This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at a curious but revealing scandal that emerged in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day n 1888. The mayor refused to attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade and to fly the flag of Ireland over City Hall and paid a heavy political price.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and Amelia Earhart’s final flight. And birthdays, including
March 16, 1751 – 4th POTUS James Madison
March 18, 1837 – the 22nd and 24th POTUS Grover Cleveland
March 17, 1777 – SCOTUS justice Roger B. Taney
Feature Story: The St. Patrick’s Day Scandal of 1888
On March 17, 1888 – 132 years ago this week – the mayor of New York City made a huge mistake. It was St. Patrick’s Day and yet, Mayor Abram Hewitt made good on his recent pledge to not review the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and not to fly the Irish flag over City Hall. The Mayor framed his decision as a stand for pure, enlightened political leadership that was above pandering to what he considered petty, special interests. But the city’s enormous Irish population did not see it that way and Hewitt would soon learn a painful lesson in late-nineteenth century urban politics.
Abram Hewitt was a wealthy industrialist and former congressman who had won election as mayor of New York in 1886. Although a member of the elite, “silk stocking” set, he ran as the candidate of Tammany Hall, the legendary political organization that drew its power from the city’s immigrant masses – especially the Irish. Tammany officials had selected him out of panic, because the election of 1886 had featured a stunning challenge by an upstart Labor Party that had selected as its candidate the reformer Henry George, a man immensely popular with the city’s laboring masses. Just as Tammany had hoped, Hewitt’s respectable image helped him garner just enough votes to narrowly defeat George.
Although elected on the Tammany Hall ticket and to a large degree by the Irish vote, Hewitt was a blueblood who abhorred the idea of ethnic politics. Unfortunately for him, he lacked the political good sense to keep this disdain to himself. So when a delegation of representatives of Irish organizations came calling on March 6, he did little to conceal his contempt.
The delegation had come in response to rumors that Hewitt would not review the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “The majority of Irishmen vote the Democratic ticket,” they reminded him, “and your vote came largely from Irishmen, a considerable portion of whom belong to the societies who will parade on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Hewitt was clearly irked by their suggestion that he owed the Irish an appearance at the parade. He snapped back, “Now let us understand each other. I am mayor of this city. You ask me to leave my duties and review your parade –”
At that moment he was interrupted by one of the delegation. “But Mr. Mayor, St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday.”
“It is not a legal holiday,” continued the mayor testily. “You ask me to leave my duties and review your parade, and you speak of the vote cast by the Irish in your societies for the Democratic candidates. I may be a candidate for mayor or for President next fall and may want all the votes I can get … But for the purpose of getting this [Irish] vote, I will not come down to the level of reviewing any parade because of the nationality represented. I will review no parades, whether Irish, German, or Italian as a Democrat. I will review parades only as mayor of the whole city and irrespective of party considerations.”
The delegation of Irishmen left the meeting angry and empty handed.
When word of the mayor’s refusal to review the parade hit the papers, the city’s huge Irish population reacted angrily. The tradition of having the mayor review the St. Patrick’s Day parade had begun nearly four decades earlier and since that time no mayor had ever refused the honor. Several critics pointed out that Hewitt actually had reviewed an ethnic parade a year earlier, when Italian societies marched in commemoration of Garibaldi’s defense of Rome. To the city’s Irish, the mayor’s decision was an insult that reflected elite New York’s low opinion of them.
The mayor’s blunt refusal to review the parade immediately called into question a second longstanding tradition in Manhattan: the flying of the Irish flag over City Hall on March 17. In anticipation of a fight, an Irish American Alderman named Patrick Divver authored a resolution calling for the Irish flag to be flown over City Hall on March 17 and it passed unanimously. A second resolution, clearly intended to force the mayor’s hand, was also passed, calling for the American flag to be flown at half-staff on March 16 in honor of the Kaiser William I of Germany who had just died.
Hewitt tried his best to navigate the political minefield before him, aware of the importance of both the Irish and German vote. He ordered the American flag flown at half-staff on March 16 as an expression of sympathy for the Kaiser and the following day ordered it raised to full staff in honor of Ireland. But no Irish flag was raised. Mentions of Hewitt’s name at the parade that day drew catcalls and hisses from the crowd.
That evening, Hewitt tried to mend fences with the Irish by attending the annual dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. And he delivered a short address in which he said, “The day will come when you will see the flag of Ireland floating where it ought to float, over a free nation in a free Ireland.”
It was a nice gesture in support of Irish nationhood, but it did little to appease the city’s Irish population. And besides, Hewitt returned to his original form a few days later when the Board of Aldermen passed a law granting them the power to decide what flag would fly over City Hall on any given day. Hewitt vetoed the bill and issued a scathing rebuke to the Irishmen on the Board who were behind it. He noted that while the Irish-born made up 16.4 percent of the city’s population, they constituted an unnaturally high 27 percent of the Board of Aldermen and 28 percent of the police department. Even worse, continued the mayor, the Irish contributed an even greater percentage to the city’s prison and asylum populations. Apparently, Ireland hadn’t sent its best. “The facts above stated when properly considered,” concluded the mayor, “should impose a modest restraint [on the Irish] in claiming new privileges.”
The Board promptly passed the measure over Hewitt’s veto.
Well, mayors in those days served only two-year terms, so Hewitt faced re-election that fall. Tammany Hall, recognizing that Hewitt threatened to erode their Irish voter base, withdrew its support from him and nominated an Irish-born candidate named Hugh J. Grant. Hewitt nonetheless managed to secure the nomination of several Democratic and independent political organizations. The Irish turned out in droves on election day and sent Hewitt to a third-place finish behind Grant and the Republican candidate.
The St. Patrick’s Day affair of 1888 established an absolute rule for New York City politics: politicians who insulted the city’s largest ethnic groups did so at their peril. The dominant ethnic and racial groups have changed in the years since 1888 to include Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Asians, and African Americans, but the rule remains the same.
And here’s a fun fact: While NYC’s St Patrick’s Day parade is huge and gets a lot of attention, it’s no longer the city’s largest ethnic parade. That honor goes to the annual West Indian Day parade that honors people from places like Jamaica, Grenada, and Trinidad. And you better believe the mayor never misses it.
William V. Shannon, The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (1964), pp. 75-76;
Allan Nevins, Abram S. Hewitt: With Some Account of Peter Cooper (1935), pp. 465-7
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “I will Be There” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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