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.

 After the Civil War, Tweed and Tammany gained political strength, thanks to the votes of Irish immigrants. Tweed’s run would end in the mid-1870s, thanks to a corruption scandal related to the construction of a new courthouse building behind City Hall. (Today, the building is widely known as the Tweed Courthouse and houses the offices of the Board of Education.) In the wake of Tweed’s downfall, there was even a serious move to restrict the voting rights of New Yorkers to property owners and taxpayers, hoping to water down Tammany’s voter base. The bill ultimately failed.

 

All of the interest in Boss Tweed is a bit of a red herring. Tweed was Irish Protestant, not Catholic, and Tammany’s great growth and power would occur after Tweed’s death in 1878. It was Tweed’s three, lesser-known successors—Honest John Kelly, Richard Croker, and Charles Francis Murphy—who would govern Tammany for the next half-century and turn it into a political powerhouse.

The idea of the political “boss” is also a bit misleading. It implies a man with unlimited power, when, in reality, the boss sat atop a complex hierarchical organization, from block leaders to district leaders to war leaders. The organization was designed to get out the vote in support of Tammany-approved candidates, but it also provided a network that was responsive to the needs of those at the bottom rung of society. If Democratic voters owed loyalty to the machine, the machine repaid them by providing services—everything from jobs, to help with the city bureaucracy, to free food and clothing for those in need. Political clubs were a form of civic participation, a way to integrate newcomers and others on the margins. It could be argued that the machines helped facilitate upward mobility for recent immigrants. In the case of Tammany, the machine proved a potent force in pushing back against anti-Catholic laws and politicians.

Golway also argues that Tammany “prepared the way for modern liberalism,” opposing “laissez-faire capitalism” and pushing a “new social contract in New York, one that served as a model for a more aggressive role for government in 20th-century American society.”

The real heroes of the book are Charles Francis Murphy and the “Tammany Twins,” future governor and failed presidential candidate Al Smith and future U.S. senator Robert Wagner. The oft-told tale is that the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire finally opened the eyes of Tammany Hall and forced it into an alliance with progressive reformers to push for more government regulation. However, though Smith and Wagner did serve on the commission to investigate the fire, which recommended reforms, the story is not completely accurate. Golway rightly notes that Tammany, under Charlie Murphy, had been pushing for minimum wage laws, workers’ compensation, and other progressive legislation for years before the Triangle fire.

Golway is careful not to push the argument too far. Tammany might have supported some social welfare legislation, but they were hardly anticapitalists and often found themselves fending off challenges from those who presented less prosperous New Yorkers with more radical plans for social change, such as the radical utopian Henry George, who ran for mayor in 1886, or William Randolph Hearst, who ran for mayor on the Municipal Ownership League line in 1905. Tammany men often made common cause with city businessmen and had no trouble making money for themselves. The sainted Charlie Murphy made enough money through his family’s contracting business (no doubt helped by city and state contracts) to buy a Long Island mansion with a nine-hole golf course.

Tammany politicians came to their liberalism not through a desire for radical change or social engineering; for them, supporting the minimum wage was a form of self-interested politics, a way to help out their political constituents. Golway also perceptively notes that Tammany’s more liberal views were well within Catholic doctrine. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum laid out the case for the protection of workers and a basic social welfare system. A devout Catholic like Murphy would no doubt have been more influenced by that message than by the writings of any progressive muckraker.

After the Triangle fire, Tammany did begin to strengthen its bonds with some progressive reformers, including future labor secretary Frances Perkins. But the influence worked both ways: If Tammany under Murphy tried to smooth out its rough edges, the reformers also put aside some of their prejudices and learned the value of working with people different from themselves. 

Golway makes a persuasive case that it was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s budding relationship with Al Smith in the 1920s that turned FDR from a supercilious and somewhat frivolous young man into a more humble, empathetic, and ultimately more successful politician. His adult-onset polio certainly helped in that transition, but so did the humble politician from the Lower East Side.

FDR and Smith would have a famous falling-out over the 1932 presidential race, however, and Smith would bitterly turn against FDR and the New Deal, going so far as to join the Liberty League. It is at this point that Golway chooses to wind down his story. In doing so, he misses one of the more interesting parts: the decline and fall of Tammany. Yet if he had gone into more detail about Tammany’s decline, it would have severely complicated his thesis.

What ultimately killed Tammany Hall was modern liberalism itself. With the New Deal and the expansion of the social welfare state, the federal government began to take over some of the functions of the political machines. This expansion turned beneficiaries into clients of the welfare state, which asked for little or nothing in return. For all of its faults, Tammany Hall at least made its beneficiaries participants in the larger political drama, not clients of the state. 

By the early 1960s, Tammany Hall and the political machines of the other boroughs came under continual attack from liberal Democratic reformers. The takedown of Carmine DeSapio, the last boss of Tammany, gets only a paragraph’s mention here. In reality, the Greenwich Village boss came under attack from upper-middle-class reformers, like a young Edward Koch and the Village Voice. They saw DeSapio and his machine as reactionary and corrupt. Similar fights went on in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. If Tammany was truly the great fount of liberalism that Golway paints it as, it would have come as news to the reformers of the 1960s and ’70s. The Democratic party would now be the party of Bella Abzug, Robert Abrams, and Elizabeth Holtzman. (Ironically, Ed Koch would later, as mayor, align himself with the remnants of the outer borough political machines, something that would almost bring down his mayoralty in scandal during his third term in the late 1980s.)

Machine Made probably represents the end point of Tammany revisionism. There is not much more that can be said on Tammany’s behalf. Golway does not ignore the flaws and corruption of the machine, but he doesn’t dwell on them. For every Al Smith, there was a corrupt Jimmy Walker. Tammany might have supported public works, but it also neglected Central Park in the early 20th century, to the point that the city’s crown jewel wallowed for decades in decay. Whatever benefit Tammany provided, our contemporary conception of politics is still more reminiscent of the reformers’ idea of public service for the common good than Tammany’s self-interested and transactional politics. And that’s probably for the best.

Today’s Democratic party has inherited the worst of the political worlds of both reformers and bosses: the smugness and elitism of reformers who think they know best how to arrange the lives of their inferiors and the political hackery, voter fraud, and dysfunctional city governments of machine rule. What is missing from today’s Democratic party is what ultimately redeems the historic Tammany Hall: a sense of giving average individuals a stake in their societies, an outlet for their concerns and needs, and a basic respect for their beliefs. 

Vincent J. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.