Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics

By Terry Golway

Liveright. 367 pp. $27.95

New York City’s Tammany Hall is synonymous in popular lore with graft, vote-buying and other abuses long associated with urban politics, but in “Machine Made,” Terry Golway asserts that this narrative is wrong. The real significance of the iconic Democratic organization that dominated New York politics from the early 19th century until the years after World War II, Golway argues, stemmed from its role in empowering Irish immigrants and shaping the direction of modern liberalism.

Tammany’s rise before the Civil War paralleled Irish struggles for independence from Great Britain, according to Golway. As New York’s mostly Irish immigrants fought to survive, Tammany offered a means for resisting nativists, sanctimonious Protestant preachers and upper-crust reformers who were disdainful of the poor and fearful of the Catholic Church.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 146 workers, marked a turning point in the evolution of the organization. Under the guidance of its leader, Charles Francis Murphy, Tammany threw its weight behind an ambitious reform agenda in Albany and succeeded in banning child labor, improving workplace safety regulation and requiring employers to grant workers one day off a week.

’Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics’ by Terry Golway (W. W. Norton )

Murphy, a quiet man who preferred listening to speech-making — his nickname was “Silent Charlie” — emerges as perhaps Tammany’s greatest leader. Under his guidance, Tammany championed “a lunch-bucket form of liberalism” that appealed to reformers including Frances Perkins, who later became the first woman to serve in the federal Cabinet, and an ambitious state legislator named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the national level, Murphy prodded the Democratic Party away from the evangelical Protestant populism of William Jennings Bryan and toward a more modern and politically appealing brand of progressive politics.

Golway chronicles Murphy’s career, along with the rise of Al Smith and his subsequent eclipse by FDR, with great skill. But he is less eager to detail the venality that was part and parcel of Tammany rule through much of its existence. The rise and fall of William “Boss” Tweed, the notorious embodiment of 19th-century machine politics, gets perfunctory treatment, as does the career of Richard Croker, another corrupt Tammany boss.

Golway’s sympathy for Tammany and its constituents gets in the way of telling a story that might have been more enlightening if it were more dispassionate. Even so, there is much in this well-written account of the legendary political organization to interest students of American history.

Robert B. Mitchell