tweed had acquired the hotel at the peak of his political power. He renovated the Italian Renaissance-style building at great expense, and he turned over management to his son[3], Richard.

The city’s elite patronized the hotel from day one, and it was the epicenter of business and politics in New York. Tweed held court there when managing public affairs[4] as the head of Tammany Hall[5], a powerful Democratic political machine.

His downfall[6], however, transformed the Metropolitan into an unlikely monument to scandal. Boss Tweed had bankrupted the city by embezzling funds while building himself a vast business empire[7].

Today, politics is again a place to make a fortune, at least for one prominent politician. Shortly before winning the 2016 election, Donald Trump celebrated the grand opening[8] of Trump International Hotel, down the street from the White House. In 2018 alone, the D.C. hotel generated US$40 million[9] in revenue by drawing heavily from a clientele with government business.

Unlike other modern presidents, Trump refuses to divest[10] from personal business, raising the question where the search for profit ends and his public service begins.

But if the situation appears new, it is hardly unprecedented.

Making money off of politics isn't new – it was business as usual in the Gilded Age Boss Tweed, depicted by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. Wikipedia[11]

Party business

The Gilded Age[12], which lasted from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, was a period when wealth flowed from success in politics.

Leaders in both parties became powerful and rich, building personal influence, crafting alliances, generating money and constructing the political machines necessary to win elections – all while serving in government.

When researching my upcoming book[13], “Electoral Capitalism: The Party System In New York’s Gilded Age,” I found political fortunes that were quite impressive. Politicians in New York and elsewhere made themselves into some of the country’s earliest millionaires.

During that period, what qualified individuals for party leadership was their ability to use the electoral system to finance a range of personal and political ventures.

For example, Tweed’s political ascent spawned an entire financial sector[14] owned and managed by Tammany Hall[15].

As state senator, he supported the legislative charter of new savings banks headed by himself and other Tammany politicians. The capital of these banks came from city funds which Tweed controlled from his seat on the Board of Audit[16], corporate donors looking for political favors, religious charities receiving public subsidies and immigrant workers, who were encouraged to deposit their earnings. These Tammany banks helped to make Tweed the third-largest landowner in New York City.

The banking house Morton, Bliss & Company was built upon marketing U.S. government debt, a lucrative privilege secured by party connections in the Grant administration. Levi P. Morton[17] then used his private firm[18] to manage the personal finances of the day’s most influential Republicans, from Roscoe Conkling to James Blaine, before becoming himself a congressman, vice president and governor.

Morton’s firm sold U.S. debt in every administration from the 1870s onward, with the exception of the Democratic President Grover Cleveland, before selling to J.P. Morgan in 1909[19]. Morton went into retirement as one of the wealthiest men of the day.

Making money off of politics isn't new – it was business as usual in the Gilded Age 1881 cartoon, ‘This is not the New York Stock Exchange, it is the patronage exchange, called U.S. Senate.’ Roscoe Conkling and Thomas Platt are to the right of Chester Arthur, who was president. Library of Congress, J.A. Wales artist[20]

Gilded democracy

The politicans’ newfound wealth – mansions on Fifth Avenue or buying race tracks – generated a public outcry over the so-called “bogus aristocracy.”

In language common among working-class reformers, “John Swinton’s Paper” called upon voters to “up and cleanse” public office of the “filthy slugs, roaches, and bloated spiders that fatten on the stealings”[21] from taxpayer money and corporate lobbies.

Where did the public till end and the private purse begin? It was not so clear. Virtually no laws, state or federal, existed to prevent self-dealing or embezzlement.

Private property was often treated as sacrosanct, however acquired, and politicians were skilled in making arguments about their fortune’s legitimacy. Fernando Wood became a millionaire by flipping public land during his several mayoral terms. Yet, throughout a long career Wood maintained he was a respectable “merchant[22].” Critics questioned his reputation, but they could do little else.

Personal enrichment was encouraged through public office-holding because profits fueled party politics. Then, as now, elections were expensive. Party committees were always in need of cash infusions. Few questions were asked about the origins of donated funds.

This period was also the spoils system’s heyday[23], when parties rewarded their supporters by giving them jobs and contracts.

Thomas Platt[24] climbed the party ladder to the presidency of the U.S. Express Company[25] by securing it generous federal subsidies as a congressman. Platt’s family took advantage[26] of sweetheart company loans and paid themselves huge salaries.

Making money off of politics isn't new – it was business as usual in the Gilded Age Reformer George William Curtis. New York Public Library[27]

An old question now

Is politics a legitimate way to become wealthy? Historical debates help to consider the role of money in politics today.

During the 19th century’s final decades, mass movements of farmers and laborers protested[28] loudly against the growing wealth of politicians, as living conditions for them worsened.

Reformers from across the political spectrum believed the sudden growth of political fortunes was part of the problem – a “conspiracy of officeholders” is what George William Curtis[29], head of the Civil Service Reform Association, called it.

Still, no easy consensus was reached on the proper remedy.

Where reformers did agree was in the view that democracy was more than just another place to do business. Otherwise, competition shifts among politicians from a struggle for votes to a scramble over dollars, and the only policies advanced are those that line the pockets of party leaders and their patrons.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day.[30] ]

References

  1. ^ Metropolitan (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  2. ^ fairly dazzles and bewilders the visitor, and causes him to think of the palaces of ‘Arabian Nights’ tales (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov)
  3. ^ he turned over management to his son (books.google.com)
  4. ^ managing public affairs (www.gothamcenter.org)
  5. ^ Tammany Hall (books.google.com)
  6. ^ downfall (southwestcollection.wordpress.com)
  7. ^ vast business empire (doi.org)
  8. ^ grand opening (www.c-span.org)
  9. ^ US$40 million (oge.app.box.com)
  10. ^ refuses to divest (www.reuters.com)
  11. ^ Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org)
  12. ^ Gilded Age (www.americanyawp.com)
  13. ^ upcoming book (jeffbroxmeyer.com)
  14. ^ spawned an entire financial sector (doi.org)
  15. ^ Tammany Hall (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  16. ^ Tweed controlled from his seat on the Board of Audit (www.biography.com)
  17. ^ Levi P. Morton (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  18. ^ private firm (books.google.com)
  19. ^ selling to J.P. Morgan in 1909 (www.senate.gov)
  20. ^ Library of Congress, J.A. Wales artist (www.loc.gov)
  21. ^ “filthy slugs, roaches, and bloated spiders that fatten on the stealings” (books.google.com)
  22. ^ maintained he was a respectable “merchant (academicworks.cuny.edu)
  23. ^ spoils system’s heyday (catalog.hathitrust.org)
  24. ^ Thomas Platt (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  25. ^ U.S. Express Company (drc.ohiolink.edu)
  26. ^ took advantage (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  27. ^ New York Public Library (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  28. ^ farmers and laborers protested (books.google.com)
  29. ^ George William Curtis (digitalcollections.nypl.org)
  30. ^ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. (theconversation.com)

Authors: Jeff Broxmeyer, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Toledo

Read more http://theconversation.com/making-money-off-of-politics-isnt-new-it-was-business-as-usual-in-the-gilded-age-120822

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Blane Ferguson - avatar Blane Ferguson

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Digital - avatar Metropolitan Digital

Metropolitan Business News

Office Cleaner Takes Ownership of the Neglected Dishwasher

In an office that a dishwasher is being used communally, it is pretty difficult to set rules on how a certain appliance needs to be taken cared of. A dishwasher is a responsibility of no one until you...

News Company - avatar News Company

Amazing tips to become a successful trader

Everyone is working very hard to secure their financial freedom. Most of the people find it hard to support their family even after having a 9-5 day job. For this very reason, people often look for ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Practice For Young Professionals Working Through HR Internships

The industry of human relations is vitally important to the health and prosperity of a business.   Whether they are operating in textile manufacturing, accounting, sports, IT development or hospit...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Easy Steps To Gaining SEO Momentum For Your Business

SEO (search engine optimisation) does not have to be a tiresome and overbearing exercise that diverts attention away from the core functions of a business.   SEO Shark affirms this as a smart and ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Manage An SEO Project On Limited Funds

SEO operators don’t need thousands upon thousands of dollars to become successful.   What SEO practitioners needs more than ever is the skills and diligence to identify problems that are acting a...

News Company - avatar News Company

An Introduction To Coworking For Australian Business Owners

Advancing technology is bringing with it great advantages in communications and networking, and to survive in business you need to keep up. With the rate at which everything changes these days, that...

News Company - avatar News Company

Holidays

New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt

SKYN LAUNCHES GUIDE TO THE BEST PLACES TO GET INTIMATE

SKYN®, Australia’s best-selling condom*, today launches its very first SKYN® Places of Intimacy Guide.   Curated in partnership with GQ Magazine and Conde Nast, the Guide features 30 lux...

SKYN - avatar SKYN