Historian Terry Golway Explores the Other Side of Tammany Hall
Tammany Hall is remembered as a corrupt New York political organization that rigged elections and stole money. In the book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, author Terry Golway explores a different side of the former political society.
Tammany, which was also known as the Society of St. Tammany or the Columbian order, started as a private men’s club in the late 18th century. It later became a political organization and took over the New York Democratic Party.
The book, which takes a sympathetic view of the political organization, also follows the careers of major Tammany Hall leaders like Charles Francis Murphy and Alfred E. Smith. Golway also emphasized the relationship between Irish immigrants and Tammany Hall in his book.
“Even in the 19th century, at the high point of thievery, Tammany stood for immigrant rights, and stood for what we would call today pluralism,” he said. “So, I would argue that in many ways it’s a very modern political organization in its best sense.”
During the Great Irish Famine, Tammany acquired major support from incoming immigrants.
“Tammany was very good with math and to be able to count, and they realized all these immigrants were coming,” Golway said. “And Tammany said ‘you know what, if we can work for these people, they’ll work for us.’”
Golway, who is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy, describes the early 20th century as the golden age for Tammany. He attributes the organization’s success during that period to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a historic event in which 145 people, the majority women, burned to death because of locked doors in the workplace.
“There was a great outrage over the lack of workplace safety and that expanded into a movement for workers’ rights,” explained Golway. “Over the next few years, led by two Tammany figures, Al Smith and Robert Wagner, New York investigated these conditions, wrote legislation, but also began the conversation about things like workers’ compensation, minimum wage and all the things that we associate perhaps with the New Deal.”
However, Tammany did not survive as a political organization. According to Golway, the Immigration Act of 1924 and the New Deal killed it. “The New Deal institutionalized a lot of the things that Tammany did,” he said. “You no longer had to go to the local clubhouse to get help because you were entitled to help now. The immigrants that it sought to assimilate to American society in fact assimilated and moved to the suburbs. There was no longer any reason for Tammany’s existence.”