The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When party machines turned immigrants into citizens and voters

(Associated Press)

Americans typically associate party machines with some of the less savory aspects of politics: corruption, coercion, and even crime. But it’s worth reflecting on one of the more important services the classic party machines provided. Those organizations arguably did more to welcome impoverished immigrants and turn them into active American voters than any other organization in American history.

Terry Golway’s fascinating new history of New York’s Tammany Hall machine offers a glimpse into the immigration politics of the 1800s, showing how it affected the party system. (I draw many examples in this post from Golway’s book.) Even in the early 1800s, Tammany welcomed European immigrants into its fold, irking Whig politicians and reform-minded journalists who saw Tammany’s supporters as a “noisy rabble.” Asked one writer in 1820, “Would you admit the populace, that patroon’s footman, to vote?” The machine clearly would, and it worked even harder to embrace immigrants after the state legislative elections of 1841, in which Irish Catholics formed a splinter party and demonstrated that their vote could swing a district toward either the Democrats or the Whigs. Tammany politicians reacted by advocating policies favored by the Catholic immigrants, such as education reforms that would keep their children from needing to recite Protestant prayers in public schools.

Such actions put Tammany in an advantageous position to woo the support of the millions of Irish Catholics who would arrive in the wake of the Great Famine (1845-1852). By the mid-1850s, roughly a quarter of New York City was Irish-born, and roughly half of the city had been born outside the United States. The film “Gangs of New York” (2002) did a nice job depicting New York City life of this period, with impoverished Irish immigrants often grouping together in gangs to compete for basic needs and political influence, and the Tammany organization actively courting their support with offers of food, firewood, coal, jobs, and municipal services.

A watershed moment in the relationship between Tammany and the city’s Irish Catholics took place in July 1871, when the city’s Irish Protestants sought to hold their annual “Orange Parade,” a celebration of King William’s 1690 victory at the Battle of Boyne, ensuring the British crown would remain Protestant. New York’s Irish Catholics protested the celebration, and Tammany organized in their defense. “Boss” William Tweed persuaded the police superintendent to deny marchers a permit and to keep the streets clear. State militiamen, meanwhile, organized on behalf of the Protestants. The resulting march led to a clash that left over 60 people dead, but the city’s Irish Catholics remembered that Tammany had stood by them.

Tammany would take similar stances toward other European immigrant populations over time, embracing Germans, Jews, Italians, Poles, and others as they arrived, and later recruiting members of those groups to run for office. They would continue to be opposed first by Whigs, then by Know-Nothings, then by Republicans, and always by reformist journalists for their embrace of the poor and uneducated, suggesting that Tammany relied on ignorant voters to keep their candidates in power.

Indeed, it is difficult in this time period to distinguish the desire for “clean” government from common bigotry. The same Thomas Nast who would draw cartoons lambasting Tammany for its corruption was regularly warning New Yorkers about the dangers of Catholicism and the degeneracy of the Irish. Reformer Andrew White complained that, in American cities, “a crowd of illiterate peasants, freshly raked from Irish bogs, or Bohemian mines, or Italian robber nests, may exercise virtual control.” These voters, he wrote, were “not alive even to their own most direct interests.” The tragic result was that “the vote of a single tenement house, managed by a professional politician, will neutralize the vote of an entire street of well-to-do citizens.” In 1875, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., the grandson and great grandson of presidents, warned about the dangers of universal suffrage. “Universal suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice — it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic coast, an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.”

This isn’t to suggest that party machines were paragons of racial progress. Tammany leaders, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, and other machine bosses often turned a deaf ear to the needs of African Americans, Chinese Americans, and others seeking their own political and economic influence in 19th and 20th century cities. And none of this is to dismiss the crimes perpetrated by Tammany and other machines; vote-buying, graft, bribery, and more were serious problems within the American party system in that era. But it’s also quite likely that such claims were over-hyped and even occasionally fabricated by the Democratic machines’ partisan foes, who saw political influence by poor immigrants as a crime in itself.

Americans like to consider their country a “melting pot.” But what goes unmentioned is that our traditional party machines were quite often the chefs that put that stew together.