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Terry Golway

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For most Americans, Tammany Hall is a symbol of all that was dishonest, corrupt, illiberal, and venal about urban government and the political machines that ran it in the past, a shorthand for larceny on a grand scale. Not so, says Terry Golway. In his new book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics (Liveright, 2014) Golway argues that Tammany, a popular nickname for the Democratic organization of the County of New York (better known as Manhattan), introduced a “new politics” and a “new social contract” to America. Tammany, he shows, encouraged voters in an undemocratic republican era to look to accessible local figures for protection from the devastations of laissez-faire capitalism in a time before the safety net. Arguing that the Irish who escaped the potato famine brought with them lessons about the importance of power and the usefulness of “transactional” relationships between voters and elected officials, Golway believes that Tammany came to represent the modern way of practicing democracy: interest-based politics. While many of its flaws cannot not be denied, he writes, the popular narrative has also been shaped by the reformers of the past, who tended to mix their critiques with class-based fear and moralism, if not outright anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-urban sentiment. William “Boss” Tweed personifies the organization for most, although his reign lasted just two years. A better representative, Golway thinks, is Charles Murphy, the longest-running leader of the party chapter, and the man who nurtured the careers of two young legendary, nation-changing reformers, and proud Tammany men: Robert Wagner and Al Smith, forerunners and major architects of the New Deal.

Sure to stir a little debate, Golway’s book is revisionism in a good spirit.

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