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New York Politics in the Late 19th – Early 20th Century

As one of the nation’s greatest urban centers, New York City was the epitome of an American East Coast metropolis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Civil War, in its immediate aftermath, or in the Gilded Age, the ever-growing city remained one of the most notable centers of commerce and industry in the United States. As in any place in the United States, a gap between the poor and the wealthy existed in New York City throughout the period, creating a constant source of social tension. Additionally, the city’s bustling economy attracted numerous migrants from Europe, mainly from Ireland and Germany, and these soon formed communities that made the city’s already complicated ethnic landscape even harder to navigate. As one might expect, the complexity of the city’s politics mirrored that of its population: it was rough, chaotic, and often corrupt. This environment necessitated the emergence of unscrupulous yet efficient leaders building their power base on the newcomer voters – or even from the migrant communities themselves – to create a rough but wholly American political system.

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One of the main questions regarding the politics of New York City in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century is what type of political leader the metropolis required. In many senses, William Tweed, who dominated the city’s turbulent politics before, during, and after the Civil War, was the epitome of a New York politician of the time, as evidenced by his nickname. Tweed, one day to be known as “Boss,” began his career as a firefighter but soon shifted to politics and became a Congressman [Kandell, Mosaic, p. 166]. Realized that federal politics did not interest him, Tweed returned to his home turf and began building the power base among the city’s migrant population. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, he cajoled the migrants with jobs or street repairs in exchange for their electoral support [Kandell, Mosaic, p. 166]. While this was undoubtedly a corrupt practice, it was better than the alternative: the civil unrest among the poor and unemployed population living in abysmal conditions. The city’s politics required a Boss figure – someone to utilize the productive potential of the ever-growing migrant population.

One should also remember that participating in New York City’s turbulent politics was not exclusively reserved for the wealthy elite, and the opportunities existed for the people of humbler origins. Afore-mentioned Tweed may serve as one example, as his family belonged to a lower middle class at best [Kandell, Mosaic, p. 166]. Notably enough, he created the foundation for his political career during his time in the firefighting team, when he established himself as an energetic leader [Kandell, Mosaic, p. 166]. His other talents, such as good looks and dancing skills, were also useful for enlarging and maintaining social capital in New York City. If anything, physical stature went a long way to help an aspiring politician, as, in these days, “local political careers frequently began as an extension of masculine prowess of athletic skill” [Czitrom, Mosaic, p. 176]. A young man could start from the bottom of the social ladder and, with the help of his own talents, useful acquaintances, and a bit of luck, end up a powerful politician. Harsh as it was, New York politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries still offered opportunities for advancement.

A vivid illustration of this fact was Timothy Sullivan, also known under his nickname “Big Tim,” who had served multiple terms in the House of Representatives and both chambers of New York State Congress. Born in the family of Irish migrants and working his way up from a newsboy to a wholesale newsdealer and the member of the state assembly at the age of twenty-three [Czitrom, Mosaic, p. 173]. Sullivan consciously cultivated the “Big Tim” persona – an image of a self-made man who embodied the ideals of the Gilded Age [Czitrom, Mosaic, p. 173]. While his example was an exception rather than a rule – after all, not every child of Irish migrants came to wield such wealth and power – it was still a testimony to the possibility of doing so. Much like Tweed earlier, Sullivan relied on the support of the migrant voters – there was no other way for him to create a constituency and for then to improve their conditions. New York all but forced the immigrants into politics, and, as Sullivan’s example suggests, it worked surprisingly well on some occasions.

The reason why the politicians representing immigrant communities could assume political power was that the political system of New York in the late 19th and the early 20th century remained fundamentally American. This claim may seem puzzling at first – unscrupulous Tweed, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, was hardly an example of American civic virtues [Kandell, Mosaic, p. 166]. Sullivan was hardly a shining example of political integrity either, as he consistently appointed his cousins to prominent positions for the sake of loyalty [Czitrom, Mosaic, p. 177]. Yet both Tweed and Sullivan had other undeniably American qualities in common. They were both successful entrepreneurs as well as attractive men epitomizing the American standard of masculine beauty of the time. More importantly, they achieved their success, in no small measure, due to their own talents, energy, and ingenuity rather than favorable starting conditions. They were an exception rather than a rule – but a very real exception nonetheless. Rough and corrupt, New York politics still offered opportunities to self-made men possessing strong entrepreneurial spirit – in other words, it offered the American Dream, however illusory it was for most citizens.

As one can see, the turbulent New York politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries necessitated the emergence of effective, if unscrupulous, politicians capable of utilizing the potential of the massive newcomer population. William “Boss” Tweed was one of the first to recognize the importance of the immigrant voters and courted them with jobs and improvements of living conditions to build a steady power base. Coming from comparatively humble middle-class origins, he was able to become one of the city’s most influential politicians, thus showcasing that New York politics did not restrict opportunities to the wealthy elite. Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan was another example of an everyman politician who relied on the migrant’s electoral support and consciously cultivated the image of a humble and honest man who worked his way to the top. Neither Tweed nor Sullivan were paragons of political integrity and civic virtues, and corruption was a rule of thumb in New York’s political system of the time. Still, it offered plentiful opportunities to resourceful self-made men endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit and, as such, was wholly American at its core.


Czitrom, D. (2010). Underworlds and underdogs: Big Tim Sullivan and metropolitan politics in New York, 1889-1913. In L. Hartzell (Ed.), A mosaic of America, vol. 2 (pp. 172-191). Kendall Hunt Publishing.

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Kandell, J. (2010). Boss. In L. Hartzell (Ed.), A mosaic of America, vol. 2 (pp. 165-171). Kendall Hunt Publishing.

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