Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom offers a closer look General Brendan Donovan’s career, and “ward bosses” of the mid-nineteenth century.
General Brendan Donovan embodies the successful and popular Tammany Hall politician of the day. Tammany Hall was the dominant faction of the city’s Democratic Party. It attracted votes from recent immigrants and the city’s working classes, largely in exchange for services. In the harsh urban world of the mid-nineteenth century—before Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare—the local “ward boss” could provide some relief for families who needed it. Unemployed laborers looking for work, parents whose teenager ran afoul of the law, a widow desperate for coal to get through the winter, saloon keepers and other small businesses needing help with the city bureaucracy—these became the base of Tammany’s support. Donovan career first as policeman, then as building contractor, was a typical Tammany success story. His military service in the Mexican War and then the Civil War reminds us that not every Irish immigrant supported the Draft Riots or refused to fight. Indeed a large number of Irish, most notably the 69th Regiment, fought with distinction for the Union. For many, this proved the best path to citizenship. Donovan was what was known as a “War Democrat,” someone who supported the Civil war as the only way to force return of the Confederate states to the Union.
By 1860 the Democratic Party consistently controlled most NYC elections. But the Republican Party, founded in 1854, had risen rapidly with the national crisis over slavery. They elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, and they also controlled the state government in Albany. Republicans there had forced through creation of the city’s Metropolitan Police Force, replacing the old Municipal Police, in an effort to weaken Tammany’s power. The appointment and promotion of police had long been a key source of patronage and influence. Lincoln won re-election in 1864, but New York City voted overwhelmingly for his Democratic opponent, General George McClellan.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a leading abolitionist in the 1840s and 1850s, was now an important ally of the Republicans. For Douglass, as for most African Americans, the Civil War was fundamentally a struggle to destroy slavery and to make former slaves into American citizens. His powerful oratory and influential writing offered a sharp rebuke to the white supremacist views held by the great majority of Democrats and Americans.