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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.

Except for a brief stint as a commissioner of docks, Murphy never held any public office, but no Tammany sachem before or after ever wielded as much power. He elected three governors (and had one of them, William Sulzer, impeached), three mayors, two senators, and innumerable judges, aldermen, assemblymen and congressmen. He successfully battled the greatest press baron of his day, William Randolph Hearst, and took Tammany to the threshold of the White House.

Where Croker was distant and dictatorial, Murphy was involved and supportive. According to one contemporary, Murphy “played umpire, not dictator,” and though he relied on Tammany’s everyday ranks of undistinguished ward heelers and party stalwarts, he went out of his way to promote men of talent to the top. Among them were U.S. Senator Robert Wagner and New York Governor Al Smith, two of the most capable and progressive political leaders in American history. In Al Smith, Murphy believed he might even be able to do the unimaginable and put an Irish Catholic in the White House.

Murphy didn’t start out as a reformer in the traditional sense. Reform stood for efficiency and economy in government, for the provision of public services through government agencies that acted with administrative neutrality, and the staffing of public jobs through a rigorous, non-political process of Civil Service testing. While he put an end to Tammany’s alliance with gamblers and brothel owners, reigned in the wanton, flagrant corruption that Croker both blessed and participated in, and promoted honest men like Wagner and Smith, Murphy wasn’t about to obliterate the Hall’s powers of patronage, which was the very basis of the machine.

The bond between Tammany and its constituents depended on profligacy and generosity, not efficiency and economy. The people have the right to expect, as James Michael Curley of Boston put it, “something nobler and higher than thrift in the man they elect.” When in need, the poor didn’t want to suffer the interrogation of by-the-book professionals. They wanted to turn to people like themselves who didn’t require a list of assets or reams of paperwork before they offered assistance. The contractors who regularly feasted on work steered their way by Tammany knew that, given their ethnic backgrounds and upstart operations, they’d probably be out of the running in an open competition against long-established, tightly managed firms run by well-trained professionals. Tammany’s supporters wanted a leg up, not a laissez-faire market.

Murphy appreciated and rewarded the loyalty of Tammany braves as part of the enduring underpinnings of the Hall’s power. But he also recognized that as America transformed itself into a hugely dynamic and impersonal industrial behemoth, the old-style politics couldn’t suffice. Neither handouts, nor baskets of coal, nor patronage jobs, nor even ad-hoc interventions by local leaders could protect the masses against the concentrated power of corporations and industrial combines or meet the long-term needs of millions of aged, disabled, underprivileged and unemployed. Yet if Tammany didn’t do something to help address these problems, Murphy came to realize, other organizations would and the Hall would shrivel into irrelevancy.

The standard-bearer of Murphy’s new form of machine politics was Al Smith. Like Murphy, Smith was a poor kid of Irish ancestry. (The Irish ethnicity of Smith’s mother, Catherine Mulvehill, herself the daughter of Famine immigrants, was the one he always identified with, though his father was a mix of Italian-German). He grew up on the Lower East Side. Born in 1873, Al Smith got no further in school than an eighth-grade education, but he too proved his worth on the streets, as an amateur actor and a worker at the Fulton Fish Market. He had the talents of a natural politician, and before long his local leader, Big Tom Foley, nominated him for state assembly.

Unsure at first, feeling out of place among legislators far better educated and experienced than he, Smith gradually rose to the challenge and became a master of the assembly’s rules and procedures. By 1911, eight years after being elected, he was the speaker. With Murphy’s backing, Smith began to advance an increasingly progressive agenda that included the country’s first compulsory workmen’s compensation law.

If there’s a moment from which to date the evolution of Tammany from a local political machine – which reflected the defensive crouch of Famine immigrants determined to deliver themselves from attempts by their soi-disant moral betters to control and shape their behavior – into an aggressive national force for progressive social change, it was March 25, 1911. On that day, 146 garment workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, perished in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in lower Manhattan. As a state legislator, writes Smith biographer Robert Slayton, “Smith had learned about the nuts and bolts of the political system, [but] what he lacked was a cause, a rationale for using that expertise. The Triangle Fire would provide that and more, as it would fundamentally alter how he viewed the very role of government in American life.”

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