Author Interviews
3:12 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

The Case For Tammany Hall Being On The Right Side Of History

Originally published on Thu March 6, 2014 9:18 am

Back in 1900, when Americans in cities counted on ice to keep food, milk and medicines fresh, New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck's career ended when it emerged that a company given a monopoly on the ice business was doubling prices while giving the mayor and his cronies big payoffs.

Van Wyck was one of a long list of scoundrels associated with the political machine known as Tammany Hall, which influenced — and at times dominated — New York's Democratic Party for more than 100 years. Among its more notorious figures were William "Boss" Tweed, who went to jail for corruption, and George Washington Plunkitt, who's remembered for insisting there's a difference between honest and dishonest graft.

Historian Terry Golway has written a colorful history of Tammany Hall, which takes a more sympathetic view of the organization than many historians. He says the Tammany machine, while often corrupt, gave impoverished immigrants critically needed social services and a road to assimilation. According to Golway, Tammany was responsible for progressive state legislation that foreshadowed the New Deal. He writes that some of Tammany's harshest critics, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, openly exhibited a raw anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.

Golway tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "What I'm trying to do in this book is present this other side of Tammany Hall. ... Every history of Tammany Hall is told as a true-crime novel, and what I'm trying to suggest is that there's this other side. I'm arguing, yes, the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States [do] outweigh the corruption with which it is associated. I'm simply trying to complicate that story... Tammany Hall was there for the poor immigrant who was otherwise friendless in New York."

Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy. His book is called Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.


Interview Highlights

On the history of Tammany Hall

It was founded in the late 1700s and eventually it drifted into politics, in part because of the influence of Aaron Burr, who was a New Yorker and who recognized that here you have this organized group of voters, and maybe [they] could sort of transform this social club — called the Society of Saint Tammany — and redirect its energies toward politics ...

By the Jacksonian era in the 1820s, the Tammany Society was, in essence, the main faction of the Democratic Party in New York County, which of course is Manhattan. ... But its roots are as a private organization that becomes the dominant political faction in New York City for better than 100 years.

On the Irish immigrants of the late 19th century

The famine immigration period is roughly from around 1845 to the mid-1850s, and it's one of the great mass movements of the 19th century. Approximately 2 million Irish people left Ireland — that's out of a population of about 8 million. Of course, not all of them came to the United States, but a fair portion of them did.

These immigrants were unlike any immigrants who had come before, even other Irish immigrants, in the sense that they came really with no skills. The people who left Ireland during the famine, many of them didn't speak English — they spoke Irish. They came with only the clothes on their back. And that's sort of the "huddled masses" stereotype that we have of, say, the Ellis Island generation of immigration. But that wasn't true until the famine period.

So you had wave upon wave and ship after ship of these poor, Irish-speaking immigrants landing in cities like New York and, over the course of 10 years or so, completely transforming the character of cities like New York and Boston and others so that the foreign-born population of some of the cities in the Northeast by the late 19th century was well more than half.

On Tammany's decision to cozy up to Irish immigrants

Tammany embraced immigrants because they knew how to count and they understood that, as these Irish immigrants began washing up on South Street in New York ... there were two ways that New York could respond to these immigrants:

The Whig Party, which was the main opposition party at the time, chose to regard these immigrants as aliens and interlopers. And people, because most of them were Catholic, thought of them as people who could never really understand the Anglo-Protestant idea of liberty ...

The Democrats were a little more practical. They realized that if these people were extended the hand of friendship — and I do believe it was friendship — then well, you know, maybe they would show their appreciation on Election Day. So Tammany becomes associated with immigrants around the time of the famine immigration.

On the relationship between Tammany Hall and the Irish immigrant population

The immigrants got respect from Tammany Hall. Now, whether it was calculated or not is a matter of debate. ... What they did was in essence create an informal social welfare system when of course none existed, so that, eventually, if you were an immigrant and you needed some advice or you needed a job or, frankly, if you just needed some respect, Tammany Hall was willing to give you that. In return, of course, Tammany expected you to turn out early and often and vote on Election Day.

On Tammany Hall's progressive response to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 garment workers

In 1913 alone, New York passed all sorts of factory reforms. Now, that's what you would've expected after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — everybody expected that Albany would come back with laws for sprinklers. These are important laws, I don't mean to diminish them, but they expected all kinds of workplace reforms.

What they might not have expected was a push for things like unemployment compensation, eventually for the beginnings of the minimum wage. In 1913, New York passed a law that said that employers had to give their employees one day of rest for every seven. A minimum wage was established for certain state workers of $2 a day ...

This was not really related to making the workplace safer. So what Tammany did was they took this workplace catastrophe of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and used it as an excuse, if you will, to begin to implement these progressive laws that maybe had been talked about for a long time but finally Tammany had the power and the will to enforce them.

On the rhetoric New York media employed against Tammany Hall

The Times and others — and remember the period; we're not talking about The New York Times of 2014, we're talking about The New York Times of the late 19th century — The New York Tribune, The New York Herald, all of the papers really aligned against Tammany ...

A lot of their rhetoric is this palpable anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant. ... One reformer — who wasn't speaking for The New York Times or any newspaper but I think his sentiments pretty much summed it up — a guy by the name of Andrew White who was the president of Cornell University said in the late 19th century that: The problem with New York is that it is being ruled by peasants who were freshly raked from the Irish bogs and from Italian robber nests and Bohemian coal mines ...

If you look at the rhetoric that's deployed against Tammany, it's not hard for a 21st-century reader to see the astonishing bigotry. ... I think that the bigotry of Tammany's opponents has been glossed over by other historians and I'm really not sure why, because it's there. It's not even hiding in plain sight; it's there in plain sight.

On cartoonist Thomas Nast's depiction of Tammany Hall and the Irish

Thomas Nast was a bigot. There's no getting around it. He's of course an icon in American history; his cartoons helped bring down Boss Tweed, and rightfully so. ...

Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes, as ignorant, drunken, violent thugs who followed Tammany simply because Tammany told them to follow. There wasn't even interest there — they were just so stupid and ignorant that they didn't know any better.

Thomas Nast was part of a New York militia unit on July 12, 1871, when there was a parade of Irish Protestants — July 12 is [practically a] national holiday in Northern Ireland to this day, where the Protestants commemorate a victory over the Catholics ...

In New York ... because of threats of violence and such, the National Guard was sent out. Thomas Nast was part of the National Guard, and at a certain point the National Guard, the militia, opened up [fire] on Catholics and about 26 or [2]7 Irish immigrants were killed and dozens and dozens wounded. After that, Thomas Nast drew a cartoon for Harper's Weekly which shows the feminine figure of Columbia with her foot on the neck of the Irish, and the caption simply read "Bravo."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back in 1900, when Americans in cities counted on ice to keep food, milk and medicines fresh, New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck's career ended when it emerged that a company given a monopoly on the ice business was doubling prices while giving the mayor and his cronies big payoffs. Van Wyck was one of a long list of scoundrels associated with the political machine known as Tammany Hall, which influenced, and at times dominated, New York's Democratic Party for more than 100 years.

Among its more notorious figures were Boss William Tweed, who went to jail for corruption; and George Washington Plunkett, remembered for insisting there was a difference between honest and dishonest graft.

Our guest Terry Golway has written a colorful history of Tammany Hall, which takes a more sympathetic view of the organization than many historians. Golway says the Tammany machine, while often corrupt, gave impoverished immigrants critically needed social services and a road to assimilation. And, he says, Tammany was responsible for progressive state legislation t hat foreshadowed the New Deal.

Terry Golway is a journalist and historian who's director of the Keane University Center for History, Politics and Policy. He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his book, "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well Terry Golway, welcome to FRESH AIR.

TERRY GOLWAY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Let's start with the massive immigration that followed the potato famine in Ireland. This was in the 1840s. Tell us kind of the scale of this movement of people and its impact on the demographics and feel of New York City.

GOLWAY: Well, you know, the famine immigration period is roughly from around 1845 to the mid-1850s, and it is one of the great mass movements of the 19th century. And this - approximately about two million Irish people left Ireland. That's out of a population of about eight million.

Of course not all of them came to the United States, but a fair portion of them did, and these immigrants were unlike any other immigrants who had come before, even other Irish immigrants, in the sense that they came really with no skills. The people who left Ireland during the famine, many of them didn't speak English. They spoke Irish.

They came with only the clothes on their back. And that's sort of the huddled masses stereotype that we have of say the Ellis Island generation of immigration. But that wasn't true until the famine period. So you had wave upon wave and ship after ship of these poor Irish-speaking immigrants landing in cities like New York, and over the course of 10 years or so completely transforming the character of cities like New York or Boston or others, so that the foreign-born population of some of the cities in the Northeast by the late 19th century was well more than half.

DAVIES: Now let's just talk a little bit about Tammany itself. You know, people know the term Tammany Hall. I think a lot of us think of it, it refers to maybe a building or a nickname for the ruling democratic structure. It's actually a very, very old society, right. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that and how it was not at all Irish originally?

GOLWAY: It was a private club, exactly. It was a bunch of guys getting together. I mean if it were today, they'd be hanging out in a sports bar, talking sports and then eventually generating towards politics. It was founded in the late 1700s, and eventually it drifted into politics, in part because of the influence of Aaron Burr, who was a New Yorker and who recognized that he had this organized group of voters, and maybe we could sort of transform this social club called the Society of Saint Tammany and sort of redirect its energies towards politics. So that by the Jacksonian era in the 1820s, the Tammany Society was in essence the main faction of the Democratic Party in New York County, which, of course, is Manhattan.

And of course the building they met in became known as Tammany Hall, but its roots are, as you suggest, are as a private organization that becomes the dominant political faction in New York City for better than 100 years.

DAVIES: Right so we speak of Tammany Hall, we're not talking about the Democratic Party per se. We're talking about kind of a faction, an organization that worked within the party.

GOLWAY: That's correct.

DAVIES: Now it was originally a WASP-y organization. When did it embrace immigrants, and how did that happen?

GOLWAY: Tammany embraced immigrants because they knew how to count. And they understood that as these Irish immigrants began washing up on South Street in New York, and they were coming in their tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, there were two ways that New York could respond to these immigrants.

The Whig Party, which was the main opposition party at that time, chose to regard these immigrants as aliens and interlopers. And people, because most of them were Catholic, thought of them as people who could never really understand the Anglo-Protestant idea of liberty. So the Whigs were none too happy to see these immigrants come ashore.

The Democrats were a little bit more practical. They realized that if these people were extended the hand of friendship, and I do believe it was friendship, then, well, you know, maybe they would show their appreciation on Election Day. So Tammany becomes associated with immigrants around the time of the famine immigration. As you suggest, before that, they sort of weren't sure what to make of these immigrants.

In fact one of the leaders of Tammany Hall, later on, was a fellow by the name of William Tweed, and he actually was something of a nativist, something of an opponent to immigrants in the early 1840s, but he too began to learn how to count.

DAVIES: So we could see this maybe as a bargain, a marriage of convenience. What did the Tammany organization get from the immigrants, and what did the immigrants get from Tammany?

GOLWAY: The immigrants got respect from Tammany Hall. Now whether it was calculated or not, you know, was a matter of debate. But here you have, on one hand, the Whigs in New York, and later the Republican Party, sort of embracing nativism, embracing Know-Nothingism, sort of regarding these immigrants as aliens because of their religion, because of their poverty, sort of creating this notion that they could never be assimilated.

Some newspapers said that, you know, anyone who was Catholic and Irish just would never understand what it means to live in a small republican government. The Democrats in Tammany Hall had another idea. And so what they did was in essence create an informal social welfare system when, of course, none existed so that eventually if you were an immigrant, and you needed some advice, or you needed a job, or frankly if you just needed some respect, Tammany Hall was willing to give you that.

In return, of course, Tammany expected you to turn out early and often and vote on Election Day.

DAVIES: So the immigrants would, you know, get a basket of groceries when they need them. Some would get jobs. They would get a little help. And as they voted loyally for Tammany, Tammany took power in the government, and they had more jobs to offer. And of course accusations of corruption then arose, you know, a pattern that would be repeated for many, many decades to follow.

And you talk about a fascinating character in the 1850, Fernando Wood, three-time mayor. Tell us just a little about him.

GOLWAY: Well, Fernando Wood was a rogue. He was an awful racist. He was pro-Southern in his views. But he also was mayor at a time in the 1850s when times were bad in New York. And he suggested that perhaps government might have a role in alleviating the condition of the poor. He gave several speeches and proposals where, among other things, he proposed for example a system of free higher education so that, as he said, a poor person could send a child to college as well as a rich person.

He also suggested, during a particularly bad winter in New York, that what the city ought to do is buy flour and buy foodstuffs for the poor, and in essence, give it out and to create public works jobs for the jobless. Now you might argue that he was simply trying to keep the peace, and there's certainly some merit to that.

But picture yourself as a famine immigrant from Ireland. You've just left a country where the officials refuse to help you, who say that you're actually not worthy of their assistance. The main administrator of famine relief in Ireland was a guy by the name of Trebellion(ph), and he once said that the problem we're dealing with in Ireland is not starvation; it's the poor, ignorant, lazy attitude of the people.

So they come to New York, and here's this mayor who's making the argument, you know, maybe we ought to help these poor people, maybe we ought to give them food, maybe we ought to give them jobs. And the Irish became Fernando Wood's greatest allies at a time when many civic elites in New York wondered, and with some justification, how the Irish could vote for such a rogue.

DAVIES: Now as the Tammany machine became successful in City Hall and capturing, you know, the mayor's office from time to time, this pattern developed, which you write about, which would be that reformers and opponents of Tammany in Albany would at times pass legislation to take authority away from the government of New York.

And there's this remarkable story of when this character Fernando Wood was Tammany's mayor. I think this was in the 1850s. And Albany did away with New York's municipal police department, which was a source of a lot of employment to Tammany's voters. What happened?

GOLWAY: Well, of course, the state's actions were not received very well at City Hall. And Fernando Wood in essence refused to give in to the Republicans in Albany. And so what developed in New York in 1857 were two rival police forces, the municipals and the metropolitans.

And it really was like two militias, two private militias operating in New York, each one answering to a different boss. And then one day the state decides, well, you know, we're just going to have to arrest the mayor because he's just not following the law.

So the state police force tries to arrest the mayor, and we have, literally, a riot between two competing police forces on the steps and actually into City Hall. But, you know, it was a contest for power.

DAVIES: Terry Golway's book is called "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics." We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is historian and writer Terry Golway. He's written a book about the history of Tammany Hall called "Machine Made." You know, as Tammany had more power over city hall, and its leaders took advantage of the spoils of political war and helped themselves to contracts and patronage, they got a lot of criticism from a lot of parties in New York and elsewhere.

And I want to talk just a little bit about some of that criticism because, I mean, the book suggests that there was more than an interest in clean government. The New York Times, for example, very tough on Tammany. What was their take?

GOLWAY: Well, the Times and others, and remember the period, we're not talking about the New York Times of 2014, we're talking about the New York Times of the late 19th century, the New York Tribune, the New York Herald, all of the papers really aligned against Tammany. But they're overlaying - again a lot of their rhetoric is this palpable anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant, this notion that as - in the words of one reformer, a guy by the name of Andrew White who was the president of Cornell University, said in the late 19th century that the problem with New York is that it is being ruled by peasants who were freshly raked from the Irish bogs and from Italian robber nests and from Bohemian coal mines, whatever that means.

And, you know, I think if you look at the rhetoric that's deployed against Tammany, it's not hard for a 21st-century reader to see the astonishing bigotry. At one point the New York Tribune points out that I guess it was a ward in Lower Manhattan was hiring teachers for their schools, and the Tribune goes on to list all the teachers who have been hired, and they all have these suspiciously Irish names, you know, Mary O'Sweeney and Mary Callahan.

And the writer of the piece says look at the people who are being hired to teach our children. Is this the sort of New York that we want? That sort of rhetoric is very much a part of the anti-Tammany rhetoric, but I think that the bigotry of Tammany's opponents has been sort of been glossed over by other historians, and I'm really not sure why, because it's there. It's in plain sight.

It's not even hiding in plain sight. It's there in plain sight.

DAVIES: Walt Whitman joined in.

GOLWAY: Correct. The poet of the common man, who talks about the, you know, appalling effects of suffrage in the 1870s in New York, there actually was a movement to take the vote away from all but the property owners. And Whitman and others all agreed that the problem in New York was that poor people could vote.

DAVIES: And then you got Thomas Nast, I mean the famous political cartoonist. How did he depict Tammany, the Irish?

GOLWAY: Thomas Nast was a bigot. There's no getting around it. He of course is an icon in American history. His cartoons helped bring down Boss Tweed and rightfully so. He's the creator of the modern idea of Santa Claus, of sort of this warm and fuzzy attachment to Thomas Nast.

But Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes, as ignorant, drunken, violent thugs, you know, who followed Tammany simply because Tammany told him to follow. You know, there wasn't even interest there. They were just so stupid and ignorant that they didn't know any better.

And Thomas Nast was part of a New York militia unit. On July 12, 1871, when there was a parade of Irish Protestants, July 12 is a practical national holiday in Northern Ireland to this day, where the Protestants, you know, sort of commemorate a victory over the Catholics, and there was a parade in New York, probably the last one, and because of threats of violence and such, the National Guard was sent out.

Thomas Nast was a part of the National Guard. At a certain point, the National Guard, the militia opened up on Catholics, and about 26 or 27 Irish immigrants were killed, and dozens and dozens wounded. And after that, Thomas Nast drew a cartoon for Harper's Weekly, which shows the feminine figure of Columbia with her foot on the neck of the Irish, and the caption simply read bravo.

So that sort of gives you an idea of what Thomas Nast thought of Irish Catholic immigrants.

DAVIES: And before we leave the subject, I mean one of the fears often voiced about Tammany and the Irish was influence of the Roman Catholic Church, and Nast had a particularly striking way of depicting clerics.

GOLWAY: He did. There's a famous cartoon where he depicts bishops dressed as sort of looking like crocodiles landing on the shoes of the United States, a stalwart American protecting children from these crocodiles, and off in the background, he has a drawing of the Vatican, except on the front he has it written Tammany Hall.

DAVIES: Bill Tweed, you know, known to history as Boss Tweed, is, you know, probably the most famous of Tammany figures, the emblem of urban machine politics. Tell us a little bit about him.

GOLWAY: Well, he was a neighborhood character. He grew up poor. He grew up in the streets of New York, rose to fame in part because of his size. I mean, you know, size mattered, and he was a big guy. He was ambitious. He was elected to be a foreman in the volunteer - local volunteer firehouse. So that made him a big deal.

He would be seen in the streets of New York with his trumpet, his speaking trumpet, trying to clear the streets as his fire company sped off to a fire. So he was a neighborhood character. And Tammany, you know, was always looking for talent, particularly leaders who might be able to bring a vote with them. So Tweed had been elected the foreman of his company, so he already had a sort of base of vote, if you will.

So he works his way into city politics. In the early 1850s, he's elected to the Board of Aldermen, and, you know, by sheer charm and shrewdness and chutzpah he makes his way to the very top of Tammany Hall. By the end of the Civil War, he is, as you suggest, he was the boss of this organization by the late 1860s.

DAVIES: And does he deserve the reputation he has for wonton corruption?

GOLWAY: Well he does, yes. I mean, he is a - you can complicate the story of Tweed in many ways, and I do try to do that, and other authors, particularly Kenneth Ackerman(ph), have tried to do that, as well. I mean, he was on the right side of immigration after first being a nativist, but, you know, certainly the Irish Catholics look to Tweed as a hero.

When he was chairman of the Senate Committee for Charities, he made sure that Irish Catholic charitable organizations were well-funded with state money. This was not popular among the civic elites, but it certainly was popular among his constituents.

And so that I think sort of slightly complicates the picture. But there's no question that once he becomes boss of Tammany Hall, he organizes corruption of an astounding scale, which ultimately is revealed in a series of New York Times stories in 1871.

DAVIES: What happened to Tweed after these exposés in the New York Times revealed his corruption?

GOLWAY: Well, he was elected to the State Senate in 1871 despite all of these headlines because the Irish in his district still regarded him as a hero. But he was arrested by an Irish police official, and he was convicted of corruption of, you know, sort of grossest sort of scale. He tried to escape, but he was brought back from Spain and served the rest of his life in Ludlow Street Prison, which was sort of, you know, the main prison in New York.

He made a full breast of his sins in a series of hearings before the Board of Aldermen. I think he felt that by coming clean finally that that maybe would restore his reputation, which of course it hasn't. And he died in prison in his - as a relatively young man, I mean early 50s I think.

And, you know, obviously I think he deserved his fate. I mean, I'm not trying to excuse anything. But I would argue that there were many crimes committed during the Gilded Age in the sort of 1870s to the 1890s. But the one criminal that we remember most is Boss Tweed, and I find that sort of interesting.

GROSS: Terry Golway will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Golway is the author of "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Terry Golway, author of the new book "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics." It's about the Tammany political machine that dominated New York City politics from the mid-19th to mid-20th century.

When we left off, Golway was talking about Bill Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, one of the most powerful and corrupt Tammany Hall figures. After two trials, Boss Tweed was convicted on over 200 counts of corruption. He died in prison a few years later at the age of 55.

DAVIES: After Boss Tweed went to jail, the party needed new leadership. And a man named John Kelly took over and worked to restore Tammany's reputation. He worked, you know, he believed in fiscal responsibility at the municipal level and worked with business leaders and others who kind of talk about government reform. But John Kelly also did something which was beneficial to the organization for decades, and that is sort of bringing some real discipline and organization to it. Creating - he created a ward structure in which party leaders and operatives had clear roles and responsibilities. Explain how that worked.

GOLWAY: Kelly imposes on Tammany an organizational structure that many people at the time and since - and certainly, Pat Moynihan would be one of these people who made this observation - that he imposed sort of a Catholic church style Hartford on Tammany - where there was the pope, or the boss - that was Kelly - then there were sort of these bishops. They were the district leaders. That is to say they were the leaders of each assembly district. And then there was sort of the parish priest. These - what we would call the ward healers, these people who served as the eyes and ears of Tammany at the block level, or at the district level or at the apartment house level - the tenement level. But all patronage now came from the top down. And Kelly had his eyes and ears everywhere, so there were no freelancers out there trying to cut deals that he didn't know about. And I think that that sort of discipline really led to the creation of Tammany as a sort of proto-typical machine.

DAVIES: When the Tammany organization was really humming, did they manage to get most of the folks in these Irish - and Jewish as, you know, some other ethnic neighborhoods - did they manage to get most of them voting - sometimes more than once?

GOLWAY: Well, Richard Croker, who was a leader of Tammany from 1888 to 1901, so embraced the democratic process that on one day in 1865, he voted 17 times.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLWAY: I would not say that that was normal practice on the Lower East Side. But I do think that Tammany did steal an election or two. But there's no question that they got the turnout because they had people like Charlie Murphy - when Murphy was the boss of an assembly district, he had a list of voters. And if you didn't vote, if you weren't at the polls by say around four o'clock on election day, you got a hand-delivered card from Murphy basically saying gee, you know, didn't see you at the polls yet. Remember that - you know, remember that favor I did for you back in April? Now's the time that I need you.

DAVIES: So the 20th century that Tammany - early 20th century that I think, you know, you say that Tammany really kind of led the way in a lot of social legislation. And a turning point was the Triangle fire, which folks will remember, but remind us.

GOLWAY: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place in March of 1911, and it is literally the fire that changed America, as one of the journalists who wrote a book about it, suggested. It took place on the eighth and ninth floors of the Asch building in the Village. It was a factory that employed mostly teenage young ladies, most of them Jews and Italians, immigrants, children of immigrants. One day, a fire breaks out on the factory floor and within 15 minutes, 140 some odd people are dead. And there's great outrage in New York and throughout the country that - that - 'cause it turns out the, you know, the doors locked and it was a miserable, miserable factory. And this led Tammany Hall to others to begin to question - ask questions about the conditions of many working people in the United States.

DAVIES: The leader of Tammany Hall at this time was a guy name Charlie Murphy and he was quite an influential character. Tell us about him.

GOLWAY: Charlie Murphy's father fled the Irish famine. And I say that because I find that to be an interesting thread throughout Tammany's leadership in the late 19th and early 20th century - what does it mean to be a child of a famine survivor? You know, what narratives are working at your psyche? And Murphy was that. He was the child of a famine survivor. He grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, took an interest in politics - as many young Irish did. He flies through the ranks, becomes a district leader - which is, you know, pretty big deal in Tammany in the 1890s. And when Richard Croker - who was one of the crooked bosses of Tammany - is forced to leave, Tammany looks for somebody who can restore it to respectability and it chooses this guy known as Silent Charlie because he was very good at asking questions - not so good at giving speeches.

And by 1902, he is the undisputed boss of Tammany and would remain so for the rest of his life until he died in 1924.

DAVIES: But he also took the organization in a different direction. I mean it gave it - well, you want to talk about that. It gave it a different kind of focus and it looked for different kinds of leaders, particularly in Albany, where the organization had a lot of clout in state government.

GOLWAY: That's right. A turning point for Tammany was not the Triangle Shirtwaist fires - which many people have said, you know, people who were sympathetic to Tammany will say well, Tammany changed after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I would make the argument that first of all that change was already on its way. But the key moment here is actually two months before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire went up in Albany, two young lawmakers are basically designated by Murphy to be the leaders of their respective houses. Al Smith, 38-year-old assemblyman from the Lower East Side is chosen by Murphy to be the majority leader. And even more shockingly, this 33-year-old German immigrant from Yorkville, Robert Wagner, is chosen to be the majority leader of the state Senate. And, you know, Murphy bypassed all sorts of Democrats who were far more senior - particularly in the Senate.

And so when the Triangle fire happens in March of 1911 and there's this great outcry and there's this great demand that Albany do something and that Albany investigate these conditions, well, that investigation lands in the laps of Robert Wagner and Al Smith, Charlie Murphy's two greatest protégés. And they, with Murphy's blessing, go on to lead New York to the forefront of the Progressive Age with all sorts of social reforms that surely are the result of the catastrophe of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But I would also argue they're the result of an emerging ideology in Tammany Hall that is exemplified by Robert Wagner and Al Smith and Charlie Murphy.

DAVIES: So what were some of the laws that were passed?

GOLWAY: Well, in 1913 alone, New York passed all sorts of factory reforms. And that's what we would've expected. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, everybody expected that Albany would come back with laws for sprinklers. I mean these are important laws. I don't mean to diminish them, but they expected, you know, all sorts of workplace reforms. What they might not have expected was a push for things like unemployment compensation; eventually, for the beginnings of the minimum wage. In 1913, New York passed a law that said that employers had to give their employees one day of rest for every seven. A minimum wage was established for certain state workers of $2 a day. This is something very - this is not really related to making the workplace safer. So what Tammany did was they took this catastrophe of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and used it as an excuse - if you will - to begin to implement these progressive laws that may be have been talked about for a long time, but finally Tammany had the power and the will to enforce them.

DAVIES: Terry Golway's book is "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics." We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is journalist and historian Terry Golway. He has a new book about the history of Tammany Hall. It's called "Machine Made."

How to Tammany view the issue of slavery in the 1850s - which was a big issue for Democrats at the time? And how did Tammany react to deal with African-Americans generally in New York?

GOLWAY: Tammany was not advanced on issues of race. Certainly, in the 1850s, Tammany and Democrats in general in the north were agnostic, at best, on the issue of slavery. And they do bear the scorn of historians and rightfully so, for their attitudes towards slavery. Fernando Wood, who was the most prominent Democrat in the 1850s in New York, was validly pro-South. In fact, when the states in the South were seceding between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, Fernando Wood proposed that New York secede as well. And not join the South, but be a free state. I do think that Irish attitudes towards African-Americans were reprehensible. I do try to explain it as in the context of abolitionists often being very anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic - that is a matter of historical record - and that the Irish in essence said OK, if these abolitionists oppose us, well, we're certainly not going to listen to them.

Later on, Tammany also was certainly not in the vanguard of the civil rights revolution. Although, the first Democrat - the first black Democrat elected to a state legislature in the north, in American history, was a Tammany guy. So, you know, there are pluses but I think overall that they would be graded pretty poorly on race relations.

DAVIES: There's a fascinating story of Tammany as it moves towards the '20s - and folks can read in the book. But I do want to talk a little bit about this other really well-known New Yorker, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who comes to the state Senate initially as a reformer who is completely opposed to Tammany, critical of Tammany, but eventually they have a working relationship. I mean he and Al Smith, who is a Tammany creation and Wagner, and he gets to know Charlie Murphy. Tell us what the two sides got here. What did Roosevelt learn from the Tammany folks and what did the Tammany folks get from their alliance with Roosevelt?

GOLWAY: Well, first of all, the thing about Franklin Roosevelt - and I came away from this book even more impressed with Franklin Roosevelt as a politician - not as the figure on the dime, you know, not as a national icon but as a politician. As you suggest, he came to Albany, he was a proponent of Tammany, he referred to Murphy - Charlie Murphy - as a noxious weed that that needed to be plucked out. Well, by 1917, Franklin Roosevelt is giving speeches at Tammany Hall. By the 1920s, he's established this sort of friend - I would argue friendship - some people it would say an alliance of convenience - with Alan Smith. Both of them actually appear on the ballot in 1920 Franklin Roosevelt, as the Democrat's vice presidential candidate and Smith, as governor, running for reelection. They both lose. They write to each other in essence saying, you know what? Our careers are over. We're done. And then in their correspondence, you can see where they're bucking each other up and say well, maybe we can, you know, make something of this disaster. And, of course, Roosevelt contracts polio the following year.

What I think Roosevelt got out of this real alliance with Tammany, and that is a very counterintuitive way of looking at Franklin Roosevelt as an ally of Tammany - but I believe that he was. And Tammany offered him an opportunity to stay in the game when everybody else, including Roosevelt's own mother, when everybody else thought that he was, he should just retire to Hyde Park and play the role of a gentleman farmer. And that was not what Roosevelt wanted to do. But Tammany named him as the chairman of Al Smith's presidential campaign in 1924. He probably really didn't do the work of the chairman but, nevertheless, he held the title. And his great comeback in politics occurs in Madison Square Garden at the Democratic convention of 1924, were one of the largest contingents of the Democratic Convention in 1924 is the Ku Klux Klan. And Roosevelt gives this rousing speech, nominating Al Smith, a Tammany man, for president of the United States. And, you know, all of his biographers agree that that was the moment of Franklin Roosevelt's comeback.

Now what to Tammany get out of the relationship with Franklin Roosevelt? Well, it's very simple, they got a Protestant patrician who supported their candidate for president, an Irish Catholic. There weren't too many Protestant patricians from the Hudson Valley who would align themselves with this eighth-grade dropout from the Lower East Side.

DAVIES: Tammany eventually kind of loses influence and falls apart. Why?

GOLWAY: For a lot of reasons. One of them being Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal sort of made it unnecessary, now, for you to go down to the local clubhouse and plead your case for assistance because now that assistance was delivered on an institutional basis. Part of that was because the old constituencies, the - obviously the Irish, and even the Jews, to a lesser extent - were moving out of Manhattan. And remember, Tammany's power base was Manhattan. So, you know, as they were now populating the Bronx and Queens and elsewhere, they were losing population.

And part of it, too, was that, I think, that there was this internal disagreement within Tammany over Roosevelt. A lot of people in Tammany felt that Roosevelt had betrayed them, because in 1932, he had sort of forced the removal of Jimmy Walker, who was the Tammany mayor. He probably deserved to be removed, but some Tammany people never forgave him.

But then there were other Tammany people like this guy Jeremiah Mahoney and others who felt that the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt were right. So there was this sort of split in Tammany itself, and then more than anything else, once Fiorello LaGuardia is elected mayor in 1933, all city patronage dries up. LaGuardia...

DAVIES: A Republican mayor and a very popular one, right.

GOLWAY: Exactly, (unintelligible) mayor, elected on an avowedly anti-Tammany ticket. And he, in essence, says OK, well, there won't be any dollars flowing to Tammany Hall from now on, and there weren't. And instead, all of those New Deal dollars went to Robert Moses, who was one of his top assistants. And, you know, once you take away patronage from an organization like Tammany Hall, well, you know, you've pretty much deprived it of power.

DAVIES: And folks who read the book can see the poignant scene when the artifacts in Tammany's headquarters are actually auctioned off, right down to the pool table. What's the legacy of Tammany? I mean, what's its impact on American politics?

GOLWAY: I think when you look at the way politics is conducted today, I think it's impossible to conclude that somehow we're better off as a result of the machines dying. Obviously, the machines had many flaws, corruption being one of them. But I also think that Tammany changed American politics because, first of all, it showed respect for newcomers.

It was on the right side of history in terms of pluralism. Of course, they didn't call it pluralism. They certainly didn't call it multiculturalism, but that's what they practiced. Tammany did believe, in its core, that a newcomer was welcome and that a newcomer could become American.

And Tammany, instead of pushing these immigrants aside and treating them as aliens and treating them as non-persons, Tammany brought them into the system. And yes, they helped assimilate them, but they also never judged their poverty. I think they really did change the way we deliver our social services. The New Deal was not imbued with this idea of worthiness. The idea for Tammany was - as Big Tim Sullivan, a Tammany character once said, I don't feed a man because he's good. I feed a man because he's hungry. And that's a pretty good legacy, too.

DAVIES: And does that outweigh, I mean, the corruption? Even Charlie Murphy, I mean, you write about how, I mean, he, you know, had business interests in folks that did contracts with the city. He had a very nice house, I think a couple of houses. Those who helped themselves to the public purse, do the benefits outweigh that?

GOLWAY: You know, I think so, but I'm certainly open to the argument that the answer is no. What I'm trying to do in this book is present this other side of Tammany Hall. As I say in my introduction, every history of Tammany Hall is told as a true crime novel, and what I'm trying to suggest is that there is this other side. I'm arguing yes, that the benefits that Tammany Hall brought to New York and to the United States, that those benefits do outweigh the corruption with which it is associated.

But I'm simply trying to complicate that story and perhaps suggest that there are - there's a different way to regard not just Tammany Hall, but the people who supported Tammany Hall. They were not, in fact, the ignorant immigrants that so many newspapers - as they were portrayed in so many newspapers, that they understood that democracy often was about self-interest, and that Tammany Hall, when they needed a friend, Tammany Hall was there for them.

For whatever reason, Tammany Hall was there for the poor immigrant who was otherwise friendless in New York. And, you know, I think that's a pretty powerful positive for Tammany Hall.

DAVIES: Terry Golway, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

GOLWAY: Thank you.

GROSS: Terry Golway spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Golway is the author of "Machine Made." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new comic novel "Schmuck" by Ross Klavan, loosely based on the career of his late father, who was half of the New York morning radio duo Klavan and Finch. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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