The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 39

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


The Huge Black Market of Vote Buying

Publisher's note -- At the time this was written by Mr. George, United States Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by direct vote. Money amounts cited in the text should be multiplied by more than 10 if you want a sense of the modern equivalent purchasing power.

And what is true of passing bills or refusing to pass bills is true of the election of United States Senators by the Legislatures. During the Senatorial election at the New York State capitol recently, one candidate was openly spoken of as "the most successful lobbyist of his day." According to common newspaper report, he had a fund of $478,000 to support his Senatorial aspirations. Such an argument proved irresistible. He was triumphantly chosen. He was at that time director in more than fifty different railroad corporations, mostly in New York State, besides being director in a number of banks and other fiduciary companies.

Of course party leaders and party machines may get much bribe money to the exclusion of legislative members. In such cases the latter are driven under the party lash to vote in conformity to such purchasing. But generally the buying transactions are conducted with the individual members themselves and, in the New York Legislature at least, is often carried on with a cynical disregard for even the superficial proprieties.

Men known to be lobbyists by all who are in the least familiar with affairs consort freely with the members. Indeed, certain members are recognized as the "financial agents" in the Legislature of, say, the Gas Monopoly, the Bell Telephone Company, or the Sugar Trust. And these agents "see" certain members when anything is "doing" touching on their respective interests.

A State Senator told me of how in one instance he voted on a bill according to his convictions, and then chanced to leave the chamber. On returning he found on his desk an unaddressed envelope in which was a new crisp $1000 note. A member sitting near suggested that the money was in acknowledgment of the vote. When it was returned to another member, who took no pains to conceal the fact that he had left it, he said: "Keep it. Every one voting that way got a piece of the green like that. If you will be a fool and won't use it for yourself, then give the money to some charity; but don't bring it back to me." The member who had merely done what he had considered to be his duty threw the money down in disgust and walked away.

And in the municipal aldermanic or councilmanic bodies congressional and legislative rottenness is repeated. The corporations dependent there for their privileges buy ordinances or immunities. Poor men are, in consequence, made rich. A New York City Borough President is in point. On an official salary of $5000, he supports a $10,000 steam yacht, a $12,000 automobile, a $15,000 Rockaway villa and a $27,000 California stock farm.

But now and again it happens that the price demanded is too high. This seems to have been so in the case of a franchise for a short connecting railroad for which the Pennsylvania Company asked relative to its new terminal in New York City. As a result the railroad managers went to Albany and procured from an obliging Legislature an amendment of the city charter taking all franchise-granting power from the Board of Aldermen. All power was concentrated in the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, composed of the elective administrative heads of the City Government. That board had from the beginning favored what the railroad corporation desired.

Better by far a rotten Board of Aldermen, subject to popular control, at least when the body of the people get roused to a crisis, than charter-amending by an enormously powerful railroad corporation in its own behalf. Yet so outrageous had the franchise dealings of the Aldermen become, and so accustomed were the people to accept domination by privileged corporations, that small outcry was raised against this bold assumption of power.

But all this belongs to the vulgar cash-in-hand kind of bribery. There are other ways of securing venal legislators, more refined and quite as effective. The Wall Street Journal puts in words what is of common knowledge --

It is indeed certainly one of the most dangerous of all the kinds of commercialism in politics, and perhaps explains the mysterious way in which small salaries have made public office-holders rich. United States Senators and Congressmen, for instance, may be let in on a sugar or steel speculation, members of the State Legislature on gas, Aldermen on traction -- as the price of their official service for Privilege. This undoubtedly is true of municipal bribery. It is just as profitable and very much safer than the cash-down methods pursued by the "Forty Thieves," which the New York City Council and Aldermen were popularly called in the middle 1850s; or by Boss Tweed and his associates in the latter sixties and early seventies; or by the "Boodle Aldermen" in 1884, each of whom, according to sworn testimony afterward, received $22,000 for one vote for the Broadway street railroad franchise.

And just as the seekers for or holders of legislative privileges practice the corruption of legislative bodies, from those in Congress down, so are they the main contributors to the corruption funds of the party machines, national, State and municipal. Corrupting the servants of the people, they corrupt the people too. In testifying before a United States Senate committee in 1894, Mr. H. 0. Havemeyer, president of the American Sugar Refining Company (Sugar Trust), spoke with entire frankness on this point:-

The contributions to either or both of the party organizations by the privilege-owning corporations are in the aggregate very great. The Philadelphia Record editorially made the charge that in the fight against the Weaver faction in the Republican party, the Durham-McNichol faction, during the campaign of 1905, spent $220,000 simply for bill board and newspaper advertising and hall hire. Nothing was more patent to the world than that the only persons to whom it could be worth while to spend such an amount of money in such a way were either the owners of privileges who looked for protection and extensions from the Durham-McNichol faction in the event of victory, or that faction itself which expected to "bleed" such owners of privileges. Privilege in either event was expected to pay the bill.

In urging the passage through the New York Legislature of corrupt practice bills, Mr. William Church Osborn declared that "the best informed believe that in this State the Democrats used about $700,000 on election day last year [1904] and the Republicans about $1,250,000, a total of about $2,000,000, for 1,250,000 voters."

Half a century ago De Tocqueville wrote that he "never heard of any one accused of spending his wealth in buying votes," ("Democracy in America," Vol. I, p.287) and up to a short time ago there was little bribery among our farmers and in our smaller villages. The corruption at elections was in our towns and cities. But now the corruption of the farmers and villagers is general. They expect to be paid by the party to which they belong for their time and the time of their teams. If their party does not make this payment, they will refuse to vote, or else will accept payment from the other party and vote for its candidate.

As for vote-buying in the cities and towns: it cannot be done with such certainty since the adaptation of the Australian ballot system (publisher's note -- that is the private ballot system advocated by Henry George senior; you can thank him that your boss does not know for whom you vote), which an awakened public compelled. Despite this, it is often possible to get the "goods delivered" by employing party "workers." They wear the party badges, help to get out the voters, and make a demonstration of party strength by collecting near the polling places.

Who pays these workers? The party, or rather the party boss and manager. Whence comes the means? Whence, indeed, but, in the main, from the public franchise-owning corporations and others having or hoping for public privileges.

Yet there are collateral sources of corruption. "The amount annually paid to the police force of New York City in tribute," announces former District Attorney Eugene A. Philbin, "is $1,000,000. I am aware that in the tenderloin precinct alone it amounts to $20,000 per month. Gambling houses there pay $500 a month to run, and other houses pay $500 to open and $50 each month to run." (Address at Cornell University, May 23, '905. Mr. Philbin afterward publicly stated that he spoke of conditions preceding the Police Commissionership of William McAdoo, commencing January, 1904.)

If we are to credit general gossip, many police officials have grown rich while in office. The newspapers set the wealth of one at $2,000,000, one at $1,500,000, one at $1,250,000, three at $1,000,000, one at $850,000, one at $500,000, one at $300,000 and two at $250,000. All these men are now off the force - retired, dismissed or legislated out. They joined the force poor. Their official salaries ranged from $2500 to $5000 a year. How did they get rich? From gambling and disorderly house blackmail is the common belief. But it is probable that if their fortunes began in this way the largest acquisitions were subsequently made through stock and land speculation.

Next week -- the five levels of corruption.

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