Excursus on the History of New York
The Machine Breaks Down
I’m still working on the follow-up to my notes on the concept of “political capitalism” piece, but I am currently working on a chapter for my book about New York City politics that intersects a lot with both the Riley and Brenner theses and the recent things I’ve written about rackets and the mob, so I thought I’d take a (hopefully) brief look at the history of New York City to see how it illuminates these issues. I’m also coming to the end of my book and the chapter I’m writing is on New York, so my focus is increasingly occupied by it and this newsletter will be, for the time being, an extension of my notes. And if you follow me on Twitter, I’m trying very hard not to use my account until the manuscript is done and will leave it deactivated for as long as I can.
The history of the Society of St. Tammany, known more commonly as Tammany Hall, is the history of New York and even the history of democracy in the America in microcosm. Founded in 1789, the same year as the ratification of the Constitution, Tammany started out as a social club for “Pure Bred Americans,” but it was the less exclusive and more democratic of the city’s political clubs, founded largely to counter the notables and landed class who crowded around Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati. Both associations were largely made up of Revolutionary War veterans: the Cincinnati was composed of officers with aristocratic pretensions, Tammany of poorer soldiers with republican sympathies. Aaron Burr turned Tammany into the kernel of a party apparatus for electing Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. (At the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s seconds were Tammany “sachems.”)
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Tammany Hall was officially registered as a “charitable association” for the benefit widows and orphans and other worthy causes, but it was clear very early on that the major recipients of its charity were to be its own members: by the dawn of the 19th century it had already earned its reputation for corruption. The exclusion of the Irish ended after a large group of Irish immigrants, fed up with being left out, decided to let their grievances be known by invading the hall and giving everyone inside a beating. The Tammany sachems decided, shortly thereafter, to bestow the blessings of democracy on these new Americans. But it was in the middle of the 19th century, as more and more Irish arrived as refugees from the potato famine, that the power of Tammany solidified and its machine system was perfected. It was relatively simple: the penniless Irish would vote Democratic, and they would get patronage jobs and charity. They would be protected from nativists and from the condescensions of Protestant reformers who wanted to shut down their saloons and convert them from Roman Catholicism. If you were drunk and got arrested, Tammany would bail you out and pay for your lawyer. If you were hurt on the job, Tammany would look after your wife and kids. All you had to do was show up to vote, preferably more than once per election. In every ward and district there was a Democratic club to mobilize voters and divvy up charity and patronage.
The Tammany bosses, most famously William M. Tweed, understood politics to be a pragmatic affair, to put it kindly. There was not much ideology involved. It was a business like any other and one that catered to a diverse clientele. If anything could be called “political capitalism,” this was it. Gilded Age robber barons invested in political acquiescence to ensure profitable returns: Jay Gould was insulated from repercussions from his various scams because he had Tammany judges in his pocket. Tammany accomplished an American miracle: amalgamation and cooperation between labor and capital, attained not so much through the invisible hand as the greased palm. As Richard White writes in The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896:
Tweed recognized that the Republican ideal of a homogeneous citizenry was an illusion, and in this he mirrored the convictions of his immigrant constituency. As Patrick Ford, an Irish American radical who had worked on William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and emerged from the abolitionist movement to become the editor of the Irish World, wrote: “This people are not one. In blood, in religion, in traditions, in social and domestic habits, they are many.” Tweed governed a city riven by class, ethnicity, and religion. It could be governed by coalitions but not by appealing to a civic republicanism or common values. In New York City, Tweed joined together businessmen and the swarming immigrant poor. Domination of the city’s government gave the Tweed Ring an estimated twelve thousand jobs, which it distributed largely through the Democratic clubs. Jobs went to the politically ambitious and the working poor. Charters and contracts for public works rewarded his allies among businessmen and bankers regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat. All was financed through the sale of city bonds, negotiated by the city’s bankers. The city was a vast corrupt bargain that, until the early 1870s, brought profits and low taxes to business, and plunder to Tammany Hall, which ensured its power by distributing some of the take to its members through contracts, jobs, and charity.1
After a horrific 1871 riot that pitted Protestant natives against Catholic immigrants, the very sort of unrest that the system was supposed to prevent, Tammany stumbled, but soon recovered and fell into the hands of the Irish immigrants it once patronized. As the bosses of Tammany, they kept up the practical vocation of politics. Chris McNickle writes in To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic Politics in the City:
For the Irish, politics differed from other professions only in detail. It was practical and profitable, devoid of intellectual drapings; holding power was a way to earn a living. Elections were not exercises in moral judgement, simply contests between the “ins” and the “outs” for the spoils that went to the victor. Tweed once explained it this way: “The money…was distributed around in everyway, to everybody, and paid for everything.” Boss Croker made clear who “everybody” was when the Irish ruled New York: “All there is in life is loyalty to one’s family and friends,” he once said.”2
But, like the “natives” before them, the Irish learned that they could not afford to be parochial and exclusive in a diverse city. Newly arriving Jews and Italians were included as well. Irish politicians learned to be sensitive to the concerns regarding discrimination and harassment of their Jewish constituents, many of them refugees from pogroms in Russia. For instance, when some factory workers threw objects at the funeral procession of a prominent rabbi, the Lower East Side district leader ordered workers at his Democratic club to break all the factory windows.3
Despite its near miraculous powers of integration, Tammany’s machine was not invincible. Its material improvements for the lives of its constituents were mostly charitable but not structural: slums largely remained slums. The ideas of Progressive reformers started to sound less like condescending imposition and more like genuine help. With European immigrants also came ideological politics: socialists addressed workers as workers, not as East Siders or Irishmen or Jews. Machine rule was also being replaced by the rule of machines; industrialization brought along with it a new organization alongside the political party: the labor union. Unions provided the jobs and social opportunities that the party’s patronage structure once did. Still, into the modern era, Tammany remained a powerful organization.
The New Deal coalition was both the apotheosis and the beginning of the end for Tammany. Party discipline ensured the ascent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but his rise represented a a new synthesis of labor power and Progressive idealism, embodied in a dedication to rational, bureaucratic, and professional administration rather than doling out civil service jobs through the spoils system. Social welfare became broadly conceived as a right rather than a favor bestowed through patronage. New York itself had a reform mayor, a pro-New Deal “fusion” Republican, Fiorello LaGuardia. A Yiddish and Italian speaker, he was beloved by New York’s ethnic working class, an anti-corruption fighter, and a good government man. Tammany survived the Depression and the War, but now had to contend with the Democratic Party’s entrenched Reform section of liberal New Dealers, idealists from upper crust backgrounds like Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman who turned on the organization that had once helped their political rise.
Just as Tammany’s power faded, new groups were starting to come into the city en masse: Puerto Ricans and Blacks. Of course, New York City always had Black residents, but they had never formed enough of a voting bloc to terribly concern politicians. In the post-war era, that was changing. Harlem became the center of Black political power. After encountering the independent power of Black voters with the rise of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Tammany offered the same types of accommodations it had to previous waves of migrants: the Manhattan Borough Presidency became de facto reserved for a Black candidate, giving Blacks representation on the powerful Board of Estimate that shaped the city budget. By 1961, Tammany Hall itself had a Black leader: J. Raymond Jones, known as "The Fox” for his political acumen. Jones wanted to use the political patronage system for Blacks as it had been used for the Irish, Italians, and Jews, who were now integrating into the mainstream of American life and had less need of it. He was a little bit impatient with the largely upper-middle-class white reformers who didn’t understand the significance of patronage for the underprivileged. As Charles V. Hamilton records, in 1960 “The Fox” addressed the Lexington Democratic Club, a reform club on the Upper East Side, and mildly upbraided its genteel do-gooders:4
However, the instrument that Jones wanted to use to aid his people was already archaic. Just as he got control of Tammany, the city’s fortunes began to change. While not as associated with America’s industrial heyday like Detroit or Pittsburgh, New York was also a great manufacturing center. Instead of great steel mills and auto plants, New York was home to hundreds of little workshops and small factories pumping out non-durable and custom goods for consumers. The growing city’s insatiable appetite for labor was fed by each wave of immigrants. But, beginning in the 1960s, New York’s manufacturing base receded into the suburbs and even abroad. The port wasn’t deep enough for modern shipping and had to be moved across the river to New Jersey. The New Deal era ushered in a relatively generous local welfare system that was strained by the sudden rise in unemployment. The economic downturn of the 1970s nearly broke the city. A fiscal crisis left the city’s finances in the hands of the Financial Control Board, appointed by the Governor and with almost half its seats going to corporate chiefs rather than elected officials. It instituted painful cuts in services.
On top of this, the Great Society programs, well intentioned as they were, may have further weakened the party patronage system. According to Charles V. Hamilton, they replaced the patron-client relationship of old ethnic politics with a patron-benefit structure that effectively depoliticized and demobilized the electorate: there was no need to vote to get benefits, and there was no machine that rewarded and advanced political workers into ever-higher positions of power.5 Compared to other great American cities, New York got its first Black mayor, David Dinkins, relatively late, in 1989. Dinkins, who came up under the tutelage of J. Raymond Jones, was a firm believer in the regular order of the Democratic party, in turn-taking, deal-making, and rewarding friends. But by that time the spoils had dried up. Neither the old machine system, nor industrial capitalism, were viable sources of distributing social wealth. But for more about that story you'll have to wait for the book.
Richard White. The Republic for which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Oxford University Press, 2017. pg. 198
Chris McNickle. To be mayor of New York : ethnic politics in the city. , Columbia University Press, 1993. pg. 32
Ibid., pg. 50
Charles V. Hamilton, “Needed, More Foxes: The Black Experience,” in Jewell Bellush and Dick Netzer, ed. Urban Politics: New York Style, Sharpe, 1990, pg. 360
Charles V. Hamilton, “The Patron-Recipient Relationship and Minority Politics in New York City,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 95 (Summer 1979) pp. 211–27.