Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft
Congressman George Washington
as narrated to William L. Riordon
EVERYBODY is talkin' these days about
Tammany men growin' rich on
graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest
graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world
between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I
have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin'
richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft -
blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. -
and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.
There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might
sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took
Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city, and
it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped
off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all
the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that
makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody
cared particular for before.
Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on
my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's honest
Or supposin' it's a new bridge they're goin' to build. I get tipped off
and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for
approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in
Wouldn't you? It's just like lookin' ahead in Wall Street or in the
coffee or cotton market. It's honest graft, and I'm lookin' for it
every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I've got a good lot
of it, too.
I'll tell you of one case. They were goin' to fix up a big park, no
matter where. I got on to it, and went lookin' about for land in that
I could get nothin' at a bargain but a big piece of swamp, but I took
it fast enough and held on to it. What turned out was just what I
counted on. They couldn't make the park complete without Plunkitt's
swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it. Anything dishonest in
Up in the watershed I made some money, too. I bought up several bits of
land there some years ago and made a pretty good guess that they would
be bought up for water purposes later by the city.
Somehow, I always guessed about right, and shouldn't I enjoy the profit
of my foresight? It was rather amusin' when the condemnation
commissioners came along and found piece after piece of the land in the
name of George Plunkitt of the Fifteenth Assembly District, New York
City. They wondered how I knew just what to buy. The answer is -
I seen my opportunity and I took it. I haven't confined myself to land;
anything that pays is in my line.
For instance, the city is repavin' a street and has several hundred
thousand old granite blocks to sell. I am on hand to buy, and I know
just what they are worth.
How? Never mind that. I had a sort of monopoly of this business for a
while, but once a newspaper tried to do me. It got some outside men to
come over from Brooklyn and New Jersey to bid against me.
Was I done? Not much. I went to each of the men and said: "How many of
these 250,000 stones do you want?" One said 20,000, and another wanted
15,000, and other wanted 10,000. I said: "All right, let me bid for the
lot, and I'll give each of you all you want for nothin'."
They agreed, of course. Then the auctioneer yelled: "How much am I bid
for these 250,000 fine pavin' stones?"
"Two dollars and fifty cents," says I.
"Two dollars and fifty cents!" screamed the auctioneer. "Oh, that's a
joke! Give me a real bid."
He found the bid was real enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot
for $2.50 and gave them their share. That's how the attempt to do
Plunkitt ended, and that's how all such attempts end.
I've told you how I got rich by honest graft. Now, let me tell you that
most politicians who are accused of robbin' the city get rich the same
They didn't steal a dollar from the city treasury. They just seen their
opportunities and took them. That is why, when a reform administration
comes in and spends a half million dollars in tryin' to find the public
robberies they talked about in the campaign, they don't find them.
The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all
right. Everything is all right. All they can show is that the Tammany
heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and
gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let
me tell you that's never goin' to hurt Tammany with the people. Every
good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn't isn't likely
to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I
give it to a friend - Why shouldn't I do the same in public life?
Another kind of honest graft. Tammany has raised a good many salaries.
There was an awful howl by the reformers, but don't you know that
Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin'?
The Wall Street banker thinks it shameful to raise a department clerk's
salary from $1500 to $1800 a year, but every man who draws a salary
himself says: "That's all right. I wish it was me." And he feels very
much like votin' the Tammany ticket on election day, just out of
Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into
believin' that it worked dishonest graft. They didn't draw a
distinction between dishonest and honest graft, but they saw that some
Tammany men grew rich, and supposed they had been robbin' the city
treasury or levyin' blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin' in with
the gamblers and lawbreakers.
As a matter of policy, if nothing else, why should the Tammany leaders
go into such dirty business, when there is so much honest graft lyin'
around when they are in power? Did you ever consider that?
Now, in conclusion, I want to say that I don't own a dishonest dollar.
If my worst enemy was given the job of writin' my epitaph when I'm
gone, he couldn't do more than write:
"George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took 'Em."