Machine politics

At its peak during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, machine politics was a response to the needs of the growing urban populations. Operating under a spoils system, many late nineteenth century political machines offered new immigrants jobs and housing in exchange for votes.

The birth of the American political machine can be traced to the waves of immigration to the United States during the late nineteenth century. Following the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), America saw tremendous expansion in industry and a rapid increase in urbanization. Many immigrants who entered the United States between 1860 and 1890 were poorly educated and unable to speak English. Urban political machines emerged to help alleviate abject poverty, as they could address the needs of the immigrants better than government agencies could. Many immigrants needed jobs and resources faster than traditional means could provide them. Thus, in large cities such as Chicago, New York City, and Kansas City, Missouri;machine politicsKansas City, Missouri, political machines were created to meet these needs.Machine politicsMachine politics[cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Machine politics[03350][cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;Machine politics[03350]

Machine “bosses,” as the leaders of the machines came to be known, provided immigrants help with naturalization, finding jobs, and negotiating rent agreements. Although not often in charge of hiring immigrants directly, bosses persuaded elected officials to give jobs to immigrants or to ensure that government contracts were made with businesses that would employ the faithful immigrants. Machine bosses were seen as beacons of hope for the downtrodden and in many cases took on paternalistic roles. In return for their patronage they expected unwavering loyalty at the Voting;and machine politics[machine politics]voting booth. Although this system has been difficult to enforce during the twenty-first century, it was simple to maintain during the nineteenth century. At that time, privacy in voting booths was limited. Many immigrants arrived at polling places, where they received already marked ballots that they dropped into ballot boxes to be counted–all under the watchful eyes of machine bosses. In many cases, the undemocratic methods of political machines were the only means immigrants had to get jobs. Many immigrants became party leaders within their own neighborhoods and thus helped draw new immigrants into established political machines.

Tom Pendergast

A Machine politics;Kansas City, Missourifamous example of a machine boos was Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, Missouri;machine politicsMissouri;Kansas CityKansas City, Missouri. Pendergast’s older brother Jim ran a saloon and hotel in Kansas City. As a bartender Jim heard about people’s problems and did what he could to help them. Later, when a friend of Jim ran for political office, Jim asked his customers to vote for his friend. The friend won, and shortly thereafter Jim ran for political office himself as an alderman; he also won. Tom Pendergast saw the potential political influence that could be gained from helping needy voters. He found people jobs, gave them food, and persuaded them to vote for his favored candidates. In 1900, the Pendergast machine helped elect Kansas City’s mayor, and Pendergast himself was able to oversee the appointments of two hundred workers for a street-paving program. By the early 1920’s, Pendergast was spending six hours a day listening to people’s needs, and the rest of his time was spent meeting those needs in exchange for votes.

In 1922 and 1926, Pendergast got Truman, Harry S.[p]Truman, Harry S.;and Tom Pendergast[Pendergast] future U.S. president Harry S. Truman elected to county positions. This relationship with Pendergast would later cause trouble for Truman when he ran for the U.S. Senate and for president. By 1932, Pendergast was able to swing votes for Missouri state and national offices. In return for his assistance in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt for president, Roosevelt directed five million dollars worth of federal aid to Pendergast through New Deal programs.

The Pendergast machine was practically invincible within Missouri and might have lasted decades longer had not the immigration pattern in Kansas City changed. Most immigrants settling in Italian immigrants;Kansas City, MissouriKansas City during the 1930’s were Italians who resented the Irish leaders and party workers who made up a large percentage of the Pendergast machine. Physical fights ensued, and a once purely political machine began to evolve into a gangster-related mafia. Pendergast himself was later jailed for tax evasion, and his political career came to an abrupt end.Machine politics

Further Reading

  • Cornwell, Elmer E., Jr. “Bosses, Machines, and Ethnic Groups.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 353, no. 1 (1964): 27-39. Traces the influence of ethnic groups on politics after the decline of the machines during the 1920’s.
  • Gerstle, Gary, and John H. Mollenkopf. E Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005. Highlights the struggles of immigrants to assimilate into American political society.
  • Heidenheimer, Arnold J., and Michael Johnston. Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. 3d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002. This compilation explores the historical concept of political corruption via the nineteenth century political machines.
  • McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Chapters 5 and 6 give a detailed account of how the Pendergast machine selected Harry S. Truman for the U.S. Senate.
  • Roosevelt, Theodore. “Machine Politics in New York City.” The Century 33, no 1 (1886): 74-83. Timely look at political machines operating in New York City and a rationalization of why they exist.
  • Royko, Mike. Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. Classic work in the field of machine politics, Royko explores the only major political machine to survive in the second half of the twentieth century.


Irish immigrants

New York City

Political parties

Presidential elections


Tammany Hall