© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Case For Tammany Hall Being On The Right Side Of History

Seen here in 1935, the building that housed Manhattan's Democratic Party, known as Tammany Hall, still stands today.
Seen here in 1935, the building that housed Manhattan's Democratic Party, known as Tammany Hall, still stands today.

Back in 1900, when Americans in cities counted on ice to keep food, milk and medicines fresh, New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck's career ended when it emerged that a company given a monopoly on the ice business was doubling prices while giving the mayor and his cronies big payoffs.

Van Wyck was one of a long list of scoundrels associated with the political machine known as Tammany Hall, which influenced — and at times dominated — New York's Democratic Party for more than 100 years. Among its more notorious figures were William "Boss" Tweed, who went to jail for corruption, and George Washington Plunkitt, who's remembered for insisting there's a difference between honest and dishonest graft.

Historian Terry Golway has written a colorful history of Tammany Hall, which takes a more sympathetic view of the organization than many historians. He says the Tammany machine, while often corrupt, gave impoverished immigrants critically needed social services and a road to assimilation. According to Golway, Tammany was responsible for progressive state legislation that foreshadowed the New Deal. He writes that some of Tammany's harshest critics, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, openly exhibited a raw anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

Golway tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "What I'm trying to do in this book is present this other side of Tammany Hall. ... Every history of Tammany Hall is told as a true-crime novel, and what I'm trying to suggest is that there's this other side. I'm arguing, yes, the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States [do] outweigh the corruption with which it is associated. I'm simply trying to complicate that story... Tammany Hall was there for the poor immigrant who was otherwise friendless in New York."

Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy. His book is called Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.

Interview Highlights

On the history of Tammany Hall

It was founded in the late 1700s and eventually it drifted into politics, in part because of the influence of Aaron Burr, who was a New Yorker and who recognized that here you have this organized group of voters, and maybe [they] could sort of transform this social club — called the Society of Saint Tammany — and redirect its energies toward politics ...

By the Jacksonian era in the 1820s, the Tammany Society was, in essence, the main faction of the Democratic Party in New York County, which of course is Manhattan. ... But its roots are as a private organization that becomes the dominant political faction in New York City for better than 100 years.

On the Irish immigrants of the late 19th century

The famine immigration period is roughly from around 1845 to the mid-1850s, and it's one of the great mass movements of the 19th century. Approximately 2 million Irish people left Ireland — that's out of a population of about 8 million. Of course, not all of them came to the United States, but a fair portion of them did.

These immigrants were unlike any immigrants who had come before, even other Irish immigrants, in the sense that they came really with no skills. The people who left Ireland during the famine, many of them didn't speak English — they spoke Irish. They came with only the clothes on their back. And that's sort of the "huddled masses" stereotype that we have of, say, the Ellis Island generation of immigration. But that wasn't true until the famine period.

So you had wave upon wave and ship after ship of these poor, Irish-speaking immigrants landing in cities like New York and, over the course of 10 years or so, completely transforming the character of cities like New York and Boston and others so that the foreign-born population of some of the cities in the Northeast by the late 19th century was well more than half.

On Tammany's decision to cozy up to Irish immigrants

Tammany embraced immigrants because they knew how to count and they understood that, as these Irish immigrants began washing up on South Street in New York ... there were two ways that New York could respond to these immigrants:

The Whig Party, which was the main opposition party at the time, chose to regard these immigrants as aliens and interlopers. And people, because most of them were Catholic, thought of them as people who could never really understand the Anglo-Protestant idea of liberty ...

Terry Golway is a journalist and historian. His other books include <em>Washington's General</em> and <em>Together We Cannot Fail</em>.
Ben Gancsos / Courtesy of Liveright
Courtesy of Liveright
Terry Golway is a journalist and historian. His other books include Washington's General and Together We Cannot Fail.

The Democrats were a little more practical. They realized that if these people were extended the hand of friendship — and I do believe it was friendship — then well, you know, maybe they would show their appreciation on Election Day. So Tammany becomes associated with immigrants around the time of the famine immigration.

On the relationship between Tammany Hall and the Irish immigrant population

The immigrants got respect from Tammany Hall. Now, whether it was calculated or not is a matter of debate. ... What they did was in essence create an informal social welfare system when of course none existed, so that, eventually, if you were an immigrant and you needed some advice or you needed a job or, frankly, if you just needed some respect, Tammany Hall was willing to give you that. In return, of course, Tammany expected you to turn out early and often and vote on Election Day.

On Tammany Hall's progressive response to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 garment workers

In 1913 alone, New York passed all sorts of factory reforms. Now, that's what you would've expected after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — everybody expected that Albany would come back with laws for sprinklers. These are important laws, I don't mean to diminish them, but they expected all kinds of workplace reforms.

What they might not have expected was a push for things like unemployment compensation, eventually for the beginnings of the minimum wage. In 1913, New York passed a law that said that employers had to give their employees one day of rest for every seven. A minimum wage was established for certain state workers of $2 a day ...

This was not really related to making the workplace safer. So what Tammany did was they took this workplace catastrophe of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and used it as an excuse, if you will, to begin to implement these progressive laws that maybe had been talked about for a long time but finally Tammany had the power and the will to enforce them.

On the rhetoric New York media employed against Tammany Hall

The Times and others — and remember the period; we're not talking about The New York Times of 2014, we're talking about The New York Times of the late 19th century — The New York Tribune, The New York Herald, all of the papers really aligned against Tammany ...

A lot of their rhetoric is this palpable anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant. ... One reformer — who wasn't speaking for The New York Times or any newspaper but I think his sentiments pretty much summed it up — a guy by the name of Andrew White who was the president of Cornell University said in the late 19th century that: The problem with New York is that it is being ruled by peasants who were freshly raked from the Irish bogs and from Italian robber nests and Bohemian coal mines ...

If you look at the rhetoric that's deployed against Tammany, it's not hard for a 21st-century reader to see the astonishing bigotry. ... I think that the bigotry of Tammany's opponents has been glossed over by other historians and I'm really not sure why, because it's there. It's not even hiding in plain sight; it's there in plain sight.

On cartoonist Thomas Nast's depiction of Tammany Hall and the Irish

Thomas Nast was a bigot. There's no getting around it. He's of course an icon in American history; his cartoons helped bring down Boss Tweed, and rightfully so. ...

Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes, as ignorant, drunken, violent thugs who followed Tammany simply because Tammany told them to follow. There wasn't even interest there — they were just so stupid and ignorant that they didn't know any better.

Thomas Nast was part of a New York militia unit on July 12, 1871, when there was a parade of Irish Protestants — July 12 is [practically a] national holiday in Northern Ireland to this day, where the Protestants commemorate a victory over the Catholics ...

In New York ... because of threats of violence and such, the National Guard was sent out. Thomas Nast was part of the National Guard, and at a certain point the National Guard, the militia, opened up [fire] on Catholics and about 26 or [2]7 Irish immigrants were killed and dozens and dozens wounded. After that, Thomas Nast drew a cartoon for Harper's Weekly which shows the feminine figure of Columbia with her foot on the neck of the Irish, and the caption simply read "Bravo."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.