Immigrants & Big City Machine Politics

David Wiles, Eaps 760

The first large scale government that "grew up as homegrown" in the United States were political machines. Their birth can be traced to the first large scale waves of immigrants that came to the United States in the 1820's-1850's.

The workings of the machine was based upon the idea of jobs for votes. Simply, government and public services employment were for those who would exchange their political rights of choosing those who would "boss" them and "run" the government for jobs and guarantees of being employed as long as the "machine" stayed in political control.

The strength of the machine was found in both the personal allegiance and the local neighborhood identity of the people involved. Each neighborhood of vote giving employees was run by a "precinct captain." The immigrant would see the captain for the initial job, go to them for advice, let them adjudicate complaints and controversies and, most important, to secure other jobs for members of the immigrant family. On election day, the precinct captain would make sure the voter turnout was 100 perce nt.

The giving of public service jobs as "favors" was called patronage. The criteria for being selected was blind and unswerving loyalty. Expertise and technical competence were secondary and qualifications based on some code like civil service was n ot part of the equation.

We must not forget the strong prejudice and hatred for new immigrants that was the general culture of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The original thirteen American colonies were a conferated government and cities carried the same provincial t one. In the decade after the Constitution was written it was quite clear that the grand unifying features of the nation-state (even "federal" government itself was a bit shaky) played second fiddle to the real political culture. Immigrants escaping from European disasters (e.g. the Irish potato famine and Cromwell government) were met with open hostility by general citizens. The idea of public schools to educate immigrant children, for example, was seen as a "charity" arrangement. Employment through t he cooptive and undemocratic machine was the only option available.

Over time, the original immigrants evolved into the neighborhood captains and machine bosses. The family and intergenerational membership of the machine was called nepotism, meaning hiring one of your own. The strong ethnic and racial identity of waves of immigrants guaranteed that machine politics would identify city government and public services with those features. In New York, for example, the Irish and Italian "roots" are still referenced to the Erie Canal era and the Afro Americans to t he "between the wars."

The real strength of the political machines used to dominate local government did so through what Paul Peterson calls the "instrumental politics" style. The ability to make government operations persist without open ideological allegiance or appeals to moral auth ority is seen in the anger of the municipal reformers like Woodrow Wilson and Samuel Tilden. The historical legacy of the "precinct captain" relationship can still be detected in a spectrum of close association arrangements, from the organized labor "sh op steward" to the present day, project driven "street level bureaucrat."


  • Shafritz & Hyde; Woodrow Wilson, pages 11-24;
  • Shafritz & Hyde; E. Pendleton Herring, pages 75-79.

Other Readings

  • William Riordan, Plunkett and Tammany Hall (1905);
  • Alexander Callow, The Tweed Ring Oxford Press, (1966);
  • Samuel Tilden, The New York Ring republished McGrath Publishers, (1969);
  • Leo Hershkowitz Tweed's New York Anchor/Doubleday, (1977);
  • Paul Peterson School Politics: Chicago Style University of Chicago Press, (1978).