Who’s the Boss: Tammany Versus Republicans

Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom offers a closer look General Brendan Donovan’s career, and “ward bosses” of the mid-nineteenth century.


Five Points newcomer, General Brendan Donovan.

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 Douglas, portrayed by Eamonn Walker.

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.

  • tc

    could Sarah be nude in every show, I hope that was not a body double, which I expect it was, she was toooooooo hot. I just want to bite her azz, but not hard, sorry not into pain

  • Bulwyer Lytton

    Chances are if you were Irish and fought in the Civil war thrn you were also a Fenian. Those were American IrishMen who meant to invade Ireland and take it back from the Brits as soon as the Civil was over. There were around 100 thousand trained and battle hardened veterans up for the task. They did try to invade Canada but the Canadians arrested them as they got off the train. They did leave behind lots of good Irish songs and I have heard a few of them in the backround of Copper. I bet the Brits do t want to talk about that.
    If he was at Gettysburg and from New York then he would have been in Gen. Sickles Third Corps. Sickles was a real piece of work Who got most of them killed out of total incompetence. There is story there. Sickles was around in Copper’s period and claiming to be a hero. He was mostly famous for shooting his wifes lover and getting away with it.

    • Ignotus

      If I may:
      The Democrat “machine” in NYC was vehemently anti-War. Fernando Wood, Mozart Hall v. Tammany Hall, etc. The Fighting 69th wasn’t representative of the political power structure.
      Dan Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg. Though one may question the wisdom of his advancing his corps beyond the Union front lines – uncharacteristically bold for a Union commander – one may not reasonably question his personal bravery. NYC voted overwhelmingly for McClellan in ’64. The war should have ended at Antietam.
      On British bias: IMHO the scripts are vehemently anti-Protestant and anti-Anglo-American. There was the idiotic, ahistorical defamation of Bishop Onderdonk (who died years before the setting of the series), that no one has ever explained. I’ve yet to see a WASP character who isn’t a drunkard or an opium eater or a swindler or a Southern sympathizer, and most seem to be two or more of the foregoing. Even the German(ic) Madam is identified as a Prussian.
      I enjoy the series for what is is: an atmospheric costume drama, with some fine performances, based on scripts exhibiting amusing and sometimes irksome biases.