Encyclopedia of New York City

Tammany Hall

Political organization formed in 1788 in New York City as the Society of St. Tammany or Columbian Order, in response to the city's more exclusive clubs. Initially most of its members were craftsmen; they adopted Tamanend, a legendary Delaware chief, as their patron and used pseudo-Indian insignia and titles (the lowest ranks were known as braves, the council members as sachems). Meetings were held in a hall on Spruce Street from 1798 to 1812 and in another at Nassau and Frankfort streets from 1812 to 1868.

In the early nineteenth century the society supported Aaron Burr, Martin Van Buren, and such progressive policies as universal male suffrage, lien laws to protect craftsmen, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt. It was soon riddled with graft, scandals, and internal conflicts of which the most notable was a struggle in 1835 between the Locofocos and the conservative old guard. The leaders expanded their political base by helping immigrants to survive, find work, and quickly gain citizenship; the organization also opposed anti-Catholic and nativist movements of the day, thus earning loyalties that endured for generations. During the mid nineteenth century Mayor Fernando Wood furthered his career through the society, as did William M. Tweed (the insigne of his volunteer fire company, a tiger, became the society's symbol). In 1868 the society moved into its "wigwam" on East 14th Street near 3rd Avenue, where it was the host of the Democratic National Convention during the same year.

Tammany Hall did not become a disciplined political machine until it came under the direction of John Kelly (1872-86), the first of ten successive Irish-American bosses; it is said that he found the society a horde and left it an army. He introduced a system of organization in which assembly district leaders elected a leader, an unsalaried, extra-legal commander of operations. They also appointed precinct captains whose job it was to help families in their neighborhoods in times of emergency, to find them work, to ease any problems they had with the law, and to make sure that they voted. Although ballot boxes were often stolen on election day, most victories by candidates allied with Tammany Hall were achieved through year-round attention to voters' needs and interests. Because the boss controlled nominations to elective offices, he had the last word in the discretionary appointments made by successful candidates for municipal office and used this power to reward loyal district leaders and supporters and to punish dissenters. Political integration of different ethnic groups varied widely. From mid century Irish men dominated Tammany Hall and virtually monopolized district leaderships, remaining in power despite the changing population of their neighborhoods. Many Jews and Germans were admitted to the Tammany Society and were chosen to be state legislators, congressional representatives, and judges. The growing Italian population was largely ignored, and when the number of black voters in Harlem became significant the neighborhood was subdivided and reallocated to adjacent districts with white majorities, Richard Croker, the boss from 1886 to 1902 retained Kelly's system but delegated decisions about patronage to local leaders more than Kelly had done.

After consolidation in 1898 the primacy of Tammany Hall depended on gaining the cooperation of Democrats in the outer boroughs. Those in Brooklyn opposed the organization until John H. McCooey became the leader of Kings County in 1909. He was a long-time friend of Croker's successor, Charles F. Murphy. One result of their collaboration was the nomination of two mayoral candidates from Brooklyn, William J. Gaynor in 1909 and John F. Hylan in 1921. In state government during these years politicians allied with Tammany Hall sponsored progressive labor laws and opposed Prohibition and censorship. Murphy promised the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt that his organization would do nothing to prevent women from gaining the right to vote; women were later allowed to be district co-leaders but rarely had a voice in decisions. After Murphy's death the leaders decided to replace Mayor Hylan with James J. Walker, a member of Tammany Hall and a state senator. Their efforts were successful owing largely to the support of Edward J. Flynn, the leader in the Bronx, and to an effective campaign against Hylan by Governor Alfred E. Smith; after winning the Democratic primary they swept the November elections.

The machine received money and "kick-backs" from many sources: municipal suppliers, real-estate interests, aspirants for judgeships, and businessmen bidding for transit franchises and pier leases. Legal fees and brokerage commissions were funneled to politically active lawyers and insurance men, and generous campaign contributions were often made by such wealthy families as the Lehmans and the Strauses. Members of the inner circle profited from "honest graft," successful speculations based on confidential information about plans for schools and public works. As George Washington Plunkitt, a sachem who died a millionaire, declared: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

Tammany Hall reached its zenith in 1928. Smith was a powerful and widely respected governor, Walker an extraordinarily popular mayor. George W. Olvany, a college graduate was the boss, a new building was completed in 1929 on Union Square at 17th Street, and even reformers had few criticisms of Tarnmany Hall. The organization's fortunes soon changed. Investigations of civic corruption by Samuel Seabury led to Walker's resignation in 1932 John F. Curry, Olvany's successor, sought to block Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential nomination allowing Flynn, no longer in ally of Tammany Hall, to become the strongest link between the Democratic White House and the city. In 1933 Mayor John P. O' Brien, the incumbent and a loyalist chosen by Curry, finished last in a three-way mayoral election won by Fiorello H. La Guardia, who led a coalition opposed to Tammany Hall that remained in place for twelve years. Unable to meet mortgage payments, the sachems sold their building to Local 91 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1943. By the time the Democrats recaptured the mayoralty in 1945, Tammany Hall had virtually ceased to exist, although politicians bred in the organization continued to flourish into tap the 1950s and beyond.

Louis Eisenstein and Elliot Rosenberg: A Stripe of Tammany's Tiger (New York: R. Speller, 1966)

Alfred Connable and Edward Silberfarb: Tigers of Tammany: Nine Men Who Ran New York (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967)

-Frank Vos

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