Author and Irish American history expert Terry Golway says that despite Tammany Hall's reputation as an all-powerful and corrupt political machine in the 19th Century its leaders delivered much-needed social services, found jobs for the unemployed, and defended the poor.
Golway, the author of the forthcoming book "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics," says in a New York Times Op/Ed there's more to Tammany Hall's story than corruption.
Golway writes that while many private charities in the early 20th century were dividing the poor into those who were worthy and unworthy of help, Tammany resisted imposing "an evangelical Anglo-Protestant morality on the Catholics and Jews who made up the bulk of New York’s poor." He says that many Tammany leaders were descended from survivors of the potato famine and did not seek to investigate the claims of those who needed assistance.
He writes,"One of the machine’s legendary scoundrels, 'Big Tim' Sullivan, explained how he approached those who sought a free meal in his clubhouse: 'I never ask a hungry man about his past. I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.
"For generations of immigrants and their children in Manhattan, the face of government was the face of the local Tammany ward heeler. And it was a friendly face. This was something entirely new for Russian Jews, Southern Italians and, to be sure, the Irish who dominated the machine. Their experience with politics in the old country was not quite so amiable." Golway writes.
"For Tammany, power rested on voter turnout. And turnout was a function of relentless outreach and tireless service. The legendary Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt – the man who coined the phrase “honest graft” – met with constituents and lesser Tammany officials in his district several times a week to find out who was happy with Tammany’s services and who required some special attention.
"Another notable Tammany district leader who worked his way up from poverty, Jeremiah T. Mahoney, once insisted that he and other Tammany colleagues never forgot the dire circumstances of their impoverished childhoods amid the splendor of late 19th-century Manhattan. Those memories, he argued, led Tammany to support progressive reforms like workers’ compensation, the beginning of minimum-wage laws, the federal income tax, public pensions for widows and children, greater government regulation of the workplace and private property, and other laws that helped set the stage for the New Deal in the 1930s. The Tammany machine’s two greatest advocates for social reform were Mahoney’s law partner, Senator Robert F. Wagner, and the four-time governor Alfred E. Smith."
Golway admits that many Tammany figures, including Sullivan, were corrupt, but, he says, "...it’s hard not to detect more than a little bigotry in the rhetoric of the machine’s foes. Andrew D. White, president of Cornell University and one of the late 19th century’s most-celebrated reformers, once complained that under Tammany and its imitators, a 'crowd of illiterate peasants, freshly raked from Irish bogs, or Bohemian mines, or Italian robber nests,' exercised 'virtual control' over New York and other cities packed with immigrants."
"Indeed they did, thanks to Tammany’s embrace of an early form of multiculturalism. Tammany’s Irish leaders were quick to incorporate Jews into their clubhouses (Herbert Lehman, the first Jew elected governor of New York, was vice chairman of Tammany’s finance committee in the mid-1920s), and while it was hardly ahead of its times on race relations, it encouraged black participation at a time when fellow Democrats in the South suppressed voting rights."
Golway admits that Tammany Hall was guilty of many offenses, but he concludes saying that "those flaws should not overshadow Tammany’s undoubted virtues. The machine succeeded not simply because it could round up votes. It succeeded because it was unafraid of the grunt work of retail politics and because it rarely lost touch with its voters."