Urban Immigrant Politics of the Early 1900s

Many early 20th century immigrants landed at Ellis Island in New York City.
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During the early 20th century, the United States witnessed an explosion of immigration from Europe. These immigrants differed culturally from those who came, largely from England, during the colonial era through the middle of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, it was clear that many American cities, particularly in the North, had a concentrated population of immigrants from other areas of Europe, particularly Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe. These people suffered the ills of modern urban life in crowded, stuffy tenement buildings. Because American cities of the era did not, in general, offer social and municipal services, immigrants turned to political bosses for aid. The result was a patron and client relationship, in which the bosses supplied services in return for votes.

1 Machine Politics

Uniting within one political party, urban immigrants achieved power. Because affinity for the party and its leaders was often of more importance than issues, many referred to these coalitions as political machines. These machines arose in Northern cities where the majority of early 20th century European immigrants resided. A political “boss” controlled the city through the machine, dispensing patronage jobs to those loyal to the party.

2 Tammany Hall

Perhaps the most prominent of the early 20th century political machines was Tammany Hall in New York City. This political machine dominated New York City politics from 1854 to 1934. Founded in the late 18th century as the Saint Tammany fraternal order, a social organization, the group became a political force linked to the Democratic Party. To secure loyalty, Tammany leaders provided jobs and housing to immigrants who often needed such help. In return, the expectation was that the immigrants would vote for the candidates of the Democratic Party.

3 Ward Heelers

Because machine bosses could not address the day-to-day problems of all the immigrants, they delegated the job to others. Known as ward heelers, these functionaries held the responsibility for representing the party machine in a particular neighborhood. Ward heeler is a somewhat pejorative label for political workers who worked closely with, or under the heel of, the machine boss. In many cases, the ward heeler lived in the neighborhood with the immigrants. There was a central location where people could meet with the heeler to discuss issues. The relationship between the community and the ward heeler was on a personal level, something impossible for the main leaders of the political machine to maintain. Thus, the ward heeler was to immigrant voters the physical embodiment of the political party.

4 George Washington Plunkitt

One of the most known urban political bosses of the era was George Washington Plunkitt, a powerful New York State Senator from 1899 to 1904. Making reference to the trading of jobs for votes and money, Plunkitt chastised politicians who outright stole money, informing people that he instead performed “honest graft.” Plunkitt is an example of the politics of many cities in which immigrants, and other poor, in need of social services and career opportunities found help in the form of opportunistic political bosses.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.