The Gilded Age, or as it is commonly referred to as, the era of corruption, took place in 1877 to 1900. This time period was most effectively portrayed in the novel and movie, The Gangs of New York, which was written by Herbert Asbury. The Gangs of New York focused on a time of politicalcorruption during a period of massive increase in immigration in New York. In this essay I will discuss three themes: immigration, Political machines, and bad situations, that helped contribute to corruptions long vibrant history.
Due mainly to famine and disease, immigration increased tremendously during the Gilded Age in three large waves to the United States. The first wave occurred from 1815 to 1860, an estimated five million immigrants, mostly English, Irish and Germanic, arrived to the United States. The second wave of immigrants started from 1865- 1890, ten million more immigrants from northwestern Europe arrived to the United States. Finally, the third wave, between the time period 1890 and 1914 consisted of 15 million Turkish, Russian, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. The increase of immigrants created a huge competition for jobs, wages and votes. The immigrants that arrived in the first wave who began to establish themselves eventually developed a sense of citizenship that they became comfortable to call themselves “Native Americans.”
These Native Americans resented the newer immigrants, provoking racism and violence. The negativity towards new immigrants was portrayed best in the scene at the ship docks, where New York civilians cursed and threw objects at the Irish and other new immigrants in The Gangs of New York. The sudden increase of immigrants, increased the population of cities, where opportunities were plentiful. Naturally, jobs became scare, thus following an increase in unemployment, crime, prostitution and poor living conditions.
People became more desperate and willing to just get ends meet. For example, in The Gangs of New York, people similar to Cameron Diaz’s character, the accomplished female pickpocket, Gangs like the Dead Rabbit and Bill The Butcher emerged from this society by using violence and theft to survive. Thus politicians took full advantage of this by offering jobs and civil services in return for political favors. Even today government is plagued by corruption, by getting certain bills and laws passed; politicians obtain favors for their work.
The height of political corruption in the Gilded Age was greatly due to political machines. Political machines usually had one, or sometimes several bosses, which oversaw all operations. Under the political boss are election district captains and district bosses, which would be in charge of mobilizing the people and helping the boss make decisions. The other part of the machine would consist of loyalist, who receive the civil service and support the boss. One of the strongest political machines was in New York; Tammany Hall stayed in power from the mid 18th century to the 20th century and was also featured in The Gangs of New York. The last and also one of the most powerful bosses of Tammany Hall was Boss Tweed.
Tweed was notorious for many things, one was his nose, and the other was kickbacks. A kickback is a term referred to the money the political machine received for granting contracts to real estate and other projects. The machine will give out a contract, for example a building or bridge. The government will donate money they raise by raising taxes to have the project finished. As a favor returned for the contract, the company who received the contract must give money to the political machine. The machine also takes advantage of the immigrants by giving free bread to immigrants, and giving them jobs for votes to ensure their power.
Fires, hunger and any situation that a political figure could use to obtains voters contributed to corruption as well. Politicians would set fires, and show up before the fire engines and help take down the fire in front of the public. Politicians would also give the victims money to get back on their feet. Although these seem like generous gestures, the politicians are only looking for another vote. They would hand out bread to the hungry and promote their name. However, something can not always go wrong for a politician to save the day, so eventually bad situations would be staged to allow a politician the chance to obtain future voters. For example, President George W. Bush’s approval rating soared after waging war with terrorism. An example in The Gangs of New York when the fire broke out, the politicians arrived immediately, and at first hid the fire hydrant, so he could appear to be the hero instead of extinguishing the fire first.
As immigration rose in Gilded Age, opportunities were harder to come by thus increasing reciprocity and more chances for corruption. Political machines became in power, basically a business of corruption. Corruption spread in all forms of government even the police. Bad situations also influenced corruption, in that, politicians made sure these unfortunates happened, to make them appear as heroes in order to obtain votes. Thus immigration, political machines, and bad situations have all contributed to corruptions long and vibrant history.
Courtney from Study Moose
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