But that is precisely who and what Sullivan was. His parents were impoverished Irish immigrants who lived in Manhattan’s infamous Five Points neighborhood, described by Charles Dickens in his “American Notes” as a place where “poverty, misery, and vice are sufficiently widespread.” Sullivan was born in 1862; his father, a Union Army veteran, died of typhus five years later. Big Tim was on the streets, shining shoes, before he was 10 years old. He must have been good with brushing and polishing – by his mid-twenties he was a successful saloon owner.
He quickly rose from the brass rail of the saloon to the brass knuckles politics of the Bowery and quickly became a powerhouse within 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 back to the friendlier confines of the State Senate in 1909. His return to Albany was timely, for the capital of the State of New York was about to become a driving force for social reform, and these reforms were written and adopted by the children of the huddled masses, some of them barely educated, a few from an ethical standpoint, and most of them witnessing first-hand the injustices of the Industrial Age. Big Tim was in the right place at the right time.
He formed one of the most unlikely partnerships in New York history, working with fervent social reformer Frances Perkins – destined to become the nation’s first female cabinet member – on a series of protection bills. social, including one limiting the working week for women and children. at 54 hours. Sullivan told Perkins why he supported the bill: “My sister was a poor girl and she went to work when she was young. I’m a little sorry for these poor girls… I would like to do them some good.
Perkins, unlike others in the reform movement of the day, saw Sullivan and other hardline politicians like him as natural allies in the fight for social justice because they had seen the effects of unbridled capitalism and unregulated. Unlike the reformers Perkins dealt with early in his career, Sullivan and his allies did not pretend to judge the character of people in need of a helping hand. “I never ask a starving man to talk about his past,” Big Tim once said. “I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.”
Perkins rejoiced in the street-level wisdom of Sullivan and his colleagues. “If I had been a man serving in the Senate with them,” she later wrote, “I’m sure I would have had a glass of beer with them and told them what the times were like on the old Bowery.” Reformers would have been appalled.
Sullivan pushed through the law that bears his name in 1911, when the Bowery and other neighborhoods were flooded with cheap guns, leading to appalling violence in the streets. The idea of requiring citizens to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon was considered so enlightened that reformers and elite progressives understandably suspected that this rough Irishman from the Bowery was up to something wrong.
It was suggested that he would work with corrupt neighborhood cops to plant guns on crooks and pimps who wouldn’t play ball with Tammany. It was an interesting theory. All that was missing was evidence. It was left to Reform journalist MR Werner to complain that Sullivan and his allies were preventing “citizens from protecting themselves from thieves.” Obviously, he had no idea having a beer with Sullivan and his friends.
Big Tim left Albany in 1913 for another term in Congress, but he fell ill and died soon after at the age of 51. The lessons he taught to more open-minded reformers were not forgotten. Decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Labor, Perkins, reminisced about their years in Albany and people like the big man from the Bowery.
“Tim Sullivan used to say that the America of the future would be made up of people who had come into steerage and who knew in their hearts and in their lives the difference between being despised and being accepted and loved,” he said. Roosevelt. “Poor old Tim Sullivan…was right about the human heart.”
His law is now off the books. His wisdom remains.
Terry Golway is an editor at POLITICO which has overseen political coverage in New York State. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.”