A few years back, Terry Golway joined several members of the Irish American literati -- Peter Quinn, Pete Hamill, among others -- onstage to discuss the notorious, heavily Irish political machine Tammany Hall.  The setting was academic, and so it seemed altogether fitting and proper that those participating offer up ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.

So, Golway and others suggested that the Irish Catholics who led Tammany -- for all its much-discussed corruption -- also managed to alleviate the suffering of immigrants.

Tammany also, Golway noted, provided a refuge from bigotry, a safe haven for the marginalized and disenfranchised so that they could organize and advocate.

These are the kinds of things that generally make activist academics shout and applaud, and perhaps even raise a defiant fist.

Not this time.

The event’s host promptly said she “disagreed with everything” that was said about Tammany.
“Her tone of voice, even more than her words, made it clear that she was appalled by what she had just heard,” Golway recalled in an interview this week.

“It was rude and, frankly, an example of the sort of intellectual intolerance endemic in the humanities. Questioning conventional wisdom about Irish Catholics, who are all the spawn of Joe McCarthy? How dare we!”

Nevertheless, Golway presents this more complicated portrait of Tammany in his new book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics (Liveright / W.W. Norton).

Golway argues -- surely to the aggravation of certain liberals -- that the Irish Catholics who ruled Tammany at the heights of its power paved the way for the progressive legislation more generally associated with Franklin Roosevelt.

The source of controversy here centers on one of the more fascinating contradictions of modern intellectual thought.  While certain high-minded thinkers love to fight on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden, the same good liberal folks also have trouble viewing Irish Catholics in this light.

They prefer, instead, to think of them as slaves to a corrupt church who, when not bowing to the Pope in Rome, were robbing taxpayers.

Those who think that way in the 21st century are thinking pretty much the same way as the worst kinds of 19th century bigots.

“The more I researched Tammany the more astonished I was at the level of hatred directed not only at the organization, but at its voters,” continued Golway, the son of a New York City firefighter who grew up on Staten Island and is currently director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.

“Tammany voters invariably were portrayed as ignorant, un-American, and incapable of knowing their best interests. And it was astonishing to read how so many commentators in the Anglo-American world believed that the Irish were incapable of governing themselves. I wondered why this blatant racism — on both sides of the Atlantic — was never called out in the many histories of Tammany and its leading figures.”

Golway continues, “You could say it is simply anti-Catholicism or anti-Irish bigotry. Or maybe it’s simply snobbery. But whatever the reason, nobody has ever really examined the rhetoric of Tammany’s critics.”

Indeed, at a time of year when everyone loves to be Irish, it is equal parts fascinating and revolting to read about (or in the case of anti-Irish cartoonist Thomas Nast, see) the magnitude of anti-Irish bigotry in mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times during Tammany’s heyday.

To be sure, Golway is not attempting to hide or cover up Tammany’s many sins.  Not only was corruption rampant, particularly under the infamous Boss Tweed, but Tammany also came up terribly short when it came to race.

Still, Golway’s book is a fresh take on Tammany.  Aside from outlining Tammany’s role in social welfare legislation, he also convincingly argues that the trauma of the Irish Famine -- exacerbated by Anglo-Protestant laissez faire attitudes in Britain and Ireland -- fueled Tammany’s belief that government in America could actually be a solution to human problems.

Liberals couldn’t possibly have a problem with that.  Could they?

(Tom Deignan (tdeignan.blogspot.com) will be discussing the 20 books Every Irish American should read at the Pavonia branch of the Jersey City library on Monday, March 31.)