FDR and the mainstreaming of urban liberalism

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Roosevelt and Smith in 1928. (AP PHOTO)
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Terry Golway

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Previously in this series, Franklin Roosevelt entered the State Senate in 1911 as an avowed enemy of Tammany Hall and its legendary boss, Charles Francis Murphy.

Other politicians saw Roosevelt as a “patronizing son of a bitch,” in the words of legendary Albany boss Daniel O’Connell, and few tears were shed when he left Albany for Washington in 1913. But FDR’s attitude toward Tammany and toward other politicians began to change, leading to a surprising invitation to Tammany in 1917 and the beginnings of a critical alliance with Al Smith.

You can read the first part here.

Franklin Roosevelt’s journey from a Tammany scourge to an ally during the 1920s could be seen as a necessary but unappetizing calculation which Roosevelt made because he realized that he could not advance his career without the support of Charlie Murphy, Tammany’s boss. Murphy, after all, thwarted FDR’s attempt to win the party’s U.S. Senate nomination in 1914 when he shrewdly backed Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Germany, longtime Tammany member James W. Gerard, for the post.

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With Tammany’s organizational support, Gerard crushed FDR in the state’s first primary election for a U.S. Senate nomination, although Gerard then lost to Republican Charles W. Wadsworth in the general election. Some observers have asserted that FDR eventually “learned to use” the bosses he once opposed, an assertion that would seem to defy the evidence—if FDR figured out how to “use” Charles Murphy, it’s hard to see how it benefited him.

FDR’s surprising rapprochement with Murphy began on July 4, 1917, when Roosevelt delivered the one of two traditional “long talks,” at Tammany’s annual Independence Day commemoration. Roosevelt was not the only onetime Tammany critic invited to address the organization—fellow keynoter Charles S. Thomas, a Senator from Colorado, once complained that the Democratic Party would prosper only “by a negation of the things for which Tammany stands.” But now both Thomas and Roosevelt found themselves exchanging pleasantries with the likes of George Washington Plunkitt and Johnny Ahearn, the very symbols of what Thomas had described as the Democratic Party’s “degeneracy.”

Roosevelt and Murphy were seated together—no coincidence—and both were dressed similarly in straw hats, bow ties, and light summer suits, although the buttons on Murphy’s jacket were working a good deal harder than those on Roosevelt’s. Around his shoulders Murphy wore a symbolic gold chain of office, making him look more like a lord mayor in Ireland than a leader of the party of the people. Reporters noted that Murphy and Roosevelt seemed to enjoy each other’s company as they sat through a welcoming address—luckily, not another “long talk”—from Tammany’s 87-year-old ceremonial leader, Grand Sachem John R. Voorhis. When it was Roosevelt’s turn at the podium, he displayed the charm and bonhomie that was so absent in his dealings with his colleagues from Tammany five years earlier. He fairly winked at his listeners as he said, slyly, “I am not entirely a stranger to Tammany Hall.”

He was, he said, invited to the event by an unnamed Tammany man, who told him that “if Tammany could stand to have him, he could stand it to come.”

The audience roared, including, reporters noted, Charlie Murphy.

If Roosevelt’s unlikely appearance at Tammany was simply a political calculation rather than evidence of a genuine change of heart, his timing was curiously poor and politically perilous. For on that Independence Day in 1917, Charles Francis Murphy, the bane of good government groups, the Hearst newspapers, and progressives throughout the nation, appeared to be yesterday’s man. Newspapers had been speculating for several years that he was on his way out after Tammany lost elections for mayor and governor after Tammany, at Murphy’s orders, impeached and removed Governor William Sulzer in 1913. Murphy was never so vulnerable and Tammany rarely so demoralized as when FDR paid his first visit to the Hall on July 4, 1917. If his appearance at Murphy’s side that day was all about calculation and ambition, FDR seemingly was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that FDR was in the process of a more profound change of heart towards the bête noir of his famous cousin, his own former self, and so many of his Progressive allies in Woodrow Wilson’s Washington. FDR’s actions after 1917 certainly suggest that he finally realized that whatever its past flaws, Tammany was on the right side of reform and progressive change, and that Al Smith and Robert Wagner represented the better angels of the machine’s nature. He certainly no longer acted as though Tammany were the enemy. He did not recoil in horror when Tammany figure Thomas McManus (known simply by his Gaelic title, “The” McManus) urged him to run for governor in 1918 (FDR declined the invitation) or when state Senator James J. Walker told him that it was “always a pleasure” to hear talk of Roosevelt’s future in New York politics.

FDR publicly endorsed Al Smith’s candidacy for governor in 1918 in a warm, personal letter in which he offered to speak on Smith’s behalf in New York City in the waning days of the campaign. Smith, in a “Dear Frank” letter of reply, told Roosevelt that his endorsement “made quite a hit with all the men around me,” a fair number of whom, it seems safe to say, were Tammany men.

The burgeoning relationship between FDR and Murphy’s Tammany continued to mature in 1920, when FDR seconded Smith’s favorite-son nomination for president, and Murphy approved the party’s choice of FDR as its vice-presidential candidate. Murphy certainly was not trying to rid the state of Roosevelt, for he was shrewd enough to know that Republican boss Thomas Platt had tried that strategy with another troublesome Roosevelt in 1900, and it did not work as planned. After his defeat in 1920, FDR worked diligently on behalf on Smith’s presidential bids in both 1924 and 1928, when liberal publications such as The Nation wondered if a Catholic politician raised by the Tammany tiger truly could be progressive.

“Governor Smith is personally, ecclesiastically, aggressively, irreconcilably Wet, and is ineradicably Tammany-branded, with all the inferences and implications and objectionable consequences which naturally follow from such views and associations,” wrote James Cannon Jr. in The Nation in July, 1928.

Though more in the tradition of The Nation’s sort of Democrat, Roosevelt offered no apologies for his support for his fellow New Yorker whose faith, affiliations, and culture so disturbed some of the magazine’s writers and readers. In fact, in a small book released during the 1928 campaign, Roosevelt argued that Smith was “on the side of the progressives in the fields of legislation and of constitutional law” and that he “made it clear that he based actions on fundamentals and not on temporary expediency.”

This important change in Roosevelt’s political development is treated as little more than a footnote in many biographies, of far less importance than his stint in the Department of the Navy during the Wilson years. One Roosevelt biographer, Kenneth S. Davis, has argued that FDR’s fights with Tammany were consistent with his “liberal-progressive stance,” a view which endorses the notion that Tammany and progressive politics were irreconcilable—despite all that Tammany achieved during Roosevelt’s formative years in politics.

In fact, when Roosevelt made his peace with Tammany during Woodrow Wilson’s second term, it was not the peace of equally exhausted combatants, each willing to concede the other’s points in the interest of ceasing hostilities. FDR’s appearance at Charles Murphy’s side on July 4, 1917 was a victory for Murphy and for the urban liberalism and cultural pluralism that he and Tammany represented in the second decade of the 20th century. Roosevelt, in the end, came to Tammany. Tammany did not come to him.

That journey shattered the standard narrative which pitted Anglo Protestant reformers against Irish political bosses and their henchmen. And it moved Roosevelt closer to Tammany’s vision of progressivism, which Big Tim Sullivan summed up when he said, “I never ask a hungry man about his past. I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.”

Traditional reformers, immersed in Anglo-Protestant notions of worthiness rather than simple need, sought to change character and culture as part of a contract-like relationship with the poor and distressed.

Tammany, by contrast, fed people because they needed food. Ward-heelers asked no questions and demanded no behavioral changes of those who required a meal, a job, a favor. The entitlement programs of the New Deal, then, had more in common with Tim Sullivan’s methods of amelioration than they did with charities and settlement houses that saw the poor as clients rather than as neighbors. No wonder that some Progressives did not recognize their agenda in Franklin Roosevelt’s programs. They very likely saw Tammany’s influence, and not their own.

Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to work with, rather than against, the pragmatic Irish-American machine politicians he had campaigned against as a young man was an important turning point in his career. But he would not have had the trust of Tammany or any urban machines had he not jettisoned Progressive-era issues linked to culture and beliefs of urban immigrants, meaning Catholics and Jews. Those issues remained very much part of the nation’s conversation after World War I and FDR’s return to New York. The anxieties of Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, who feared for the nation’s future because of declining birthrates among white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were played out in politics and culture during the Jazz Age, with Tammany serving as a symbol of the power of the new dangerous classes – urban immigrants with alien beliefs and uncertain loyalties, at least in the eyes of many on all sides of the political spectrum.

The Ku Klux Klan, prohibitionists, and the eugenicist movement viewed immigrants and their immediate descendants as a source of social disruption, and the immigrants’ advocates, symbolized by Tammany Hall, as a wellspring of corruption. “In the city of New York and elsewhere in the United States,” wrote Madison Grant in The Passing of the Great Race, a famous lament for the end of Anglo-Saxon Protestant America, “there is a native American aristocracy resting upon layer after layer of immigrants of lower race.” Those “lower” races, Grant predicted, would inevitably dominate political power because democracy rewarded “the average man” rather than “the man qualified by birth, education and integrity.”

Tammany resisted the Progressive Era’s assertion that there was only one acceptable American identity, one that was stripped clean of Old World practices and customs. Instead, its leaders embraced hyphenated Americanism at a time when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted on one hundred percent Americanism. Indeed, Irish-American activists in New York noted that Progressive concerns about hyphenated identities apparently did not apply to those who spoke favorably about Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American virtues.

Tammany was equally adamant in opposing neo-nativist moves to restrict immigration in the early 1920s. Congressman William Bourke Cochran, who occasionally strayed from the Tammany reservation but who also served as the organization’s grand sachem from 1905 to 1908, was among the most-passionate opponents of restriction in the years following World War I . In a letter to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America in 1921, Cochran called immigration restriction “a renunciation and an abandonment of the policy which has made this country … the greatest agency for civilization in the history of mankind.” Restriction supporters, he said, “appealed to that peculiar but sinister spirit of hate and distrust that seems to be sweeping over the world.”

Responding to critics who complained that immigrants were slow to learn English, Cochran wrote, “Personally, I deem it much more important that a man should be able to work effectively, even though he cannot speak our language, than be fluent in several languages but inefficient in industry.” Tammany and Irish-American politicians in general had no time for the cultural anxieties of Anglo-Saxon Protestants who saw immigration as a threat to what the law’s sponsor, Indiana Congressman Albert Johnson, called “real Americanization.”

In siding with Tammany figures like Al Smith at this critical juncture in American history and culture, Franklin Roosevelt, New York’s ultimate upstate Protestant patrician, sent a signal to other well-born Democrats. The times were changing, and the future was with Democrats like Alfred E. Smith, champion of immigrants and a child of the city.

This is the third in a series of excerpts from Terry Golway’s book, “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics,” that will appear on Capital this week. You can buy the book here.

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