Today the Weekend Reader presents Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway, a journalist and historian whose career spans three decades writing for The New York Observer, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and American Heritage. Golway, who currently teaches at Kean University in New Jersey and is the author of several books on Irish and American history, offers enlightening insight into a crucial time in our politics — beginning with the fateful influx of Irish immigrants into New York.
You can purchase the book here.
The history of early twentieth-century New York is defined not by a political campaign or an election but by a fire, the terrible blaze that killed 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. For Tammany, for the labor movement, for the burgeoning campaign for women’s rights—even, some argue, for the nation itself—the Triangle fire has been considered a critical turning point, the tragic inspiration for the creation of a new social contract that foreshadowed the New Deal, which was put in place by a man who served in the New York State Senate at the time of the fire, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Triangle fire surely did represent a milestone for Tammany Hall, for two of its promising young members, Robert Wagner and Al Smith, led a state investigation that brought together professional reformers, including a young social worker and lobbyist named Frances Perkins, and pragmatic politicians in an alliance that would have seemed highly unlikely only a few years earlier. The leadership of Wagner and Smith—carried out with the blessing of [Tammany boss Charles] Murphy—seemed to represent a sudden, uncharacteristic, and perhaps even opportunistic change of priorities for Tammany. It wasn’t, but it certainly would have seemed so to New York newspaper readers, who had become accustomed to breathless accounts of Tammany’s evil intentions and Murphy’s Croker-like appetite for plunder and Tweed-like enjoyment of the good life at his favorite restaurant, Delmonico’s, where he held court in a private room decorated with heavy red rugs and mahogany furniture. Hearst’s newspapers portrayed Murphy in prison stripes, an overstuffed convict-in-waiting.
In fact, Murphy and individual members of Tammany had been moving the organization toward the cause of reform—or, more to the point, to a new kind of reform shorn of its evangelical moralism—well before the Triangle fire. Tammany’s John Ahearn might have passed legislation to grant pensions to poor mothers in 1897 were it not for the opposition of reformers who opposed the distribution of cash indiscriminately to the poor. Tammany continued to turn left in the years immediately following the close call with Hearst’s Municipal Ownership League. Governor Hughes had more trouble with his fellow Republicans than he did with Murphy’s Tammany when he sought to create a public-service commission to regulate utilities in 1907. But Hughes, a prototypical reformer, blocked New York’s ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which authorized a federal income tax. The amendment, widely viewed as one of the era’s most progressive achievements, passed the state legislature only after Tammany took control of Albany in 1911, over the fierce objections of some of the state’s most prominent residents, including John D. Rockefeller, members of the Morgan family, and Joseph Choate, corporate lawyer, former ambassador to Great Britain, and regular denouncer of Tammany Hall’s “mongrel” tickets. Robert Wagner framed the amendment as a truly progressive reform, arguing that the tax would “lighten the burdens of the poor.”
Under Murphy’s leadership in the second decade of the twentieth century, Tammany redefined reform as a pragmatic, lunch-bucket form of liberalism stripped of the Progressive Era’s moral pieties and evangelical roots. Liberated from the defensiveness that marked its rhetoric and actions during much of the nineteenth century, Tammany finally developed a forward-looking agenda that one historian described as “the creation of a quasi-welfare state.” Murphy’s allies supported and implemented sweeping new social legislation—from workers’ compensation to the beginnings of minimum-wage laws to stricter regulation of businesses, making New York a hothouse of progressive reform long before the New Deal.