Thomas Fleming: Why Election Day Meant More to the Irish in My Youth than St. Patrick's Day

Roundup: Talking About History

Thomas Fleming, in the NYT (3-17-05):

[Thomas Fleming is the author of "The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I" and the forthcoming "Mysteries of My Father: An Irish-American Memoir." He is a member of HNN's board of directors.]

In Jersey City, Election Day was a lot more important than St. Patrick's Day. The voting booth was where we learned to tell the Protestant establishment that the Irish-Americans might be nowhere but they had no intention of staying there.

The man who did most of the telling in Jersey City was a tall, lean Irish-American named Frank Hague. He put together what students of the subject consider the ultimate political machine. Unlike other bosses, Hague refused to make nice with Hudson County's Protestant powers. He forced the railroads to pay millions in city taxes they had avoided for decades with the help of the Republican Party. This was no small accomplishment: the Pennsylvania and other lines owned 25 percent of Jersey City's property.

Hague also involved himself in labor disputes. Before he took office, thugs hired by the corporations often beat and shot striking workers on Jersey City's streets. Hague vowed to put an end to this practice. He forced the corporations to arbitrate the disputes (and served as an arbitrator himself). The workers usually won these bloodless arguments. And he confounded the Protestants by cleaning up downtown Jersey City. Hague closed brothels and dance halls where prostitutes picked up customers and reformed the Police Department, which had become all but indifferent to enforcing the law when payoffs were forthcoming. Hague was not a model of ethical perfection in other ways, but no one in Jersey City worried about that.

Davey Fleming [my grandfather] used to say that Hague - "the Big Fellow" - had the nerve of a burglar going up the outside of a New York skyscraper.

My father [Teddy Fleming], who had won a lieutenant's commission during the Battle of the Argonne, also liked Hague's hardball style. Teddy Fleming also made sure that at least 90 percent of the Sixth Ward voted the straight Democratic ticket on Election Day. That was the expected percentage in all 12 Jersey City wards.

This Irish-American-led political juggernaut elected Democratic governors and senators and soon had a lot to say about judges, district attorneys and numerous other officials in the rest of New Jersey.

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for a third term against the wishes of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt went to Mayor Hague, who was vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Hague's close friend, Mayor Ed Kelly of Chicago, and let them handle the nominating convention.

In Albany, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Jersey City, Kansas City, New York and Pittsburgh, which is by no means a complete list, tens of thousands of Irish-Americans found a way out of the slums thanks to their political machines. (A term no Jersey City Irish-American ever used - it was always "the Organization.") The grandsons and granddaughters of these policemen, firemen, court officers and other state and municipal jobholders armed themselves with college and law degrees and got somewhere in the larger American world.

What does all this mean on St. Patrick's Day?

Gradually, as I turned into an historian to understand the world in which I grew up, I realized we Irish-Americans have our own story to tell - a very different story from the Irish in Ireland. It's a story with plenty of troubles and not a little heartbreak. But threaded through it is the triumph of a defeated people who used America's freedom to win their share of pride and prosperity.

On St. Patrick's Day, that's worth a come all ye or two. But I hope we never forget the importance of Election Day.