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The Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

The Irish Road to the White House

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The Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

Loyalty flowed both ways, from the Boss down through the ranks whose success at turning out the vote was rewarded with jobs for themselves and patronage for their troops. They, in turn, stuck by the leader, the ultimate source of the vital resource that kept the machine running: money. When Kelly died in 1886, he had the machine running so well that Richard Croker, his presumed (though unnamed) successor, walked into the Hall, sat at his desk and took command.

To one degree or another, the Irish-American political machine, wherever it took root, was built on the same enduring search for security that followed the trauma of the Famine and its consequences. What William Kennedy wrote about the political machine the Irish built in Albany could just as easily apply to Honest John’s machine in New York or Hinky Dink Kenna’s organization in Chicago’s First Ward: “There was only one crime and that was going hungry. They would never let that happen again.”

Tammany and its brethren were often accused of employing a strategy of “bread and circuses” to woo and hold ignorant immigrant voters. There’s truth to that charge as long as the strategy is given its due. The bread was often badly needed, and frequently no one else was going to provide it. And the circuses were more than mere circuses. All those parades, clambakes, beefsteak dinners, Fourth of July boat rides, beer rackets – which reformers loathed and looked down on – brought light, color and enjoyment to slum dwellers whose opportunities for such things were limited at best. These entertainments were also touchstones in process of acculturation that brought immigrants of different backgrounds together to celebrate as one community. The machine was designed to meet ad-hoc needs. It never spawned think tanks or academic affiliates. Beyond George Washington Plunkitt’s rants, it nurtured no writers or philosophers. It had little interest in national monetary policy or the country’s foreign relations.

The machine was parochial, profoundly so, as grass roots as it was possible to get, infiltrating each neighborhood, linking every block and tenement to the Hall with multiple connecting lines, attentive to the here-and-now needs of the immigrant voters who shaped and sustained it. Amid the debates over the gold standard and the free coinage of silver, which animated much of the national political debates of the 1890s, Tammany boss Richard Croker remarked dismissively, “I’m in favor of all kinds of money. The more the better.”

“The abstract ideas of political honesty and efficiency played no part in the scheme of things,” one Tammany veteran wrote of the Hall. “Politics was not discussed in terms of principles, platforms, or ideas. A leader was either a good man or a bad man. A good man took care of his constituents, supplied them…with jobs; he paid rents and prevented evictions. If he didn’t live up to these standards, he was a bad man…and was not destined to last very long…”

The truth behind Tammany Hall’s rich and complex history of electoral success as opposed to the black legend of Tammany as the incarnation of everything evil and reprehensible in American urban politics was perhaps never better framed than by Boss Charles Francis Murphy. “When Tammany can elect its candidate so often in a city of 6,000,000 inhabitants,” Murphy told the New York World, “in a city of intelligence, in a city dotted all over by the church spire and the school house, it seems silly to use the time-worn campaign cry that there is nothing good but everything corrupt in Tammany.”

Murphy’s parents came to New York from Ireland in 1848, at the height of the An Ghorta Mhóir. Born in 1858, the second of nine children, he grew up in the Gas House District on Manhattan’s East Side, a densely packed working-class neighborhood. Murphy was steeped in the life of immigrant New York and the post-Famine culture of urban Irish America. He was five when the Draft Riots tore the city apart and by age 13, the year of the Orange Riots, he was working in a wire factory.

In 1875, he landed a job driving a Manhattan horsecar, and was saved from spending perhaps a lifetime in that position by the name he made for himself as an amateur baseball player. A popular local figure, he raised enough money to open his first saloon in 1880. The path from saloonkeeper to politics was already well trod, and Murphy’s reputation for athletic prowess, likeability and keeping his word all helped make him local district leader. Murphy didn’t buck Croker’s leadership of the Hall, but he ran his fiefdom his own way, without the thuggery and often blatant corruption in which Croker’s lieutenants indulged.

When Croker finally departed, he, like Tweed, left the Hall in disarray. After a brief experiment with a triumvirate, leadership passed to Murphy. The contrast with Croker was dramatic. A man of so few words he was popularly known as “the silent boss,” Murphy once told Jimmy Walker that “most of the troubles of the world could be avoided, if men opened their minds instead of their mouths.” He avoided the conspicuous sporting life of Dick Croker and, according to his biographer, there was never any question about “the moral blamelessness of his personal affairs.”

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