Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Frances Piven

Subject Categories

Political Science | Sociology | United States History


American Political Development, Gilded Age, New York History, Political Behavior, Political Capital, Political Parties


This dissertation examines political wealth accumulation in American political development. Scholars have long understood the political system selects for "progressive ambition" for higher office. My research shows that officeseekers have also engaged in "progressive greed" for greater wealth. I compare the career trajectories of four prominent New York political figures during the Gilded Age: William Tweed, Fernando Wood, Roscoe Conkling, and Chester Arthur. Using correspondence, census, tax and land records, government reports, investigations, and newspaper coverage, I explain why each political figure chose to either seize or pass up opportunities for political wealth accumulation. I also examine the principal sources of fortunes and the types of political practices that generated them.

Profit-maximizing behavior during the late nineteenth century was central to the consolidation of politics as a vocation. Career-altering events such as an election loss, or alternatively, the opportunity to join a dominant party faction, often recalibrated a politician's strategic calculation in the tradeoff between power and wealth. Furthermore, the dominant view of self-aggrandizement is that public officials either steal or extract rents, for example, in the form of bribes or loans. However, none of the large fortunes examined among my cases were built through conventional rent seeking, and peculation was only a minor source of income. Instead, the great fortunes were built through marketing-making activities. Tweed, Wood, Conkling, and Arthur accumulated political wealth by securing dominant market positions, or by creating new markets altogether. These figures accumulated productive personal property, or political capital, through control over political institutions, most notably by speculating in real estate, railroads, and finance, and by the establishment of politically dependent businesses, such as banks, lotteries, newspapers, and law firms.