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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 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.