Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Two Sides of Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall - the hotbed of corruption and "machine politics." For over 100 years the Society of Tammany or Columbian Order, as it was formally known, dominated politics in our city, siphoning off millions of dollars in tax revenues for its crooked members and their cronies. Everybody knew Tammany Hall was crooked. So why were Tammany politicians so often in power?

Well, one reason is simple: the Tammany bosses brought home the goods. Just like contemporary representatives who try and get big chunks of Homeland Security money for their consituents, the machine politicians saw to it that their followers got a piece of the pie (while taking a good chunk of it for themselves as a finder's fee, of course). Their constituency ran heavily towards the poor and working classes, recent immigrants and lower-level civil servants. These folks needed help from time to time, and the local party boss was one of the few people to whom your average cartman or widow could turn to in the event of, say, a major fire or the need for a job. Institutionalized welfare at the time was in short supply, and the private charities overburdened. But the Ward Boss would often be amongst the first on the scene in the event of trouble. And he could be approached by anyone.

Of course, there were the "Goo-Goos," as advocates of Good Government were known, who were outraged at what Tammany was doing. They were right; Tammany was crooked as hell. What's more, the brazen machine politicians often saw nothing wrong with what they were doing; some called it "Honest Graft." The nerve of them! But who were the Goo-Goos?

Mostly, they were drawn from the upper classes, those who paid the most taxes and were educated. They could see what was happening with their tax money, and were understandably outraged. But to millions of ordinary folks, idealism and the pursuit of honesty did not pay the rent. Tammany not only provided services, but a first step onto the ladder of political influence. One did not need much formal education or "proper breeding" to move into government; all it took was the will to do some favors for the local boss, like electioneering or kicking back a portion of one's salary for a while in return for help in getting the job.