The History of the New York City Legislature

By Frederick Shaw | Go to book overview

5. THE ALDERMAN AND HIS BAILIWICK

The Alderman is the political trolley that meets all trains. He acts as interpreter of his city's government to the individual citizen. He explains and disentangles. He is government itself. . . . The alderman is more than a tradition, less than a cartoon. He is an institution. In New York he is Father Knickerbocker himself, to nine families out of ten.--HENRY H. CURRAN, Member of Board of Aldermen, 1911-191711

A REPUBLICAN MEMBER once suggested delegating the powers of the Board of Aldermen to the leader of Tammany Hall on the ground that the legislators were "mere automatons moved at the will of that powerful organization." The actual governing power of the city resided not in its elected officials, but in the dominant political organization. Lincoln Steffens had once termed it the "unofficial, irresponsible, invisible government" behind the legal or constitutional facade. Steffens regarded the aldermen as "dummies" in the same sense as the Board of Directors of great corporations, which often served as fronts for financial operators. The Board of Aldermen was only nominally a deliberative body. Except for a few brief intervals when Fusion majorities prevailed, its public sessions were conducted for the purpose of formally registering the decisions of the leaders of the dominant party.2

From 1904 until 1934 the Democratic Party controlled the mayor's office and the Board of Aldermen almost uninterruptedly. Tammany Hall, the New York County Democratic organization, was popularly believed to rule the Democratic Party

____________________
1
Curran, John Citizen's Job, p. 197.
2
New York Evening Post, June 4, 1926; Steffens, Autobiography, pp. 232-35, 237; Peel, Pol. Clubs of N. Y. C., pp. 120, 122-23; Statement of Judge Samuel Seabury , New York Times, January 5, 1933.

-85-

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