- Historic Sites
The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
When the Irish immigrants first began arriving in America in large numbers, they had no right to vote even after being naturalized, and naturalization at one time demanded fourteen years’ residence in the United States. Voting in almost all states was dependent upon the possession of property, and the pauper Irish, with this restriction, might well have spent their whole lives in their new land without a voice in city, State, or national government.
In New York State this situation was changed largely due to the efforts of one man, DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was the leader, economically and politically, of the immigrant Irish who had supplied the labor to build the Erie Canal, which he had planned and advocated for many years.
In 1822 Clinton proposed and pushed through an amendment to the New York State constitution eliminating the property requirement for voters. That one piece of legislation in New York suddenly made of the Irish immigrant hordes valuable political material. It had been at first opposed and then supported by Tammany Hall, the most powerful political organization of New York City and New York State.
Tammany in its youth was antiforeign and antiCatholic. Irishmen and Catholics were originally excluded from full membership. As a result of this policy and Tammany’s refusal to support Irishman Thomas A. Emmet for Congress, the Irish in 1817 invaded and wrecked Tammany’s New York headquarters.
But Tammany was in the wrong city to cling to its native American policy and nourish. Its own rottenness brought it into public disfavor time and again, and in the early 1840’s, following the exposure of vast frauds in the Tammany-controlled Manhattan Bank, it underwent a profound change. It had previously been ruled from the top. Now, bereft of other support, Tammany opened its doors to the immigrants, and was soon ruled from the bottom. Out of one of the oldest American political organizations, this group of new and unloved citizens forged a weapon that was to dominate New York City and State government and exercise, through the Democratic party, profound influence upon the national scene.
The Irish record in American politics has them cavorting with the devils on occasions and on others singing with choirs of angels. The Irish racked up for themselves an astonishing record of corruption, graft, terrorism, and milking of the public, side by side with vigorous programs of reform, of cleaning up the ballot, of purging cities of racketeers, and of upholding the principles of American democracy in tribunals as hisrh as the Supreme Court of the United States.
There is no need to make a special plea for leniency in considering the corruption of civic and state governments attributed to the Irish. The whiskey barrel and the plug-ugly were standard features of the American election before the appearance of the Irish in great numbers. Multiple voting by one individual and the stealing of ballot boxes were common election tactics of early times. The Irish, with the aid of Tammany, merely studied these tactics and decided to take a hand in the game themselves. And the hand they took provides some of the most colorful and lurid chapters in American political history.
The story of what happened with Tammany serves as the classic example of the history of other political machines in other states. Whatever the name and whatever the state, all at one time followed the Tammany methods to a greater or lesser extent in gaining political strength from the immigrant Irish entering the country in flood proportions.
As a start, Tammany opened a bureau to cater to the needs of the immigrants and lead them into the Wigwam. The bureau undertook a great deal of charitable work that would pay off politically. Tammany saw to it, for instance, that no Irish family in New York was without food on Christmas Day. Carts laden with provisions and flying the Tammany banner went through the Five Points section and other Irish rookeries, distributing largess. Everybody who got anything knew where it came from—Tammany. Gratitude and self-interest demanded that the recipients vote the Tammany ticket. They did—regularly.
Tammany’s object, of course, was not pure charity, although Tammany Hall has always maintained that it has a distinct charitable function, separate from political activity. Charity was but a device for obtaining political power. The next step, after paying the rent or distributing the food, was to make of the Irish immigrant a citizen and a Tammany voter. Tammany established a naturalization bureau whose product was American citizens. Irishmen went in one end of this bureau and emerged citizens at the other end.
These practices were not confined to New York. They were adopted by other and smaller political machines in such other cities as Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Detroit.
Tammany soon discovered another political weapon to influence the opposition vote. In the Five Points and “bloody ould Sixth Ward” districts of New York, there were numerous gangs of Irishmen who took their vengeance on society by fighting and rioting and generally establishing a reign of terror. Tammany soon turned to these as a means of keeping opposition voters away from the polls. Gangs like the “Dead Rabbits” were employed to police the polling areas and beat up the opposition voters.
From this it was a simple step to destroying anti-Tammany ballots or to manufacturing bogus pro-Tammany ballots, so that it was not uncommon, when the total vote was counted, to find more votes had been cast in a ward than there were registered voters.