Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

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

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Why did the Italians Go Republican?

Historically, most immigrant groups coming to this town have voted for Democrats, and have established a notable presence in that party. But why were the Italians different? After all, they arrived at about the same time as the Eastern European Jews and the first wave of Chinese.

The answer is Tammany Hall, the great political machine, which for some reason never really reached out to the thousands of mostly poor immigrants who came from Italy. Although usually portrayed as a very Irish institution, Tammany had also embraced the Germans, Jews, and other recent arrivals, offering needed services and help in becoming citizens - who would then remember the favor. It was not uncommon for a Tammany politico to run from Irish pub to synagogue to ratskeller to meet with constituents.

Why the Italians? Some have argued that the Italians were more conservative to begin with, but there is no real evidence to support this, other than sentimental musings about their strong "family values," which are supposed to be a conservative trait. And certainly the Republican party was not the solidly conservative institution that it is now. I think that one reason why Tammany ignored the early Italians was simple prejudice, both ethnic and religious. The German Catholics were not a terribly religious bunch, but when they did practice their faith it was not that different from that practiced by the Irish. The Lutheran Germans were from another church, but their style was not that different. They were also Northern Europeans. The Jews, both the early migrants from Germany and the later wave of Eastern Europeans, practiced a different religion, and the Tammany honchos were ready to accept them. But the Italians were Southern Europeans, and their Catholicism was very different from their predecessors'. There was much more emphasis upon feast days and saints, things which struck the Irish and Germans as primitive and bordering on paganism. The Italians also did not hold clergy in the high esteem that others did, often due to the fact that back in Italy priests came heavily from the more wealthy classes. Indeed, many Catholic churches did not even permit the Italians to worship in the same sanctuary as the other immigrants; they were consigned to the basement. Perhaps this resentment of the Italians spilled over into politics.

Of course, other groups moved in to try and recruit the Italians. Protestant missionaries were active in trying to recruit them to their churches, with some success. And meanwhile, the Italians, wanting to become Americans just like any other ethnic group, went where they were welcome - to the Republicans. Witness Mayor LaGuardia, the first Italian American to occupy City Hall.

In the future, as Italians moved into the mainstream, the political machine recognized that they should be courted, and many in the subsequent generations became Democrats. But political affiliation is often a family affair, and many others stayed Republican.