LINK #2:  The Urban “Machines ”: Political Parties in the Progressive Era


            When we think about political parties (which isn’t often, for most people) we tend to think of them as collections of voters seeking to put their preferred candidates into positions of public authority by electing them to various governmental offices.  We refer to this aspect of political party activity as party-in-the-electorate.

            There is a second aspect of party behavior, however, less commonly thought of, that arguably has just as important an impact on government as does the electoral facet.  This second feature is referred to as party-as-organization.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular, party organizations wielded tremendous influence on the political economy—especially at the urban level.  So efficiently run and smoothly functioning were those parties-as-organizations that they were known as political “machines”.  The heads of the machines—often, although not always, the mayor of the city—were know as political “bosses”. 

            The development of the machines was closely related to the development of urban commerce under the emerging order of industrial capitalism.  Businesses needed services that only governments could provide; government officials needed political and financial support from business leaders to remain in office.  Thus was a long-standing, colorful—but ultimately nefarious—relationship born,


…offering to the political manipulator opportunities that have rarely been paralleled…. Streets had to be laid out, paved, and lighted; sewers extended; fire-fighting facilities increased; schools built; parks, boulevards, and playgrounds acquired and scores of new activities undertaken by the municipality.  All these brought grist to the politician’s mill.  So did his control of the police force and the municipal courts.  And finally, with the city reaching its eager streets far out into the country, came the necessity for rapid transportation, which opened up for the municipal politician a new El Dorado.[i]



Thus, in return for providing a needed easement or awarding a construction contract, the local machine and its boss could expect financial support come election time and bribes and kickbacks at other times.  What the private economic interests could not provide in the necessary quantities, however, were the votes necessary to insure reelection of the boss and his machine cohorts.

The flip side of the machine coin, therefore, was the relationship it established with electoral groups.  Those voters who supported the party’s election efforts—and in the days before the secret ballot it was obvious to party officials stationed at the polling booths exactly who was voting for whom—could expect to reap the rewards: city jobs (which were plentiful in the days of rapidly accelerating urbanization; and which were controlled by the machines in the days prior to the institution of civil service), social welfare services (in an era where government provided almost no such assistance), and the social status that went with being part of the ruling organization.

Particularly needful in those areas, and therefore particularly important for supplying the warm bodies needed by the machines, were the tens of thousands of immigrants who frequently arrived on our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs and a host of hungry mouths to feed.


The foreign immigrants who congested our cities were alien to the American institutions…. These foreigners were easily influenced and easily led.  Under the old naturalization laws, they were herded into the courts just before election and admitted into citizenship … not infrequently at the rate of one a minute!  And, before the days of registration laws, ballots were distributed to them and they were led to the polls, [just] as charity children are given excursion tickets and are led to their annual summer’s day picnic.[ii]


            While the machines often were highly efficient in providing the infrastructure, construction contracts, jobs, and social services that were so critically needed in that era of rapidly developing urbanization, they were not, of course, without their drawbacks (to put it too mildly).  Most obviously, the machines were non-democratic in the sense that they served only those who served the machines first.  Thus, Republicans in a city dominated by a Democrat machine (and vice versa) often had no recourse in terms of obtaining the kinds of services that citizens are supposed to be able to take for granted from their governments.

            Further, because they were so strongly centered on the local “boss”, machines frequently operated like personality cults, with sycophants and hangers-on of little or no political talent filling critical party offices.  That tended to work against the effective and efficient provision of services badly needed in developing cities.  Among the better known machines/bosses of the era were:


  • Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (New York City)
  • The Republican Gas Ring in Philadelphia
  • Edward Butler and his Democrat machine in St. Louis
  • Republican boss George Cox in Cincinnati
  • The Labor-Union machine of Mayor Schmitz in San Francisco
  • Minneapolis under “Doc” Ames (who switched from Democrat to Republican).


            In short, despite the charms frequently exhibited by their irascible leaders, political machines were not the kind of organization called for in a democratic political order.  Accordingly, they became, along with the economic trusts, one of the primary targets of Progressive reformers.  Precisely how the reformers went about combating the machines, however, ended up having important and long-lasting consequences for politics and public policy.

            As was the case with their efforts in opposition to the big, economic trusts, Progressives sought to defeat the machines less by counter-organization (e.g., by running reform-minded candidates against them in election, although that tactic was used) than by harking back to a by-gone era of individualism, seeking to restore to politics the role of the individual.  In pursuit of that goal, the Progressive era became noteworthy for introducing the following institutional changes (among others):

  • Direct primaries: Rather than have the bosses and their machines hand-pick candidates for office, Progressives sought to give that power to ordinary voters.
  • Initiative, referendum, and recall: When a machine-controlled city council or state legislature refused to act on needed legislation, citizens were left with little recourse.  Under this set of reforms, citizens could, after gathering enough signatures, force an issue onto the ballot for a direct vote of the people.
  • The “Australian” (secret) ballot: As long as ballots were drawn up by the machines themselves to be easily distinguishable from one another, and as long as they contained the names of only that party’s candidates, it was apparent for which party a person was voting.  He thus could be punished if he took the “wrong” party’s ballot.  This reform allowed citizens to conceal their voting behavior from the machine’s polling-place lookouts.
  • Commission government: “Professionalizing” government by putting its operations into the hands of non-politicians was another attempt to diminish the role of the machines in corrupting the politics of the day.


While perhaps admirable for their intentions, these and similar reforms of the era had the long-term effect of diminishing the role of political parties in American politics.  That is a critically important consequence, since it historically has been the case that the parties have been the primary mechanism whereby the relatively powerless in society have been able to exercise some degree of countervailing power against society’s relatively much more powerful, organized, special interests.  The Progressives didn’t succeed in destroying the machines—they would die longer, more natural deaths in most cities—but they did succeed in greatly weakening parties-in-the-electorate.  As a result, the long-term—and highly ironic—consequence of the effort to rid politics of the corrupting influence of the (special-interest) political “machines” was to increase the role of special-interest money in our electoral process.

[i] Samuel Orth, The Boss and the Machine (Yale U. Press, 1921), pp. 52, 58-9.