Rainbow's End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985

By Steven P. Erie

University of California Press

Copyright © 1990 Steven P. Erie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520071832

Chapter One
The Irish and the Big-City Machines

Rainbow's End is a study of Irish-American machine politics from the mid-nineteenth century to the present in eight once heavily Irish cities: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Albany. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed that the Irish-American genius has been organizational rather than entrepreneurial or intellectual.1 Displaying a "distaste for commerce" and ideas, the Irish labored to build the American Catholic church and the big-city Democratic machines. Arguably the largest section in the pantheon of Irish-American heroes is reserved for the big-city party bosses, from Tammany Hall's "Honest John" Kelly in the 1870s to Chicago's Richard Daley in the 1970s.

Notwithstanding the demise of the old-time big-city machines, Irish-American politicos are still larger-than-life figures. The departed Celtic party bosses continue to cast a long shadow over contemporary urban minority groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics, who search for routes of group economic advancement. The Irish are reputed to have used a political route to travel from rags to riches, capturing the patronage-laden machines and turning public employment into an Irish preserve. Before today's ethnic groups emulate the Irish, however, they would do well to carefully examine the Irish experience with the big-city machines, separating historical fact from fiction. This study attempts such a task.

The machine emerged as the major urban political institution in the late nineteenth century; the Irish were among its leading architects and practitioners. A form of clientele politics, the party machine organized the electorate in order to control the tangible benefits of public office—patronage, services, contracts, and franchises. The machine employed these resources to maintain power. Bosses purchased voter support with offers of public jobs and services rather than by appeals to traditional loyalties or to class interests.

With roots in the second or Jacksonian party system of the 1820s and 1830s, the full-fledged or mature urban machine did not emerge until the third party system entered an advanced stage in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1890 centralized machines controlled one-half of the nation's twenty largest cities. Tammany Hall finally had consolidated its hold over Manhattan. Hugh McLaughlin's Democratic organization ruled neighboring Brooklyn. In Philadelphia, the McManes's Republican machine, which had governed the city since the end of the Civil War, was about to give way to the Durham and Vare GOP machines. Chris Magee ruled Republican Pittsburgh, and George Cox controlled Republican Cincinnati. Edward Butler had created a bipartisan machine to run St. Louis. San Francisco was controlled by the Democratic "Blind Boss" Christopher Buckley and the fire department, his political praetorian guard. Robert "Little Bob" Davis controlled Jersey City and surrounding Hudson County. Boss William F. Sheehan ran politics in Republican Buffalo. An entrenched Democratic machine, successor to Martin Van Buren's Regency, ruled Albany.2

Although the Irish did not control all of the big-city machines by 1890, they had captured most of the Democratic party organizations in the northern and midwestern cities. Lamenting the "Irish conquest of our cities," Yankee John Paul Bobcock furnished in 1894 a roll call of the late-nineteenth-century Celtic party bosses: John Kelly and Richard Croker in New York City, Hugh McLaughlin in Brooklyn, Mike McDonald in Chicago, Pat Maguire in Boston, Christopher Buckley in San Francisco, William Sheehan in Buffalo, and "Little Bob" Davis in Jersey City. In the twentieth century, more names would be added to the list: Charles Francis Murphy in New York City; Ed Kelly, Pat Nash, and Richard Daley in Chicago; James Michael Curley and Martin Lomasney in Bos-

ton; David Lawrence in Pittsburgh; Frank Hague in Jersey City; Dan O'Connell in Albany; and Tom and Jim Pendergast in Kansas City.3

The Irish, as Edward Levine argues, were "given to politics."4 No other ethnic group made the same contribution to the building of the urban machines. Germans migrated to the United States in as large numbers as the Irish. The Germans were also nearly as urbanized as the Irish, settling in midwestern rather than eastern cities. Yet there were few German bosses or machines. Jews embraced reform and labor rather than machine politics. San Francisco's Abe Ruef and Chicago's Jake Arvey were among the few Jewish bosses. A few black bosses such as William Dawson in Chicago and Homer Brown in Pittsburgh ran sub-machines of white-controlled organizations. To the extent that the Irish-American bosses designated an ethnic heir apparent, it was the Italians. Italian bosses such as Carmine De Sapio of Tammany Hall took over many of the aging Irish machines in the late 1940s and 1950s. Yet the Italians were usually called on to preside over the machine's demise, not its rebirth. In more than one sense, the Italians were left "holding the bag."

Not only did the Irish predominate among urban ethnic party bosses, but they were also the architects of the strongest and most long-lived big-city machines. Compared with their Republican counterparts, Irish-run Democratic machines proved to be mobilizing and welfarist organizations. Republican machines, in Lincoln Steffens's phrase, were constructed "in the air."5 As urban offshoots of state-level GOP machines, Republican big-city machines relied on the Yankee middle-class vote and did little to mobilize immigrant voters. With a middle-class constituency demanding low taxes, big-city GOP machines had little incentive to incorporate working-class immigrant groups and reward them with costly welfare services.

Big-city Democratic political machines, in contrast, were built "from the bottom up." Rooted in the institutional life of working-class ethnic neighborhoods—saloons, clubhouses, volunteer fire departments—Democratic organizations did a better job than their Republican counterparts of naturalizing and registering immigrants and rewarding them with patronage jobs and social services. The resulting longevity of Irish Democratic machines is re-

markable. Under Celtic tutelage, Tammany Hall ran New York (with minor exceptions) from 1874 to 1933. The Hague machine controlled Jersey City from 1917 to 1949. Dan O'Connell built the Albany machine in 1922; it has yet to lose a city election. The Chicago machine ruled the Windy City from 1931 until Harold Washington's mayoral victory in 1983.

Yet the once mighty Irish machines are now in eclipse. Government bureaucracies and labor unions have assumed the welfare and employment functions once fulfilled by the machines. Civil service reform has limited their supply of patronage jobs. Their ethnic constituents have moved to the suburbs. Of the legion of Irish machines, only those of Chicago and Albany remain as relics of the past. In all likelihood, these two vestiges will soon pass from the scene. The powerful Chicago machine has been progressively weakened since 1976, losing the mayoral elections of 1979 and 1983. The Albany machine entered an interregnum phase with the death of Erastus Corning, O'Connell's successor, in 1983.

The Rainbow Theory of the Machine

Paradoxically, the demise of the Irish machine has been accompanied by a metamorphosis in our understanding of its achievements. During its heyday, it was castigated by progressives as corrupt and undemocratic. For muckraker Lincoln Steffens, the shame of machine politics was the "triumph of the commercial spirit" in public life.6 Political reformer Frederick Howe scored the city boss for serving as a "majordomo" for large transportation and utility firms while ignoring the welfare of the working class.7 For M. Ostrogorski, machine politics marked the triumph of "party formalism," the elevation of office over political principle.8

In the machine's twilight era, social scientists such as Robert Merton and Robert Dahl offered a much different understanding of its performance. The new view may be termed the "rainbow" theory of the old-style urban machine. The theory refers to both the players and the prizes of urban politics. In this view, urban machines, though corrupt and undemocratic, actively worked to incorporate working-class immigrant groups such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians. Machines supposedly fashioned multiethnic "rain-

bow" electoral coalitions, rewarding each group with jobs and services drawn from a sizable pot of municipal gold.9

The prizes awaiting ethnic capture in city politics appeared substantial. Urban machines controlled thousands of official and unofficial patronage jobs, the latter with firms franchised by or doing business with the city. More than 40,000 New York municipal jobs, for example, were at Tammany Hall's disposal in the late 1880s. Machines also controlled the awarding of public contracts, especially important in an era when cities were making their major capital improvements. Between 1900 and 1910, for example, San Francisco embarked on an ambitious program to make the city the "Paris of North America." Municipal expenditures rose threefold, from $5.6 to $17.4 million, to pay for new schools, hospitals, parks, playgrounds, sewers, and utilities. Local newspapers estimated that more than 6,000 contract jobs had been created by the program, considerably exceeding the combined city-county payroll.10

According to the rainbow theory, the Irish were the main beneficiaries of machine politics. Robert Dahl, for example, argues that the Irish used a political strategy to move from the working class into the middle class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Celtic political activity—voter mobilization, participation in party politics, and municipal office holding—supposedly led to a disproportionate share of public sector resources, thereby accelerating the development of an Irish middle class. First- and second-generation Irish displayed a singular talent for electoral politics. In San Francisco, the proportion of adult Irish males registered to vote in 1900 was nearly double that of the city's other foreign-born adult males—70 percent versus 37 percent—and equaled that of the native-born.11

Group political mobilization seemingly brought economic results. Controlling such cities as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco by the 1880s, Irish bosses helped "Hibernianize" the public payroll. In the nation's fourteen largest cities between 1870 and 1900, the proportion of public employees of Irish parentage climbed from 11 percent to 30 percent while the proportion of the labor force of Irish parentage in these cities remained at 20 percent. Using public sector job opportunities, the Irish appeared

to move into the urban middle class with surprising rapidity considering their meager job skills and the employment discrimination they encountered. Between 1870 and 1900 the proportion of first-and second-generation Irish in white-collar jobs in cities of more than 100,000 population, where over 40 percent of the nation's Irish-Americans lived, rose from 12 percent to 27 percent, while among the non-Irish in the big cities, the increase in white-collar ranks was relatively smaller, from 27 percent to 34 percent.12

The rainbow theory figured prominently in the ethnic revival movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Blacks and "unmeltable" whites drew on—and further embellished—the legend of Irish power. In particular, the legend served as a yardstick in the black power debates because it supposedly demonstrated the efficacy of local electoral strategies for capturing public sector resources, enabling significant numbers of an ethnic group to escape poverty. Blacks found the Irish model increasingly compelling as their political demands shifted from obtaining legal rights in the South to remedying economic conditions in the urban North. Black political leaders were called on to exchange nonelectoral skills—mass protest and constitutional litigation—for the electoral and organizational skills practiced by the Irish. As Charles Hamilton argues, "While other racial and ethnic leaders could spend time exploring the process of machine politics—learning how to recruit and deliver voters, and how to reward, punish and bargain for benefits—blacks had to spend time checking legal precedents and filing lawsuits. . . . Blacks, in other words, developed plaintiffs rather than precinct captains. . . . There were no black success models in the manner of Tammany Hall, Boss Crump, or the Cook County Democratic political machine."13

Notwithstanding its popularity, it is time to lay the rainbow theory of the urban machine to rest. In this study I argue that throughout most of their history, urban machines did not incorporate immigrants other than the Irish. The machine's arsenal of resources was far more modest than it sometimes appeared. Owing to the scarce nature of the machine's benefits, the Irish could not readily translate political power into group economic advancement. Limited as these prizes were, the Irish jealously guarded them, parsimoniously accommodating the later-arriving Southern and Eastern Europeans and blacks. The newcomers struggled constantly

with their Irish political overlords. Their anti-Irish insurgency took varied forms: third parties, reform movements, and revolts within the machines. For the later ethnic arrivals, integration into the urban machines was a hard-won, delayed, and ultimately limited accomplishment.

My critique of the rainbow theory is based on a reassessment of both the machine's electoral strategies and its resource supply. In brief, the entrenched Irish machines were one-party regimes with few opponents. Having already constructed a minimal winning coalition among "old" immigrant—that is, Western European—voters, the established machines had little need to naturalize, register, and vote later ethnic arrivals. Moreover, machine bosses did not control an unlimited cornucopia of benefits. In particular, there was a limited supply of patronage with which to reward various ethnic claimants. So that the Irish could control the machine's scarce core resources of power and patronage, the Celtic bosses gave the slowly mobilizing "new" immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe less valuable benefits—services, symbolic recognition, and collective benefits such as labor and social welfare legislation.

If power represented the "approved Irish secular value," as Edward Levine argues, there were limits to its use.14 In this study, I address two interrelated dilemmas of the Irish machine, one economic, the other political. The first dilemma is that it was a poor mechanism for Irish economic advancement. Individual Irish bosses, contractors, and lawyers made fortunes off the machine. Tammany boss Richard Croker, for example, born penniless, retired from political life to enjoy the pleasures of raising horses on his baronial estate in Ireland. Yet I would argue that political machines could not serve as a route from rags to riches for the Irish working class. The first generation of machines built in the late nineteenth century controlled too little patronage to affect appreciably the life chances of the Irish. The twentieth-century machines created a much greater supply of patronage, and the Irish crowded into the public sector. On the eve of the Depression, more than one-third of the Irish workforce in machine cities depended on patronage for their livelihood. Yet the patronage created was blue-collar rather than white-collar, the wrong sort for group social mobility. As policemen, firemen, and city laborers, the Irish re-

mained solidly lower-middle-class. Only with the machine's decline, forcing the Irish into higher education and private sector jobs, have the Irish been able to build a solid middle class rooted in business and the professions.15 There were good political reasons for machines to prefer creating blue-collar jobs even though this hindered Irish economic advancement. Blue-collar jobs were cheaper, and more could be created for a given outlay. More jobs meant more votes for the machine.

The second dilemma of the Irish machine was political. The machine's organizational maintenance needs—building citywide electoral pluralities, securing necessary party financing, placating the business community—introduced a conservative strain into Irish-American urban leadership, resulting in lost opportunities to represent working-class political interests more fully. As they learned to manipulate the levers of urban power, Irish bosses turned their backs on more radical forms of working-class politics. The machine ultimately tamed Irish voters as well as leaders. The Irish working class was in the forefront of the labor insurgency against the machines in the 1870s and 1880s. Yet Irish enthusiasm for labor politics dimmed as ever-larger numbers were brought into the patronage system. The failure of labor parties in the big cities can thus partly be understood in terms of the threat they posed to the entrenched Irish machines and their ethnic beneficiaries.

The Life Cycle of the Urban Machine

Rainbow's End is a study of big-city machine politics as well as of ethnic politics. A second purpose of this study is to offer a new theory of the life cycle of the urban machine—its origins, longevity, and decline. Regarding the machine's origins, I offer a revision of the two leading theories. A "mass" theory, found in the work of Edward Banfield, James Q. Wilson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, argues that machines emerge as a reflection of an ethnic group's values and social structure. For Banfield and Wilson, the machine's trafficking in divisible benefits is a response to the "private-regarding" ethos of the European immigrants. For Moynihan, Celtic machines such as Tammany Hall are a reproduction of Irish village life.16

An "elite" theory, such as that found in the work of Martin Shefter, views the machine as an elite- rather than mass-created institution. Immigrant voters may demand divisible material benefits, but this demand pattern does not inevitably produce a centralized political machine. Party bosses build centralized machines by successfully resolving the organization's maintenance needs—a winning supply of votes, reward and discipline of the party's precinct and ward captains, control of public officials, and adequate party financing.17

This study poses a question that neither of these theories adequately answers: Why did cities such as New York produce powerful long-lasting machines whereas cities such as Boston, America's Dublin, never rose above factional ward politics? Mass and elite theories would predict that centralized machines would emerge in each city. Both cities had large Irish populations. Both cities had talented and ambitious Irish party leaders—John Kelly, Richard Croker, and Charles Francis Murphy in New York and James Michael Curley and Martin Lomasney in Boston.

I answer this question with an intergovernmental theory of big-city machines that highlights the pivotal role of local alliances with party leaders at the state and federal levels during the machine's fragile incubation period. In New York, unlike Massachusetts, Democratic governors friendly to Tammany Hall in the 1880s directed state patronage to the fledgling machine, seriously weakening Tammany's factional opponents by freezing them out of state assistance. Machine-building alliances extended to the federal level as well. During the 1930s, Irish party bosses such as Ed Kelly and Pat Nash in Chicago and David Lawrence in Pittsburgh used federal job programs such as the WPA to build a new generation of Democratic machines.

Once centralized machines emerged, how did they maintain themselves in power? The rainbow theory suggests they built multiethnic coalitions, enticing each group with the organization's apparent arsenal of jobs, services, and other tangible benefits. In this study I offer a different theory of the machine's longevity. Contrary to the rainbow theory, the political mobilization of ethnic groups entailed substantial risks. Newly enfranchised voters could demand more than the machine could offer. Moreover, throughout

most of its history, there were sharp limits on the machine's supply of material inducements. For example, the willingness of voters and taxpayers to support an increase in city tax rates or indebtedness limited the number of municipal patronage jobs. The specter of middle-class tax revolts haunted Irish party bosses from John Kelly in the 1870s to Richard Daley in the 1970s. To these political constraints on the machine's patronage stock must be added legal constraints. State Republican machines and even a few reform Democratic governors fashioned constitutional straitjackets on the machine's ability to raise and spend public money.

Whereas the rainbow theory assumes a cornucopia of machine resources and concentrates on the question how machines distributed benefits to different claimants, I start with the premise that party bosses had to husband scarce resources. The demands of ethnic groups and the working class for jobs and services nearly always exceeded the machine's available supply. The secret of machine longevity, then, was bringing electoral demand into balance with resource supply.

How did machines manage electoral demand? I distinguish between two distinct stages of machine building: an embryonic stage, where fledgling machines face strong competitive electoral pressures from the opposition party and from rival factions within their own party; and a consolidation stage, where machines have triumphed over their opponents and have built minimal winning voter coalitions. Embryonic machines are mobilizers. They face competitive pressures to increase the number of partisan voters. Entrenched machines, in contrast, are selective mobilizers. Having defeated the other party's machine and rival factions, consolidated machines need only bring out their traditional supporters. There is little electoral incentive to mobilize newer ethnic arrivals.

Embryonic machines actively courted nonvoters. Tammany Hall's record naturalization of 41,000 immigrants in the 1868 gubernatorial campaign is testimony to the budding machine's weakness, not its strength. Similarly, late nineteenth-century Irish Democratic machines in San Francisco, Boston, Jersey City, and Albany naturalized and registered the "old," that is, Western European, immigrants. In cities controlled by fledgling machines, there was a dramatic increase in the size of the urban electorate and in voter participation rates.

The problem with the mobilization approach to managing electoral demand is that newly enfranchised voters must in some fashion be rewarded. Otherwise, their grievances against the machine mount and they are ripe for capture by the machine's opponents. Embryonic machines, however, often did not have the resources to pay off their new constituents. The mobilizing Irish machines of the late nineteenth century were forced by political and legal constraints to pursue conservative fiscal and patronage policies. The price of mobilizing the "old" ethnics was the continued threat of working-class insurgency. In the 1886 New York mayoral election, for example, Tammany Hall lacked the resources to buy off the ethnic working class and barely beat back the challenge of Henry George and the United Labor party.

Electoral mobilization without reward forced fledgling machines to develop a second set of voter management techniques. Electoral fraud and repression represented the major secondary techniques. In New York City's crucial 1886 mayoral election, Tammany Hall countered massive Irish and German working-class support for Henry George with thorough control of the city's police and thus of the ballot box. Uncounted ballots, nearly all for George, were seen floating down the Hudson for days after the election. In the twentieth century, the Chicago and Albany machines confounded the census takers by registering and voting the dead, the departed, and even the unborn. O'Connell's organization in Albany, for example, claimed the votes of 61 percent of the city's entire population of 131,000 in the 1940s.

Besides voter fraud, emerging machines used repression to weaken their opponents. Irish party bosses were famous for the ingenuity with which they systematically weakened labor and socialist parties. Machine-controlled bureaucrats and judges denied parade and meeting permits. The party's plug-uglies armed with brass knuckles waded into peaceful assemblies. Opposition leaders were frequently arrested on trumped-up charges. For insurgent Jews and Italians, the Irish machines specialized in rigorous enforcement of Sunday closing laws and in punitive denial of business permits.

Entrenched machines, in contrast, managed electoral demand in different ways. With little competitive electoral challenge, these machines turned a deaf ear to the pleas of newcomers for help with

naturalization, registration, and voting. For example, what accounts for Tammany Hall's about-face in its treatment of immigrants between the 1860s and the early 1900s? The massive party-sponsored naturalization of the Irish and the Germans gave way to a not-so-benign electoral neglect of later-arriving Jews and Italians. Tammany's Yankee party chieftains in the 1860s had as much revulsion toward the Irish as Irish bosses after the turn of the century would have against the Southern and Eastern Europeans. The difference is that Tammany needed the immigrant vote in the 1860s and 1870s to fend off both a strong state Republican party and rival local Democratic organizations such as Irving Hall and the County Democracy. Having finally banished its opponents, except for an occasional reform mayor, the Tammany Hall of Charles Francis Murphy in 1910 no longer needed the new immigrant vote. Chicago's Irish Democratic party bosses Roger Sullivan and George Brennan worked far harder than their Tammany counterparts in the teens and twenties to naturalize and register the city's Poles, Czechs, Jews, and Italians. They had to, for Republican boss and mayor "Big Bill" Thompson was successfully mobilizing and wooing the same new ethnic voters.

The voter management strategy of the entrenched Irish machines—to mobilize the old but not the new immigrants—contributed to their short-term longevity. The machine's limited stock of patronage jobs and services would suffice to reward a smaller electorate of old but not new immigrants. This electoral strategy, however, had long-term costs. One of the chief reasons that the established Irish machines fell was that enterprising opposition leaders finally succeeded in mobilizing the new ethnics. For example, the Irish machines of New York and Jersey City fell in the 1930s and 1940s as reform leaders such as Fiorello La Guardia actively worked to naturalize, register, and win the votes of Italians, Jews, and Poles. In the 1980s, the Chicago machine staggered when finally challenged by the black community.

Electoral management is only half the story of the Irish machine's longevity. Machines also had to manage resources. The rainbow theory addresses the distributional strategies of the machines: how the Irish got police and fire jobs, the Jews teaching jobs, and the Italians lowly places in sanitation. Yet machines con-

centrated as much on creating resources as distributing them. Far too little attention has been given to what I would term a "supply-side" theory of the machine. What were the primary means machines used to enlarge the supply of tangible benefits, particularly new patronage jobs? What were the attendant political benefits and risks of different ways of enlarging the pie?

This study offers the beginnings of a "supply-side" theory of the machine. I consider such resource-enhancement strategies as tax increases, increases in public debt, annexation and incorporation, reliance on private sector patronage, and alliances with county, state, and federal bosses to capture additional public sector patronage. But each expansionary strategy had risks as well as benefits. For example, tax increases prompted middle-class tax revolts. Annexation enlarged the city's boundaries without increasing the tax rate. Yet annexation also enlarged the big-city electorate by including the outward-migrating and antimachine middle class.

Rainbow's End also presents a more complicated picture of the Irish machine's distributional decisions than that offered by conventional theory. The rainbow theorists posit an electorally "rational" distributional process: Machines allocate jobs and services to ethnic groups in proportion to their anticipated vote for the organization's candidates. This study argues that machine allocational decisions were more retrospective than prospective. Machines overrewarded previously incorporated groups and under-rewarded newly incorporated groups. The Irish machine's supply of patronage jobs, for example, dramatically increased during the Progressive era. Remembering the old immigrants' antimachine insurgency in the 1870s and 1880s, the Celtic bosses gave the bulk of the new public sector jobs to the Irish rather than to Jews or Italians.

Rainbow theorists miss another dimension of the machine's allocational processes. The Irish machines developed elaborate ethnically differentiated benefit systems. The machine's core resources of power and patronage were reserved for the Irish, with minor shares given to the most serious challengers among the new ethnics, for example, Jews rather than Italians. Irish bosses preferred to give newcomers less valuable resources: services such as business licenses, symbolic recognition such as nomination to minor

offices or machine observance of ethnic holidays such as Columbus Day, and labor and social welfare legislation.

Rainbow theorists also posit that machines trafficked primarily if not exclusively in divisible benefits rather than collective benefits. Divisible benefits such as patronage jobs could be rewarded or withheld from individuals in exchange for support for the machine. Collective benefits like Social Security checks, however, were distributed to program rather than political eligibles. Machines supposedly opposed collective benefits because they reduced the machine's monopoly over jobs and services for the working class. Machines could not control the allocation of collective benefits as readily as they could for divisible benefits.

This study, however, argues that machines actually supported collective benefit programs, ranging from the labor legislation of the Progressive era to the social welfare legislation of the New Deal and Great Society eras. The Irish machines lobbied for collective benefits in order to pay off junior ethnic coalitional partners at minimal cost to continued Irish control over the machine's divisible benefits of power and patronage. The machine's collective benefit strategy worked with Jews and Italians during the Progressive and New Deal eras and with blacks during the Great Society era.

The allocation of less valuable benefits to later ethnic groups represented a short-term machine distributional strategy. What happened when the new ethnics finally mobilized? In the long run, successful machines had to be more accommodating of the new ethnics' political demands. For working-class voters, demanding a great share of patronage jobs and welfare services, successful machines had to fashion a favorable exchange ratio between claimants and resources. Machines were in trouble when the ratio broke down because of rising numbers of voters or declining numbers of patronage jobs. Many of the established Irish machines fell precisely because they were unable to increase their resources as the big-city electorate grew.

The Depression and New Deal represented a watershed for big-city Irish machines. The machines' limited political incorporation of Southern and Eastern Europeans finally failed. Democratic presidential candidates Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt brought

Jews, Italians, and Poles into the voting booth in record numbers. In cities such as New York and Chicago, the number of voters doubled between 1928 and 1936. What would happen if these new ethnic voters turned on the aging machines? Because of the Depression, the Irish machines found their resources base depleted at precisely the time they needed additional resources in order to court the new ethnics. The frenetic machine pursuit of federal patronage, particularly the WPA, can be understood as a strategy to increase the supply of machine benefits for the new voters.

To secure middle-class votes, however, machines had to devise a much different menu of policies. Middle-class voters were home-owners, sensitive to tax increases and less desirous of patronage jobs and welfare services. Middle-class voters demanded low taxes and homeowner services such as garbage collection and street repair. The longevity of the Irish machines of Chicago, Albany, and Pittsburgh well into the post–World War II era is attributable to their ability to shift from working-class to middle-class policies for white ethnics while piggybacking welfare-state programs for blacks and Hispanics.

This new theory of the machine's longevity in terms of an equilibrium between claimants and resources, particularly for working-class ethnic groups, is also a theory of the machine's demise. Middle-class reformers rarely destroyed machines. As Tammany sachem George Washington Plunkitt once observed, reformers were "shortlived morning glories."18 Tammany Hall, for example, easily survived the reform administrations of Seth Low and John Purroy Mitchel. Machines were in trouble both when reformers increased the number of political participants by mobilizing the newer ethnic arrivals and when the machines lacked the resources to outbid them. Machines were in serious trouble when reformers rewarded as well as mobilized the newcomers. In New York City, Fiorello La Guardia permanently weakened Tammany Hall between 1933 and 1945 by mobilizing the city's Jews and Italians and by rewarding them. La Guardia tightened the city's civil service system in order to recruit Jews and Italians at the expense of the Irish while dramatically increasing the size of the city's human services bureaucracies. A new cohort of ethnic working-class voters had been politically indoctrinated and rewarded by Tammany's

opponents. The Wigwam (as Tammany was called) would never be the same.

This study is particularly critical of one leading theory of the machine's demise. Rexford Tugwell in The Brains Trust and Edwin O'Connor in his magnificent The Last Hurrah , a barely fictionalized account of Boston's James Michael Curley, argue that New Deal social welfare programs destroyed the machines by breaking the organization's monopoly over the jobs and services distributed to urban working-class voters. With the advent of Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and unemployment compensation, urban voters no longer had to go to the machines for help.19

In some ways the New Deal did weaken local machines. FDR's mobilization of the urban ethnic vote destroyed or permanently weakened the established Republican machines in cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The New Deal electoral coalition also turned on the entrenched Irish Democratic machines in cities such as New York and Jersey City. With many of the big-city machines reduced to rubble, New Deal labor legislation and social programs appeared to make it harder to build a new generation of machines. The Wagner Act, for example, strengthened labor as a political actor—in local as well as in national politics. In cities like Detroit with a strong reform rather than machine tradition, unions stepped into the political vacuum created by weak parties. The United Auto Workers' Committee on Political Education performed such party functions as getting out the vote. Union collective bargaining agreements took the place of the machine's patronage and welfare services. With unions performing traditional party functions, machines were harder to rebuild in the post–New Deal era. New Deal social programs, particularly Social Security, reduced the machine's control over the stream of government benefits going to voters and thus enabled some voters to be more politically independent.20

Yet for machines that survived the twin shoals of the New Deal electoral coalition and the Depression, the social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society represented potent tools for machine strengthening. In the postwar era, a third set of migrants came to northern cities. Poor blacks and Hispanics demanded the machine's traditional menu of patronage jobs and welfare services.

Yet machines could no longer supply these working-class benefits. Eroding tax bases and civil service reform cut deeply into the supply of patronage. Newly prosperous white middle-class voters demanded low taxes. Machines catered to the newer migrants with welfare-state programs, particularly public housing and AFDC, at minimal cost to the city treasury and to white taxpayers. Machine control of the black and Hispanic vote, however, now depended on a steady stream of social program benefits. With cutbacks in federal and state social programs in the Reagan era, this flow of benefits to the minority community was interrupted. The black revolt in the 1980s against the last of the machines was in large part fueled by welfare-state retrenchment. Social program retrenchment, not growth, has destabilized the few remaining big-city machines.

Overview of the Study

This interpretation of the machine's performance and beneficiaries is based on a comparative study of machine dynamics in eight once heavily Irish-American cities—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Albany—from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-1980s. As Table 1 shows, in 1870 these cities were among the eleven most heavily Irish of the twenty-five cities with more than 50,000 population. They ranged from Boston, with nearly one-quarter of its population born in Ireland, to Chicago, with almost one-eighth of its residents from the Emerald Isle. Of the ten most heavily Irish cities, only New Haven and Providence have been excluded from this study because of the paucity of data about their formative political histories. The existing studies of New Haven and Providence politics, however, suggest a replication of the patterns of machine and ethnic politics uncovered in the eight cities studied.21

This study is not based solely on a case study of a single machine. Nor is it based on case studies of only those cities where mature machines developed. Instead, I compare two sets of big cities with large Irish-American populations: those where Irish-controlled machines emerged and those cities where no strong citywide machine appeared or where a machine not controlled by


Table 1. The Irish in the Cities, 1870


as Percentage
of Total Population

as Percentage
of Total Population

Total Population

(by Total Population)

Number of Irish-Born

Number of Foreign-Born








Jersey City







New York














New Haven





















San Francisco










































St. Louis



































New Orleans





















Washington, D.C.




























Source: U.S. Census Office, Ninth Census, 1870 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), vol. 1, Table 8, pp. 386–391.

Note: This table includes the twenty-five cities with a population greater than 50,000 in 1870.

the Irish emerged. Table 2 shows that strong Irish-led Democratic machines were built in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Albany. In Philadelphia, as Dennis Clark argues, the Irish were handmaidens to a long-lived Republican machine they did not control.22 Boston, the most Irish of the big cities, never rose above factional ward politics.

Mature machines exhibited certain characteristics. First, power was centralized in the hands of a single party boss. Second, the machine's power extended citywide. Despite pockets of opposition, mature machines commanded large electoral majorities. Consolidated machines also controlled most local offices and agencies and the patronage they commanded. Third, they exhibited staying power, winning several consecutive municipal elections and remaining in power for at least a decade. Fourth, machines trafficked primarily (but not exclusively) in divisible material benefits such as patronage jobs and welfare services. Political ideologies were foreign to the operation of the big-city machines. As a big-city machine politician remarked to James Bryce in 1880, "What are we here for except the offices?"23

Not only were there variations across cities in whether mature machines emerged, but there were also variations over time within machine cities in terms of the strength and longevity of the local party organization. In the late nineteenth century, Irish bosses built a first generation of Democratic machines in New York, San Francisco, Albany, and Jersey City. Of these four early machines, only Tammany Hall survived the debacle of 1896. During the Progressive era the Irish constructed a second generation of "reformed" machines in Albany and Jersey City. The New Deal realignment destabilized most of the entrenched Irish machines while spawning a third generation of more ethnically diverse Democratic machines in Chicago and Pittsburgh.

The temporal dimension of the Irish machines is of crucial importance. Each generation of machines embraced a distinct electoral coalition and set of policies. The four stages of Irish machine development considered in this study are as follows.

1840–1896. The Irish famine migration landed in the eastern cities in the late 1840s and early 1850s. By the late 1870s and early 1880s a first generation of Irish-run Democratic machines had emerged in New York (including Brooklyn, a separate city until

1898), San Francisco, Albany, and Jersey City. These cities featured large Irish voting populations and were in states with friendly Democratic governors. These early laissez-faire machines actively mobilized the Yankee and "old" immigrant—Irish, German, and English—working class. Because of the strength of their Republican opponents at both the local and state levels, these early machines pursued conservative fiscal, patronage, and labor policies. Lacking adequate patronage with which to co-opt the militant Irish working class, the early machines were plagued with working-class and immigrant insurgency.

1896–1928. A second generation of more long-lived Irish machines emerged during the Progressive era in Jersey City and Albany. The new machines differed from their nineteenth-century counterparts in key respects. First, they selectively mobilized the "old" but not the "new" immigrants, for example, the Irish but not the Jews or Italians. Second, they supported collective benefit programs such as Progressive-sponsored labor and social welfare legislation. Third, with the movement of the property-owning Yankee middle class to the suburbs, the ranks of the machine's opponents were reduced. The Irish machines could now pursue more expansionary fiscal policies with lessened risk of electoral reprisal. Expansionary fiscal policies increased the supply of patronage with which to reward restive working-class Irish voters. As ever-larger proportions of the Irish working class were drawn into the machine's patronage system, Irish enthusiasm for more radical labor politics diminished. The slowly mobilizing "new" ethnics were given services and symbolic recognition rather than patronage and power. However, the stability of the second-generation machines depended on restricting the newly arriving Southern and Eastern Europeans from electorally participating and making claims on the machine's resources.

1928–1950. The entrenched Irish machines became vulnerable to overthrow as the Depression depleted the patronage supply and as the New Deal party realignment finally mobilized the resentful Southern and Eastern Europeans. Yet the New Deal represented a machine-building as well as destabilizing force. In cities with weaker Democratic party organizations such as Chicago and Pittsburgh, the intraparty ethnic succession wars had been fought before the 1930s. In these cities, Irish bosses built a more eth-

nically diverse third generation of machines by capturing federal work relief patronage and by mobilizing and rewarding the new ethnics with power and jobs.

1950–1985. The postwar era marks a fourth and presumably final stage of machine development. Surviving Irish machines in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Albany selectively mobilized middle-class white ethnics but not the newly arriving blacks and Hispanics. The postwar Irish machines offered a new set of locally financed policies: low taxes and homeowner services rather than the high taxes, massive patronage, and welfare services characteristic of earlier machines. As whites left the cities and the number of minorities grew, the postwar machines piggybacked federal welfare-state programs to appeal to the newer migrants. Welfare-state cutbacks politically galvanized blacks and threatened the remaining machines.

This study uses a wide variety of untapped data sources to study the electoral base, resources, and policies of big-city Irish machines. In terms of primary sources, I rely heavily on municipal reports, state blue books, federal census reports and program statistics, city directories, and newspaper almanacs. Municipal reports furnish valuable information on city revenue, spending and indebtedness patterns, patronage lists, voter registration, and election returns. State blue books yield lists of local public officials, public employees, and election returns. The dicennial federal census reports are a veritable gold mine of information on the big cities, particularly regarding ethnicity. They tell us about the ethnic composition of the big-city population, voting-age electorate, and specific groups of urban public employees such as policemen, firemen, teachers, and public officials. Federal program reports, such as those for AFDC and the WPA, furnish program expenditures and the number of recipients for various cities. Privately printed city directories provide rosters of local public officials and city employees. Finally, newspaper almanacs such as the New York World–Telegram Almanac and the Chicago Daily News Almanac yield big-city budgetary and electoral data in addition to lists of local party officials.

There are major reliability problems with many of these sources. The big-city machines were adept at their own version of double-entry bookkeeping: one set for the party bosses and one set for the

public. Voter registration figures and election returns were padded for public consumption. City finances were systematically under-reported. Given these problems with primary sources, I have also used the massive secondary literature of books, articles, and dissertations on the politics of these machines, cities, and states.

The study is divided into two parts. The first part, consisting of Chapters 2 through 5, examines the four distinct stages of Irish-American machine politics: 1840–1896, 1896–1928, 1928–1950, and 1950–1985. The second part, consisting of Chapters 6 and 7, is theoretical. Chapter 6 examines machine building and the relation of party machines to the state. It focuses on the machine's life cycle: why centralized party organizations emerged in some cities and not in others, how machines maintained themselves, and what caused the machines' decline. The analysis also considers the clientelist perspective on the machine, placing the American big-city party organizations in broader comparative perspective. Chapter 7 addresses representational issues: the ways in which machines affected ethnic group political and economic life, and how machines shaped working-class politics. In particular, the chapter examines the machine's supposed "redistributional" function and the role of machines in producing America's muted version of working-class politics.


Excerpted from Rainbow's End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 by Steven P. Erie Copyright © 1990 by Steven P. Erie. Excerpted by permission.
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