Read an excerpt from Terry Golway’s ‘Machine Made’

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By msnbc staff

“Tammany Hall Belongs to Us”

As they made their way through the darkening city streets on a late April evening in 1817, members of a private political organization known as Tammany Hall were thinking not of the glories of a New York spring but of an election battle just days away. A man they despised, DeWitt Clinton, was on the verge of winning a special election for New York governor—and, as governor, Clinton surely would be happy to return Tammany’s disdain with special enthusiasm, since Tammany had ousted him as the city’s mayor in 1815. Tammany was prepared to distribute ballots to voters listing one of their own, Peter Porter, as the only opposition to Clinton, but they very likely knew they had little chance of success.

The Tammany men saw themselves as the proud keepers of true republicanism, men who were very different from the economic elites who traded in paper or profited from the labor of others. Tammany was aligned with the Democratic-Republican Party, the party of Thomas Jefferson, the party of the skilled tradesman. Clinton also was a Democrat-Republican, but the purists at Tammany considered him too aristocratic, too arbitrary, too high and mighty. He reminded them of the Federalists who were on their way to extinction, a party of bankers and merchants who worshipped at the altar of Alexander Hamilton, dead these thirteen years, shot in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, the man who helped turn Tammany into a political power. Burr was not a member of the organization, but he recognized its potential as a source of votes and support as he planned his own rise to power in New York at the turn of the nineteenth century.

As they neared their headquarters at the intersection of Nassau and Frankfort Streets, just a short walk from the East River, the Tammany men had another bit of business to discuss privately before their meeting got underway. They were under pressure from the city’s growing Irish population to nominate an immigrant from County Cork, Thomas Addis Emmet, for State Assembly. Emmet would have seemed a natural—he was a loyal Democrat-Republican, a true believer in Jeffersonian democracy, and he had served as state attorney general for several months before the Federalists grabbed power in 1813 and kicked him out of office, because that’s how politics worked.

But Emmet wouldn’t do. He was a Clinton man, and so were most of his fellow Irishmen. Clinton had been good to the Irish. Many of the city’s Irish were Catholics—although Emmet was not—and until Clinton intervened on their behalf, Catholics were effectively barred from holding public office in New York thanks to a “test oath” required of all civil authorities. Commonly used throughout the transatlantic Anglo-Protestant world, test oaths were constructed to offend Catholic sensibilities and thus prevent them from holding even minor office. In Ireland, the island’s majority population was kept powerless because officeholders were required to swear their belief that the Catholic Mass and the veneration of “the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints” was “impious and idolatrous.” In New York, the test oath included language that essentially required Catholics to renounce their allegiance to the pope. Clinton, a Protestant like Emmet, heard the protests of Catholics and in 1806 helped win abolition of the oath during the first of his three terms as mayor. The Irish repaid him with their votes.

Emmet’s friendship with Clinton would have been enough to keep him off Tammany’s ticket. But even if he broke with Clinton, he couldn’t possibly resolve another issue—he was an immigrant, and Tammany Hall did not look kindly on those born in the Old World. Tammany Hall was about Americanism, about the New World, about the rejection of Europe with all its privilege and pomp. Only a native-born American could serve as an officer of Tammany Hall.

Ironically, the immigrant Emmet was as fervent a republican as any Tammany man. He sought to throw off British rule and establish a republic in Ireland in the late 1790s, but he was arrested and imprisoned for several years before his release and exile to New York. His equally rebellious younger brother, Robert, suffered a far worse fate. Arrested after leading a botched republican revolution in Dublin in 1801, Robert Emmet was convicted of treason and hanged. Such was the fate of so many of Ireland’s rebels—dreamers they were, fighting against the massed power of the state, and dying young.

Thomas Addis Emmet was a hero for many in the city’s Irish population of about ten thousand, and, coincidentally, he was one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. He established his own law practice in 1805, and it soon became one of the city’s most respected firms. A century after Emmet’s death, an out-of-work politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt became a partner in the firm, which was renamed Emmet, Marvin and Roosevelt. When FDR found himself gainfully employed in the White House some years later, he hired Emmet’s great-great-grandson, famed playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood, as a presidential speechwriter.

Tammany saw Emmet not as an attractive personality and potential vote-getter but as an annoyance. The Irish could protest all they wanted, but his name certainly would not appear on the organization’s ballot, no more than DeWitt Clinton’s would. That much was clear as the Tammany men filed into their meeting room, where they were treated to a shocking sight.

The Irish got inside the hall first—some two hundred of them, many from the Irishtown district near St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Barclay Street. They sat in places reserved for Tammany members, and they had no plans to move until Tammany agreed to nominate Thomas Addis Emmet for the State Assembly. At their head were two other Irish political exiles, a physician named William James MacNeven, a native of County Galway, and William Sampson, a lawyer from County Derry. Like Emmet, both men had risked their lives and liberty by seeking for Ireland what the Americans and the French had won for themselves—a republic. They were not about to retreat in the presence of Tammany Hall’s legions.

So all hell broke loose in Tammany Hall. MacNeven attempted to give a speech but was shouted down when a Tammany man yelled, “Go home”—presumably back to Galway. Another Irishman proclaimed: “There is a party who have refused to place any Irishman on the ticket. That party must be opposed.” Opposed it was, with fists and furniture. An eyewitness to the melee was inspired to flights of sarcastic poetry in the New York Evening Post:

At length, O hard to tell! The natives yield,

The stubborn Irish keep the dear-bought field.

O! for a Homer’s muse, who could rehearse

The politicians’ gallant deeds in verse.

Homer’s muse never did show up, but the mayor did, and the Irish discreetly withdrew while Tammany’s wounded were looked after.

By then, the Irish had made their point. They had left behind a country where they were routinely denied access to power. They were not about to let that happen again.

Several days later, DeWitt Clinton, champion of New York’s Irish, overwhelmingly defeated Tammany’s man in the governor’s race.

•  •  •

Tammany’s feud with New York’s Governor Clinton made for colorful political battles, but it was a far more substantial issue that allowed Tammany to become the dominant political faction in New York City beginning in the 1820s, when the nation moved to broaden democracy with new voting rights for white males. As the self-conscious voice of the common man, Tammany successfully supported measures to expand the right to vote beyond a minority of white male property owners. That radical notion did not meet with universal approval. One critic dismissed Tammany as a “noisy rabble.” A skeptical writer wondered whether Tammany had thought through its support for expanding suffrage. “Would you admit the populace, the patroon’s footman, to vote?” he asked. Tammany had a ready answer for that query.

New York dropped most property-owning requirements for suffrage in 1821 and ended them entirely by 1826, meaning that virtually all white males over the age of twenty-one could vote. Black adult males could, too, provided they owned property. Tammany threw a party to celebrate the occasion. A new, exuberant, and chaotic democratic spirit transformed political culture throughout the infant republic, bringing an end to the long line of Virginia planters and New England aristocrats who dominated the presidency from George Washington to John Quincy Adams. Tammany was part of this new democratic age, incorporating into its evolving ideology a deep suspicion of economic monopolies that symbolized concentrated wealth and power.

In the end, however, Tammany never did support Thomas Addis Emmet for elected office. But when he died in late 1827 at the age of sixty-five, many of the men who broke up the Tammany meeting in 1817 returned to the Hall for a much more restrained occasion, a public memorial for the lawyer-immigrant attended by “naturalized citizens of Irish birth and parentage.” Dr. MacNeven, who had been among the leaders of the attempted Irish coup, delivered a heartfelt eulogy to his fellow rebel and exile. “Twenty years ago, as several here will remember, strong prejudices against the emigrants from Ireland prevailed widely through this city, and even reached some of the best men in the community,” MacNeven said. But that was all over, he announced. Through his embrace of American republicanism, equality, and liberty, Thomas Addis Emmet had helped to change New York’s views of the Irish.

Time would show that MacNeven’s assessment was far too optimistic. But Tammany’s leaders, at least, had begun to put aside their doubts about the newcomers in their midst, if only because they could add and so understood that the Irish formed a sizable and growing bloc of votes. In 1828, Tammany took full advantage of the expanded rolls of voters, turning out huge numbers to benefit the presidential candidacy of a man who came to symbolize the new democratic age: Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants. 

Excerpted from Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway. Copyright © 2014 by Terry Golway. With the permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Read an excerpt from Terry Golway's 'Machine Made'

Updated