Irish immigrants and the rise of Tammany hall: in the 1800s, Irish immigrants in New York City built a corrupt political machine. (American History).
People called overcrowded vessels like the Montezuma "coffin ships." On average, 15 percent of the immigrant passengers on these ships died while at sea.
Not long after the Montezuma docked, the New York Tribune wrote: "It is really lamentable [sad] to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day's living."
Within 20 years, Irish immigrants would transform themselves and the U.S. They got ahead by taking low-paying, dangerous jobs while living in some of America's first--and worst--slums.
The immigrants also helped to create one of the first political machines--a group of politicians that won elections mostly through corrupt (dishonest) practices. Such machines seized control of big cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago.
The Society of Tammany had formed as a social club in New York City around 1786. Its members strongly opposed immigration. But by the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants had conquered Tammany and the city's Democratic Party, which were now one and the same.
During much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tammany Hall reigned as the nation's most successful political machine. Immigrants knew that when they were down on their luck, Tammany Hall would help them. By performing charitable acts for the city's struggling immigrants, Tammany politicians were able to survive countless scandals.
The Great Famine
Many Irish immigrants of the mid-1800s were fleeing Ireland's Great Famine, which began in 1845. A plant disease wiped out the country's potato crops, the chief food of the poor. At least 1 million people died from starvation. In the next six years, 2.5 million people left Ireland--mostly for the U.S.
Even after the famine ended, the Irish kept coming to the U.S. By 1920, at least 5 million Irish immigrants had arrived in America.
Famine was only one of Ireland's problems. The largely Roman Catholic country was then controlled by Protestant England. English landlords kept their Irish tenants in poverty, In the predominantly (mostly) Protestant U.S. of the 1 850s, many people shared British views that Irish Catholics were lazy, drunken, dirty, and even subhuman.
As one Irish immigrant wrote: "The great majority of the American people are, in heart and soul, anti-Catholic, but more especially anti-Irish. Everything Irish is repugnant (disgusting) to them."
Most Irish immigrants settled in the already-crowded slums of big cities. Between 1868 and 1875, about half of New York's population--roughly 500,000 people--lived in dirty, crumbling tenements (apartment buildings).
Five Points, an Irish slum in lower Manhattan, was notorious (infamous) for its horrible conditions. Poverty, disease, violence, and drug addiction were everywhere.
Describing a visit to the area in the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens wrote: "Debauchery [indulgence in vice] has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays [fights]."
Prizefighting or Politics Most Irish kids worked to support their families, even though finding jobs was not easy. Many businesses discriminated against the Irish, some posting signs that read: "No Irish Need Apply."
Irish children swept streets and sold newspapers, matches, and apples. As the teenage son of Irish immigrants, George Washington Plunkitt realized that there were two quick roads out of poverty: prizefighting or politics. He chose politics.
"You can't begin too early in politics if you want to succeed at the game," Plunkitt said. "When I was 12 years old, I made myself useful around the district headquarters and ... at all the polls on Election Day.... Show me a boy that hustles for the organization on Election Day, and I'll show you a comin' statesman."
After running errands for Tammany politicians and helping to sway elections, Plunkitt moved up to the job of ward leader, or the neighborhood go-to guy. Later, he became a district leader. Anyone who needed a job or got into a jam with the police would talk to Plunkitt, who would use his influence to help solve their problems.
On a typical day, Plunkitt would rise at 6:00 a.m.--having bailed out an immigrant the night before--help a widow who had lost her home to a fire, pay someone's rent, find jobs for several men, attend a church fair, and buy ice cream for local kids.
But there was a self-serving purpose to such charity. In exchange for a ward or district leader's help, immigrants were expected to vote Democratic on Election Day. Many voted twice--by threatening or bribing election officials. Some even shaved off their mustaches or cut their hair to trick these officials.
Like all machines, Tammany worked on the "spoils system." An election victory brought the spoils, or rewards of success--about 12,000 city jobs to fill, as well as state and federal positions.
Tammany politicians also bullied local companies for more jobs, which ward leaders handed out. Such power fed the corrupt machine. Tammany politicians may have helped struggling immigrants, but usually to enrich themselves. They did not seek change or reform.
The Tweed Ring
Over time, Tammany had several top leaders, or "bosses." The most famous--or infamous--was William "Boss" Tweed, who ruled Tammany in the mid-19th century. The "Tweed Ring," a group of politicians and allies, pocketed more than $30 million in public money at a time when most workers earned just $1 a day.
Eventually, Tweed's graft (theft) outraged even his supporters. In 1871, Tweed created a scandal over the building of a courthouse, originally budgeted at $500,000. When construction finally ended, Tweed and his schemes had raised the cost to more than $8 million. Convicted of fraud, he went to prison.
People thought that Tammany would not survive the loss of Tweed. But it remained a strong political force. By the late 1800s, thousands of Italians, Poles, and other immigrants were pouring into the city each day. No government agency would help them, so Tammany did.
But, in the early 1900s, strict immigration laws began to make recruits scarce, and stories about gang ties hurt Tammany's image. Reformers inside and outside the machine demanded change. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs undercut Tammany's appeal to the poor. New civil-service laws also damaged Tammany, since government jobs could no longer be handed out so easily. The machine withered and, in the 1960s, finally collapsed.
Plunkitt did not live to see the end of Tammany Hall. He died a respectable millionaire in 1924. As he explained to a reporter: "I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.'"
Your Turn: WORD MATCH 1. lamentable A. infamous 2. corrupt B. sad 3. notorious C. theft 4. repugnant D. dishonest 5. graft E. disgusting
American History word match
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|Date:||Feb 21, 2003|
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