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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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.