This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The Rising Against the New Boss
Excerpted from the October 21, 1875 Issue
There is no very great mystery about the power either of Tammany Hall or of the “boss” who for the time being “runs” it, and it is on this account that we can hardly be expected to feel much enthusiasm at the prospect of a rising against the present one. Within the memory of the present generation of men in New York there has always been a “boss,” and at periodical intervals there has been a “rising” against him. Formerly it was Fernando Wood; then it was Tweed; now it is Kelly. Moreover, there are certain facts which tend always to the production of “bosses” in this city. New York is Democratic and very wealthy, and is managed through machinery which is very intricate and difficult to get the run of. This machine must be managed by a set of men who devote a very large part of their time to it, and as politics is not an attractive profession to people of wealth and intelligence in this country, these men will be in the main poor men who are “after” money. Honestly or dishonestly, Wood, Tweed, and Kelly get rich out of the city treasury, and then, being men of property, they use it to advance their friends and punish their enemies. This process goes on without attracting much attention, until the “boss” has made a good many enemies, when he in turn is denounced as a “usurper” and “tyrant,” and with the aid of good citizens and the press he is “hurled from power” into ignominy and oblivion—or Congress.
It is necessary, however, for the reformers and exhorters who wish to hurl the “boss” from power to remember that it is a process which must not be repeated too frequently. In former times, the practice used to be to allow the memory of the last rising to die out before a new one was begun. The young and enthusiastic can always be persuaded once in their lives that if they will only rise and hurl a “boss” from power, all will be well—that there will be no more fraud or peculation, no more interference with the independence of the judiciary, no more Tammany Hall. But when they have seen it done once, and yet are made painfully aware that Tammany has not been swept away, nor is the judiciary independent, nor has corruption disappeared, but another “boss” has come in to take the place of the old one, they cannot in reason be expected to “rise” immediately again. No community has the journalistic capacity for continuous indignation at things it cannot alter, and so, instead of rising, they remain perfectly quiet. Rising against “bosses” is really such a necessary and valuable last resort in New York that we should be sorry to see the practice fall into contempt through familiarity with it. There is very little danger that the people of New York will allow themselves to be persuaded into believing that the wild election nightmares invented by the press have any real existence. On the other hand, if the people have made up their minds to “rise” against John Kelly, rise they undoubtedly will and “hurl” him into the abyss.