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Political Machine: Definition & History

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  • 0:01 What Were Political Machines?
  • 2:14 Support & Rewards
  • 3:26 Impact of Political Machines
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
The urban political machine dominated the American cityscape around the turn of the 20th century. In exchange for votes and support, the machine allied with both rich and poor in major urban areas. Learn more about it in this lesson.

What Were Political Machines?

Image yourself a poor Irish immigrant living in New York City's Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th century. Your husband or wife suddenly falls ill, and his or her health steadily gets worse. You have no money for medical help, but you know who to contact: the 'boss' of the local Democratic political machine. The 'boss' shows up and helps get your husband or wife to the hospital. You say you have no money, and he replies, 'Don't worry about it. Just remember this on election day.' And you do—you vote for whichever Democratic candidate the 'boss' tells you to vote for!

In a nutshell, this is how the political machine worked in the big cities of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in America. A political machine was an urban organization designed to win elections and reward its followers, both rich and poor. The machine controlled a hierarchy of party loyalists, and it often formed a 'shadow government' seemingly more powerful than the actual elected officials. The Democratic Party held sway in most of the country's large cities and thus controlled many political machines, but the Republicans had their share as well.

The political machine was headed by a 'boss,' a professional, often corrupt, politician who provided favors to poor immigrants and rich businessmen in return for political support and opportunities for wealth. The most famous, or perhaps infamous, 'bosses' of the Democratic political machines were William 'Boss' Tweed of Tammany Hall and Timothy D. 'Big Tim' Sullivan of the Bowery and Lower East Side districts of New York City. They both whipped supporters into shape and ruled their machine with an iron fist.

Though most urban political machines were of the Democratic persuasion, such corruption was not foreign to the Republicans. Roscoe Conkling, a Republican Senator from New York, explained that politics 'is a rotten business… Nothing counts except to win.' Favors and rewards, door-to-door pressure, newspaper articles and radio shows, among other means, were all used to run this 'rotten business' by the 'bosses' of political machines.

Support and Rewards

For the urban poor, the political machine and the 'boss' provided tangible benefits, such as help in emergencies, government jobs, and a variety of social services. The political machine also provided entertainment for the lower classes through rallies, speeches, picnics, parades, and other fanfare. In return, the political machine's 'boss' expected support on election day.

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