Politics for City Immigrants

INSTITUTIONS WHICH IMMIGRANTS had developed in their Old World homelands proved providentially suited to their different needs in America. And there were no better exemplars of this than the Irish. For this new nation was rich in formal governmental organizations: constitutions, legislatures, and courts galore. The long experience of Americans in self-government was of course one of the causes of the War for Independence. And American Independence, conspicuously unlike Irish Independence, had come after only a decade or two of agitation and extralegal organization. Success in the American Revolution meant that the people now controlled their governments. Constitution making then became a national pastime, while political parties debated the proper emphasis of government under the new constitutions.

How different had been the Irish experience! While American political life took the forms of self-government, Irish political life took the forms of endless rebellion which never climaxed in revolution. While Americans were preoccupied with social compacts, rights of representation, forms of legislation, and the balance and limits of power, the Irish had been preoccupied with organized sabotage and the frustration of unjust laws. The American experience had been legalistic and formal; the Irish had been informal, extralegal, or even antilegal. But the Irish experience would not be wasted in America.

NEW YORK BECAME the first great city in history, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed, to be ruled by men of the people. Other cities—Rome under the Gracchi, London under John Wilkes, Paris under the Commune—were only temporarily run by representatives of the lower classes. But in New York, from the early nineteenth century, rule by men of the people was organized into a regular and continuing system. This was doubly remarkable since that city was becoming the nation’s greatest single center of wealth and power. The popular rule of New York City was an Irish achievement. For the Irish developed and perfected the big-city political machines, which brought power to representatives of the lower classes not only in New York but in other cities.

Still more remarkable, this unprecedented urban achievement was the work of a rural people. The political experience which the Irish brought to America was as different as possible from that of the orderly New England town meeting, the provincial legislature, or the deliberative constitutional convention. Since the regular courts in Ireland were agents of landlord oppression, the poor tenants had made their own courts and their own law. “There are in fact two codes of law in force and in antagonism,” a contemporary explained, ”—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—its agents the ribbonmen and the bullet.” The agents of this extralegal law went by many different names: “Levellers,” “Lady Clares,” “Molly Maguires” (later adopted by Irish Catholic coal miners in Pennsylvania), and others. They were most generally known as “Whiteboys” from the shirts that they wore over their other clothes, the better to distinguish one another at night.

In Ireland, Whiteboyism had developed its own principles and its own techniques of enforcement. The object was to keep the actual tenant in possession of the land, to fight tithes and high rents, and generally to regulate landlord-tenant relations for the tenant’s benefit. Local groups meeting secretly did their own “legislating” against particular, oppressive landlords. “Sir Francis Hopkins,” went a notice pasted on an offender’s door or found mysteriously at his table, “there did a Man come to look for you one Day with what you might call a boney Brace of Pistols to shoot you; and if you do not be lighter on your Tenants then what you are you shall be shurely shot, so now we give you timely Notice; and if you do not abide by this marke the Consequence.” A landlord who disregarded such a notice might be murdered, and a tenant risked his life by taking land that another had been ejected from. “Strangers” (which meant Irishmen who did not live in the immediate locality and who came from other counties to compete for work in harvest time) were commonly beaten and sent back home.

This Whiteboyism was very different from the vigilantism of the American West which filled a legal vacuum. For the Irish were trying to counteract a going legal system. Secret societies, blackmail, bribery, and mayhem became everyday weapons to defend Irish peasants’ rights.

At election time in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, herds of tenants were driven to the polls by their landlord not “to vote” but, as the saying went, “to be voted.” All this took place, one observer remarked, with as little ceremony “as the Jamaica planter would direct his slave to the performance of menial duties.” The landlords themselves, the pillars of respectability and the legal law, were paragons of corruption. Public works became their private domain. The Royal Canal, for example, was cut in the wrong direction, to enhance a certain rich man’s lands. Army barracks were located to supply markets for the landlords’ produce. Landlords used their tenants, compelled by high rents and a truck system, to build roads for them free, for which the landlords then received public funds. Whether rebellious or obsequious, the Irish peasant reached American shores with a political experience that was copious and vivid, but far different from that which awaited him here.

These unfortunate immigrants quickly transplanted and transformed their political institutions. Within a decade or two the downtrodden Old World Irish had become the ebullient American Irish. They now organized not against but within the government. They spoke not in the cautious whispers of midnight Whiteboy legislatures, but blatantly, floridly, raucously, in city councils, in state assemblies, and even in the United States Congress. The oppressed now could sit in seats of power. Their Irish experience, far from being irrelevant, actually provided their way of grasping power in America.

THEIR FIRST PATTERN of settlement, and even their poverty, helped make all this possible. Arriving in eastern seaboard cities, the Irish commonly lacked the means to disperse themselves into the continent. In New York City, where the greatest number arrived, by 1850 there had accumulated some 130,000 Irish-born who comprised a quarter of the city’s population; five years later more than a third of the city’s voters were Irish. This story was repeated elsewhere in the northern seaport towns, notably in Boston.

Bewildered in a strange land, the Irish immigrant welcomed the familiar brogue of an earlier comer. To establish himself he needed a job, a house, food and shelter, and friends; and all these needs helped bring the big-city political machines into being. By satisfying them, the machines would thrive and would become a fixture in American politics.

Machine politics was a natural product of the emigrant frame of mind. What is the main difference between a political machine and a political party? A party is organized for a purpose larger than its own survival. A political machine exists for its own sake; its primary, in a sense its only, purpose is survival. A political party may succeed and make itself obsolete by attaining the purpose for which it was organized. This is never true of a political machine, for a political machine succeeds only by surviving.

The Irish refugee was dominated above all by the need to survive. It was no accident, then, that the first contribution of these Irish emigrants to American politics was the political machine. Machine politics, unlike party politics, needed no end outside itself. And it was this machine politics that produced the political boss and the professional politician whose business was politics. Their test was the ability to keep their business profitable for themselves and their clients.

With New York City for our example we can see how these machines, as Moynihan explains, “resulted from a merger of rural Irish custom with urban American politics.” The readiness to view the going machinery of government as not wholly legitimate, the habit of enlisting the humblest citizens, the techniques of organization, the respect for hierarchy, these were all brought from the Irish countryside. With them, too, came a broad-minded willingness to use bribery, blackmail, and violence whenever they helped secure the rights of the underdog. All were reinforced by a passionate loyalty to the organization, which tolerated factionalism but never treason.

It is no wonder, then, that although the Irish were quickly and spectacularly successful in politics—and within decades of their arrival they were actually running a great city—they did not prove masters of the arts of good government. For to the emigrant, in flight from poverty and oppression, American politics had become an end in itself, a business to support himself and his fellow clansmen. When these circumstances helped make “politics” a dirty word, and “bosses” and “machines” words of reproach, the Brahmins of Boston and New York increasingly left important political jobs to these less squeamish new arrivals.

TAMMANY HALL, which the Irish would turn to such effective use, was here even before large numbers of Irish came. The Society of St. Tammany, founded in New York City in 1789, was named after a legendary chief of the Delaware Indians who was supposed to have met William Penn on his arrival in America, and who had been facetiously canonized about 1770. No one could be sure whether the name Tammany meant “affable” or “deserving,” but the chief had been proverbial for his friendship to white men.

William Mooney, founder of the New York Tammany Society, was an upholsterer and wallpaper dealer who may have seen brief service in the early days of the Revolution. What Mooney and his friends first intended was a benevolent and fraternal organization aimed against both “aristocrats” like those in the Society of the Cincinnati, who shared Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist principles, and “foreign adventurers.” The Society’s original constitution declared that only native Americans should be eligible for the office of “sachem.” Mooney’s own public career was far from illustrious. During his less than two years (1808–09) of public service as superintendent of the almshouse, he created a scandal by cutting provisions for the inmates in order to provide his family with rum and other luxuries. “Trifles for Mrs. Mooney,” an apocryphal heading in his accounts, soon became a byword among anti-Tammany men. But none of this prevented Mooney’s reelection as Grand Sachem.

During these early years the Society entertained its members by high jinks on the Indian motif and had much the character of later American service organizations. Members ranked as Hunters or Warriors, and were ruled by twelve Sachems, presided over by a Grand Sachem. Time was reckoned in “moons” and the months were given mock-Indian names. Headquarters was called The Wigwam. On the Fourth of July and on Tammany Day (May 12), Tammany braves paraded with painted faces in full Indian regalia, carrying bows and arrows, and tomahawks. The New York Society of St. Tammany chartered other, lesser wigwams.

Before the great postfamine influx from Ireland, Tammany had already become a political organization. But except when they named Patrick McKay for State Assembly in 1809, Tammany had not yet included Irish Catholics on its list of approved candidates. On the night of April 24,1817, two hundred Irishmen marched on Tammany Hall to persuade them to nominate the talented Irish patriot refugee Thomas A. Emmet as their candidate for Congress. Despite strong arguments in the form of chair legs and brickbats, the obstinate Tammany men refused to name the Irish hero.

Then the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1821 widened the suffrage, and an amendment in 1826 removed the taxpaying qualifications. At the New York City election in the fall of 1827, the Irish played a newly conspicuous part. The national contest of the following year, expected to be between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, was in everybody’s minds. The Irish, “ready-made democrats,” passionately admired General Jackson, the son of poor Irish emigrants, who had trounced the English at New Orleans. Armed Irish bodyguards accompanied Jackson supporters to cast their ballots. Two hundred Irishmen in the Eighth Ward, according to a witness, “were marched to the polls by one of the Jackson candidates who walked at the head with a cocked pistol in each hand and then without leaving the polls, they voted three times apiece for the Jackson ticket.” Visitors to the polls in the Fourth Ward were entertained by a five-hour-and-fifty-eight-minute fight between an Irishman and a Vermonter, which provided the Irish bodyguards their excuse for keeping out the anti-Jackson voters. Now in New York, Irishmen were following the violent pattern of the elections back home. But instead of being voted by their landlord they were voted by their fellow-emigrant bosses.

These activities understandably stirred the fears of respectable old settlers. “Everything in the shape of an Irishman was drummed to the polls and their votes made to pass …,” the National Advocate complained. “It was emphatically an Irish triumph. The foreigners have carried the day.” Here, they warned, was “a foreign body in the midst of us, of alarming magnitude and overwhelming influence.” These alarms in turn consolidated the Irish, who used their organs such as the New York Truth Teller to cement the loyalties of Irishmen to one another, and incidentally to the Democratic Party.

By the 1830’s Tammany had organized a city-wide machine, with special meetings and an appropriate celebrity-leader for each immigrant group. The national election of 1832 once again stirred up Irish loyalty to the anti-English General Jackson and Irish hatred of the “Tory” Henry Clay, who, they argued, was planning to saddle the Bank of the United States on poor Americans just as the Bank of England had once been saddled on the poor Irish.

THE INCREASE AND THE CONCENTRATION of the Irish emigrant population made possible a larger role for the New York Irish in Tammany, in their city and in the politics of the nation. In the 1830’s the Sixth Ward, on New York’s Lower East Side, was the center of the largest Irish Catholic community in the country and (next to Ireland itself and certain communities in Lancashire and Scotland) the largest Irish community in the world. Tammany had already organized its efforts to woo emigrants. And the Irish, held together by sentiment, memory, and clan loyalty, were ready for the wooing. The Hibernian Provident Society developed political interests. The Mechanics’ Benefit Society and the Brian Borihme Club (honoring Irish saints and heroes, now including St. Tammany) were already being used for political purposes by Richard B. Connolly, who came to be known as “Slippery Dick” because he was later a member and finally a betrayer of the Tweed Ring. The Irish, Tammany Hall, and the Democratic Party had already begun their long entanglement with one another, which would last into the twentieth century. Tammany’s Young Men’s General Committee offered political apprenticeships to the sons of Irish Catholic emigrants. John McKeon, for example, who had served on such committees and became the lawyer for Tammany clients, went to the New York Assembly in 1832 and to Congress in 1834.

One of the most effective of these new Irish political organizers was Michael Walsh. A combination of clown, demagogue, gang leader, and authentic champion of the people, Walsh had spent his boyhood learning the language and the ways of the city streets. His “Spartan Band,” organized in 1840, was a gang of young Irish strong arms that followed him to meetings and forced the reluctant Tammany men to hear him out. With George Wilkes, later founder of the scandal-mongering National Police Gazette, he started the Subterranean (1843). “I know that we, the Subterranean Democracy,” Walsh proclaimed, “possess the power, if we will but exercise it.” Who, he asked, were those respectable shapers of public opinion? “A set of counterfeit blackguards who can write about temperance with a gallon of punch in their bellies, upon honor with their backs still smarting from the effects of a cow-skinning, and about honesty with a bribe jingling in their pockets!” Walsh prophesied that he would “ride over all this rotten opposition, like a balloon over a dunghill.” And he did. With his gangs and his sharp tongue he persuaded Tammany that Walsh and his Irish constituents were worth having. In 1846 Tammany nominated him over Samuel J. Tilden, and elected him to the State Assembly; in 1850 Walsh was elected to Congress, where he served until his death nine years later.

The transformation of big-city politics in the mid-nineteenth century, in New York at least, was largely the work of the Irish. Back in 1835 Chancellor James Kent, voice of the native aristocracy, had explained that “the office of assistant alderman could be pleasant and desirable to persons of leisure, of intelligence, and of disinterested zeal for the wise and just regulation of the public concerns of the city.” Only thirty years later Boss Tweed, with refreshing candor, was to call these same aldermen “The Forty Thieves.” But this was not the whole story. If the introduction of an “Irish style” into American city politics had put political favors on a cash-and-carry basis, it had done something else too. It had personalized and humanized the political life of the city, making a whole new range of opportunities accessible to the people who most needed them.

The Irish politician, through his own political machine and through Tammany, which became his instrument, had made himself into a social service, or more precisely, a personal service agency. His clients were his fellow Irish and other emigrant newcomers. Sixth Ward aldermen in the 1830’s, men like liquor dealer Dennis McCarthy, lawyer Thomas S. Brady, and grocer Felix O’Neill, did all kinds of odd jobs for their constituents. They were an employment office, providing a government job or using their influence with private employers. They brought food to the hungry, and medicine to the sick. A man who had lost his business through incompetence or bad luck had their help to start again. They organized a benefit social for an impoverished widow, or for the family of the man crippled on his job. And they performed many of the services offered by the priest in old Ireland. They dignified wakes and funerals by their presence, they guided the illiterate and the bewildered with their advice. They worked full-time and year-round.

The boss’s services, private and personal, were as different as possible from what Chancellor Kent had described as “the wise and just regulation of the public concerns of the city.” The boss was emphatically no Cincinnatus, temporarily serving a tour of duty in public office. He was in the politics business, classically described in George Washington Plunkitt’s “very plain talks on very practical politics” at the turn of the century, when the stakes had risen and bossism was in full flower:

No other politician in New York or elsewhere is exactly like the Tammany district leader or works as he does. As a rule, he has no business or occupation other than politics. He plays politics every day and night in the year, and his headquarters bears the inscription, “Never closed.” …

A philanthropist? Not at all. He is playing politics all the time.

Brought up in Tammany Hall, he has learned how to reach the hearts of the great mass of the voters. He does not bother about reaching their heads. It is his belief that arguments and campaign literature have never gained votes….

This is a record of a day’s work by Plunkitt:

2 A.M.: Aroused from sleep by the ringing of his door-bell; went to the door and found a bartender, who asked him to go to the police station and bail out a saloon-keeper who had been arrested for violating the excise law. Furnished bail and returned to bed at three o’clock.

6 A.M.: Awakened by fire engines passing his house. Hastened to the scene of the fire, according to the custom of the Tammany district leaders, to give assistance to the fire sufferers, if needed. Met several of his election district captains who are always under orders to look out for fires, which are considered great vote-getters. Found several tenants who had been burned out, took them to a hotel, supplied them with clothes, fed them, and arranged temporary quarters for them until they could rent and furnish new apartments….

MACHINE POLITICS WAS politics without ideology. In Ireland, where loyalties had been local and personal, the ruling sentiments were not principles but interests. In the American city, too, purposes were self-defining: the needs of the individual constituent and the perpetuation of the machine. Politics for emigrants was the politics of personal need. Jobs, houses, food, friendship mattered, while the boss’s position on the tariff or on foreign wars was of little consequence. Most important was the fact that in 1855, of New York City’s 1,149 policemen, 431 were immigrants, and of the immigrants, 305 were Irish.

The Irish in the American cities were actually making their own kind of politics, and incidentally adding a new dimension to American political life. Just as the better-established Americans looked on their governments as service institutions, so too these newcomers had their own humbler expectations. The services they expected at first were less concerned with property than with the means of daily living. Less with validating land titles or financing a railroad than with finding a job. Just as the vast ownerless stretches of the continent were an arena where Americans assigned new services to state and national governments, so too, in the jungles of the fast-growing seaboard cities the homeless jobless immigrants expected new services. And there the needs of the oppressed Irish countrymen were rediscovered.

The decentralized American political system had incidentally helped the Irish and other immigrant groups rise to self-respect and prosperity and political power. Had there been only a single national legislature, and only a single centralized government, the immigrants’ rise in politics might have been postponed until after they had been assimilated to American ways. And by that time they might have had little of their own to add. But the federal system, with its numerous governments and countless decentralized political opportunities, made easier the incorporation of the Irish and others before their assimilation. They were encouraged to retain their identity as the most effective way to their share of power. A newly arrived group unable to elect a member of Congress still might send one of its members to the lower house of a state legislature, or to the city council.

If the Irish were unified by no large political principles, this was no obstacle to their political success, and might even be an advantage. If a will to help the poor and the needy was no adequate program to govern a nation, it was more than enough to capture a city ward.

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