The Once and Future Boss: The Possibilities of Tammany Hall

By Susannah Black for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

We are, here in New York, just about ready to cast our votes for the next mayor: even Mike Bloomberg cannot, apparently, actually appoint himself Patrician after the model of Lord Vetinari from the Discworld novels, settling in for a lifetime of arguably benevolent urbanist tinkering and soft-drink management.   The race has been …eventful, and several months ago, following the arrest of State Senator Malcolm Smith and City Councilman Daniel Halloran for their chummily bipartisan attempt to rig the Republican nomination, we got a flurry of headlines like “Tammany Hall Resurrected,” and “Tammany Hall Deja Vu.”

What exactly was this institution, used as a shorthand for all that is evil in New York politics, and is there nothing more to say about it than that it was corrupt?  Tammany Hall was a fraternal organization that became a Democratic Party club as soon as there was a Democratic Party for it to attach itself to. It had been started just after the Revolution, and was the most powerful such organization of its day. It operated (putting the matter in its baldest terms) by extending welfare services to New Yorkers in exchange for their votes, and by getting men elected to city and state office who would distribute jobs and government contracts to the friends of the society. Often the welfare Tammany offered was precisely in the form of these patronage jobs, which were distributed to those who were either the needy among Tammany’s constituency, or those who would be likely to keep the whole system going– or both. At its worst– and it was often at its worst– Tammany awarded city contracts at vastly inflated prices to its friends: the contractors’ bills were paid and the tax money that paid them was divided between the contractor and the politician who had awarded the contracts and signed the checks.

This corruption took place on a phenomenal scale. During the building of the New York County Courthouse, for example, a furniture-seller successfully invoiced the city for $179,729 ($2.5 million today) for three tables and 40 chairs. Two days’ work by a plasterer set the city back $133,187 ($1.82 million today). Charged with investigating the excesses, a committee came out with a report, the printing of which was of course paid for by the city. The printer’s fees were $7,718 ($105,000 today). The owner of the stationers’ company that did the printing was Tammany’s most notorious operator, Boss Tweed.

The corruption was, moreover, not incidental, not limited to theft, and not limited to Boss Tweed’s administration.  Fernando Wood was the first Tammany mayor of what might be called the classical age, and it was under his watch that the infamous police riot of 1857 took place.  This was nearly a New York City preview of the Civil War.  With its spectacle of Wood’s graft-ridden and recently disbanded Municipals battling the legal Metropolitans in a bloody showdown in City Hall Park, this incident vividly showcased the horrifyingly anarchic face of Tammany, and the characteristic evils of government based on personal loyalty.  “Personal” and “local” are not synonyms for “good” or “just” any more than “spiritual” is– there can be personal, local and spiritual evil as well as good, and these evils can cut that much closer.  This is dirty laundry that must be aired, in any appeal to the good that might be found in something like Tammany.

Such a system always needs reform– and Tammany periodically got it, due to public pressure or from Tammany men who wanted to see it, and their careers, and their city, thrive. It is a system with its own peculiar temptations, which are not the temptations of technocracy, but which we must not romanticize.

This Tammany-supporting class were, however, a broader constituency than is normally realized.  They were not all Irish, not all Catholic. Plunkett of Tammany Hall, William Riordan’s half-admiring, half-appalled Boswellian record of a Tammany man a generation younger than Tweed, records that a typical day’s work for his subject involved attending both a bar mitzvah and a wedding for a Jewish couple in the neighborhood.

George Washington Plunkett explained the Tammany approach in the following way:

If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case for a month or two and decide if they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up til they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too– mighty good politics. Who can tell how many votes one of these fires brings me? The poor are the most grateful people in the world, and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich.

Plunkett believed, or said he did, that this version of politics served the public good, the general good, as well as benefitting both the constituents and the politicians: “Think what the people of New York are,” he said:

One half, more than one half, are of foreign birth. They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state….there is no denying the service that Tammany has rendered the Republic. There is no other organization for taking hold of untrained, friendless men and converting them into citizens. Who else in the city would do it? There is not a mugwump [reformist Democrat] who would shake their hand.

“Don’t go to college,” Plunkett advised budding politicians, “and stuff your head with rubbish; get out with your neighbors and relatives and round up a few votes you can call your own. Study human nature and make government warm and personal.”

Following the notorious Orange Riots of 1871, Boss Tweed was ousted from his position. He died in 1878, in the Ludlow Street Prison. Tammany Hall, though, lived on: as Boss Tweed’s era ended, Plunkett’s era was only beginning. The machine lasted through many rounds of corruption and reform, recorruption and re-reform. It outlasted, by a couple of decades, the end of the ward system itself in 1938, and was finally brought down only in the early 1960s, by that bastion of New York good-government activism, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The ward system was in force from 1686 until 1938. Tammany Hall, for which the ward system served as a political skeleton and which existed in symbiotic relationship with it and with the Democratic party, was alive from 1786 to 1959. These institutions served generations of New Yorkers, and sometimes served them well. When it was functioning correctly, Tammany Hall served as a way to integrate the block-to-block fabric of New York life with the state and national levels of political organization, and the great immigrant influxes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are unthinkable without the diligent work of Tammany men on behalf of these new voters.

When they were doing their jobs, the bosses (the word is a New York one, from the Dutch Baas, meaning master; a word that has spread from this archipelago off the New Jersey coast to the entire English-speaking world) looked in two directions. They looked out for the interests of their wards in Albany and, to a degree, in Washington; they also looked out for the individual interests of the pushcart vendors getting hassled by the cops and the sandhogs digging the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge and the brides under their chuppas: everyone who either had a vote, or had the ear of a man with a vote.

In the most cynical terms possible, in modern politics votes are acquired through advertising, which is guided by the findings of public relations experts using the psychological technology of the focus group and the poll. Since 2004, House and Senate races have been won by the candidate who spent the most money between 83 and 98 percent of the time. The intimacy and persuasion needed in vote-getting are generated primarily through the medium of the TV screen, and the direct financial beneficiaries of that money are, of course, the TV stations.

By contrast, in Tammany New York, votes were acquired through social contact and practical favors, financial and legal assistance, jobs and drinks at the pub. The direct financial beneficiaries were, yes, the politicians and the businessmen who got contracts at far above the market price– but also the poor families whose rent got paid, the boy who got a job working for the new El being put up along Greenwich Street and 9th Avenue, the couple whose hotel room was paid for when they were burnt out of their apartment.

In less cynical terms: Tammany was a corruption, but it was a corruption of something good: the idea that government should, as Plunkitt said, be “warm and personal;” that decisions should be made locally; that rulers should directly and practically help the ruled; that there should be an everyday and immediate connection between the politicians and the people.

There is such a thing as procedural justice, and it is a good, and liberal democracy is, at its best, good at safeguarding it. But there is also such a thing as social solidarity, and liberal democracy is not particularly good at safeguarding this other good. Those who used Tammany for their private gain, and those who decided that it was unreformable and could never be used for anything except private gain, were equally its enemies. We cannot pass judgment on Tammany only by looking only to these two categories of people: to Boss Tweed and Eleanor Roosevelt. A third category has to be brought in: the politicians who loved Tammany enough to be loyal to it, and who loved New York enough to reform it– men like Al Smith. Smith, governor from 1923-1928, was both a Tammany product and a Tammany reformer, and as such he is a model for what a politician of this stripe might look like.

There are two constant complaints of modern civic and political life which a modern version of Tammany, reined in by constant attention to the dangers of corruption, might help to address. The first is the impersonality and loneliness of city life.

In his essay “Of the Mean and Sure Estate,” included in the 1936 anthology Who Owns America, John Donald Wade makes a general case against city life on the basis of this dehumanizing anonymity:

John Doe, dropped dead on Main Street, means half the town out, to condole with widow Mary– and cakes and pies and jams out, for hers and for her children’s comfort.  John Doe, dropped dead on Broadway, is another story.  Curses, that in front of me, he fell– a minute more and I had passed– I, who had business to do, and who am late now for the movie-opening.

City people, claims Wade,

have pushed the virtue of imagination into an abstractedness of thinking that finds it easier to fix itself upon…a plan for at least continental redemption than upon a useful and current deed in one’s own ward.

The most compelling argument for Tammany has always been that it promoted, in the context of cities, the kind of social solidarity that Wade associated with small towns: Tammany was a bastion against anonymity. Here was an institution that was a nursery for men whose very purpose was to do “useful and current deeds” in their own wards.

The second modern complaint that a version of Tammany might address is the common one that wealthy groups, especially corporations, tend to have a kind of political access that ordinary voters do not. Tammany can, arguably, be seen as a kind of “People’s PAC.” Rather than trying to overcome the rent-seeking that may be inherent in democracies, Tammany democratized it. In his ward boss, every common laborer had a lobbyist for his own special interest. And every ward boss had the incentive to sort out these special interests into a series of actions and favors and helping hands that hopefully didn’t conflict with each other too much. This is not the classical ideal of the political engagement of a disinterested citizenry, but it may be closer to how people actually live.

What if there was good in Tammany Hall, good that twenty-first century cities need? If that were true, then the corruption that plagued it was primarily bad because it served to discredit an entire political or social form: not just Tammany itself, but an entire genus of clubs and brotherhoods and institutions that served a mediating function between the individual and the state. The danger in such institutions is always the danger of corruption, in-groupism, the siphoning off of money into the personal bank accounts of those in a position to get it. There is no complete solution to this but virtue, and the only city that will see a civic leader of complete love and justice is the New Jerusalem.

But if we will not reach that kind of perfection here, that doesn’t mean we can’t aim for improvement.  What, then, would a “good” or non-corrupt and modernized version of Tammany look like? Could there be such a thing? It was not a part of the “state,” per se. It was a private organization with a great deal of power. This alone would make modern liberals suspect it.

But it was also a civic organization that extended a huge variety of helping hands to those at the bottom of society, and that would make modern libertarians suspect it: it was not a government, but it was in some sense government-flavored. Those who believe that each person has an absolute moral responsibility to not need help– which is the position that libertarians often back themselves into, at least rhetorically– will be troubled by even an uncorrupt Tammany on that count. Libertarians also often find themselves speaking as though the public sphere is coextensive with government and is thus inherently suspect; to them, only the private realms of business and home are truly safe. A modern Tammany, existing as it would in an intermediate space between the public and the private, would certainly be uncomfortable to them– again, even if no corruption at all took root in it.

The question is not, was Tammany corrupt. It was, and it is not something to be nostalgic for in an unalloyed way. It may be that it was too corrupt to save. Rather, the proper question to ask is, are institutions that provide some of the same benefits as Tammany inherently corrupt? Is there no good version of such an institution worth reviving, worth aiming at?

Arguably, what we have now is a corruption also, but a corruption of something that is not, even in its uncorrupted form, nearly as attractive as Tammany. Reform Tammany, and you get a municipal government worthy of the best free cities of the Middle Ages. Reform modern liberal democracy– pass campaign finance reform laws, for example– and you still just have the cash nexus and the television screen.

For nearly two hundred years after the ratification of the Constitution, there was, apparently, a sizable contingent of New Yorkers who did not see a conflict between that Constitution and a strong, local, personal, flavorful institution with its fingers all over municipal government. Perhaps the fact that we do see such a conflict says more about the particular, mechanistic, James Russell Lowell-esque take on the Constitution that we have adopted. From one perspective, Tammany-style government looks un-American, looks like a European holdover. But from another, Tammany was one of the possible ways that a local government in the United States might look. Tammany was, for nearly two centuries, an American option.

Lower Manhattan has, fairly recently, once again been in the news as the site of a politically-charged clash.  Perhaps, in light of the contemporary disenchantment with centralized, hollowed-out liberal democratic capitalism as a way of organizing our lives–a disenchantment vocalized by Occupy Wall Street– a reformed version of Tammany might be worth another look. It’s not across the Atlantic, and it’s not in the thirteenth century. It’s close to us: just a couple of decades ago, and, for many of us, just a few blocks away.

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