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A Quotable History of New York Corruption

January 12, 2017

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence
Government Law Center
Albany Law School

There are some people who could conceivably believe that corruption in New York government is a recent twenty-first­century or late twentieth­century phenomenon. Little could be further from the truth. Corruption has always been a factor in New York government. Whether it has been corruption in the awarding of bank charters, governmental franchises, railroad rights, bridge rights, or insurance preferences, New York State has it all. This is a look back at corruption in quotes from the founding of New York State up to a century ago.

The quotes are divided into three eras. Era I is from the late eighteenth century until 1850. This is an era dominated by corruption in bank legislation. Era II is from 1850-1875, where there was massive corruption in railroad rights legislation and in the schemes of the Tweed Ring in New York City. Era III, from 1875-1916, was the era of the “Black Horse Cavalry,” where corrupt legislators often worked to compel corporate interests to pay them bribes in order to protect themselves from damaging legislation.

Era I (1788-1850)

  1. Charges of corruption swirled around nearly every bank charter introduced between 1813 and 1821.

Allegations of bribery surfaced as early as 1804 with the chartering of the Merchants’ Bank of New York City, when it was disclosed that one state senator had promised shares to two other state senators, along with a guarantee that they could sell the shares at a substantial profit after the charter was passed.

Between about 1820 and 1838, Martin Van Buren’s political regime manipulated the charter-granting process to serve its allies and advance its political agenda.”

Howard Bodenhorn, “Bank Chartering and Political Corruption in Antebellum New York.”

  1. “Man and boy I have known New York politics for sixty years, and to me they have always been the devil’s own incomprehensible.”

President John Adams quoted in “The Erie Railroad Row,” The American Law Review, 1868.

  1. “The odium attached to all those implicated in the corrupt means used to promote the incorporation of the Bank of America, was so great and so lasting that no attempts of the kind were made for a long while afterwards; and the iniquitous proceedings of former legislatures in relation to granting charters to moneyed institutions, had been so disgraceful to the state, and were so fresh in the recollection of the members of the convention of 1821, as, beyond all question, induced them, with a view to the prevention of these practices, to insert the clause in the present constitution which renders necessary the assent of two-thirds of both houses of the legislature in order to incorporate a moneyed institution. The intention of the convention was good, but the clause failed to accomplish the object intended. Witness the proceedings in passing the law to incorporate the Chemical Bank, and other institutions, in 1825. The only effect of the restrictive clause in the constitution has been to increase the evil, by rendering necessary a more extended system of corruption, in some form, than was before indispensable.”

Jabez D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the State of New-York, From the Ratification of the Federal Constitution to December, 1840.

  1. “During the early years of the last century, efforts to incorporate banks in New York were characterized by such an utter disregard of moral methods, that the period was long remembered as a black spot in the history of the State.”

De Alva Stanwood Alexander, A Political History of the State of New York.

  1. “The Republicans of Albany, realising the importance of a bank and the necessity of avoiding the opposition of their own party, obtained a charter for the State Bank, by selling stock to Republican members of the Legislature, with an assurance that it could be resold at a premium as soon as the institution had an existence. There was a ring of money in this proposition. Such an investment meant a gift of ten or twenty dollars on each share, and immediately members clamoured, intrigued, and battled for stock. The very boldness of the proposition seemed to save it from criticism. Nothing was covered up.”

 Id. on State Bank of Albany Charter of 1803.

  1. It seems incredible in our day that such corruption could go on in broad daylight without a challenge. At the present time a legislator could not carry a district in New York if it were known that his vote had been secured by such ill-gotten gains. Yet the methods of the Republican promoters of the State Bank seem not to have brought a blush to the cheek of the youngest legislator. No one of prominence took exception to it save Abraham Van Vechten, and he was less concerned about the immorality of the thing than the competition to be arrayed against the Federalist bank in Albany.”

Id.

  1. “‘To sanction a bill thus marked in its progress through one branch of the Legislature with bribery and corruption,’ concluded the Judge, ‘would be subversive of all pure legislation, and become a reproach to a government hitherto renowned for the wisdom of its councils and the integrity of its legislatures.’”

Judge Ambrose Spencer in 1805 on chartering of State Bank of Albany.

  1. “Even Erastus Root, then just entering his first term in Congress, saw nothing in the transaction to shock society’s sense of propriety or to break the loftiest code of morality. ‘There was nothing of mystery in the passage of the bank,’ he wrote. ‟The projectors sought to push it forward by spreading the stock among the influential Republicans of the State, including members of the Legislature, and carry it through as a party measure. It was argued by the managers of the scheme that the stock would be above par in order to induce the members of the Legislature to go into the measure, but nothing in the transaction had the least semblance of a corrupt influence. No one would hesitate from motives of delicacy, to offer a member, nor for him to take, shares in a bank sooner than in a turnpike or in an old canal.’”

De Alva Stanwood Alexander, supra, on chartering of the State Bank of Albany.

  1. “Turnpike companies and other types of corporations regularly made their stock available for legislators.”

Robert E. Wright, Banking and Politics in New York, 1784-1829.

  1. ‟Federalists would grant no charters to Republicans and Re-publicans none to Federalists. After a few banks had been established they united, regardless of politics, to create a monopoly by preventing other persons from getting charters. When charters were applied for and refused, the applicants began business on the common law plan. Then, at the instigation of the favored ones, the politicians passed a law to suppress all unchartered banks. The latter went to Albany and bribed the Legislature. In short, politics, monopoly, and bribery constitute the key to banking in the early history of the State.

Horace White, Money and Banking.

  1. “In an attempt to prevent banks from buying up members of the State Legislature in order to secure charters, the Constitution of New York State was amended in 1821 to the effect that thereafter a two-thirds vote of both branches of the Legislature was necessary to pass a bank charter, but the only effect of this was to increase the evil by rendering necessary a more extended system of corruption.”
  2. L. Garis, Principles of Money, Credit and Banking.
  3. “The granting of charters was soon regarded as part of the spoils belonging to the victorious party, and were dealt out as rewards for partisan services. This practice became so shameless and corrupt that it could be endured no longer, and in 1838, the Legislature sought a remedy in the general banking law.”

Comptroller Millard Fillmore 1848, Annual Report.

  1. “The whole business of legislation was retarded, and a regular system of bribery, almost without parallel in the history of civilized governments, was established and carried on, until the final passage of the bill in the Assembly, by a vote of fifty-eight to thirty-nine. The attempts of the agents of the company to obtain votes for the charter, by means of the most shameless bribery and corruption, were made known before the bill went to the Senate, and a motion was made in that body, when in committee of the whole, to reject it, which was lost; thirteen Senators voting in the affirmative, and fifteen in the negative.”

John S. Jenkins, The History of Political Parties in the State of New-York, re Bank of America charter vote in 1812.

  1. “Scarcely a member of the Legislature escaped downright Self corruption – and human nature never was exhibited in its naked deformity in more disgusting features.”

Elkanah Watson, describing the chartering of the State Bank of Albany in 1803.

Era II (1850-1875)

  1. “Again, legislative bribery and corruption were, within recent memory, looked upon as antiquated misdemeanors, almost peculiar to the unenlightened period of Walpole and Fox, and their revival in the face of modern public opinion was thought to be impossible. In this regard at least a sad delusion was certainly entertained. Governments and ministries no longer buy the raw material of legislation; —at least not openly or with cash in hand. The same cannot be said of individuals and corporations; for they have of late not infrequently found the supply of legislators in the market even in excess of the demand.

Charles F. Adams, Jr., Chapters of Erie, and Other Essays.

  1. “Legislation bought and sold — bills passed or defeated to suit the highest bidder – bribery the order of the day — such is the hideous picture presented to the people of our noble State.

George Washington Hunt, 1860, quoted in Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War.

  1. “The year 1868 proved a particularly busy one for Vanderbilt. He was engaged in a desperately devious struggle with Gould. In vain did his agents and lobbyists pour out stacks of money to buy legislative votes enough to defeat the bill legalizing Gould’s fraudulent issue of stock. Members of the Legislature impassively took money from both parties. Gould personally appeared at Albany with a satchel containing $500,000 in greenbacks which were rapidly distributed. One Senator, as was disclosed by an investigating committee, accepted $75,000 from Vanderbilt and then $100,000 from Gould, kept both sums, — and voted with the dominant Gould forces. It was only by means of the numerous civil and criminal writs issued by Vanderbilt judges that the old man contrived to force Gould and his accomplices into paying for the stock fraudulently unloaded upon him. The best terms that he could get was an unsatisfactory settlement which still left him to bear a loss of about two million. The veteran trickster had never before been overreached; all his life, except on one occasion, he had been the successful sharper; but he was no match for the more agile and equally sly, corrupt and resourceful Gould.”

Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes.

  1. “The legislature, as a whole, was as crooked as a ram’s horn…After all was said and done, perhaps the two chief factors in our favor were first, the hatred that existed in the public mind of Vanderbilt monopoly and of Vanderbilt’s bulldozing methods, and, second, the five hundred thousand dollars that Gould had in his pocket.

Robert H. Fuller, Jubilee Jim: The Life of Colonel James Fisk, Jr.

  1. “The most important bills are rushed through at the last moment without any consideration or even knowledge of them upon the part of members; that the most outrageous jobs are constantly presented in the form of bills, and that they are passed or defeated only by the most enormous expenditure of money. These are undeniable facts.”

“Legislative Corruption,” Harpers Weekly, May 4, 1867.

  1. The canal administration and the evident waste and corruption in the letting of contracts for repairs, called for investigation. The convention faced a popular conviction that bribery was rampant in the Legislature, and under existing law could not be punished.”

Ray B. Smith, History of the State of New York Political and Governmental.

  1. “The need for action to repress the practice of bribery originated with the Committee on Official Corruption appointed by the convention of 1867. Its report was prefaced by the remark that official corruption was ‘a crime of deep turpitude, growing prevalence, and dangerous tendency.’ The corroboration of this statement can be found in the testimony taken before it which revealed over a half million dollars distributed by railroads as bribes. One newspaper, referring to current conditions, said, ‘We speak what hundreds of men know from personal experience, that no bill whose passage will confer pecuniary advantage upon any man or any corporation can be passed in Albany except by bribery-except by paying members to pass upon it. No man can get his rights, or prevent serious damage to his private interests, or to avert ruin from himself and his family, except by bribery.”

New York State Constitutional Convention Committee (1938) (Reports) referring to New York Times, April 8, 1867.

  1. “During all the many years that I have been accustomed to observe the character of legislators and the proceedings of the body, I have never seen anything to compare with the present assemblage of representatives in point of shamelessness, rapacity and recklessness of consequences. Their predecessors have often been noted for venality and greediness, but these people sell their votes openly haggle about the price without pretense of concealment and then boast of what they have been paid. And all with the knowledge that they are within reach of the criminal statute, and that a felon’s cell would be their fate if the law should be enforced against them.”

Letter to the New York Tribune, quoted in the New York Times, April 8, 1867.

  1. “We venture to say that as a general rule for the last ten years one-fifth of the members of each House have been in the habit of taking bribes for their votes:- the fact is open and notorious to everyone who has had any personal connection with Albany legislation.”

“Legislative Corruption–Albany Matters Which Deserve Attention,” New York Times, April 8, 1867.

  1. “Either this state of affairs must be remedied or the State Capitol ought to be removed to Auburn or Sing Sing. Our legislators and convicts should change places.”

Id.

  1. “Gould traveled to Albany, reportedly with a trunk full of thousand dollar bills and set up shop in the Delavan House and began buying up votes. The Commodore swiftly dispatched counterbribery agents, among them William Tweed, who installed themselves on another floor of the same hostelry. Legislators shuttled back and forth in search of the highest bidder. With the Erie’s treasury close at hand, Gould’s was the more bottomless wallet, and Vanderbilt’s troops deserted him, even Tweed who was rewarded for his treachery with lavish supplies of Erie stock netting him $650,000 in all.”

Burrows and Wallace, Gotham.

  1. “’There never was a time when you couldn’t buy the Board of Alderman.’ Tweed once remarked – but it was the arrival of the street railroads, with their attendant scramble for franchises, that brought civil chicanery to new heights or depth.”

 Id.

  1. “Working amid the cloud of lobbyists that swarmed each day about City Hall, the Common Council set about earning its nickname of the ‘Forty Thieves.’”

Id.

  1. “Not only the ‛Tweed Ring’ entered the market as a buyer and seller of Legislators, but powerful corporations (notably two great railroad companies), also engaged warmly in this degrading traffic. The Legislature no less than the city government seems to have been a den of thieves; and even the ermine of the judges was polluted by this wild craze for ill-gotten wealth.”

Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Aldermen Appointed to Investigate the ‟Ring” Fraud: 1878.

15.  “With the bestowal of the first trolley franchise in 1851 the Board of Aldermen embarked on a career of spoliation. The body in which ‛Boss’ Tweed served his apprenticeship was known as the ‛Forty Thieves.’ It was said that an enterprising alderman could make his fortune in a single term; few were backward in this pursuit of pelf.   Frederick Shaw, History of the N.Y.C. Legislature, 1954.

  1. “1. Large sums of money were expended for corrupt purposes by parties interested in legislation concerning railways during the session of 1848. 2. Lobbyists were thus enriched, and in some cases received money on the false pretense that the votes of senators were to be thereby influenced. 3. There is no proof of actual bribery of any Senator. 4. The newspaper charges made in the instances that were brought to the attention of your committee were founded upon rumor alone and have been in no case sustained by the evidence of the writers or other proof.”

Matthew Hale, Report of State Senate Committee of 1869.

Era III (1875-1916)

  1. “But the corrupt work was usually done through the members directly. Of course I never had anything in the nature of legal proof of corruption, and the figures I am about to give are merely approximate. But three years’ experience convinced me, in the first place, that there were a great many thoroughly corrupt men in the Legislature, perhaps a third of the whole number.”

Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography.

  1. “The corrupt legislators, the ‘black horse cavalry,’ as they were termed, would demand

payment to vote as the corporations wished, no matter whether the bill was proper or improper.”

Id.

  1. “The duty of holding these corporations accountable was a burden upon the Legislature which it ought not to have been called upon to perform. But, worse than that, this multitude of bills, founded upon just complaint, brought after them a multitude of strike bills introduced for the purpose of holding up the corporations, holding them up and calling them down. Many of us can now remember the dreadful days of the Black Horse Cavalry which came as an incident mainly, to the performance of this duty by the Legislature, and, further still, the fact that the great transportation companies were being attacked, the great public service corporations were being attacked in the Legislature, justified them in their own minds in going into politics and electing, or furnishing the money to elect, members of the Senate and Assembly.”

Elihu Root at the 1915 New York State Constitutional Convention.

  1. STRIKE BILLS. “With the opening of every legislative session, among the first contents of the ‘bill-box’ there is always a number of what are called ‘strike bills.’ Some of these have ‛been introduced year after year, until the reading of their titles by the clerk excites familiar smiles from the old members. Nothing stops the introduction of these bills except their passage. A ‘strike’ bill is a bill which is introduced in the hope that somebody will pay the introducer not to press its passage. Its introduction is variously known as ‘ringing the bell’ or ‘striking the gong.’ Its intent is an invitation to bribery. It is called a ‘strike’ because it is always aimed at some corporate interest which could spare the money to pay for its suppression.”

American Lawyer, Vol. 14, Issue 2 (February 1906), 82.

  1. His domination of the Legislature for personal or factional interests arrayed many of the more serious men of the party against Platt’s methods, especially his practice of secretly obtaining large contributions from big business, under the promise of immunity from ‘strike’ bills, and of using such funds secretly for the nomination and election of legislators and other officials who would do his bidding. Wheeler H. Peckham, a lawyer of State-wide reputation, in an address before the Good Government Club in 1894, declared that this custom had practically ended the day of the lobby. ‘When the Democrats are in power,’ he said, ‘the leader of Tammany takes its place. He handles yearly a large amount of money and is accountable to no one. He says whether a bill shall pass, and corporations pay large amounts for ‛peace,’ as they call it. The Metropolitan Telephone Company pays $50,000 a year. I know of one corporation which pays a similar amount. As counsel I went twice to Albany to defeat the passage of a bill and could not get a hearing. But the measure failed, and several months after a subscription list was quietly passed around. As Mr. Tilden so fitly said: ‛It was a case of sending up the stuff to Albany.’”

De Alva Stanwood Alexander, supra.

  1. “I have seen something of the world, and affirm that in no civilized country, and hardly in any uncivilized, is there a government which, in foulness of corruption, in insatiable capacity, in criminal practices, in cruel oppression of the lowly, equals Tammany rule.”

Carl Schurz, 1894.

  1. “There’s bribery everywhere.”

Wheeler Peckham, New York Sun, 3/30/94.

  1. “I tell you that every day of their lives these Tammany men are bribed and bribe others.”

Wheeler Peckham, New York Post, 3/30/1894.

  1. On bribery: “It was also the one crime most prevalent and the one crime most rarely prosecuted or punished.”

De Lancey Nicoll, “An Unpublished Constitutional Crime,” The North American Review, 1888.

  1. “The utilities became Tammany’s greatest source of income. Whitney and Ryan of the Manhattan Elevated Railroad provided top politicos with hefty lawyer’s fees, stock market tips, contracts for their construction companies, and pieces of the action in Metropolitan’s financial deals. They were amply repaid with valuable franchises, maintenance of high fares and the blockage of utilities reform.”

Gotham, supra.

  1. “It was a well-considered fact that to be a senator at Albany was worth anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year and that it came largely from the insurance companies. This is no secret. Every New York man knows it. I know it. I know it well.”

Congressman Joseph Goulden, quoted in the LA Times, 5/22/1906.

  1. ‟Insurance companies in New York City have always been regarded as good things.”

Id. Goulden, quoted in the Washington Post, 5/22/1906.

  1. The payment of bribe money to prevent the passage of hostile measures which as a class are known as ‘strikes’ is an ancient practice.”

 New York Times, 10/6/1905.

  1. “It is probably true as Mr. McCall said to the Armstrong committee that three-fourths of the bills relating to insurance are instruments of blackmail.”

New York Tribune, 10/6/1905. McCall was the New York Life Insurance Company president.

  1. “The existence of a huge pool to prevent hostile legislation in every state in the union was revealed today… This revelation explains much of the mystery in the payment of $235,000 to ‘Judge’ Andrew Hamilton in 1903 by the New York Life as testified to by President McCall.”

“Life Companies in Bribery Pool?,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 9/30/1905.

  1. “Black Horse Cavalry. A derogatory appellation given to a coterie of Republican members in the New York legislature charged with selling legislative privileges and extorting money from corporations by the introduction of blackmailing legislation. Much light was thrown on its methods by the investigation connected with the conviction of Senator Allds.”

1910 Cyclopedia of American government, v.1 (Abattoirs/Finality), McLaughlin and Hart.

  1. “Strike Legislation and Other Methods. — ‘Strike’ bills, or ‘regulators’ which are introduced by legislators attack some interest for the purpose of being bought off. Behind them is frequently to be found a ‘combine’ of members, usually bipartisan, organized for purposes of plunder. A combine of this nature in New York earned for itself the expressive title of the ‘Black Horse Cavalry.’…This body was particularly active in state legislation at the time when Boss Tweed was a state senator and practically in control of the legislature. A number of the members of legislatures are ‘owned,’ that is, controlled by some outside interest. Usually this is a political leader or boss, to whom the member is indebted for his seat. In other cases, a member is serving some particular interest to which he is bound by the fact that his campaign expenses have been paid or other substantial favors given him.”

Id.

  1. “Thus, the Board of Aldermen in New York City, which, in name is the legislature of the city, has gradually been deprived of its initiative in financial matters and all other powers of real magnitude, except the power to enact the building code. In 1905 because of alleged ‘hold up’ tactics, its power over franchises was taken from it and lodged in the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. It is not necessary to go back to the ‘Forty Thieves Council’ of the early fifties in New York or to the notable instances of legislative corruption in the city council in the period of the Tweed Ring (see) for instances of direct bribery.”

Id.

  1. “The insurance investigation in New York disclosed the payment of large sums to the legislative agents of the insurance companies and the recent investigation in the Senate of the United States of the method by which certain Senators secured their election have brought out facts showing a lavish use of money. In 1910 and 1911, the examination of legislative conditions in Illinois indicated the existence of a corruption fund, named, with ill-timed levity, the ‘jack-pot.’ Convictions in the courts of members of state legislatures for bribery are not infrequent. In New York, In 1910, a senator, after a prolonged trial before the Senate which attracted wide-spread attention, was held to have received a bribe in connection with legislation affecting certain bridge interests and resigned.”

Id.

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