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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Power: Taming the Octopus
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Power
Text 1. Images of the Octopus, five cartoons
Text 2. Standard Oil
Text 3. The Octopus in the West
Text 4. The Populist Party Platform [Omaha Platform]
Text 5. The Pullman Strike
Text 6. Jack London, South of the Slot
Text 7. The Boss and the Reformer
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Text 8. Images of Big City Politics
Text 9. Social Policy: Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel
Text 10. Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism
Text 11. African American Strategies
Text 12. Women and Power

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Reading Guide
Lincoln Steffens
Boss Croker
"Boss" Croker
The Boss and the Reformer
- William L. Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, 1905, Preface, Ch. 1-7
- Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities, 1904, "Introduction and Some Conclusions"

Just as corporate capitalism lent itself to characterization as a malevolent, grasping monster, so, too, did politics. The Puck cartoon An English Country Seat . . . (see Text 1), for example, refers to the graft of Tammany boss Richard Croker, who used his ill-gotten gains to purchase Antwicks Manor, an eighteenth-century estate in England. The cartoon states his political philosophy, "I am in politics working for my own pocket all the time." His Tammany successor George Washington Plunkitt shared that view but expressed it perhaps a bit more discreetly, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." That remark was immortalized by William L. Riordan, a reporter who covered city politics for the New York Evening Post. Riordan befriended Plunkitt—"Leader of the Fifteenth Assembly District, Sachem of the Tammany Society, and Chairman of the Elections Committee of Tammany Hall"—and recorded his musings from Plunkitt's "office," a shoeshine stand in the New York county courthouse. In a straightforward, vigorous style, Plunkitt explains how to make money in politics, how to acquire and hold power, and why reforms fail.

His comments about reform would not endear him to Lincoln Steffens. The son of a wealthy businessman, Steffens was born in San Francisco in 1866. He studied in France and Germany before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. Embarking upon a career in journalism, he became one of the era's leading muckrakers. Between 1902 and 1911 he wrote sensational articles exposing government corruption across the United States. In 1904 he collected the articles he wrote for McClure's Magazine in The Shame of the Cities. Subsequent journalistic assignments in Mexico and the Soviet Union led him to embrace revolution and communism, but his enthusiasm for both had waned by the time of his death in 1936. In the introduction to The Shame of the Cities Steffens identifies what he sees as the sources of urban political corruption and offers a way to eliminate them. Business, the commercial spirit, the corruption of patriotism, political bosses all come under fire, but in the end he declares that "the spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit." Yet he offers a way to channel that spirit to good ends. Throughout the introduction his tone wavers. At one point he mocks and expresses despair; at another he praises and expresses hope. In the end he calls his "little volume" a "record of shame and yet of self-respect." 26 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. What, according to Plunkitt, is the purpose of government?
  2. What is Plunkitt's view of good government? Steffens?
  3. Compare Plunkitt's idea of patriotism with that of Steffens.
  4. Compare Plunkitt's view of businessmen in politics with that of Steffens.
  5. How does Plunkitt view his constituents? How does he relate to them?
  6. How does Plunkitt account for the political corruption of his day? How does Steffens?
  7. Is Plunkitt's way of governing democratic?
  8. Who is Steffen's audience? Riordan's?
  9. Why is it important for Steffens to assert that The Shame of the Cities is journalism? What claims does he make for journalism?
  10. What accounts for the mixed tone of his introduction?
  11. According to Steffens, how does corruption threaten American democracy?
  12. How does he view politicians?
  13. What in his view is the solution to the problem of corruption? Compare it to Walter Rauschenbusch's. (See Text 9.)

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Topic Framing Question
  •  How did Americans respond to the shifts in economic and political power that occurred during this period?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
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