Tammany Kindness

It is common for revisionist historians to pose themselves as prosecutors of sinful politicians, bigoted authors, deranged empires. Rarer are those like Terry Golway, who in Machine Made: Tammany ...

It is common for revisionist historians to pose themselves as prosecutors of sinful politicians, bigoted authors, deranged empires. Rarer are those like Terry Golway, who in Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics adopts the guise of a slick-haired criminal defense lawyer requesting a retrial for his client on the grounds of a misled jury. Tammany, the organization that more or less owned Manhattan’s Democratic Party (and often the city and the state) from roughly the Civil War until World War II, has an “unenviable” reputation, Golway allows. But it could not have found a more loyal or capable attorney. When mostly Irish mobs rioted throughout the city in July 1863—protesting the ability of rich sons to pay $300 (almost $6,000 today) for exemption from the military draft—it was Tammany’s solution which finally eased the tensions: the city would sell off bonds in order to subsidize the exemption fee for poor residents. “It was not elegant,” Golways concludes, “but it was effective.”

Throughout history, of course, metrics other than elegance or mere effectiveness have been applied to ascertain the worth of political institutions: morality, for some; legitimacy, for others; stability, if you were really in a pinch—all tests that, Golway’s impassioned defense aside, Tammany Hall repeatedly and brazenly and tragically failed.

Named for Tamanend, a Lenape chief revered for his wisdom and, oddly, regarded by much of revolutionary America as its patron saint (rather as if Hapsburg Spain had canonized a Jew), the Society of St. Tammany was a network of mock-tribal social and philanthropic clubs with branches in all the major cities of the United States. Founded in 1788, the New York chapter was soon mobilized by the eminent and unruly Aaron Burr in support of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. An 1805 charter application to the state legislature announced its purpose as “affording relief to the indigent and distressed members of the said association, their widows and orphans, and others, who may be found proper objects of their charity,” but the organization quickly earned a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in state and local politics. “As the self-conscious voice of the common man,” Golway writes, Tammany became an early supporter of universal male suffrage, and in the democratizing Jacksonian age began “incorporating into its evolving ideology a deep suspicion of economic monopolies that symbolized concentrated wealth and power.”

As early as 1823, Tammany embraced the Irish and German immigrants trickling and soon flooding into New York. The group doubled down, as they say, on this policy in the late 1830s, when irksome corruption disclosures forced Tammany to win new adherents and the solidification of the opposition Whig party’s nativism showed the machine where to find them. “Tammany from this time forward began to be ruled from the bottom of the social stratum, instead of from the top,” Gustavus Myers wrote in his 1901 history of the machine, with significant exaggeration but a crucial grain of truth. The machine’s leaders could hardly have known the wave of immigrants would engulf them, too.

All American schoolchildren learn—which is to say, all that Americans know—about the so-called Irish Potato Famine is that the crops didn’t grow, some Irish died, some came to America, and that’s why we have the Irish, the end. Less familiar to most of us is the Famine’s vast impact on American history—fittingly, as it was likely the eastern US which lent Ireland its blight—and the extent to which, as Golway’s subtitle relates, our politics are still defined by it today. “The Irish in America live in 1846,” T. P. O’Connor, an MP, said in 1918—but not the Irish alone.

Golway claims to find in the Irish memory of the Famine many of the emotional and ideological resources new immigrants drew on when they arrived in an unprecedented wave on American shores. Abandoned by a British establishment in thrall to Manchester liberalism—and to the belief that their coarser brethren could make it if they would only quit drinking and give work and Anglicanism a try—one million Irish died in the Famine and another million left the country. New York’s population nearly doubled during the years of the Famine, and by the mid-1850s, more than one-fourth of its residents had been born in Ireland. For survivors at home and abroad, Golway writes, it was “a catastrophe they came to see as a symbol of political powerlessness, official neglect, and callous moralism,” to which they individually and collectively vowed never to succumb again. “The Famine inspired a broader understanding in New York’s Irish community of other forces at work in a commercializing society, forces that seemed to place economic dogma over the well-being—indeed, the very lives—of the poor.” A broader understanding, Golway means to say, than those euphemistic “forces” would have preferred.

Though Golway refrains from using the term, Machine Made offers the tantalizing proposition that Tammany Hall was not only an expression of class consciousness for the city’s poor and otherwise friendless workers, but also the most durable and impactful such expression in American history. When the machine’s embrace of Irish immigrants before and during the Famine combined with their hunger for the security of political power, Tammany became a profoundly threatening force in national politics. At the 1852 Democratic convention in Baltimore, Myers wrote, Tammany “was represented by so boisterous a delegation that its speakers were denied a hearing.”

That legacy, Golway argues, was carried on by later generations of Tammany leaders—typically the sons of Famine victims and émigrés—who protected their constituents from “the uncertainties and deprivations of a society that believed government had no role to play in mediating the excesses of property and capital.” Before the Great Society, before the New Deal, before Progressivism, there was Tammany Hall. Even opponents acknowledged the wisdom of the approach. “Tammany kindness is real kindness, and will go far,” Lincoln Steffens wrote in his otherwise highly critical The Shame of the Cities. Long before the birth of modern liberalism and the welfare state, Tammany cornered the market on nonjudgmental disbursement of jobs and food, thus earning the abiding loyalty of the mostly but not exclusively Irish masses. “When survivors and their children built new lives in New York and elsewhere,” Golway writes, “they made it clear through their votes and their actions that they regarded those who provided jobs and influence as their friends and those who offered disdain and moral uplift as their enemies.”

“It was, after all, an irregular world—and Tammany knew it,” Golway reminds us.

And what enemies! The opposition to the influx of the Irish into American politics in the mid-19th century was immediate and nearly overwhelming, introducing into national life an unprecedently vitriolic form of mass xenophobia from which we remain far from liberated today. The rabidly anti-Catholic Know-Nothings comprised not a fringe political party, Golway notes, but was rather “one of the most astonishing mass mobilizations in US political history.” Even democrats like Walt Whitman derided the “teaching of Catholic superstition” to the “filthy, Irish rabble.” With the necessary adjustments, the cartoons of Thomas Nast, so heralded today in American textbooks, could easily have been printed later in the pages of Der Stürmer. In the decades after the Civil War, many reformers advocated the withdrawal of suffrage from all except property-holding elites, complaining, with Andrew Dickson White, the president of Cornell University, that “the vote of a single tenement house, managed by a professional politician, will neutralize the vote of an entire street of well-to-do citizens.” The disenfranchisement proposal was enormously popular, inspired by the sense that the lesser breed of voters were, in White’s words, “not alive even to their own most direct interests.”

Machine Made is a welcome corrective to the probably irreversible tendency of the American political-historical imagination to reduce the rich and complex history of Tammany Hall to a single word. The machine, Wikipedia tells us, “served as an engine for graft and political corruption.” “The home to legendary corruption,” adds About.com. A 2007 board game named after the organization describes itself as one “of backstabbing, corruption, temporary alliances and taking power at all costs.” The question is rarely asked, though: corrupting of what? While reformers worshiped the sanctity of process—all the better to preserve an intrinsically inegalitarian status quo—Tammany staked its reputation on outcomes. Quoting the reformer and future Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins’s guiltily admiring description of Tammany methods as “irregular,” Golway reminds us, “It was, after all, an irregular world—and Tammany knew it.”

Boss Tweed and the Tammany Ring, caricatured by Thomas Nast, c. 1870. Wikimedia Commons

Boss Tweed and the Tammany Ring, caricatured by Thomas Nast, c. 1870. Wikimedia Commons


Nineteenth-century elites understood the United States as a country founded with a vision of civic republicanism in which the public good was best conceived of and served by those of independent means. Their property, it was said, equipped them to resist the temptation to abuse public office and the demands of private, self-interested individuals and factions; the same was true, by extension, of suffrage itself. The growth of political parties and electoral machines like Tammany Hall, then, was indeed quite literally a corruption of the purity of disinterested politics, a departure from the proper operations of government. In 1878, Golway notes, the New York Times editorialized that “it would be a great gain if our people could be made to understand distinctly that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness involves, to be sure, the right to good-government, but not the right to take part, either immediately or indirectly, in the management of the state.” Need it more bluntly? “It is not safe,” ventured the esteemed industrialist Peter Cooper, “to place the execution of the laws in the hands of the classes against which they are principally enforced.”

Golway is most comfortable when attributing reformist fervor to hatred for the Irish people and the Catholic religion, or to aversion to drink, or to principled opposition to the machine’s proudly transactional politicking. But the elements of his story fit together most easefully when this antagonism is shown to have been nothing more or less than class warfare, a fundamental and permanent clash of interests rather than the intermittent outbreak of hostilities. In the 1880s, a prominent lawyer named Richard Welling partnered with Theodore Roosevelt to found the New-York Reform Club. According to Golway’s count, of the club’s 2,312 members in 1902, the vast majority—some 1,842—lived more than 30 miles from downtown Manhattan. Lamenting decades later on the obstacles to forming a cross-class reform movement with labor leaders, Welling said: “It was a tremendous blow to find all these men preoccupied with wage questions.”

Despite Golway’s self-presentation as a rescuer of Tammany’s reputation, Exhibit A in the machine’s defense will always be a little book printed over a century ago, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered By Ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, From His Rostrum—The New York County Courthouse Bootblack Stand. Published in 1905 by the firm of McClure, Phillips, and Co.—which in 1904 had produced Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities—the book is a collection of informal monologues ostensibly given by Plunkitt to the journalist William Riordan over the course of several years. We have the first chapter to thank for Plunkitt’s famous defense of “honest graft”:

 …supposin’ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.
Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year.

The apparent contradiction of McClure’s publishing both Steffens and Plunkitt in consecutive years is resolved when we consider the similarity of the above to Steffens’s description of reformist Mayor Seth Low. The efficiency-worshipping Low, Steffens wrote, was “the ideal product of the New York theory that municipal government is business, not politics, and that a business man who would manage the city as he would a business corporation, would solve for us all our troubles.” Tammany thought business was fair game for politics while reformers like New York’s recently departed mayor thought politics a mere extension of business; thus Plunkitt’s admission in a section of the talk titled “Reciprocity in Patronage” that Democrats and Republicans “differ on tariffs and currencies and all them things, but we agree on the main proposition that when a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.” Our gratitude for Plunkitt’s honesty should not eclipse our distaste for what he discloses about the nature of Tammany’s kindness.

Photograph of George Washington Plunkitt, c. 1910. Library of Congress

Photograph of George Washington Plunkitt, c. 1910. Library of Congress


Golway’s cause requires him to find at the core of Tammany’s opportunism a pearl of ideology the machine can be said to have been serving all along. He claims to have found this pearl in a remark of the Bowery leader Big Tim Sullivan: “I never ask a hungry man about his past. I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.” Committing the cardinal sin of writing history, Golway takes this powerful man entirely at his word:

Traditional reformers, immersed in Anglo-Protestant notions of worthiness rather than simple need, sought to change character and culture as part of a contractlike relationship with the poor and distressed. Tammany, by contrast, fed people simply because they needed food. Ward heelers asked no questions and demanded no behavioral changes of those who required a meal, a job, a favor.

But of course Tammany did not feed people simply because they needed food; Tammany fed people because the people fed Tammany. In one talk, advising an aspiring politico how to hold his district (“study human nature and act accordin’”), Plunkitt explains his “regular system” for handling fires—or “great vote-getters,” as Riordan called them:

If there’s a fire in Ninth, Tenth, or Eleventh Avenue, for example, any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fire engines. If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too—mighty good politics …
The consequence is that the poor look up to George W. Plunkitt as a father, come to him in trouble—and don’t forget him on election day.

Could there be a better proof of the machine’s reliance on the misery of its constituents for the maintenance of its power? Of the opening for a movement committed to liberating those long-preyed-upon constituents from the condescension and electoral fortunes of their neighborhood overlords? Tammany’s opportunism was itself the pearl, the ideology. Abusers always prefer victims closest to home.

Interested politics is one thing; interested history is another. Golway too obviously tends to gloss the utterances of Tammany officials and friends with the most sympathetic interpretations possible while cynically appraising the words of its opponents with the worst. The Tweed Ring’s massive theft from the city’s finances in the late 1860s was “hardly a secret,” he writes; a landmark Times exposé of the Ring is “fascinating but not especially sensational”; the machine’s critics at the time “appeared to be foaming at the mouth, making charges with no hard evidence”—this in the midst of a description of the Hall at its most indisputably and inexcusably loathsome moment, when the most substantive defense Golway, Esq. can summon is that Tweed was not alone in dipping into public coffers. Later, in an attempt to malign the judge Samuel Seabury—whose early 1930s investigation uncovered rampant abuse of power and led to the removal of Tammany mayor Jimmy Walker from office—Golway alleges, on the barest circumstantial evidence, that Seabury secretly sought the 1932 presidential nomination, as if the aspiration to higher office were the moral equivalent of Plunkitt’s honest graft. Golway describes Seabury as possessing “the austere bearing of a cleric … he was utterly convinced of his own moral purity,” immediately before admitting the judge “was not wrong about Tammany’s failings.”

By the end of The book,
Golway is trying to sell us
the Brooklyn Bridge.

By the end of Machine Made, Golway is trying to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge. Franklin Roosevelt’s program, he says, had more to do with Tammany-style “amelioration” than with the “charities and settlement houses that saw the poor as clients rather than as neighbors”—a reckless flattening of the political universe of the early 20th century. “Tammany Hall may justly claim the title of the cradle of modern liberalism in America,” he quotes Senator Robert Wagner, a Tammany man addressing a Tammany audience in 1937, as if Wagner’s word ought to settle it. But what the New Deal resembled more than anything else, of course, was socialism, which as far as Golway is concerned might as well have never existed in downtown Manhattan. Tammany’s occasional fits of progressivism, as he tells it, were always the product of sincere fellow-feeling and outrage or, at worst, clever scheming against the hostile and rarefied elites. He says nothing of the threat to Tammany posed by a Lower East Side crammed with Jewish exiles fleeing Europe with even more radical thoughts about power than the Irish who preceded them. Golway quotes approvingly the evasive and, as always, self-serving argument of Tammany leaders that socialists and other radicals “were too busy preparing for the brave new world of the future” to be of much help to their constituents, while they, the ward-heelers, were concerned with “the immediate needs of the present.”

“I am for municipal ownership,” Plunkitt had told Riordan, “It’s a grand idea—the city ownin’ the railroads, the gas works and all that. Just see how many thousands of new places there would be for the workers in Tammany!” Describing the roots of Tammany’s power in his introduction to the 1963 edition of Plunkitt, La Guardia’s biographer Arthur Mann wrote:

The immigrants brought from their peasant villages the conception that politics was a personal affair; government was vested in the powerful local ruler who could help or hurt you. In the district Tammany chieftain the newcomers found a replica of the kind of authority they had respected in Europe.

No politician or reformer felt threatened by Tammany because it was a harbinger of what was to come. Rather, Tammany was despised by the elites—and is rightfully disparaged now by the inheritors of a history they wrote—because it had imported to the United States that structure of political and economic relations which the reformers believed had never existed in the New World and therefore did not require a revolution to overthrow. Golway’s defense of feudalism is worth reading, not for what it says about “the creation of modern American politics,” as promised in the subtitle, but for what it says about the liberal imagination today. icon

Featured image: Tammany Hall & 14th St. West, New York City (1914). Library of Congress