'Machine Made': A Second Look at Tammany Hall

In "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and The Creation of Modern American Politics," author Terry Golway doesn’t sugar-coat the negative aspects of a New York institution that flourished for about 100 years. What he does is swing the pendulum back from a crazy imbalance caused by prejudices fostered by the English and Anglo-Americans. “The rest of the story,” as  Paul Harvey might say, is that Tammany also played a major role not only in enhancing the economic lot of thousands of 19th century immigrants – including many Irish, German and Eastern European Jews – but also in fostering the progressive ideas of 20th century America. The Tammany Hall of Bill "Boss" Tweed matured into the Tammany Hall of Al Smith, Golway shows us.

Tammany was all about jobs. Tammany wasn’t about helping the poor “get their act together” or setting them on the “straight and narrow,” the goal of many reform organizations. It was about a hand-out and a hand-up. "Big" Tim Sullivan, a Tammany stalwart of the early 20th Century said, “I never ask a hungry man about his past. I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.” Golway writes, “Traditional reformers, immersed in Anglo-Protestant notions of worthiness rather than simple need, sought to change character and culture as part of a contract-like relationship with the poor and distressed."

Jobs, jobs, jobs. With the Irish, engaged in providing funds so that relatives could join them in this land of opportunity, it was always about jobs. In "The Rascal King," author Jack Beatty tells the story of a Good Government reformer who was campaigning for her Board of Education incumbent in South Boston. When a "Southie" housewife implied that the officeholder might have helped his relative get a teaching position, the reformer, horrified at the suggestion, replied that her candidate would never do such a dastardly thing ... to which the housewife replied, “If the son-of-a-b­­itch won’t help his own sister, why should I vote for him?” Spoken like a true daughter of Erin.

Jobs for votes. Tammany’s George Washington Plunkett might have put that trade-off in the category "honest graft." Plunkett distinguished “dishonest graft,” which benefits only the individual, from “honest graft,” which benefits some cause or entity bigger than oneself. In voting a ticket to get or keep a job, Irishmen would often band together with other immigrants to be part of a political powerhouse that would represent their interest.

During the "Great Hunger," Charles Trevelyan, the official in charge of British relief efforts, famously said, “The great evil with which we have to contend [is] not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people [i.e., Irish].” This was the same message of 19th century Anglo-Americans, even of some abolitionists who saw injustice below the Mason-Dixon Line, but not above it. These myopic trumpeters of justice included cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose hatred of Tammany Hall translated into blatantly racist cartoons that gained legitimacy gracing the cover of Harper’s Weekly. It was not easy being Irish or any ethnicity in 19th Century New York City

In many minds, Tammany Hall equated to “Boss” Tweed; but Tweed lasted only slightly more than a decade in the mid-19th century as Tammany’s leader, while Tammany lasted into the 1960s when a political upstart named Ed Koch defeated Tammany leader, Carmine DeSapio.

"Machine Made" fills in the gaps in the story – from John Kelly (Tweed’s successor), who brought an organization patterned on the Catholic Church to Tammany; through Richard Croker, who strengthened Tammany by creating a network of local political clubhouses; to Charles Murphy who expressed, in Golway’s words, Tammany’s “discontent with laissez-faire capitalism, [while it] protected immigrant culture and identity from those who demanded conformity with middle-class definitions of Americanism, and continued to develop a pluralistic counterpoint to the nation’s self-image as a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation of rugged individuals.”

Later Golway notes, “Under Murphy’s leadership in the second decade of the twentieth century, Tammany redefined reform as a pragmatic, lunch-bucket form of liberalism stripped of the Progressive Era’s moral pieties and evangelical roots.” Tammany made “New York a hothouse of progressive reform long before the New Deal,” in Golway’s words.

Initially, Franklin Roosevelt despised Tammany, likening Murphy to a “noxious weed.” Later, the Patrician from Dutchess County, after getting his feet wet in the nitty-gritty politics of  governing, lawmaking and winning elections, would have a more benign view of Tammany and its leader. Golway writes, “Roosevelt, in the end, came to Tammany; Tammany did not come to him.”

Much of the impetus for what would become the New Deal legislation of FDR was born in the social legislation proposed first in New York then in Washington by Tammany Hall leaders such as Al Smith and Senator Robert Wagner. But the machine’s power was waning as immigration – always the base of Tammany’s strength – slowed, and formidable foes such as Fiorello LaGuardia took their toll on Tammany.

At the end of "Machine Made," Golway provides a touching perspective: “It was an imperfect institution, Tammany, often egregiously so. Its alliances with gangsters and other crooked operators deserves history’s rebuke ... But the machine’s absence left a void in New York, still a city of immigrants, and now, in the twenty-first century, many of these newcomers live in shadows that Tammany would have found unacceptable. Tens of thousands of immigrants without proper papers, without citizenship, unable to vote? Tammany’s ward heelers would have seen them not as outcasts but as potential allies – and voters – and would have acted accordingly.”

Views: 458

Tags: Book Review, Books, Literature, NYC, New York, Opinion, Politics, United States

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on July 7, 2014 at 7:32pm

Nice review for a very great book. Thank you Mr. Curley, well done… Eamon 

Heritage Partner
Comment by Against The Wind on July 9, 2014 at 5:56am

Good review. Provided me with a new slant on what Tammany Hall was all about. Thanks Jim.

Comment by Jim Curley on July 9, 2014 at 7:11am

Thanks, Eamon and Against.

Much of the value of a book like Machine Made is that it causes you to reassess the period of time it covers. I didn't know that a great many of the Irish who came over during the Great Hunger didn't speak English. I didn't know that in the 19th century there was a 12th of July parade in NYC honoring the victory of the Orangemen. Can you imagine?

Did you know that as the Draft Riots were in full swing, Bill Tweed proposed giving $300 to every man in NYC subject to the draft, so that they could opt out of serving, just like the rich could, by giving the money to a substitute? The idea was implemented, and the rioting abated. You can imagine what the keepers of urban political morality thought of that practical solution.

Comment by Gerry Regan on July 9, 2014 at 9:54am

Jim, thanks for these insights. A point of clarification, please: Did Tammany provide the $300 bounty to any city dwellter who wanted to opt out of the draft?

Comment by Jim Curley on July 9, 2014 at 10:34am

I will doublecheck that. Might have only been for the immigrants.  I'll get back to you.

Comment by Jim Curley on July 9, 2014 at 2:45pm

Checked Golway's book, which reads, "The city would borrow funds to pay the $300 exemption for those who wished to avoid the draft, and pay bounties to substitutes willing to take the places on the exempted men." No indication that it was only for immigrants or for the Irish.

The initial payments came from a $3 million bond issue. but the total cost including interest exceeded $14 million. Golway says, "Tammany bought peace, and after the violence of July, who could say that the cost was too high?"

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on November 22, 2016 at 11:39pm

23 November 1876  Boss Tweed is delivered to authorities in New York City after being captured in Spain.

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on December 3, 2016 at 2:52pm

4 December 1875 - William Marcy "Boss" Tweed escapes from jail 


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