Corruption is, in politics, business and the legal system, abusing one's position to enrich or otherwise advance oneself or one's friends or relatives. Bribery and nepotism are common forms of corruption. More subtle is the failure to perform civic duty (i.e. dereliction), or to allow personal opinions or priorities to overcome national needs (as has become the case in federal courts under Barack Obama in recent years).
Corruption is found in every part of the political spectrum, as soon as people get power that they can abuse. As the great conservative historian Lord Acton (1834–1902) explained, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In morality, it refers to the subversion of moral principle for ulterior motives.
As Bailyn (1968) demonstrated, fear of corruption by the conservative forces in Britain and America was the single most important impulse for the Founding Fathers to distrust the royal government, embrace republicanism and insist on civic virtue for all citizens. Threats to free government, most Americans (and some British "country party" critics ) believed, lurked everywhere, but nowhere more dangerously than in the designs of ministers in office to aggrandize power by the corrupt use influence, and by this means ultimately to destroy the balance of the Constitution. "Corruption!" was as universal a cry in the colonies as it was in England, and with it came the same belief that tyranny, already dominant over most of the earth, was continuing to spread its menace and was threatening even that greatest bastion of liberty, England itself. In the colonies the executive was legally far stronger than in England, but circumstances - such as inflexible royal instructions, encroachments on the governor's patronage, the more democratic nature of colonial politics, the impermanence of the governor's tenure, and the possibility of going over the governor's heads and appealing directly to authorities in England - worked to reduce radically the influence of the colonial governors. With an indeterminate leadership, an unstable economic structure, and the exertion by colonial governments of creative power unknown to 18th century England, the colonial political system was troubled, contentious, even explosive, evoking, as it did, both the belief that faction was seditious and the fear that the government was corrupt and threatened the survival of liberty. English constitutional theory offered a mode of comprehension of such an inflamed, anomalous politics; and it is this mode of understanding that forms the background of the American Revolution.
Corruption was thus the great evil the Founding Fathers confronted. When Britain escalated its defense of corruption in 1773-75, it was time to break free with the American Revolution.
Pursuit of civic virtue
To overcome the temptations of corruption—such as luxury and bribery—in their own lives, the Founding Fathers cultivated the virtue of disinterestedness. That is, the made a conscious effort to not be the creature of his financial interests, and not give any sign to the public that they sought luxury or bribes. The goal was to be impartial, concerned only for the public good, not the advancement of friends or, still less, of party.
The Founding Fathers sought "Honor"—freedom from corruption, and a positive devotion to civic virtue. These were key elements of Republicanism, and the Founding Fathers made republicanism the core values of the American system of government.
Even personal shame and humiliation was preferable to a tarnished honor or the hint of corruption. When Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was accused of corruption for making secret payments to a man named James Reynolds, Hamilton revealed he had been set up and was paying blackmail to Reynolds following an affair with Mrs. Reynolds. Duels over honor were common in the era—Hamilton was killed in one, as was Hamilton's son.
Corruption continues to be the greatest threat to republicanism, and is a red flag for both parties in the U.S., even though both parties have been guilty.
Corruption is most often an issue in state and city elections, but it has been a central issue in several presidential campaigns.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson campaigned against the "corrupt bargain" that cost him the election in 1824, when John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay joined forces to make Adams president and Clay Secretary of State. Jackson was elected in a landslide, but historians downplay his allegations.
In 1876 Democrat Samuel J. Tilden crusaded against the scandals of the Grant Administration, though the GOP candidate was Rutherford Hayes, who was squeaky clean. The result was a disputed election that was eventually awarded to Hayes.
The new Republican party in 1860 publicized corruption in the James Buchanan administration in congressional reports, Republican pamphlets and newspapers between 1857–60, especially Navy contract frauds, use of Federal monies to win elections, and defalcations by the New York City postmaster. To safeguard themselves from similar attacks, the Republican National Convention bypassed William Seward as a presidential nominee because of his suspicious links with lobbyist Thurlow Weed, and named 'Honest Abe' Lincoln instead. Lincoln's record for honesty appears to have been almost as important as his stand on slavery and slavery extension as the reason for his nomination. Lincoln won a landslide.
In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower crusaded against "Korea, Communism and Corruption" (the Korean war, the Communist threat, and widespread corruption in the Truman Administration). He won a landslide.
Political scientists have compared the conditions that gave rise to urban machines in the United States (such as the Tweed Ring in New York City in the 1860s) to conditions today in Africa and Asia. Both types of machines have been organized in societies undergoing a transition and seeking personal or family rewards rather than seeking national goals or civic duty. Both kinds of machines overcame the fragmentation of government power, the social fragmentation created by urbanization, and the poverty of the people. Patronage has been the key element in maintaining control in both situations. Perhaps the machine as an organization works best at a subnational level where the social structure is more appropriate for machine development. In the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, reformers determined to rewrite the laws to eliminate corruption in American politics. Assuming that the people were good and the politicians corrupt, they adopted means to enhance grass roots political activism, including the direct primary, direct election of senators (instead of election by the legislature), the recall, initiative, and referendum. They tried to eliminate saloons and regulated financial contributions to politicians and parties. Seeing women as purer than men, they enacted woman suffrage, and also reduced the voting powers of groups seen as susceptible to corruption, especially blacks and illiterate immigrants.
William Allen White was a leader of the Progressives in the 1900-1940 era who sought a viable moral order that would provide the nation with a sense of community. White recognized the powerful forces of corruption but called for slow, remedial change having its origin in the middle class. In the 'Heart of a Fool' (1918), White fully developed the idea that reform remained the soundest ally of property rights. He felt that the Spanish–American War fostered political unity, and believed that a moral victory and an advance in civilization would be compensation for the devastation of World War I. White concluded that democracy in the New Era of the 1920s inevitably lacked direction, and the indifference to corruption of the New Deal baffled him. Nevertheless, he clung to his vision of a cooperative society until his death in 1944.
There have been many grass-roots crusades against corruption in American history. The most successful—for a while—was the dry crusade to close saloons because they were the seat of corruption in local politics, and the ruination (through drunkenness, domestic violence and wasteful spending) of the family. Led by the Anti-Saloon league, the drys mobilized their forces and carried the day in World War I. Prohibition represented the fulfillment of the Progressives' desire to end corruption, elevate the masses, and use governmental power to correct social evils. World War I provided a second factor. It added patriotism to the struggle against liquor by pointing out that prohibition saved food needed by soldiers and America's Allies, produced better soldiers and more efficient workers, and struck at an industry controlled by men of German background.
In 1974 Republican Richard Nixon facing impeachment for his guilt in the Watergate affair, resigned the presidency. Conservatives had supported Nixon but when the "smoking gun" (a tape showing Nixon involved in the coverup) was released, conservatives led by Senator Barry Goldwater told him to quit. Nixon's Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had been forced out a year earlier for taking bribes.
In 2006 Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to federal prison for his corruption crimes, revolving around use of Indian money to buy favors for Congressmen to vote for casinos.
In December 2008, the Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was impeached and removed by the state legislature on corruption charges, and also given a criminal indictment in federal court. He had attempted to sell Barack Obama's vacant senate seat to the highest bidder, and threatened to withhold funding from a children's hospital.
"Officials, trained only to obey orders, have neither the desire, the equipment, nor the vision to modify rules to suit individual situations," Reimann explains. "The state bureaucrats, therefore, apply these laws rigidly and mechanically, without regard for the vital interests of essential parts of the national economy. Their only incentive to modify the letter of the law is in bribes from businessmen, who for their part use bribery as their only means of obtaining relief from a rigidity which they find crippling."
- Scott, James C. "Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change," American Political Science Review 1969 63(4): 1142-1158 in JSTOR
- see "The Phrase Finder"
- Bernard Bailyn, The Origin of American Politics (1968)
- David E. Meerse, Buchanan, Corruption and the Election of 1860. Civil War History; 1966 12(2): 116-131
- Scott (1969)
- Richard W. Resh, "A Vision in Emporia: William Allen White's Search for Community," Midcontinent American Studies Journal 1969 10(2): 19-35
- National Socialism - Ralph Reiland - Mises Institute