Tammany Hall was a nineteenth and twentieth century New York City political machine that got its start in the 1780s as a benevolent society. Originally known as the Society of St. Tammany or the Columbian Order, the group modelled itself after a similar association organized in Philadelphia in 1772 whose stated purpose was to promote “pure Americanism.”
The name “Tammany” came from Chief Tammanend, a Lenni-Lenape Chief who had negotiated in the 1600s with William Penn in an effort to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Quaker colonists. Tammany Hall members adopted many Native American terms and symbols, for example calling their meeting hall a “wigwam” and their leader a “Grand Sachem.”
The group took a more political turn in 1789 when it incorporated with the stated purpose of opposition to the rule of the Federalist Party, which they saw as too aristocratic. In contrast, Tammany members saw themselves as the bastion of Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican principles.
Tammany members saw themselves as the bastion of Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican principles.
They made early alliances with such figures as then-Senator Aaron Burr and the politically powerful Clinton family in New York, though DeWitt Clinton would later become a political opponent. The group declared itself opposed to Alexander Hamilton and his Society of Cinncinati, whose members Tammany supporters berated as elite and hostile to the middle classes.
The Foundation of a Political Machine
By the early 1800s, Tammany leaders had to reassess their political direction. They realized they were being eclipsed by the Clinton political organization, and Aaron Burr’s appeal faded after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. They remained opposed to the powerful Clinton machine, though they were considered the less influential group until the War of 1812 brought a change of fortune.
Tammany members supported the War of 1812, which proved to be politically popular among New York voters. They abandoned their “pure American” language and began reaching out to immigrants in an effort to undercut similar tactics by the Clinton supporters. Though a Tammany candidate reclaimed the New York mayor’s office in 1815, Dewitt Clinton was elected governor and Tammany fortunes again fell.
Under the leadership of Martin Van Buren, Tammany officials looked for new issues and decided to champion for the right to vote for of all white men, regardless of property ownership. Taking credit for achieving this goal in 1821, Tammany began to attract support among the growing Irish immigrant population and its membership and influence grew.
A Populist Approach
Their support for Andrew Jackson in 1828 earned them the right to determine appointments to federal jobs in New York, bringing with it firm control of the New York Democratic Party and most subsequent elections. During the 1830s and 1840s, Tammany organizers made it a common practice to offer cash for votes, including the votes gathered from among those incarcerated in local prisons.
Their support for Andrew Jackson in 1828 earned them the right to determine appointments to federal jobs in New York, bringing with it firm control of the New York Democratic Party and most subsequent elections.
The influx of Irish immigrants arriving in New York City in the wake of the Potato Famine further expanded Tammany’s numbers and influence. Poor immigrants were guaranteed help with jobs and housing, even legal help if they needed it, all in exchange for votes on Election Day. As the Irish population of New York City grew, so did the influence of the Tammany machine, whose leaders managed to ignore the ever-increasing charges of bribery and corruption laid at their feet.
As the Irish population of New York City grew, so did the influence of the Tammany machine
“Boss” William Marcy “Tweed” stamped the Society indelibly with the taint of urban boss corruption. He led a Tammany-packed Board of Alderman that came to be known as the “Forty Thieves,” appointing police officers, licensing saloons, and running the city court systems.
Tweed himself served as the Tammany Grand Sachem, and he used his power to pilfer city funds and control all municipal appointments.
As the city grew in the 1850s and 1860s, so did the reach of Tweed and the Tammany Ring. He eventually attracted the censure of reform-minded journalists and disgruntled competitors and was finally toppled by the joint efforts of the New York Times, State Attorney General Samuel Tilden, and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. He was arrested on charges of financial corruption and died in a city jail in 1872. His demise did not mean the end of Tammany power, however.
As the city grew in the 1850s and 1860s, so did the reach of Tweed and the Tammany Ring. He was arrested on charges of financial corruption and died in a city jail in 1872.
Tammany Hall Beyond Boss Tweed
Tammany leadership passed to a former police officer, John Kelly, who had personally avoided the taint of Tweed scandals and was able to take power with the mantle of a reformer. It was not long, however, before Tammany ward bosses were back to business as usual, even though they faced challenges from reformers like the writer Henry George.
In the 1880s, Kelly was succeeded by his protégé, Richard Croker, a man who expanded reach of the Tammany machine beyond anything Boss Tweed could have imagined. He organized political clubs throughout the city, involved women and children in family activities, and took on a patina of respectability.
Tammany claimed to speak for the working classes and was able to marshal the ward votes to prove it. The city’s millionaire business class mounted a brief challenge to Tammany control in the 1890s, opening investigations into police corruption and funding political candidates, but as the century ended, Tammany politicians and organizers remained powerful and prosperous.
Progressive Ending Tammany
The Progressive Era saw more effective efforts to reign in Tammany’s strength. Financial panics in the 1890s and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 boosted calls for change. Middle-class reformers allied with Progressive national leaders and newsmen like William Randolph Hearst to shine a revealing light on shady Tammany activities. Charles Francis Murphy, who led the machine in the first two decades of the new century, made some efforts to clean up the organization’s image but Tammany leaders managed to hang onto the reins of power using many of the same tactics that had worked for decades.
Middle-class reformers allied with Progressive national leaders and newsmen like William Randolph Hearst to shine a revealing light on shady Tammany activities, but Tammany leaders managed to hang onto the reins of power using many of the same tactics that had worked for decades.
FDR Breaks Tammany Hall
The election of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932 and Fiorello La Guardia as Mayor of New York City in 1933 finally began the break Tammany’s hold on New York politics. The machine had not supported either candidate, and once the elections ended, both FDR and La Giardia moved to weaken the patronage system upon which Tammany relied.
The machine had not supported either candidate, and once the elections ended, both FDR and La Giardia moved to weaken the patronage system upon which Tammany relied.
Ward politics were eliminated in favor of city-wide officials. Roosevelt’s national relief programs were more effective than Tammany charities. The machine’s power base began to collapse. Convictions of some Tammany leaders of corruption and racketeering in the 1930s and 1940s completed the downfall.
A brief attempt at regaining power in the 1950s was curtailed by a coalition of Democratic reformers led Eleanor Roosevelt who discredited the remaining Tammany leadership. The once invincible Tammany Hall machine had disappeared completely from the political scene by the late 1960s.