"When the Irish Ran New York" was written just after Nathan Glazer and I had finished Beyond the Melting Pot. The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, and just as I was joining the Kennedy administration in Washington. Albeit we did not quite say so, the underlying theme of our book was that in the modem age ethnicity was a far more powerful force than social class.
Glazer’s The Social Basis of American Communism, a study of the ethnic sources of American Communism, appeared the same year. Of late I have taken to remarking that what Karl Marx wrote in the British Museum, Nathan Glazer disproved in the New York Public Library; but while you see, or used to see, statues of Karl Marx all over the place, you hardly ever see a statue of Nathan Glazer.
This got me thinking about the seemingly nonideological working-class governance that the Irish had pretty much provided New York during its great age—from about 1860 to 1960. This was the age in which New York became by general assent the capital—and the envy—of the world. I knew enough when I wrote this essay in 1961 to know that the Irish era was not nearly so apolitical as it might appear to the left intellectuals of the era. Tammany, for example, can be understood as having carried on a three- to four-generation struggle with the left for control of city streets.
I made one huge mistake in my essay, however. I completely failed to recognize that the Tammany chieftains, like the really good Roman emperors, were master builders of public works. Under Tammany, New York constructed the first true aqueduct since, if memory serves, fifth-century Rome. The water was brought down from the Catskills with such ingenuity that it would reach the fifth floor of an apartment building in Brownsville, making the whole metropolis possible.
The Brooklyn Bridge, compared in its time to the Acropolis, was built under the auspices of Hugh McLaughlin on the Brooklyn side, and assorted Tammany chiefs, surely Kelly at the outset, then Croker, on the Manhattan side. They loved doing things like that. And, of course, they had warm feelings for the contractors. Croker got the subways going as a favor to a friend, and made Manhattan in the process.
And how they could build! In the Irish section of Beyond the Melting Pot we recorded a bit of the career of "Battery Dan" Finn, a district leader of the Lower West Side. His club had a clubhouse, of course. "Pitched it up in an afternoon himself, he did" was the saying of his constituents. And so he did.
To this day I fear I trouble the reformist hearts at City Hall with nostalgic accounts of the dear old days of Tammany Hall when Jimmy Walker (through Al Smith’s Port Authority) could throw up the George Washington Bridge in four years and one month. We have been 14 years trying to build, or rather rebuild, a trolley line across 42nd Street. Still no sign of life. Five mayors, three governors, 140 commissioners, and umpteen hundreds of millions of dollars can’t build a subway to Queens. That is no accident, comrade.
When a great city ceases to build, it commences to die. Somehow Tammany’s success at building gave public works a bad name among those who followed. They arc associated with corruption rather than glory. The result is decay.
May I note in closing that my article could not have been written save for the encouragement and patience of Robert Bingham, then managing editor of The Reporter, nor published without the immense tolerance and breadth of Max Ascoli. A New York WASP and an Italian Jew, they adorned our town.
This article originally appeared in the June 8, 1961, issue of The Reporter.
New York used to be an Irish town. Or so it seemed. New York, to be sure, has never been anyone’s town, but there were sixty or seventy years when the Irish seemed to be everywhere. They felt it was their town. It is no longer, and they know it. That is one of the things that are bothering them.
It is not hard to date the Irish era. It begins in the early 1870s: about the time Charles O’Conor, whom the Dictionary of American Biography calls "the ablest member of the New York bar," began the prosecution of the Honorable William Marcy Tweed. It ends some sixty years later: a good point would be the day Jimmy Walker sailed for Europe and exile with his beloved, but unwed, Betty.
Boss Tweed was the last vulgar white Protestant to win a place in the city’s life. There have been Protestants since who have served the city with distinction, but always as representatives of "the better element." Tweed was hardly that:
he was a roughneck, a ward heeler, a man of the people at a time when the people still contained a large body of native-born Protestant workers of Scotch and English antecedents. By the time of his death in the Ludlow Street Jail, this had all but completely changed. The New York working class had become predominantly Catholic. The Irish promptly assumed the leadership of this class. "Honest John" Kelly succeeded Tweed as leader of Tammany Hall, and in 1880 Kelly elected the city’s first Irish Catholic mayor, William R. Grace of the shipping line. This ascendancy persisted for another half century, reaching a kind of apogee toward the end of the 1920s when Al Smith ran for President and Jimmy Walker "wore New York in his buttonhole."
New York was perhaps the first great city in history to be ruled by men of the people, not as an isolated phenomenon of the Gracchi or the Commune but as a persisting, established pattern. To this day the men who run New York talk out of the side of their mouths: they may be millionaires, but they are no less representative of the people. The intermittent discovery that New York does have representative government leads to periodic reform movements. But the reformers come and go, the party remains. The secret lies in the structure of the Democratic party bureaucracy, which perpetuates itself. The measure of its success is that it works with almost undiminished effectiveness long after the Irish, who created it, have moved on to other things.
In their politics as in their race and religion, the Irish brought many of their traits from the Old Country. The machine governments which the Irish established in New York (as in many Northern cities) show three distinct features of early nineteenth-century Ireland.
First, a considerable indifference to Yankee proprieties. The Irish managed to make it somehow charming to steal an election—scoundrelish, rascally, surely not to be approved, but neither to be abhorred. This, it must be insisted, is something they learned from the English. Eighteenth-century English politics in Ireland was as corrupt—in Yankee terms—as is to be imagined. George Potter has written in To the Golden Door: "The great and the wealthy ran Ireland politically like Tammany Hall in its worst days. Had they not sold their own country for money and titles in the Act of Union with England and, as one rogue said, thanked God they had a country to sell? ... A gentleman was thought no less a gentleman because he dealt, like merchandise, with the votes of his tenants or purchased his parliamentary seat as he would a horse or a new wing for his big house." The Irish added to this, from their own social structure, a personal concept of government action. Describing the early period of Irish self-government, Conrad H. Arensberg relates in The Irish Countryman: ". . . At first, geese and country produce besieged the new officers and magistrates; a favourable decision or a necessary public work performed was interpreted as a favour given. It demanded a direct and personal return. ’Influence’ to the countryman was and is a direct personal relationship like the friendship of the countryside along which his own life moves."
The Irish also brought to America a settled tradition of regarding the formal government as illegitimate and the informal one as bearing the true impress of popular sovereignty. The brutality of the English landlords in eighteenth-century Ireland gave rise to secret societies that fought back by terrorism. An English observer described the results: "There are in fact two codes of law in force and in antagonism—one the statute law enforced by judges and jurors, in which the people do not yet trust—the other a secret law, enforced by themselves. . . ." This habit of mind pervaded the atmosphere of Tammany at its height: City hall, like Dublin Castle, was not to be trusted. If you need help see The McManus. The fact that the McMani were like as not running city hall, as well as the Tuscarora Regular Democratic Organization of the Second Assembly District South, only strengthened this habit.
Finally, most of the Irish arrived in America fresh from the momentous experience of the Catholic Emancipation movement. The Catholic Association, which the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell established in 1823 for this purpose, has been called the "first fully fledged democratic political party known to the world." "Daniel O’Connell," Potter writes, "was the first modern man to use the mass of a people as a democratic instrument for revolutionary changes by peaceful constitutional methods. He anticipated the coming into power of the people as the decisive political element in modem democratic society." The Irish peasants, who had taken little part in Gaelic Ireland’s resistance to the English—that had been a matter for the warrior class of an aristocratic society—appear to have been quite transformed by O’Connell. They arrived in America thoroughly alive to the possibilities of politics and they brought with them the phenomenally effective technique of political bureaucracy.
More has been written against Tammany Hall than about it. With little evidence, it is difficult to speculate on the nature of the system during the Irish era, but some patterns can be discerned, particularly those which persist in the present Democratic party organization. Foremost is the pattern of bureaucracy. Politics in a "natural" state is preeminently a personal affair—a matter of whom you know and who knows you; whom you like and trust; who you think likes and trusts you; whom you can intimidate and vice versa. The personal nature of such relations makes for a fluctuating, confused, perilous enterprise. Thus politics, business, and war have ever been the affairs of adventurers and risk takers. These are anything but peasant qualities. Certainly not those of Irish peasants, who, collectively, yielded to none in the rigidity of their social structure and their disinclination to adventure. Instead of letting politics transform them, they transformed politics, establishing a political system in New York City that from a distance seems like nothing so much as the social system of an Irish village writ large. Village life was characterized by the preeminence of formal family relations under the dominance of the stern father. Substituting "party" for "family" and "leader" for "father," the Irish created the political machine.
According to Roy V. Peel in The Political Clubs of New York City, Irish Catholics achieved a position of predominance within Tammany Hall by 1817. Working from the original Tammany ward committees, they established a vast hierarchy of party positions descending from the county leader at the top down to the block captain and beyond, even to building captains. Each position had rights and responsibilities which had to be observed. The result was a massive party bureaucracy, which rivaled the medieval Catholic Church in the proportion of the citizenry involved. The county committees of the five boroughs came to number more than 32,000 persons. It became necessary to hire Madison Square Garden for their meetings—and to hope not much more than half the number would show up as there wouldn’t be room. The system itself was remarkably stable. "Honest John" Kelly, Richard Croker, and Charles Murphy in succession ran Tammany for half a century. Across the river Hugh McLaughlin ran the Brooklyn Democratic party and fought off Tammany for better than forty years, from 1862 to 1903. He was followed shortly by John H. McCooey, who ruled from 1909 until his death a quarter of a century later. Ed Flynn ran the Bronx from 1922 until his death in 1953.
There is no greater nonsense than the stereotype of the Irish politician as a beer-guzzling back-slapper. Croker, McLaughlin, and Mister Murphy were the least affable of men. Their task was not to charm but to administer with firmness and predictability a political bureaucracy in which rights appertained not to individuals but to the positions they occupied. "Have you seen your block captain?" It did not matter that your captain was an idiot or a drunk or a devout churchgoer who would be alarmed by the request at hand; the block captain had to be seen first. Then the election district captain. Then the district leader. The hierarchy had to be recognized. For the group as a whole, this served to take the risks out of politics. Each would get his deserts—in time.
At the moment no one characteristic divides the "regular" party men in New York City from the "reform" group more than the matter of taking pride in following the chain of command. The "reform" group is composed principally of educated, middle-class career people quite hardened to the struggle for advancement in their professions. Waiting in line to see one’s leader seems to such persons slavish and unmanly, the kind of conduct that could only be imposed by a boss. By contrast, the "organization" regulars regard it as proper and well-behaved conduct. The reformers, who have a tendency to feel superior, would be surprised, perhaps, to learn that among the regulars they are widely regarded as rude, unethical people.
It would also seem that the term "boss," and the persistent attacks on "boss rule," have misrepresented the nature of power in the old machine system. Tammany was not simply a concentrated version of the familiar American municipal power structure in which an informal circle of more or less equally powerful men—the heads of the two richest banks, the three best law firms, four largest factories, and the chancellor of the local Methodist university—run things. Power was hierarchical in the machine, diffused in the way it is diffused in an army. Because the commanding general was powerful, it did not follow that the division generals were powerless—anything but. In just this way the Tammany district leaders were important men; and, right down to the block captain, all had rights.
At the risk of exaggerating, it is possible to point out any number of parallels between the political machine and rural Irish society. For example, the incredible capacity of the rural Irish to remain celibate—i.e., to wait their turn—in order to earn the reward of inheriting the farm is well known. Even after an Irish son has taken over direction of the farm, he will go each morning to his father to ask what to do that day. So with the "boss," whose essential demand often seemed only that he be consulted. There is a story that one day a fellow leader of Sheriff and Sachem Thomas J. Dunn confided that he was about to be married. "Have you seen Croker?" asked Dunn. In 1913, when Governor William Sulzer refused to consult the "ahrganization" on appointments, Murphy did not argue; he impeached and removed him. Doubtless the most painful onus of the current Tammany organizations that have been overthrown by reform clubs is to hear themselves called "insurgents"!
It seems evident that the principle of boss rule was not that of tyranny but of order. When Lincoln Steffens asked Croker, "Why must there be a boss, when we’ve got a mayor and—a council?" "That’s why," Croker broke in. "It’s because there’s a mayor and a council and judges—and—a hundred other men to deal with."
The narrow boundaries of the peasant world were ideally adapted to the preoccupations of precinct politics. The parallel role of the saloonkeeper is striking. Arensberg writes:
"The shopkeeper-publican-politician was a very effective instrument, both for the countryside and for himself. He might perhaps exact buying at his shop in return for the performance of his elective duties, as his enemies charge: But he also saw to it that those duties were performed for the very people who wished to see them done. Through him, as through no other possible channel, Ireland reached political maturity and effective national strength."
So with the New York Irish. "The saloons were the nodal points of district organizations," Peel points out. It used to be said the only way to break up a meeting of the Tammany Executive Committee was to open the door and yell, "Your saloon’s on fire!" At the same time a mark of the successful leader, as of the successful saloon-keeper, was sobriety. George Washington Plunkitt related with glee the events of election night in 1897 when Tammany had just elected—against considerable odds—the first mayor of the consolidated City of New York (Croker had slyly chosen for his candidate an inoffensive Old-Dutch-Family gentleman named Van Wyck):
"Up to 10 P.M. Croker, John F. Carroll, Tim Sullivan, Charlie Murphy, and myself sat in the committee-room receivin’ returns. When nearly all the city was heard from and we saw that Van Wyck was elected by a big majority, I invited the crowd to go across the street for a little celebration. A lot of small politicians followed us, expectin’ to see magnums of champagne opened. The waiters in the restaurant expected it, too, and you never saw a more disgusted lot of waiters when they got our orders. Here’s the orders: Croker, vichy and bicarbonate of soda; Carroll, seltzer lemonade; Sullivan, apollinaris; Murphy, vichy; Plunkitt, ditto. Before midnight we were all in bed, and next mornin’ we were up bright and early attendin’ to business, while other men were nursin’ swelled heads. Is there anything the matter with temperance as a pure business proposition?"
As a business proposition it all worked very well. The Irish habit of dealing with an informal government, combined with the establishment of an elaborate bureaucracy for that government, proved enormously effective in electoral politics. The "organization" spread to the darkest reaches of the city, places the middle-class reformers never lived in and rarely visited. Reform would come and go, but the organization remained, co-opting its members, getting out the vote, winning two elections in three, and quite able to sit out the third.
But that is about as far as it went. The Irish were immensely successful in politics. They ran the city. But the very parochialism and bureaucracy that enabled them to succeed in local politics prevented them from doing much else. In all these sixty or seventy years in which they could have done almost anything they wanted in politics, they did very little. Of all those candidates and all those campaigns, what remains? The names of two or three men: Al Smith principally, and his career went sour before it ever quite came to glory.
In a sense, the Irish didn’t know what to do with power once they got it. Steffens was surely exaggerating when he suggested the political bosses only kept power on the sufferance of the business community. The two groups worked in harmony, but it was a symbiotic, not an agency, relationship. The Irish leaders did for the Protestant establishment what it could not do for itself, and could not do without. But the Irish just didn’t know what to do with their opportunity. They never thought of politics as an instrument of social change—their kind of politics involved the processes of a society that was not changing. Croker alone solved the problem. Having become rich, he did the thing rich people in Ireland did: He bought a manor house in England, bred horses, and won the Derby. The king did not ask him to the Derby dinner.