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The Bad Old Days

Many people (and more than a few journalists) live in a continual present. The current recession or riot or oil spill or whatever is judged in a vacuum. So one of the most important functions of history is to give you a sense of perspective.

With Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel in very hot water, with an assortment of their former fellow members of Congress currently or recently in jail, it’s easy to think of the current era as peculiarly corrupt. An amusing article in today’s New York Times shows that it is not. Indeed, it’s not even close. When William Hale Thompson, mayor of Chicago during much of the Prohibition era, died in 1944, his safe-deposit boxes were found to contain no less than $1.5 million in cash (worth at least ten times that in today’s dollars). Convicted former Congressman William Jefferson’s $90,000 worth of cash in the freezer is chump change by comparison.

But even the Prohibition era pales by comparison with New York in the late 1860’s. All branches of government in both the city and the state were corrupt. An English magazine wrote in 1868 that “in New York there is a custom among litigants, as peculiar to that city, it is to be hoped, as it is supreme within it, of retaining a judge as well as a lawyer.” The great New York diarist (and lawyer) George Templeton Strong, wrote in his diary in 1870, “The Supreme Court [in New York state, the trial court, not the court of last appeal] is our Cloaca Maxima, with lawyers for its rats. But my simile does that rodent an injustice, for the rat is a remarkably clean animal.”

But it wasn’t just individuals who were corrupt at that time. New York government was institutionally corrupt. How bad was it? Consider this. In 1868, the New York State Legislature actually legalized bribery. Not in so many words, of course. Instead the law passed that year maintained that, “No conviction [for bribery] shall be had under this act on the testimony of the other party to the offense, unless such evidence is corroborated in its material parts by other evidence.” In that pre-electronic age, that meant that as long as the public official took the bribe in cash and in private, he was safe from prosecution. After the fall of the Tweed Ring, as honesty and probity swept — briefly — through New York’s halls of government like measles through the third grade, a stiff law against bribery was put into the state constitution where it remains, safe from legislators.

As long as people are human, there will be corruption where there are vast sums of money to tempt. But it was worse, far worse, in the not so distant past.



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