Belmont Club

A City Hall on a Hill

In most political morality, tales a band of courageous reformers take on a corrupt city hall and — for a while at least — triumph until an evil human nature reasserts itself.  But in actuality, the impetus for moderating political excess often comes from the elites themselves when mismanagement finally becomes so bad it threatens the survival of everyone.

Until things reach the point of failure, mismanagement has the effect of leaving voters no alternative but to content themselves with the opposition party.  Republican voters may have been disappointed and outraged at the perceived sellout by a Paul Ryan-led Congress to the Obama administration.  “It was another Republican ‘compromise’ meaning Democrats got every item they asked for,” said the Drudge Report.  The left-leaning Slate crowed that “the new speaker’s first big deal is just like all of the ones that infuriated conservatives under Boehner. … In other words, it’s a compromise, something Democrats usually accept as part of the process while Republicans scream bloody murder.”

But what were the Republican voters going to do? Vote for Hillary Clinton? While the money lasts, voter outrage has remarkably little effect on the political elites.  They may stand with their fists balled and teeth clenched but the system serenely goes on and on.

Corruption — or “compromise” if you prefer that word — is what Terry Golway, who served on the editorial board of the New York Times, called “modern American politics.”  In a book titled Machine Made, he argues that Tammany Hall was a key innovation in governance and, under the leadership of Boss Tweed, functioned as a dispenser of social justice to Irish immigrants.

Rooted in Jeffersonian democracy and transformed by the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century, Tammany Hall, New York City’s Democratic organization, became synonymous with machine politics. … An expert in Irish-American history, Golway unsurprisingly sees the origins of this form of political organization in Irish anti-institutional activism. In overcoming and battling nativism in America, reaching out, albeit not selflessly, to new immigrant groups … the organization became, through Senator Robert F. Wagner, a major factor in the New Deal and, later, American liberalism.

“The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.” It was based on identity politics, relying heavily on Irish Catholics freshly arrived from the great famine.  But Tweed also had a base among the financial elite, whom he paid off with what we would now call “crony capitalist” deals. Tammany fixed contracts, manipulated real estate deals, received kickbacks, engaged in voter fraud and bribed prosecutors.

Under Tweed’s regime, “naturalization committees” were established. These “committees” were made up primarily of Tammany politicians and employees, and their duties consisted of filling out paperwork, providing witnesses, and lending immigrants money for the fees required to become citizens. Judges and other city officials were bribed and otherwise compelled to go along with the workings of these committees. In exchange for all these benefits, immigrants assured Tammany Hall they would vote for their candidates.

Perhaps the most recent nod to Tammany Hall was by Barack Obama, who only a few days ago compared the importation of Muslims with the Democratic machine’s encouragement of Irish immigration. “In the Muslim immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago,” the president said at a naturalization ceremony a few days ago.

Where have you gone, Boss Tweed?  The nation, or at least Obama’s administration, turns its lonely eyes to you.  What some observers might regard as rank corruption, was to Golway a mission of social justice. He told Lawrence O’Donnell in an interview: “Tammany Hall was about social reform … the minimum wage … about making life easier for immigrants … a voice for the voiceless.”

It was social justice all the way, besides which resistance was useless.  As the saying went, “you can’t fight city hall.”  You couldn’t, but reality could.  Nothing could stop Tweed, even though riots in the streets eventually weakened him, except the lack of money caused by corruption.

After the election of 1869, Tweed took control of the New York City government. His protégé, John T. Hoffman, the former mayor of the city, won election as governor, and Tweed garnered the support of good government reformers like Peter Cooper and the Union League Club, by proposing a new city charter which returned power to City Hall at the expense of the Republican-inspired state commissions. The new charter passed, thanks in part to $600,000 in bribes Tweed paid to Republicans, and was signed into law by Hoffman in 1870. Mandated new elections allowed Tammany to take over the city’s Common Council when they won all fifteen aldermanic contests. …

Tweed’s downfall came in the wake of the Orange riot of 1871, which came after Tammany Hall banned a parade of Irish Protestants celebrating a historical victory against Catholicism, because of a riot the year before in which eight people died when a crowd of Irish Catholic laborers attacked the paraders. Under strong pressure from the newspapers and the Protestant elite of the city, Tammany reversed course, and the march was allowed to proceed, with protection from city policemen and state militia. The result was an even larger riot in which over 60 people were killed and more than 150 injured. …

Although Tammany’s electoral power base was largely centered in the Irish immigrant population, it also needed the city’s elite to acquiesce in its rule, and this was conditional on the machine’s ability to control the actions of their people, but the July riot showed that this capability was not nearly as strong as had been supposed.

The riots were the first sign that Tweed’s social-justice machine was crumbling under its own weight.  What finally finished it was that Tammany had bankrupted New York.

The response to the Orange riot changed everything, and only days afterwards the Times/Nast campaign began to garner popular support. More importantly, the Times started to receive inside information from County Sheriff James O’Brien, whose support for Tweed had fluctuated during Tammany’s reign. O’Brien had tried to blackmail Tammany by threatening to expose the ring’s embezzlement to the press, and when this failed he provided the evidence he had collected to the Times.

The exposé provoked an international crisis of confidence in New York City’s finances, and, in particular, in its ability to repay its debts. European investors were heavily positioned in the city’s bonds and were already nervous about its management – only the reputations of the underwriters were preventing a run on the city’s securities. New York’s financial and business community knew that if the city’s credit was to collapse, it could potentially bring down every bank in the city with it.

Thus, the city’s elite met at Cooper Union in September to discuss political reform: but for the first time, the conversation included not only the usual reformers, but also Democratic bigwigs such as Samuel J. Tilden, who had been thrust aside by Tammany. The general consensus was that the “wisest and best citizens” should take over the governance of the city and attempt to restore investor confidence. The result was the formation of the Executive Committee of Citizens and Taxpayers for Financial Reform of the City (also known as “the Committee of Seventy”), which attacked Tammany by cutting off the city’s funding. Property owners refused to pay their municipal taxes, and a judge – Tweed’s old friend George Barnard, no less – enjoined the city Comptroller from issuing bonds or spending money. Unpaid workers turned against Tweed, marching to City Hall demanding to be paid. Tweed doled out some funds from his own purse – $50,000 – but it was not sufficient to end the crisis, and Tammany began to lose its essential base.

Shortly thereafter, the Comptroller resigned, appointing Andrew Haswell Green, an associate of Tilden’s, as his replacement. Green loosened the purse strings again, allowing city departments not under Tammany control to borrow money to operate. Green and Tilden had the city’s records closely examined, and discovered money that went directly from city contractors into Tweed’s pocket. The following day, they had Tweed arrested.

Tweed was ditched when he couldn’t meet the payroll; when he became bad for business.  In 2011 Fred Siegel drew parallels between the modern federal government and the storied 19th century political machine, arguing that Washington was the 21st century reincarnation of Tammany Hall; an organization which existed only to pay itself,  an arrangement maintained by public sector unions.

The Great Society put the state on growth hormones. Less widely appreciated, the era gave birth to a powerful new political force, the public-sector union. For the first time in American history there was an interest dedicated wholly to lobbying for a larger government and the taxes and debt to pay for it….

“public sector unions are displacing political machines as the turnout mechanism for the Democratic Party. They are the new Tammany Hall.”

Paul Ryan’s budget is proof of how difficult it is to stop the machine until things became well and truly desperate.  Siegel noted that “reform” was really another word for the elites acting to save their own necks.

During its own “lost decade” after 1993, Canada shaped up its finances and it has weathered the latest economic crises well. New Zealand’s Roger Douglas in the 1980s and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s cut into expensive welfare states. In all these cases, Mr. Siegel notes, center-left parties carried out painful reform. “They did this out of necessity.” Sooner or later, American politicians will face the “unavoidable” reckoning, he adds. “It’s not the mean tea partiers who force this. It’s the facts on the ground.”

This implies that while the moral impulse to reform is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition to achieve change. The federal government and both political parties can shrug off outrage until a financial and/or political crisis brings the house of cards down.  Perhaps the best thing about the budget deal is it brings the cliff a trillion dollars closer.

The final irony of Tweed’s eventful life was that he died in a prison made with his kickbacks. After Tweed fell from power, beggared and rearrested after an attempt to pose as an ordinary seaman on a Spanish ship, he was returned to the U.S., where he died in Ludlow Jail. The New York history site Bowery Boys notes that the doctor who pronounced Tweed’s death mentions it was brought on by “prolonged confinement in a unhealthful locality.”  An unhealthful locality in Ludlow was where they put you when you couldn’t pay the graft.

Overseen by the Board of Aldermen—including Boss Tweed years before he would get caught stealing millions of dollars from the city—the Ludlow Street Jail was constructed in 1862 on the corner of Ludlow and Broome Streets in lower Manhattan. …

Corruption ran rampant through the New York City government at the time, so it is no wonder that the Ludlow Street Jail slipped almost immediately into the world of back-door deals and shady habits. In a New York Times piece from November 4th, 1871, a Judge Barnard, in the process of discharging a number of inmates, was quoted as saying, “I’ve had occasion to look into the matter of Ludlow-street jail, and find that it is as well kept as any jail can be in the point of health and good treatment, […] the chief in that department, Judge Brennan, is not only as kind and humane a man as any in the community, but is an honest man,” Of course this could not have been further from the truth. …

In reality, Brennan was running the prison like a black-market hotel. In May of 1871, the New York Tribune arranged to have one of its reporters incarcerated in the Ludlow jail to check on some strange rumors about the facility. The reporter found that inmates were being offered better treatment and accommodations if they shelled out between $15 and $30 per week for the privilege. Inmates who couldn’t pay were trundled off to the top cramped top floors of the prison, where they were crammed into too-small cells where there often weren’t enough beds for everyone. Given that a huge majority of the inmates were dead-broke debtors, there was no way they could be expected to pay for this extortion.

Perhaps in the end the Boss was done in by the very system he created.  For want of 30 bucks and missing all the friends he once had. That’s the way political machines usually end, with the Bosses devouring themselves and the survivors declaring themselves the righteous winners.

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