Tammany Hall: History’s Most Notorious Political Machine

CULTURE | May 23, 2019

Political cartoon by Thomas Nast. The Tiger was Tammany Hall's mascot. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Nowadays, there are sometimes accusations of corruption in American politics, either real or supposed. Either way, it does well to recall one of the most famous cases of political corruption: New York City’s Tammany Hall. This political machine, which operated in the 19th and 20th centuries, was the most potent of its ilk and serves as a warning to future generations about the need to carefully check rampant power.

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians. Source: (wikipedia.org)

The Tammany Society was officially founded in New York City on May 12, 1789. The organization was named after Tamanend, a Native American sachem, or chief who died in the early 18th century. He led a tribe of the Lenapes in southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware and was a pacifist by nature. Tamanend had sold 300 square miles of territory to William Penn for a pittance.

One historian noted, “In retrospect, it hardly seems fitting that a political body known for wholesale public thievery should have been named after a man who was so easily taken.” To popular imagination, Tamanend was known as a pacifist and benevolent. He became a talisman for the young nation for his commitment toward peace. He was popularly called Saint Tamanend or Tammany.

Tammany Hall on East 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place in Manhattan, New York City (1914). Source: (wikipedia.org)

The Tammany Society, called also the Columbian Order, the Society of St. Tammany, or the Sons of St. Tammany, was led by a “Grand Sachem.” It was originally a fraternal organization based on benevolent, democratic principles for “pure Americans.” Initiation fees ranged from $2 to $8 based on ability to pay. By 1791 there were over 300 members.  Their mascot was the tiger.

Shortly thereafter, the Tammany Society became a political tool. This started in 1798 when Aaron Burr used the society to help marshal political support for anti-Federalist principles. It proved instrumental in the election of 1800 in allowing the Democratic-Republican ticket to be elected. In the ensuing years, the fortunes of the organization waxed and waned in the often complex subtleties of internal New York politics. However, the stage was set, and Tammany Hall would become a political force for the Democratic Party.

This Anti-Irish Cartoon shows the general attitude of Americans toward Irish immigrants. Source: (gettyimages.com)

In 1821, voting rights were extended to all white males in New York State with or without property. With a wider voting pool, Tammany began recruiting immigrants to their banner, particularly Irish. The political machine’s power greatly expanded with the outbreak of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s which drove many Irish overseas to New York.

The Irish had good reasons to join Tammany. Scorned by nativists for their foreign Catholicism, they were the low dregs of society. But Tammany supplied the immigrants jobs, lodging, and could swing citizenships. It is important to realize that then, unlike now, civil servants were generally appointed by the political party that won an election in a spoils system, also called patronage. This gave a winning political party a great deal of power. Patronage was the core of Tammany Hall’s strength.

By the 1850s, over a third of New York City’s voting population was Irish which cemented Tammany Hall’s power. They dominated the New York political scene thereafter, and by virtue of New York City’s prominence in terms of wealth and population, Tammany was often a power broker at the national level.

So Tammany Hall had a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the city’s immigrants, especially the Irish. In fact, credit should be given to Tammany for helping to incorporate the new immigrants into their new home. However, with their growth in power, came massive corruption.

Political cartoon by Thomas Nast of a caricature of Boss Tweed. Source: (gettyimages.com)

With the growth of the city came the need for massive public work projects. After the election of 1852 swept Tammany candidates to dominate the City Council, they started to wield their powers in ways that had never been done before. They could appoint city police. They could grant franchises to streetcar lines, they doubled as judges and could pick juries and what cases would be heard. They controlled liquor licenses. They routinely overpriced land and received kickbacks. For example, a lot for a potter’s field assessed at $30,000 was bought by the city for $103,450. The recipient of the plot handed back the difference to the council. They sold city land on the cheap for the City Council’s associates. Contractors routinely had bribe bidding wars in order to obtain a contract from the city. If a council member needed cash, one method The twenty aldermen and twenty assistant aldermen that composed the council became known as the “Forty Thieves” once knowledge of their misdoings came to light.

Tammany also liberally employed voting fraud. Back then, voters did not have the right to privacy when they voted. Tammany enforcers would “ensure” that people voted the correct way, which was for the Democratic Party which Tammany represented. “Riggers” would give voters pre-marked ballots to deposit in the box. “Strikers” for a fee brought Tammany voters to the ballot box in droves. Between 1868 and 1871, there were 8% more votes than there were eligible voters. Operatives would go from poll to poll as “repeaters” to cast multiple votes for Tammany candidates.

Reform was attempted, but it was never thorough enough. Worse was to come. First was Tammany Hall’s first successfully elected mayor, Fernando Wood in 1854. Aside from the usual corruptions, he employed the New York police force as a political tool. The situation got so bad that the Republican-controlled state government created a new police force to replace Wood’s. This resulted in the police vs. police brawl in front of city hall in 1857.

Thomas Nast Cartoon of Boss Tweed and Tammany Ring, "Who Stole the People's Money? / Twas him.", 1871, Stereo Card . Source: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The apogee of Tammany’s power came under “Boss” William M. Tweed, the operative of Tammany operatives. Tweed, who looked like the caricature of a fat cat, became Grand Sachem of Tammany in 1868 and through appointed positions came to dominate New York politics like none other. Bribery was just the tip of the iceberg. Fraudulent payments, rampant graft, and control over the voting box maintained the machine’s vice-like grip over the city. His most audacious scheme involved the building of Old New York County Courthouse. 

The massive, Italianate style building was used as the front to embezzle millions of dollars. The original budget for the courthouse was $250,000 (about $6 million today). However, the construction of the albeit very impressive structure cost the citizens $12 million. Keep in mind that this was an era when all of the land in Central Park cost $5 million and St. Patrick’s Cathedral cost $2 million. The kickbacks were enormous. Brooms were billed for $250,000. A million was billed for plumbing. There was enough carpet billed to cover the courthouse several times over. The marble was quarried from a quarry Tweed owned at hyper-inflated prices. It is unknown how much Tweed and his cronies pocketed.

William Magear Tweed (1823-1878). Source: (wikipedia.org)

Tweed himself never seemed as slimy as the political corruption he masterminded implied. He was affable, exuded confidence and was possibly the most powerful politician in the country in his day. But his star started to wane due to, curiously enough, by two riots, called the Orange riots between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants in 1870 and 1871. To many, it seemed that Tweed could not “control” the Irish. This combined with a series of powerful political cartoons by Thomas Nast which lampooned Tweed and his ring made Tweed and his regime look like an all too unfunny joke. This led to investigations and a huge scandal. He was arrested in 1872 and then convicted in 1877 of stealing up to $45 million from the city. He would die in jail in 1878.

Politicians and people from various professions revolve around Croker, depicted as the sun in this 1898 cartoon from Puck. Source: (wikipedia.org)

One might have expected that Tammany Hall would have collapsed from such a scandal. But it didn’t. “Honest” John Kelly, who was not involved in the Tweed Ring, took control and was able to restore Tammany’s dominance of New York. He was followed by Richard Croker as Grand Sachem whose iron grip on the political apparatus ensured domination by the political machine as well as other bosses right until the 1930s. Tammany even produced some outstanding politicians such as the 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith.

But the end was coming.

Tammany Hall Election Losses by Thomas Nast. Source: (gettyimages.com)

 In 1898, New York City expanded, incorporating the boroughs of Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Tammany lost power since it did not have the political apparatus in the boroughs. Then through the early decades of the 20th century, reformers sought to end Tammany’s power. This culminated in the election of Fiorello LaGuardia who worked to reform the government by empowering more civil service jobs based on merit rather than patronage. Further reform, and perceived (and real ties) to organized crime finally did Tammany Hall in. By 1967, the last vestiges of this once mighty political apparatus faded away.

Tags: politics | tammany hall

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.