The Irish Road to the White House


An Gorta Mór, the devastating Famine that drove over one-and-a-half million Irish to America, put in place the foundations of the Irish-American community for the next 120 years. The Famine immigrants were a deeply rural people. Endowed with few material resources or capital and little or no education, the great majority were utterly unprepared for instant immersion into some of the fastest-industrializing cities in the world. Yet, politically, the Irish had the advantage of having undergone a process of political initiation that was, at the time, unique in Western Europe.

The administration in Dublin, controlled from London, was often remote and, in places, fiercely resisted. But beginning in the 1820s, with his groundbreaking campaign for Catholic emancipation and in his subsequent drive for repeal of the union with Great Britain, Daniel O’Connell created one of the first mass political movements. O’Connell’s hopes for repeal were crushed by government coercion and the start of the Great Hunger. But as the massive exodus of Irish got underway, with a quarter of the country emigrating in the single decade from 1845-55, the memory of the Famine would prove indelible and the experience of political organization under O’Connell, invaluable.

The disruptions and dislocations suffered by Famine immigrants were often devastating, and the welcome they found in America was anything but warm. Instantly suspect for their religion and poverty, their presence helped spur a fierce backlash that led to the formation of the anti-immigrant American Party, the largest third-party movement in American history. Yet under the democratic reforms brought about under President Andrew Jackson, the vote had been extended to all white males and the unintended beneficiaries were the Famine Irish. Crowded into the worst slums in North America, they had the advantage of being able to use their numbers to engineer voting pluralities and push their way ahead.

While New York’s Tammany Hall was the most famous – or infamous – Irish-American political machine, the rise of the Irish through urban mass politics is a story common to American cities from Chicago to Jersey City, from Albany to Philadelphia, from Kansas City to Boston. The big-city boss – “If I were a Republican,” said Kansas City’s Tom Prendergast, “they’d call me a leader” – not only exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of Irish machine politics, but was influential in forming coalitions that reached out to other ethnic groups, helped build the modern Democratic Party, and brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to power and, eventually, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Tammany was invented by native-born American Protestants. Aaron Burr first staked out Tammany’s territory among the urban working and lower classes, and William Tweed built the Hall’s foundations as a champion of the immigrant poor. But John Kelly, the leader who picked up the pieces after Tweed’s colossal fall, set in place the organizational machine that would endure and prosper for the next half-century. “Kelly,” one observer noted, “found a mob and left an army.”

Kelly was born in 1822, the son of Irish immigrants, raised in poverty in the city’s lower wards, and made a name for himself as a boxer, actor and volunteer fireman. As well as prospering in his business as a grate-setter and ironmonger, he took an early interest in politics. Elected alderman in 1853 and Congressman in 1854 – the same year as Tweed – Kelly was the only Catholic member of the House of Representatives at a time when the nativist agitation against Irish Catholics in particular was reaching its height. (Boston wouldn’t elect its first Irish-Catholic Congressman until 1880.)

Elected sheriff of New York County in 1858, a position often associated with wanton plundering, Kelly proved upright enough to earn the name (some said it was self-conferred) “Honest John.” He kept his distance from the Tweed Ring and, shattered by the death of his wife and son, was recuperating in Europe when the Tammany Hall scandal broke. Some thought that Tammany wouldn’t survive the Tweed debacle. But Honest John accepted the position of Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall – the first Irishman in that role. He was ideal for the job. As well as untainted by the Tweed Ring, he’d come up through the streets and knew firsthand the needs and expectations of immigrant voters, particularly the Irish.

In rebuilding Tammany, Honest John laid down three enduring principles of machine politics: leadership, loyalty and money. The Boss called the shots. He collected the assessments – a percentage of future earnings – from those who were nominated to run or appointed to public office. Beneath the Boss was the widening pyramid of district leaders, precinct captains and ward heelers, so that, at its base, the machine covered not just every district and ward but every block and tenement. In many ways, the ward heelers and precinct captains were interpreters, acting as intermediaries between newly arrived, still-disoriented immigrants and the distant monolith of government. Often enough, they were the government, fulfilling all the legal and social-welfare functions that would later be assumed by public agencies.