At first Tammany Hall was, well, a hall. It was the Manhattan clubhouse and meeting place for an organization that had been named (for reasons obscure) after a legendary 17th-century Indian chief in Pennsylvania who was later—even more strangely—identified as “Saint Tammany.” The building served as an informal gathering spot where the endless talk that is part of politics could be carried out in congenial surroundings. It was the scene of strategy sessions, large and small, including once even the national convention of the Democratic Party. But soon enough the words “Tammany Hall” came to designate more than just a place. It was the powerful political machine that operated out of those four walls, reaching far beyond them to influence the life of the city, state and nation.
It is this second meaning that Terry Golway, a journalist, public policy center director and former America columnist, describes in his highly readable history of the Hall, the first complete treatment of the subject in more than 20 years. The book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation, done at Rutgers, and the research on which it is based is every bit as thorough as one would expect from such an endeavor, evident in the 35 pages of notes and bibliography. These will not get in the way of the general reader, though they will be helpful to anyone wanting to pursue particular personalities or subjects in greater detail. The Society of Saint Tammany began its life in 1788 (the year before George Washington became president), and Golway tells its story from then until the Hall loses its oomph after the arrival of the New Deal. There is a very poignant final scene, as a group of old-timers reassembles in 1973 to auction off the remaining worldly possessions. One pays $2 for the long-neglected poker chips, and another pays $10 for the pool table, only to discover that he can’t get it down the stairs.
While it prospered, however, Tammany was a powerful agent in defining American democracy, especially for generations of immigrants (mostly but not exclusively Irish) who were often viewed with suspicion by the already-established forces in society. Guided by a succession of shrewd captains—the colorful but corrupt William Marcy Tweed; the dour but effective Charles Francis Murphy (known as Silent Charlie)—who came to define the urban political boss, the organization picked candidates and then marshaled voters, street by street, to ensure success at the polls. Just as important, its authority was undiminished between elections. One hapless mayor, thrust into office by Tammany, was asked whom he would appoint as police commissioner. “I don’t know,” he replied. “They haven’t told me yet.”
That kind of back-room wheeling and dealing made Tammany an obvious target for reformers, who congratulated themselves on their higher, purer motivations—all very disinterested, don’t you know. In New York, as elsewhere, these coalesced into so-called Good Government clubs, sneered at by the Tammany gang as Goo-Goos.
The Hall’s more direct, unabashed, “transactional” view of politics began with the recognition that people had needs and interests, some of them quite basic, and there was nothing wrong with using government to meet those needs. In fact, in a democracy, there were many things right with it. A contemporary in another city had expressed the fundamental morality of it all: “I think that there’s got to be in every ward somebody that a bloke can come to, no matter what he’s done, for help,” said the Boston ward boss Martin Lomasney. “Help, you understand; none of your law and justice, but help.” If the voters subsequently expressed their gratitude—for the job that put food on a family table, sometimes for the food itself—what exactly was the problem? Chicago’s Richard Daley made the same point a generation later. When a crony was criticized for helping his friends, Daley snapped: “What’s he supposed to do? Help his enemies?”
Tammany achieved the peak of its influence in the period between the two world wars, the era of Governor Al Smith (the Happy Warrior) and Senator Robert Wagner, author of legislation that guaranteed the right of union organizing and father of a future mayor. This was also the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Smith called him Frank), a man whose patrician background had made him an unlikely ally and beneficiary. But it was Roosevelt’s New Deal that ultimately undercut the Hall’s effectiveness. The government agency now replaced the party machine as the locus of power; the trained professional social worker supplanted the ward captain as the likeliest source of “help.” Emerging mass culture took its toll too. Movies, radio and television satisfied a desire for entertainment that had once been vividly available in the torchlight parade and the rousing stump speech. Because of racial and ethnic change in the city, as everywhere in the country, old alliances and antagonisms faded, even as new ones formed.
Golway is a surefooted guide through the triumphs of the Hall, but the organization’s sad end—definitely a whimper, not a bang—raises a final question about his subtitle. Tammany may have defined “modern American politics” in its heyday, but those politics seem much less “modern” the deeper we get into the present century. Effective political organizing today is done through electronic and social media, not through the face-to-face contact on which all of the Hall’s success depended. Extended voting periods even reduce the significance of election day itself. No longer is there a single moment when all citizens can come together to participate in the great public liturgy of democracy. Whether such options increase or (ironically) decrease participation is an open question, I think. As so often, something is gained, but something is also lost. As an analysis of that world we have lost, Golway’s account of Tammany can remind us of the need to hold on to the basics in a democratic system. That will always be an important reminder.