As New York elects its first officially Democratic mayor in twenty years, Susanah Black at Front Porch Republic reexamines the legacy of the much maligned Tammany Hall:
When it was functioning correctly, Tammany Hall served as a way to integrate the block-to-block fabric of New York life with the state and national levels of political organization, and the great immigrant influxes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are unthinkable without the diligent work of Tammany men on behalf of these new voters.
In contrast to the current practices of electioneering whereby votes are still bought albeit indirectly through marketing and ad agencies, Black writes:
In Tammany New York, votes were acquired through social contact and practical favors, financial and legal assistance, jobs and drinks at the pub. The direct financial beneficiaries were, yes, the politicians and the businessmen who got contracts at far above the market price—-but also the poor families whose rent got paid, the boy who got a job working for the new El being put up along Greenwich Street and 9th Avenue, the couple whose hotel room was paid for when they were burnt out of their apartment. In less cynical terms: Tammany was a corruption, but it was a corruption of something good: the idea that government should, as Plunkitt said, be warm and personal; that decisions should be made locally; that rulers should directly and practically help the ruled; that there should be an everyday and immediate connection between the politicians and the people
Today’s political system encourages politicians to adopt the priorities of their party’s donor class and most ideological activists; the necessities of fundraising demand it. In the Tammany system political leaders had incentives to move among the people and meet them in the local neighborhood clubhouse, forcing politicians to respond to the direct needs and priorities of the voters. To the Tammany men politics was a personalist project. Ideas and abstractions meant little but relationships meant everything. The district leader had no need to attend fundraisers but woe to him if he missed a funeral. Todays politicians too often use their power to extend tax breaks to donors, bailout friendly businesses, and meet with lobbyists on a regular basis and yet it’s Tammany’s name which has become a byword for corruption. Get O’Malley’s vote because you got him a job and you’re corrupt, get Goldman Sachs donations because you got them a bailout and it’s business as usual.
As much as progressive historians and contemporary observers might emphasize the corruption, and the corruption was very real, it’s worth remembering that the waves of immigrants which poured into New York during the mid- to late-nineteenth century were facing immense challenges in an enormously hostile culture. It is not at all certain that given a different set of circumstances they would have even survived let alone prospered. Torn from their native lands, the majority of immigrants endured brutal poverty, horrendous living conditions, intense loneliness, and uncertain chances of survival in the new world. For many immigrants the two institutions which provided a lifeline in this perilous situation were the Catholic Church and the Tammany Democratic Party. The Church instilling in its flock not only the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity through the sacraments but through sermons and schools the very practical virtues of American life: chastity, hard work, and sobriety. In tandem, Tammany would provide jobs, social services, and the opportunity for immigrants to advance up the city’s political and socio-economic ladder.
This dynamic was illustrated by New York writer Pete Hamill in his memoir of growing up in an Irish immigrant family in Brooklyn, A Drinking Life:
A few weeks before Christmas, 1945, there was a sudden delivery of coal, carried into the house by a burly man arrived with a turkey. I asked who the men were and was told by my father, the party, What party? The Democratic Party . Said in the tone of: Are you an idiot? But I was still puzzled. This wasn’t relief, was it? Of course not. Well, if they give you a turkey and coal, what do you have to give them in return? Loyalty, he said. “Always remember the most important thing in life: Vote the straight ticket.”
That very same virtue of loyalty which ensured community solidarity and survival led to Tammany’s well documented failings: personal corruption, public graft, and the exclusion of certain groups to the advantage of other groups. Yet over time, due to its very pragmatic nature, Tammany showed a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. It became not the preserve of merely the Irish but absorbed new waves of immigrants and integrated them into the fabric of New York. Always suspicious of ideological projects and the idea of government as an instrument of progress, Tammany nonetheless built most of the infrastructure of New York, from the subways to the Brooklyn Bridge, supported labor reforms, and distributed social welfare before the creation of the social welfare state.
As Black reminds us, Tammany is not something to look back on with pure nostalgia. Rather there are lessons to be drawn from its successes and failings. But while its name has become synonymous with its failings neither should we forget its successes.