Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tammany Hall: noble or corrupt? Discuss.

I grew up reading authors steeped in the progressive tradition of clean government, a nonpartisan civil service, civic activism, and other good things. My Presbyterian parents taught me to be suspicious of people whose church was tightly controlled from Rome and who weren't allowed to interpret the Bible themselves.

So when I learned of Tammany Hall and machine politics in New York, I was properly disgusted. Terry Golway's new book on Tammany Hall has given me second thoughts.

First, the book cites numerous examples of anti-Catholic sentiments and actions in antebellum American. For example, Walt Whitman in 1842: “Shall these dregs of foreign filth – refuse of convent – scullions from Austrian monasteries – be permitted to dictate what Tammany must do?” 

Second, Golway shows how Tammany came to the relief of Irish immigrants during and after the potato famine in ways that Britain never even tried. Consider the statement by the head of relief efforts, Sir Charles Trevelyan:  the “great evil with which we have to contend [is] not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” 

Third, the  book cites the efforts of the Protestant good government types trying to restrict the votes of immigrants. The Tilden Commission set up in 1875 to recommend better urban governance urged restricting the vote to property owners. And John Quincy Adams' grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. said this:

“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 [of Mexico], and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.” 

Fourth, I was surprised to learn that, after the deadly draft riots in July 1863, Boss Tweed got the Tammany-dominated city council to vote a $3 million bond issue to pay the $300 exemption and pay bounties to substitutes. The city ultimately paid out $14 million, but there were no more riots. 

These discoveries help me appreciate how much Tammany and similar urban organizations were a defensive response to a hostile political elite. Yes, many of its leaders were corrupt by any definition. But they also tended to run an effective and responsive government, even if not an efficient one. 

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