Everything You Know About Tammany Hall Is Wrong

Finally, an installment of this newsletter that isn’t about my personal problems. Today, some problems from American history instead. Specifically: Tammany Hall—the political machine that dominated New York politics from the 1850s to the 1920s—and why they got a bad rap.

If you’ve heard of Tammany Hall at all, you probably know it for one thing and one thing only: corruption.

The usual story goes something like this: as Irish immigrants flood New York City in the early 19th century, a political organization forms to look out for their interests, rapidly consolidating support through an extensive network of neighborhood ward captains. Through patronage, vote-stealing, and bribery, Tammany soon comes to dominate New York politics, expanding its base as the century turns to include newer immigrant groups like Germans, Italians, and Jews. But by the 1920s, successive corruption scandals diminish Tammany’s influence, and reformers like Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia strip what remains of its power.

Today, Tammany Hall lives on mostly through pop culture depictions of its most egregious characters—like notorious embezzler William “Boss” Tweed—and through the phrase “Tammany-style politics” as an all-purpose pejorative for corruption or backroom deals.

But the true story of Tammany Hall is much more nuanced, and the organization deserves a much better reputation than the one it’s been left with. Tammany politicians did a lot of good, weren’t substantially more corrupt than average for the time, and were looked down on in large part due to nativist bigotry. The organization’s eventual decline was in many ways just the inevitable result of its having accomplished its original mission—the integration of Irish, Italian, and other non-WASP immigrants into American politics—so thoroughly that it no longer had much of a reason to exist.

Tammany Pioneered Progressive Politics

Tammany Hall was the first political organization in America to view the hordes of immigrants who began flooding into the country in the mid-1800s not as an undistinguished rabble to be looked down on (or perhaps to be the recipients of the occasional condescending act of noblesse oblige charity), but as legitimate members of society with their own needs and desires. Driven by a mix of genuine belief and political self-interest, Tammany politicians focused on issues important to this group—issues that had been ignored by the upper classes who dominated political life at the time.

Child labor prohibitions, mandatory weekends, the minimum wage, and workplace safety regulations are just some of the pro-worker policies that were pioneered in New York largely thanks to efforts of Tammany politicians. The organization also supported immigrants and pushed (unsuccessfully) for the Democratic platform to formally denounce the KKK at a time when Southern racists still made up one of the biggest blocs in the party. Roosevelt later cited the accomplishments of the 1913 New York State legislative session—when Tammany men controlled all three branches of state government—as one of the inspirations for the New Deal.

Yet while modern liberals still lionize FDR, and often reminisce about magic of the so-called Progressive Era, you never hear anyone celebrate Tammany.

Tammany Wasn’t Even That Corrupt

The most infamous stories from the Tammany days all have corruption at their core—like the tale of the aforementioned Boss Tweed, who was convicted for stealing $45 million (in 1873 dollars!) from New York City taxpayers. But although the phrase “Tammany Hall” is basically shorthand for corruption these days, the organization was only somewhat more corrupt than average for its time.

Yes, there were a few high-profile cases of extreme misdeeds, like Tweed (whose conviction actually led Tammany to pursue substantial ethics reforms). But Tammany’s main form of influence was political patronage—essentially, the exchanging of government jobs for votes, either explicitly or implicitly—which was quite common at the time. In fact, the organization’s distribution of low-level government jobs to its largely poor and working-class supporter base can be charitably viewed as a sort of roundabout way to create an informal welfare state at a time when few official forms of government support for the poor existed.

As for bribery and other forms of vote-stealing? Yes, Tammany did some of that. But there’s a fine line between directly exchanging jobs for votes and simply gaining support by delivering practical services for your constituents. And it speaks to a very specific way of viewing American history that the turn-of-the-century era of New York machine politics is seen as irredeemably corrupt just because there was some ballot stuffing going on, while national elections from the same time period are generally seen as legitimate despite the fact that women and most African-Americans were disenfranchised entirely.

Tammany’s Opponents Were Mostly Driven by Bigotry

So why does Tammany Hall have such a bad reputation today, and why did they face such vehement opposition at the time? In a word: bigotry. Tammany was dominated by Irish immigrants at a time when the Irish—and Irish Catholics especially—were second-class citizens. While many of Tammany’s opponents did genuinely believe in the good-government reforms they espoused, they also saw the organization’s mastery of mass politics as a threat to the existing WASP power structure. (There are interesting parallels here with prohibition, whose supporters were driven both by legitimate public health concerns and by their association of alcohol, especially beer, with lower-class immigrants. Unsurprisingly, Tammany Hall members were almost uniformly against prohibition.)

There was also a cruder philosophical divide at work, one that has to do with the nature of politics itself. Tammany’s opponents saw politics as a kind of science best practiced by educated, disinterested elites. If they attempted to help the lower classes, they did so through paternalistic, top-down methods. Actually getting down in the muck by interacting directly with the recipients of their charity—or, even worse, seeing them not just as passive recipients but as self-interested political actors in their own right—was seen as horribly gauche. Tammany’s involvement in tit-for-tat, street-level politics just wasn’t something respectable people did.

Tammany Hall’s influence started to wane in the 1930s, and by the mid-1960’s the organization had ceased to exist entirely. But though Tammany lost the battle, in the long run, they won the war. The pro-labor legislation Tammany politicians advocated for is now par for the course in America, and the forms of community organizing they pioneered are now standard parts of the political playbook.

Even the two politicians most closely associated with Tammany’s fall—FDR, who as New York governor initiated the corruption investigation that brought down some of their later leaders, and Fiorello La Guardia, who as mayor instituted civil service reforms that largely ended the patronage system—reflect, in their own way, Tammany’s lasting influence. Roosevelt’s New Deal was directly inspired by earlier Tammany legislation, and the half-Italian, half-Jewish La Guardia’s ascent to power wouldn’t have happened had the Tammany of a prior era not broken through the old WASP power structure.

So the next time you hear about Tammany Hall, remember that they weren’t as bad as they’re usually made out to be. They were corrupt and self-serving, yes—but they also changed American politics for the better.

Yours in having finally written something about American history only four months after I first claimed that was one of the things this newsletter would be about,