Honest Graft
by George Washington Plunkitt

George Washington Plunkitt was a New York politician and a member of Tammany Hall, which ran New York City for more than a century, and remains the most infamous political machine in American history. Plunkitt was the subject of a 1905 book, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, by William T. Riordan, which is excerpted here.

"Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft-blackmailin' gamblers, saloon-keepers, disorderly people, etc.-and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.

"There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.'

"Just let me explain my examples. My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

"I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

"Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course it is. Well, that's honest graft...

"...It's just like lookin' ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market.

"...Now, let me tell you that most politicians who are accused of robbin the city get rich the same way.

"They didn't steal a dollar from the city treasury. They just seen their opportunities and took them. That is why, when a reform administration comes in and spends a half million dollars in tryin' to find the public robberies they talk about in the campaign, they don't find them.

"The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right All they can show is that the Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft...

"I've been readin' a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities. Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don't know how to make distinctions. He can't see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There's the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin' their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin' his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization's interests, and the city's interests all at the same time..."

Source: William T. Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905), 3-54.