This is historical reference material from the public domain book titled “Lights and Shadows of New York City” by James McCabe. In this blog post we focus on information relative to the City Government of Manhattan. If you enjoy the information that we’ve provided below, we’d like to offer you this book in PDF form completely for free. To do this go to the bottom of the post and click the link to either read or download the Ebook.
By the terms of the charter of 1870, the government of the City of New York is vested in a Mayor, Common Council, consisting of Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen, a Corporation Counsel, and Comptroller, all elected by the people. There are also a Department of Public Works, which has charge of the streets of the city, and the Croton Aqueduct and Reservoirs; a Department of Docks, charged with the construction of new piers, etc., along the harbor front; a Department of Public Parks; a Fire Department; a Health Department; and a Police Board. The heads of all these Departments are appointed by the Mayor of the city. Previous to 1870 the city was governed by a series of commissions appointed by the Governor of the State, and the citizens were deprived of all voice in the management of their own affairs. It was urged by the friends of the New Charter, that that instrument restored to the citizens of New York the right of self-government. Had its provisions been honestly carried out, New York might have had a good government; but we shall see that they were perverted by a band of corrupt men into the means of the grossest oppression of the citizens.
For many years it was the habit of the respectable and educated classes of New York to abstain from voting. Many, indeed, boasted that they were utterly indifferent to politics; that it was immaterial to them which party elected its candidates. Others thought that they could not spare the time; and others still would not spare it. Again, there were those whose refined tastes made them shrink from the coarse rabble that surrounded the voting places. The reasons were almost as numerous as the delinquents, and the result was that the best portion of the voters of the city—those who were most interested in a good government—left the control of public affairs entirely in the hands of the worst and most vicious classes. As a natural consequence, the suffrage being exercised chiefly by the ignorant and degraded, corrupt men availed themselves of the opportunity afforded them, and, by bribery and kindred practices, managed to secure their election to power. Once in office, they exerted themselves to remain there. They were the rulers of the great Metropolis of the Union, and, as such, possessed power and influence unequalled in any city in the world. They controlled the public funds, and thus had an opportunity of enriching themselves by robbing the people. They held in their grasp all the machinery of elections, and, by filling the ballot-boxes with fraudulent votes, and throwing out those which were legally cast, they could, they believed, perpetuate their power. If their strength in the Legislature of the State was inadequate to the passage of the laws they favored, they robbed the city treasury to buy up the members of the Legislature opposed to them, and it was found that rural virtue was easily purchased at city prices. In this way they secured the enactment of laws tending not only to enlarge and perpetuate their powers, and to increase their opportunities for plunder, but also to bar the way of the people should they awake from their criminal carelessness, and seek to overthrow and punish them. It mattered very little to the men who ruled the city of New York how the elections were decided in the rural districts. They could always swell their vote in the city to an extent sufficient to overcome any hostile majority in the State; and they even boasted that they cared not how many votes were cast against them in the city, as long as they “had the counting of them.” In this way they filled the statute-book with laws for the oppression and injury of the people, and in this way they passed the New Charter of 1870, which they declared was meant to restore self-government to New York, but which was really designed to continue themselves in power, and break down the last obstacles between themselves and the city treasury.
In well-regulated municipal governments, the popular branch, the Common Council, is designed to act, and does act, as a check upon the Executive branch. In New York, a Common Council which thoroughly represented the people of the city—the great commercial, social, and political Metropolis of the Union—would have given the Executive branch of the City Government no little trouble; but the respectable citizens were indifferent to the selection of Councilmen, and the “Ring” took care that the majority of the “City Fathers” were creatures of their own, under obligations to them, and ready to sustain them in any outrage upon the people.
The Common Council of the City of New York can hardly be termed a representative body. It does not represent the honestly gotten wealth of the city; for, though many of its members are wealthy, people look with suspicion upon a rich Councilman. It does not represent the proud intellectual character of New York; for there is scarcely a member who has intellect or education enough to enable him to utter ten sentences in good English. For many years the Councils have been composed of small tradesmen, who found politics more profitable than their legitimate callings, of bar-keepers, of men without social position in the city they professed to represent, and many of whom were suspected of dishonest and corrupt practices by their fellow-citizens. Indeed, it may be said, that, with a very few exceptions, there was not a man in this important body who possessed the respect or confidence of the citizens of New York. They were elected by bribery and corruption, maintained their positions by the same means, and enjoyed the favor and protection of the leaders of their party, only by aiding the execution and covering up from investigation the schemes of those men for their mutual engorgement at the expense of the public treasury.
Mr. James Parton gives the following account of the proceedings of this worshipful body:
“Debates is a ludicrous word to apply to the proceedings of the Councilmen. Most of the business done by them is pushed through without the slightest discussion, and is of such a nature that members cannot be prepared to discuss it. The most reckless haste marks every part of the performance. A member proposes that certain lots be provided with curbstones; another, that a free drinking hydrant be placed on a certain corner five miles up town; and another, that certain blocks of a distant street be paved with Belgian pavement. Respecting the utility of these works, members generally know nothing, and can say nothing; nor are they proper objects of legislation. The resolutions are adopted, usually, without a word of explanation, and at a speed that must be seen to be appreciated.
“At almost every session we witnessed scenes like the following: A member proposed to lease a certain building for a city court at $2000 a year for ten years. Honest Christopher Pullman, a faithful and laborious public servant, objected on one or two grounds; first, rents being unnaturally high, owing to several well-known and temporary causes, it would be unjust to the city to fix the rent at present rates for so long a period; secondly, he had been himself to see the building, had taken pains to inform himself as to its value, and was prepared to prove that $1200 a year was a proper rent for it even at the inflated rates. He made this statement with excellent brevity, moderation, and good temper, and concluded by moving that the term be two instead of ten years. A robust young man, with a bull neck and of ungrammatical habits, said, in a tone of impatient disdain, that the landlord of the building had ‘refused’ $1500 a year for it. ‘Question!’ ‘Question!’ shouted half a dozen angry voices; the question was instantly put, when a perfect war of noes voted down Mr. Pullman’s amendment. Another hearty chorus of ayes consummated the iniquity. In all such affairs, the visitor notices a kind of ungovernable propensity to vote for spending money, and a prompt disgust at any obstacle raised or objection made. The bull-necked Councilman of uncertain grammar evidently felt that Mr. Pullman’s modest interference on behalf of the tax-payer was a most gross impertinence. He felt himself an injured being, and his companions shared his indignation.
“We proceed to another and better specimen: A resolution was introduced, appropriating $4000 for the purpose of presenting stands of colors to five regiments of city militia, which were named, each stand to cost eight hundred dollars. Mr. Pullman, as usual, objected, and we beg the reader to mark his objections. He said that he was a member of the committee which had reported the resolution, but he had never heard of it till that moment, the scheme had been ‘sprung’ upon him. The chairman of the committee replied to this, that, since the other regiments had had colors given them by the city, he did not suppose that any one could object to these remaining five receiving the same compliment, and therefore he had not thought it worth while to summon the gentleman. ‘Besides,’ said he, ‘it is a small matter anyhow;’—by which he evidently meant to intimate that the objector was a very small person. To this last remark, a member replied, that he did not consider $4000 so very small a matter. ‘Anyhow,’ he added, ‘we oughter save the city every dollar we kin.’ Mr. Pullman resumed. He stated that the Legislature of the State, several months before, had voted a stand of colors to each infantry regiment in the State; that the distribution of these colors had already begun; that the five regiments would soon receive them; and that, consequently, there was no need of their having the colors which it was now proposed to give them. A member roughly replied, that the colors voted by the State Legislature were mere painted banners, ‘of no account.’ Mr. Pullman denied this. ‘I am,’ said he, ‘captain in one of our city regiments. Two weeks ago we received our colors. I have seen, felt, examined, and marched under them; and I can testify that they are of great beauty, and excellent quality, made by Tiffany & Co., a firm of the first standing in the city.’ He proceeded to describe the colors as being made of the best silk, and decorated in the most elegant manner. He further objected to the price proposed to be given for the colors. He declared that, from his connection with the militia, he had become acquainted with the value of such articles, and he could procure colors of the best kind ever used in the service for $375. The price named in the resolution was, therefore, most excessive. Upon this, another member rose and said, in a peculiarly offensive manner, that it would be two years before Tiffany & Co. had made all the colors, and some of the regiments would have to wait all that time. ‘The other regiments,’ said he, ‘have had colors presented by the city, and I don’t see why we should show partiality.’ Whereupon Mr. Pullman informed the board that the city regiments would all be supplied in a few weeks; and, even if they did have to wait awhile, it was of no consequence, for they all had very good colors already. Honest Stephen Roberts then rose, and said that this was a subject with which he was not acquainted, but that if no one could refute what Mr. Pullman had said, he should be obliged to vote against the resolution.
“Then there was a pause. The cry of ‘Question!’ was heard. The ayes and noes were called. The resolution was carried by eighteen to five. The learned suppose that one-half of this stolen $4000 was expended upon the colors, and the other half divided among about forty persons. It is conjectured that each member of the Councilmen’s Ring, which consists of thirteen, received about forty dollars for his vote on this occasion. This sum, added to his pay, which is twenty dollars per session, made a tolerable afternoon’s work.
“Any one witnessing this scene would certainly have supposed that now the militia regiments of the City of New York were provided with colors. What was our surprise to hear, a few days after, a member gravely propose to appropriate $800 for the purpose of presenting the Ninth Regiment of New York Infantry with a stand of colors. Mr. Pullman repeated his objections, and recounted anew the generosity of the State Legislature. The eighteen, without a word of reply, voted for the grant as before. It so chanced that, on our way up Broadway, an hour after, we met that very regiment marching down with its colors flying; and we observed that those colors were nearly new. Indeed, there is such a propensity in the public to present colors to popular regiments, that some of them have as many as five stands, of various degrees of splendor. There is nothing about which Councilmen need feel so little anxiety as a deficiency in the supply of regimental colors. When, at last, these extravagant banners voted by the corporation are presented to the regiments, a new scene of plunder is exhibited. The officers of the favored regiment are invited to a room in the basement of the City Hall, where city officials assist them to consume $300 worth of champagne, sandwiches, and cold chicken—paid for out of the city treasury—while the privates of the regiment await the return of their officers in the unshaded portion of the adjacent park.
“It is a favorite trick with these councilmen, as of all politicians, to devise measures, the passage of which will gratify large bodies of voters. This is one of the advantages proposed to be gained by the presentation of colors to regiments; and the same system is pursued with regard to churches and societies. At every one of the six sessions of the Councilmen which we attended, resolutions were introduced to give away the people’s money to wealthy organizations. A church, for example, is assessed $1000 for the construction of a sewer, which enhances the value of the church property by at least the amount of the assessment. Straightway, a member from that neighborhood proposes to console the stricken church with a ‘donation’ of $1000, to enable it to pay the assessment; and as this is a proposition to vote money, it is carried as a matter of course. We select from our notes only one of these donating scenes. A member proposed to give $2000 to a certain industrial school,—the favorite charity of the present time, to which all the benevolent most willingly subscribe. Vigilant Christopher Pullman reminded the board that it was now unlawful for the corporation to vote money for any object not specified in the tax levy as finally sanctioned by the Legislature. He read the section of the Act which forbade it. He further showed, from a statement by the Comptroller, that there was no money left at their disposal for any miscellaneous objects, since the appropriation for ‘city contingencies’ was exhausted. The only reply to his remarks was the instant passage of the resolution by eighteen to five. By what artifice the law is likely to be evaded in such cases, we may show further on. In all probability, the industrial school, in the course of the year, will receive a fraction of this money—perhaps even so large a fraction as one half. It may be that, ere now, some obliging person about the City Hall has offered to buy the claim for $1000, and take the risk of the hocus-pocus necessary for getting it—which to him is no risk at all.
“It was proposed, on another occasion, to raise the fees of the Inspectors of Weights and Measures—who received fifty cents for inspecting a pair of platform scales, and smaller sums for scales and measures of less importance. Here was a subject upon which honest Stephen Roberts, whose shop is in a street where scales and measures abound, was entirely at home. He showed, in his sturdy and strenuous manner, that, at the rates then established, an active man could make $200 a day. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘a man can inspect, and does inspect, fifty platform scales in an hour.’ The cry of ‘Question!’ arose. The question was put, and the usual loud chorus of ayes followed.
“As it requires a three-fourths vote to grant money—that is, eighteen members—it is sometimes impossible for the Ring to get that number together. There is a mode of preventing the absence, or the opposition of members, from defeating favorite schemes. It is by way of ‘reconsideration.’ The time was when a measure distinctly voted down by a lawful majority was dead. But, by this expedient, the voting down of a measure is only equivalent to its postponement to a more favorable occasion. The moment the chairman pronounces a resolution lost, the member who has it in charge moves a reconsideration; and, as a reconsideration only requires the vote of a majority, this is invariably carried. By a rule of the board, a reconsideration carries a measure over to a future meeting—to any future meeting which may afford a prospect of its passage. The member who is engineering it watches his chance, labors with faltering members out of doors, and, as often as he thinks he can carry it, calls it up again, until at last the requisite eighteen are obtained. It has frequently happened that a member has kept a measure in a state of reconsideration for months at a time, waiting for the happy moment to arrive. There was a robust young Councilman, who had a benevolent project in charge of paying $900 for a hackney-coach and two horses, which a drunken driver drove over the dock into the river one cold night last winter. There was some disagreement in the Ring on this measure, and the robust youth was compelled to move for many reconsiderations. So, also, it was long before the wires could be all arranged to admit of the appointment of a ‘messenger’ to the City Librarian, who has perhaps less to do than any man in New York who is paid $1800 a year; but perseverance meets its reward. We hear that this messenger is now smoking in the City Hall at a salary of $1500.
“There is a manoeuvre also for preventing the attendance of obnoxious, obstructive members, like the honest six, which is ingenious and effective. A ‘special meeting’ is called. The law declares that notice of a special meeting must be left at the residence or the place of business of every member. Mr. Roberts’s residence and Mr. Roberts’s place of business are eight miles apart, and he leaves his home for the day before nine in the morning. If Mr. Roberts’s presence at a special meeting, at 2 P.M., is desired, the notice is left at his shop in the morning. If it is not desired, the notice is sent to his house in Harlem, after he has left it. Mr. Pullman, cabinet-maker, leaves his shop at noon, goes home to dinner, and returns soon after one. If his presence at the special meeting, at 2 P.M., is desired, the notice is left at his house the evening before, or at his shop in the morning. If his presence is not desired, the notice is left at his shop a few minutes after twelve, or at his house a few minutes past one. In either case, he receives the notice too late to reach the City Hall in time. We were present in the Councilmen’s Chamber when Mr. Pullman stated this inconvenience, assuming that it was accidental, and offered an amendment to the rule, requiring notice to be left five hours before the time named for the meeting. Mr. Roberts also gave his experience in the matter of notices, and both gentlemen spoke with perfect moderation and good temper. We wish we could convey to our readers an idea of the brutal insolence with which Mr. Pullman, on this occasion, was snubbed and defrauded by a young bar-keeper who chanced to be in the chair. But this would be impossible without relating the scene at very great length. The amendment proposed was voted down, with that peculiar roar of noes which is always heard in that chamber when some honest man attempts to put an obstacle in the way of the free plunder of his fellow-citizens.
“These half-fledged legislators are acquainted with the device known by the name of the ‘previous question.’ We witnessed a striking proof of this. One of the most audacious and insolent of the Ring introduced a resolution, vaguely worded, the object of which was to annul an old paving contract, that would not pay at the present cost of labor and materials, and to authorize a new contract at higher rates. Before the clerk had finished reading the resolution, honest Stephen Roberts sprang to his feet, and, unrolling a remonstrance with several yards of signatures appended to it, stood, with his eye upon the chairman, ready to present it the moment the reading was concluded. This remonstrance, be it observed, was signed by a majority of the property-owners interested, the men who would be assessed to pay for one-half of the proposed pavement. Fancy the impetuous Roberts, with the document held aloft, the yards of signatures streaming down to his feet, and flowing far under his desk, awaiting the time when it would be in order to cry out, ‘Mr. President.’ The reading ceased. Two voices were heard shouting, ‘Mr. President.’ It was not to Mr. Roberts that an impartial chairman could assign the floor. The member who introduced the resolution was the one who caught the speaker’s eye, and that member, forewarned of Mr. Roberts’s intention, moved the previous question. It was in vain that Mr. Roberts shouted ‘Mr. President;’ it was in vain that he fluttered his streaming ribbon of blotted paper. The President could not hear a word of any kind until a vote had been taken upon the question whether the main question should now be put. The question was carried in the affirmative by a chorus of ayes, so exactly timed that it was like the voice of one man. Then the main question was put, and it was carried by another emphatic and simultaneous shout.”
Under the rule of such a Council the public money disappeared. Men who went into the Council poor came out of it rich. Taxes increased, the cost of governing the city became greater, crime flourished, and the chief city of the Union became noted for its corrupt government.
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