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The Sweet Smell of Corruption: Immigrants and the Politics of Tammany Hall

Flying high on the Brooklyn Bridge
It's January 2001. As Stephanie and I were walking past New York City's City Hall today, we noticed that all of the flags were flying at half-mast. 1970's Mayor Lindsey died recently, and the city was flying the flag low to honor his life and to mourn the city's loss.


Over a hundred years ago, New York City lost another influential city leader, William M. Tweed. He stood 6 feet tall, weighed over 300 pounds, and controlled New York City politics in the 1860s. However, the day he died of pneumonia alone in his jail cell, the flag at City Hall did not fly at half-mast. The city intentionally chose not to honor his life, because in the years preceding his death, he and the political regime he represented -- Tammany Hall -- had come to symbolize political corruption.

Stephen stands in the spot of the once, all-powerful Tammany Hall
Tammany Hall began as a social club (The Society of Saint Tammany), consisting of craftsmen who were rejected from New York's more exclusive clubs. Once excluded from New York's elitist circles, this society eventually emerged as a stronghold of political power, because its members built an enormous support base out of the City's immigrant population. As chairman of the senate committee on cities, "Boss" Tweed oversaw the passage of a new charter for New York City that effectively allowed him to replace his economic supervisors with a group of Tammany Hall political associates. The group became known as the "Tweed ring" and was responsible for embezzling huge amounts of city money. The city's debt tripled during the Tweed ring's reign, and "Boss" was eventually charged and imprisoned for defrauding the city of New York - of millions upon millions of dollars. At one point, The New York Times published copies of Tweed's accounting books - which revealed that his political ring once charged $7,500 for a thermometer!!!


Krispy Kremed - I joined the trek because of a donut...

While most remember Tammany Hall as a bastion of corruption, it is essential to understand that "Boss" Tweed and the Tammany machine were fundamental in giving immigrants a voice in New York politics. The members of Tammany Hall recognized the critical importance of constituent support and expanded their political base by helping immigrants find work, heat, and food, in addition to gaining quick citizenship. As a pro-building machine, Tammany Hall would speed up the process of immigrant naturalization in order to gain voter support for public structures like the Brooklyn Bridge. Later, jobs would be distributed to the very immigrants who had supported the Tammany politicians.

Now put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you are a poor immigrant in the U.S. You arrive in New York. You have little money and are repeatedly denied employment because of your ethnicity. Then one day you meet a group of people who promise you citizenship and steady employment. All they ask in return is a vote on their behalf. What would you do? For many new Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants, Tammany Hall was a source of hope and a means to survival.

Dirty ol' Boss Tweed
Next to Tammany Hall, no other political group at the time was more willing to serve immigrants, help them find jobs, or provide them with a form of welfare. Tammany Hall's progressive politics also helped the city to build sewers, Central Park, pubs, and the Museum of Natural History. Most of the political victories attributed to Tammany Hall were achieved through consistent attention to voter needs. New residents to the US, then, became devoted to Tammany Hall and were willing to turn a blind eye to the fraudulent practices that characterized the party.

Boss Stephen hopes smoking a cigar will give him access to the back rooms of NYC politics
Although "Boss" Tweed and the political leaders of Tammany Hall maintained a tradition of helping new immigrants, not all ethnic groups fell under their umbrella of social philanthropy. For example, newly arrived Italian immigrants were completely left out of Tammany's interests. Also when the number of African-Americans started to become significant in Harlem, their neighborhood was divided and given to adjacent districts with white majorities. This was an attempt to dilute the growing political power of the African American community. So, while Tammany Hall upheld many progressive policies, there were still some city inhabitants who were intentionally excluded and not able to reap the benefits of their progressive politics.

Loving Lady Liberty
When we were in Manhattan, Stephanie and I had the rare opportunity to speak with Mike Wallace, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the book, Gotham. After opening up a conversation about "Boss" Tweed and New York's corrupt political history, he told us that there "is virtually no such thing anymore as Tammany Hall." Tammany Hall is no longer a tremendous force for bringing immigrants into the political process, because social services have replaced many of its functions. Institutionalized welfare, immigrant restrictions, and suffrage movements weakened the poor's dependence on the political boss system throughout the country.

The City Hall flag at half-mast...the one thing rich man
So what is the immigrant situation like in New York today? Is it better or worse than it was during the days of Tammany Hall? Immigrant participation in city politics has noticeably waned in the last century as immigrant quotas have been enacted and the naturalization process has become more arduous. However, in the Tammany era there was no such thing as minimum wage, public housing, job security, and unemployment. Maybe new immigrants in the US have less of a political life than they once did. Social Services have made immigrant life a bit more stable and less susceptible to the whims of a singular political party.

Despite the party boss's sometimes-flagrant abuses of power, the politics of Tammany Hall were instrumental in the survival of various immigrant populations of the time. It is disappointing that Tammany Hall and corruption have become interchangeable terms, because it is indisputable that it was one of the first political machines to demonstrate an interest in the plight of the poor minority, and to recognize them as a force of political power.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


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