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[Detail] Preface from Punchinello 1, no.1 (1870).

Post-Civil War Politics: Urban Machines and Rural Granges

In the years after the Civil War, much political power became concentrated in the hands of machine politicians and ward bosses, particularly in the nation's growing cities. Read Theodore Roosevelt's article in the November 1886 issue of The Century, "Machine Politics in New York City," exposing political machine bosses and comparing them to merchants and manufacturers who seek profit above all else.

. . . Many a machine politician who is to-day a most unwholesome influence in our politics is in private life quite as respectable as any one else; only he had forgotten that his business affects the state at large, and, regarding it as merely his own private concern, he has carried into it the same selfish spirit that actuates the majority of the mercantile community.

From "Machine Politics in New York City," The Century; A Popular Quarterly, Volume 33, Issue 1, November 1886, page 74
  • According to Roosevelt, how did the term machine politics originate? Given Roosevelt's description of how the political machines operated, why was the term descriptive of political organizations in urban areas in the late 1800s?
  • Why did Roosevelt think that people neglected their "public duties"? To what extent could the same be said of people today? Explain your answer.
  • Describe the social side of politics in the late 1800s. On balance, do you think the extension of politics into social life was beneficial or harmful?

Patronage—the power to give jobs to people the government wished to hire—was one of the tools keeping the urban political machines in power, but patronage also extended to state and federal governments. In 1772, the first proposal for a merit-based approach to public jobs, often called civil service, was made. Conduct a keyword search using the term civil service to identify numerous articles on civil service reform.

In rural areas, interest in politics grew in the post-Civil War period, in part because farmers felt themselves to be victims of economic elites, such as the railroad companies; they believed that the government did too little to protect them against these special interests. Through the Grange movement, farmers organized into community groups, called granges, which worked for such political reforms as regulation of railroads and grain elevators, government loans to farmers, and rural mail delivery. Read the article "The ‘Granges' Excitement" from the August 1873 Manufacturer and Builder.

  • What was the author's general view of farmers? How do you think the views of people today compare?
  • Why were the railroad companies so important to the farmers? How did the railroad companies use their power against the farmers? Why were the railroads important to the nation's economy generally?
  • Why do you think the author was concerned about the entry of farmers and representatives of Granges into politics? Do you think these concerns were justified?