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'The political machine is an interdependent community bound together through the boss.

'1 The Irish

in America dominated city politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were
various reasons as to why the Irish attained such dominance and power. Acquiring power was one
thing but maintaining it was another. The American Irish managed to do so for a considerable
period of time throughout various cities in North America, some outliving others. 'Their success
rested in large measure on their ability to perform functions and meet needs that were inadequately
addressed by the existing social and political structure'2 The most famous example of the Irish
political machine is Tammany Hall in New York. The political machine is an interdependent
community bound together through the boss.' The essay intends to discuss the aquisition of
retainment of power of the machines in various cities such as New York, Boston and Jersey City. In
order to understand how the machines escalated to success, one must take into account the impact
of the immigrants arriving steadily in America and in huge numbers. The most prolific immigrant at
the time was the Irish person. By the late 1800's, the Democratic party political machines dominated
by the Irish, were controlling many of America's great cities. The Irish played a key role in the rise
of and stimulation of the strength of the city political machines. Kenny states that 'the only two
national organisations that welcomed them wholeheartedly were the Catholic church and the
Democratic party.'3 To understand why the machines welcomed and attracted mass support from the
immigrants will also be discussed in the essay. The Irish political machine can be categorised in first
and second generation with the second generation adapting to particular circumstances in order to
maintain control. 'The Irish were politically active in the colonial period, but they lacked the
essential political base of mass support until the post-1815 immigrants began building up an Irish
vote in the cities, particularly in New York.'4 The Irish machine approach to the influx of 'new'
immigrants played a part in extending their power further.

'The Irish Famine stimulated a desire to emigrate. The figures for this period show a dramatic
increase in Irish people arriving in the United States: 92,484 in 1846, 196,224 in 1847, 173,744 in
1848, 204,771 in 1849, and 206,041 in 1850. By the end of 1854 nearly two million people'.5 This
meant that an astonishing quarter of the population had emigrated in less than a decade. To
understand the Irish surge in American politics, it must be highlighted that Irish Americans came
from a society that had seen unprecedented mass political mobilisation from the 1820's to the
1840's with Daniel O'Connells strive for emancipation and repeal. The Irish were certainly
accustomed to political involvement and participating in political activity. Accompanying this

2 Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History London 2000 p 212
3 Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History p 80
4 William D. Griffin 'A Portrait Of The Irish In America' Dublin 1981, p 114
already profound advantage, was the strong command the Irish held of the English language, as
they were also over four million Italian immigrants by 1920, this was a key factor in setting them
out on the front foot. Ireland, as a colony had long tradition of distrusting established authorities
due to oppression from the British government or by landlords, participating in subterranean
politics and establishing secret societies. There was an additional reason that further faciltated
political success for the Irish as Lawrence John McCaffrey argues that the Irish were forced into
politics by Anglo Protestants as he states, 'They ( Anglo- Protestants ) invested their best talent in
business and the professions' rather than politics. 'Nativist prejudices excluded Irish Catholics from
oppurtunities...forcing them into politics, religion and labour movements as avenues to Influence
and power.'6

Tammany Hall was first founded as a fraternal society in 1788 but by 1840 it became associated
with the Irish. By 1870, the Irish dominated Tammany Hall. Irish influence and authority within
The Tammany organisation had grown steadily since the 1830's, as their spokesmen rose from
precinct captains to ward leaders to city officials. By joining the reformers who overthrew Tweed in
1871, 'Honest' John Kelly, was able to replace him as Boss of Tammany, becoming the first in a line
of Irish Catholic leaders of the New York Democrats. At times of heavy criticism due to the
exploitations of Grand Sachem William Tweed, the Irish remained loyal to Tammany, in the face of
further criticism of strong Irish participation. 'The ignorant unthinking bigoted hordes which
Tammany brought up to its support'7 However , it was an Irish man who helped turnover Tammany's
tarnished reputation in the wake of Tweed. 'Honest' John Kelly broke his ties with Tweed in the
1860's and therefore was not tarnished by scandal. Kelly was a devout Catholic which attracted the
support of the respectable Irish middle class. He worked with Augustus Schell in reforming the
party and by the spring of 1872 'Schell and Kelly had reorganised and greatly enlarged Tammany's
central committee to diminish the power of Tweed's remaining allies. They also replaced many of
Tweed's former ward bosses.'8 By 1890 Irish bosses were in control of the major city machines
built up in the 1870s and 1880s. Kelly was succeeded by Richard Croker in Tammany, Brooklyn's
McLaughlin, the Bay Area's Buckley, Buffalo's Sheehan, Jersey City's Davis and Albany's Patrick
McCabe. Boston never developed a centralised machine, it was fractionalised, however the Irish
managed to gain control of the city from the turn of the century onward. 'Through persistence and
adroit maneuvering, the Irish arrived at the summit of urban politics, not only surviving the fall of

6 Lawrence John McCaffrey,The Irish Catholic diaspora in America, USA 1997 p 119
7 The New York Times, Thursday November 7 edition, 1872
8 Michael Allan Gordon, The Orange riots: Irish political violence in NewYork City, 1870 and 1871 New York 1993 p
their patron, but gaining control of the apparatus.'9

By 1900 there were five million first and second generation Irish people in America. The
Democratic party realised the importance of immigrant vote.With this flow of immigrants, the
machines exerted their influence quickly. They provided employment and welfare which they
regarded as favours that could be returned through votes. The machines were sometimes viewed as
corrupt as they bribed voters and fast tracked American citizenship to immigrants. 'While irish
catholics settled in urban America, Democratic politicians seeking their support at the polls, saw to
it that they were quickly naturalised, employed and registered to vote'10 The Naturalisation bureau
established in 1840 was responsible for providing citizenship promptly, witnesses were paid off to
declare a person was in the country for more than five years. However the Irish had no intention of
just simply being members of the constituency as they steadily accumulated control of their own
neighbourhoods, building mini machines within the general party structure, and began to mobilise
upwards on leadership scale from block/ ward heelers to district or precinct leaders to aldermen. 'In
their political quest for power, Irish politicians used Catholic solidarity as a voting base, saloons as
political clubs and police and fire department appointments as patronage sources to recruit votes
and party workers.'11 The immigrant vote was key to power and this was exemplified when
Tammany's candidate Fernando Wood became mayor from 1855-62 by securing the immigrant vote.
Gaining and maintaining power was effectively the name of the game, Geoorge Washington
Plunkitt outlined this acquisition of power with his famous philosophy 'I saw my oppurtunity's and
I took 'em'

The Irish politcal machines sustained their power into the twentieth century. In order to counter act
the anti-machine reform movement challenging the machines in the progressive era, they had to
adapt to the new circumstances in order to hold a firm grip over city politics. The progressive era
machine is often described as the second generation by various Historians. Whereas the nineteenth
century machine viewed reforms with hostility, the second generation embraced them and used
them as a further platform to cement their power. Kevin Kenny illustrates the wave of enthusiasm
by stating that the machines were 'favouring progressive labour and social wlefare legislation as a
way of consolidating power among its increasingly diverse working class constituents'12 They
realised that reforms such as the municipal control over utility companies presented them with a

9 William D. Griffin 'A Portrait Of The Irish In America' p 124

10 Lawrence John McCaffrey,The Irish Catholic diaspora in America, p 120
11 Ibid p 120
12 Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History p 210
bigger pool of patronage jobs which would ultimitely result in votes. The reformers could only
hope to bring the machines down if they provided the services they did, such as welfare, business
oppurtunites and social mobility. 'By incorporating social reforms into their own programme rather
than seeing them as a threat to their power, the machines strengthened their position.'13 In the
nineteenth century there was no federal welfare to relieve those in need, in fact there was no state
system until the New Deal under Frank Delano Roosevelt. The modern system of socila benefits
and welfare payments were not introduced until 1935. The interim money was so provided by the
machines and in doing so, Kenny points out that 'The machine therefore filled an important vacuum,
dispensing material assistance to those in need in the form of cash and jobs, and collecting their
votes in return.'14 The municipal control over businesses allowed the machines to award contracts
and protection for the various businesses. In doing so they wer able to provide from communities by
building schools, roads and hospitals, having a knock on effect of providing employment and
recieving donations and votes from the various companies as a token of gratitude to the machines.
Another instrumental function that enabled the machines to adhere their power was the oppurtunity
of social mobility offered to their constituents this arrived predominantly in the form of
employment, as mentioned above, they utilised public funding in construction that brought about
jobs and cash. The mass of this patronage was generally dispersed among the Irish rather than the
Italians and Jews. Kevin Kenny highlights another key function in holding onto power and this was
the distinctive political style adopted by the city machines. The Irish machines treated people as
people and just members of a constituency. They were genuinely concerned with the personal
requirements of the individual so as a result 'Because the individuals in question received personal
attention rather than the cold, clinical processing dipensed by bureacracies, they could be relied
upon to deliver votes.'15 This can be traced back to Plunkitts philosophy once again as he stated
'....round up a few votes you can call your own. Study human nature and make government warm
and personal.' Another example of how the machines tightened their power and leadership grip on
city politics.

The second generation machines also differed from the first generation in the sense that they paid
attention to, rather than ignored the 'new ethnic' groups arriving in North America. Jews, Italians
and Slavs were pouring into the country from the late nineteenth century onwards. The Irish still
received the better benfits and jobs, which in time would become the catalyst of their downfall.
'Local government employment in the three machine cities of New york, Jersey City and Albany

13 Kevin Kenny, The American Irish, A History p 210

14 Ibid p 212
15 Ibid p 213
rose from 59,202 in 1900 to 158,453 in 1930, with the number of Irish on the payroll climbing from
21,749 to 82,116'16 The so called new immigrants were 'accorded symbolic rather than material
recognition' argues Kenny, he goes on to convey his point; 'This practice was exhibited when an
Irish boss attending a Jewish funeral in the morning complete with yarmulke, before moving on to
an Italian wedding and sundry other duties that afternoon and evening'17 Lawrence McCaffrey
laments the attention received by the new immigrants, 'The Irish political machines not only catered
to the Interests of their own people but also opened economic and political doors for other ethnics
who, like their own people were previously excluded from the American mainstream by the Anglo-
Protestant establishment.'18 The extent of the monopoly held over city politics can be found in the
number of Irish bosses who controlled various cities across North America in the first half of the
twentieth century, among these were Charlie Murphy of New York City, Frank Hague of Jersey
City, Thomas Pendergast of Kansas City, Thomas Pendergast of Kansas City, Edward J. Kelly of
Chicago and David L. Lawrence of Pittsburgh. Murphy regained control of New York city,
following the defeats endured by Richard Croker towards the end of his reign, facilitating in the
continuation of the Irish machine in the city until 1933. Frank Hague assembled an extremely
authoritative machine that dominated city politics until 1949. Pendergast constructed a
correspondingly commanding machine in Kansas as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic
club, while also the man responsible for talent spotting future president Harry S. Truman. He also
forged a competent affiliation with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, this ceased to exist after
invetigations into Pendergast's tax evasion and his subsequent arrest in 1939. The extent of the
machines power was exhibited in the face of the political mobilisation of the new ethnics and the
passage of welfare legislation that threatened to undercut the function of the machines. Pittsburgh
survived into the late nineteen sixties by combining both irish and new ethnic support, Jersey City
held on until 1949, and Albany managed to escape unscathed from imminent problems of new
immigrant demand for their share of power and the elements of the New Deal. Tammany lost out in
1933 to Italian American Fiorello La Guardia, coupled with the fact that since 1932 the new York
state had a Jewish governor in Herbert Lehman, this was hard to take for the Gaelic constituency.
Chicago showed the resolve of the irish political machine. In 1931, they were defeated by Czech
immigrant Anton Cermak, they returned to power in 1933 after his assasination. They managed to
hold on to the new immigrant support and remained in control of Chicago until the late seventies.
So even in the New deal era, the Irish political machines showed their resolve and ability to adapt
providing further reason for their stranglehold on city politics. They used the federal funding from
the New Deal to provide employment through local projects, cleverly using the funding as a form of

16 Ibid p 212
17 Ibid p 211
18 Lawrence John McCaffrey,The Irish Catholic diaspora in America, p 118

It is easy to identitfy how the Irish attained such a leading role in the Democratic party from the
1870's until the mid nineteenth century. The weight of irish immigrants played a crucial part in theri
affiliation with and integration into the Democratic politics. The Democrats were also welcoming of
the Irish which played an integral part in attracting their support. Their sheer force of numbers
allowed machines to exert their influence, naturalise them and provide welfare that accumulated to
securing their vote. 'The fealty of the immigrant voter was partly secured by the judicious
dispensation of economic and political favors, but it also depended upon a rough sense of
identification with the organization and its constituents.'19 The Irish with their population within the
cities soon became dominant in machine politics. Once holding the position of authority, the Irish
carried on the tradition of attracting support from offering benefits and welfare assistance to
immigrants. They were also successful in consolidating their power under circumstances of anti-
machine reformers in the progressive era and the New Deal era which brought about Federal
welfare that threatened to uproot the machines from their seat of control. In addition, some
maintained their dominance in the face of the new immigrant demands for greater participation and
more fruitious employment positons as many were on the lower scale of the civil service in the Fire
department and Police force. The introduction of Municipal politics suited the machines as they
used it as ameans of creating wider patronage pools. The ability of the macine to adapt was key to
their continuation of strength in city politics. Although often viewed as corrupt, it is unquestionable
that the machines looked after the welfare of their constituents, mainly the Irish yet the Jews,
Italians, Slave and other migrants were not neglected either.

19 John D. Buekner, The Journal of American History Vol. 56 No. 2 p 306

• Buekner,John D. The Journal of American History Vol. 56 No. 2
• Clark, Dennis. Hibernia America: the Irish and regional cultures. New York 1986.
• Doyle, David Noel, and Owen Dudley Edwards. America and Ireland, 1776-1976: the
American identity and the Irish connection. Westport, 1980.
• Griffin, William D. A Portrait Of The Irish In America Dublin 1981
• Handlin, Oscar. The uprooted; the epic story of the great migrations that made the
American people. Boston 1951
• Kenny,Kevin. The American Irish, A History London 2000
• McCaffrey, Lawrence John. The Irish Catholic diaspora in America, USA 1997
• Gordon,Michael Allan. The Orange riots: Irish political violence in NewYork City, 1870
and 1871 New York 1993