Politics and Corruption in the Gilded Age

Start Free Trial

How does George Plunkitt define "honest/dishonest graft"?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

George Plunkett believed there was a big difference between honest graft and dishonest graft. With honest graft, politicians used their positions and the knowledge they gained from holding their positions to make personal decisions that will pay big dividends later. Let’s say a city government official hears plans about a...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

George Plunkett believed there was a big difference between honest graft and dishonest graft. With honest graft, politicians used their positions and the knowledge they gained from holding their positions to make personal decisions that will pay big dividends later. Let’s say a city government official hears plans about a possible new road that might be built in a certain area. This official will buy the land in this area before the news of building this road becomes public. Once the decision is made to build this road, the land prices in this area will rise far higher than what the government official paid for it. Thus, when this official sells the land, a big profit would be made.

Plunkett also felt it was acceptable to help one’s friends. This could be done by raising salaries or by giving a person, who often is a friend or political associate, a job. Plunkett understood that these people would support the machine’s candidates at election time because of the help they received.

With dishonest graft, illegal methods were used to make a profit. These actions would include blackmailing people and stealing money directly from the city treasury. Plunkett believed that honest graft was perfectly acceptable, unlike dishonest graft, which wasn’t a proper practice to follow.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Chapter 1 of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, Plunkitt defines honest graft as "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." In other words, if he hears, because of his political position, about a park that his political party is going to build in a neighborhood, he buys up the land around the park and makes a profit on it. Another type of honest graft is nepotism and favoritism. As Plunkitt says, "If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend." In other words, he believes Tammany Hall should reward its friends.

On the other hand, he defines dishonest graft as overt rule breaking, such as stealing from the treasury, blackmailing people, or collaborating with gamblers and law breakers. As he says, "why should the Tammany leaders go into such dirty business, when there is so much honest graft lyin' around when they are in power?" In other words, Tammany Hall politicians don't need to engage in dishonest graft, as what he defines as honest graft is so lucrative. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the book Plunkitt of Tammany Hall William Riordan published many of George Washington Plunkitt's thoughts about government and about big city machines.  In the link below, you can find the passage that explains the difference between honest and dishonest graft.

Honest graft is using your connections and knowledge as a government official to enrich yourself.  It is essentially what we would now call "insider trading."  Honest graft is when a goverment official goes out (for example) and buys up land because he knows a city project will need that land and he will be able to make a lot of money by buying the land now while no one else knows that it is about to be bought by the city.  He can buy it cheap and then sell it at a higher price to the city.

Dishonest graft consists of doing things like blackmailing people who are doing illegal or semi-illegal things.  It can also consist of actually taking money directly from the city treasury.  It is more of what you would expect mobsters to do--things like forcing prostitutes to pay money to police in order to be allowed to work in a given area rather than being arrested.

Plunkitt compares "honest graft" to what is done on Wall Street.  He sees it as a gentlemanly and quite acceptable way of using his poisition to enrich himself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team