The Magazine

Big Blue Machine

The rise and fall of New York’s Tammany Hall.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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The modern Democratic party has a bit of a history problem. The oldest political party in the world regularly celebrates Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, yet both men are hardly taken as role models by today’s left-leaning Democratic party. Both were slaveholders, with Thomas Jefferson possibly fathering children with one of his slaves. Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, is further tarnished by his policies of Indian removal and forced relocation. 

Tammany Hall, 1914

Tammany Hall, 1914

They are an uncomfortable reminder that, for much of its history, the Democratic party was the party of slavery, racial segregation, and white supremacy. That both Jefferson and Jackson were also skeptical of a strong centralized federal government only adds to the awkward position of these two flawed politicians in the Democratic pantheon. 

Another black mark on the historical Democratic party has been the various corrupt political machines that governed American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries (although, to be fair, there were some Republican machines as well). None is more famous than New York’s Tammany Hall—specifically, the Democratic party machine of Manhattan. And no Tammany figure is more notorious than William M. Tweed. Boss Tweed and Tammany have long been synonymous with graft, corruption, kickbacks, vice, stolen elections, and even violence. Tweed is still defined by the caricatures of him as an overweight, greedy schemer, as drawn by Thomas Nast.

There has been a wave of Tammany revisionism in recent decades. Leo Hershkowitz’s 1977 biography of Tweed saw him as a misunderstood figure, “more a victim than a scoundrel or thief.” Daniel P. Moynihan argued that the machines provided a legitimate social function to the city, representing the interests of previously excluded Irish Catholics and giving some semblance of order to the often chaotic nature of urban affairs. Others have noted that, despite the corruption of Tammany Hall and other political machines, cities under their political control still managed to produce an amazing number of public works. 

Now comes Terry Golway’s lively and thoughtful new book, which joins this long parade of Tammany revisionism. Golway subtly blends the political history of these machines with the larger story of the post-famine Irish Catholic migration and the growth of the Roman Catholic church in America.

The story of Tammany is not just the story of Irish immigrants, but also of how American Catholics gained acceptance in a Protestant America in which anti-Catholicism was a driving force. Golway credits Tammany’s success to its role as a defender of the interests of newly arrived Irish Catholics, who were despised by Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans for both their ethnicity and their religion. Scarred by the Great Famine as well as the oppressive colonization of Ireland by the British, American Irish Catholics continued the fight on this side of the Atlantic.

Golway dismisses one of the sillier academic theories of recent years: that Irish immigrants were not considered “white,” and fought to prove their “whiteness” by viciously turning their backs on blacks. Irish immigrants were always legally considered whites; they could not have become naturalized citizens if they hadn’t been. Their problem was not their color, but their Irishness, and, just as important, their religion. 

To understand the growth of Tammany and the relationship between the Irish and African Americans, one has to wrap one’s mind around one of the bigger ironies in American history: Many northern antislavery types were also bitterly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. The Know Nothing party was deeply opposed to immigration; however, many members were also antislavery: When the Know Nothings took control of the Massachusetts state government in the 1850s, one major piece of legislation the party enacted was the desegregation of the state’s public schools.

It is perfectly understandable that Irish Americans resented this and found it difficult to square a concern for slaves with antipathy for Irish Catholics. The only American organization that paid any heed to Irish Catholics was the Democratic party, to which the Irish flocked and remained stoutly loyal. But this was the same Democratic party of the Southern “slavocracy,” leading most Irish Catholics toward, at best, a strained relationship with blacks and little sympathy for abolitionism.