But that’s exactly what Sullivan was. His parents were poor Irish immigrants who lived in the infamous Five Point neighborhood in lower Manhattan, described by Charles Dickens in his American Notes as a place where “poverty, misery and vice are quite common.” Sullivan was born in 1862; his father, a Union Army veteran, died of typhus five years later. Big Tim walked the streets cleaning his shoes when he was under 10 years old. He must have been good at brushing and polishing—by the age of 20 he was already a successful saloon owner.
He quickly moved from the brass railings of the saloon to the hard-line politics of the Bowery, and soon became a powerhouse in New York’s Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1886, to the State Senate in 1893, to Congress in 1902, and then returned to the more friendly fold of the State Senate in 1909. His return to Albany was timely, as the state capital New York was about to become a driving force for social reform, and these reforms were written and carried out by the children of the huddled masses, some of whom were barely educated, some of them were ethically questionable, and most of them were firsthand witnesses to the injustices of society. . industrial age. Big Tim was in the right place at the right time.
He formed one of the most unexpected partnerships in New York history, working with serious social reformer Frances Perkins, who was destined to become the nation’s first female cabinet minister, on a host of welfare bills, including one to limit the working week for women. and children. up to 54 hours. Sullivan told Perkins why he supported the bill: “My sister was a poor girl and went to work when she was young. I feel a little sorry for these poor girls… I want to do them a good service.
Perkins, unlike others in the reform movement of the era, saw Sullivan and other hardline politicians like him as natural allies in the fight for social justice, as they saw the consequences of unbridled and unregulated capitalism. Unlike the reformers with whom Perkins dealt early in her career, Sullivan and his allies did not take it upon themselves to judge people in need of help. “I never ask a hungry man about his past,” Big Tim once said. “I don’t feed him because he’s good, but because he needs food.”
Perkins admired the street wisdom of Sullivan and his colleagues. “If I had served with them in the Senate,” she later wrote, “I’m sure I would have had a glass of beer with them and asked them to tell me what times were on the old Bowery.” Reformers would be shocked.
Sullivan got the legislation that bears his name passed in 1911, when the Bowery and other areas were flooded with cheap handguns, resulting in horrendous street violence. The idea of requiring citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons was considered so enlightened that reformers and progressive elites naturally suspected that this restless Irishman from the Bowery was up to no good.
It was speculated that he would work with corrupt cops in the neighborhood to plant guns for crooks and pimps who wouldn’t play catch with Tammany. It was an interesting theory. The only thing missing was the evidence. The reform-minded journalist M.R. Werner had to complain that Sullivan and his allies were preventing “citizens from defending themselves against thieves.” He obviously didn’t think about having a beer with Sullivan and his friends.
Big Tim left Albany in 1913 for a new term in Congress, but he was ill and died soon after at the age of 51. The lessons he taught the more open reformers were not forgotten. Decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt and his secretary of labor, Perkins, recalled years in Albany and people like the big man from the Bowery.
“Tim Sullivan said that the America of the future will be made up of people who are in the third grade and who know in their hearts and lives the difference between being despised and being accepted and loved,” Roosevelt said. “Poor old Tim Sullivan… was right about the human heart.”
His law is no longer in the books. His wisdom remains.
Terry Galway is a senior editor for POLITICO magazine and has overseen political coverage of New York State. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.