The Irish immigrant’s love of conversation and camaraderie quickly led to immersion into politics in the new country.
The second generation Irish are well represented in the list of big city bosses that ruled much of the United States and the Democratic Party from the late 1900s to the 1950s.
These included Thomas Pendergast in Kansas City, Missouri, and Michael Curley, the long-time mayor of Boston and a governor of Massachusetts. And there was Frank Hague in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Pendergast started Harry Truman on a political career. Curley won election even when in prison.
Hague amassed great wealth and promoted another Irish-American, Al Smith, as far the Democratic nominee for president.
The strength of these men were based on ward politics, the ability to help and assist residents.
Naturally a lot of the politicking involved the local taverns and municipal patronage, finding government jobs for supporters.
They were building on the tradition of another son of Irish and Scotish immigrants, William Tweed, known as Boss Tweed. He ruled New York City around the time of the U.S. Civil War.
With the exception of the Daley organization in Chicago, Illinois, the twilight of these big city bosses coincided with the movement of third- and fourth-generation offspring of Irish immigrants to the suburbs to be replaced with other ethnic and racial groups in the big cities.
Television also seemed to reveal the depth of the corruption in a way that printed newspapers could not.
Frank Hague in Jersey City worked his way up from knocking on doors in the city’s Second Ward to being a kingmaker even at the national level. Irish Democratic politics was so successful there that Jersey City had but one Republican mayor in 75 years.
The current primary election political free for all that dominated CNN is nothing compared to the treachery, double dealing, and outright authoritarianism found in Jersey City under Hague and his successor bosses, Frank Hague Eggers and John V. Kenny. In fact, Hague won his first election by buying votes.
He maintained his power by being able to deliver the votes from his ward to the Democrats he supported. Later he delivered enough Jersey City votes to determine the state governor’s races.
Patronage meant placing supporters in government jobs, even as lowly janitors, police officers, firemen, dog catchers and hundreds of other positions controlled by the party machinery. It mean attending weddings, funerals and baptisms. It meant buying drinks and delivering food packages. It meant caring for the health of the voters. Hague built a massive 10-building medical center in the city.
Although Hague was corrupt and a notorious bribe taker, he still was effective in improving city services, making the police department more responsive and eliminating street crime.
Hague retained the job of police commissioner throughout his political career, so he could order squads of burly cops to patrol the city in unmarked cars. They did not need probable cause to stop and frisk pedestrians. Hague also instituted a system of controls at the tunnels that connected Jersey City to New York City. Unapproved New York crooks were turned back at the tunnel exits.
That could have caused major court cases, but Hague also controlled the state Supreme Court.
What some historians call the underworld of Irish politico-crime is not well-known to most Americans. But expats who follow Latin American politics can see some of the same trends. The current scandals in Brazil is an example.
So today, St. Patrick’s Day, a history of U.S. big city bosses provides an added dimension to the Irish contribution to America over and above stepdancing, banshees, leprechauns and Guinness stout.