1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tammany Hall

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TAMMANY HALL, a political organization in New York City, U.S.A., claiming to be the regular representative of the Democratic party in that city. It takes its name from a sachem or chief of the Delaware Indians, Tamanend or Tammany, the name itself meaning “the Affable.” Before the War of Independence there were Whig societies called “Sons of St Tammany” and “Sons of Liberty,” with rituals in which Indian words were used to suggest the American character of the lodges. On the 12th of May 1789 William Mooney (d. 1832), an upholsterer, of Irish birth, who had probably been a member of an earlier Tammany society, founded in New York City the “Society of St Tammany” or “Columbian Order” as a patriotic, benevolent and non-political organization, with the intent to counteract the influence of what was believed to be the aristocratic Order of the Cincinnati. A few short-lived societies of a similar kind were founded in other states. In 1805 the New York Society was incorporated as a benevolent society, in 1811 it built its first wigwam, or hall, in Frankfort Street near the City Hall, and in 1867 it moved to its present hall in Fourteenth Street. The society was a secret organization, divided into tribes, with sachems (the most important being the Grand Sachem) as the chief officials, a sagamore, or master of ceremonies, and a winskinskie, or door-keeper, and with a ritual of supposedly Indian character. This “Tammany Society” is not itself the well-known political organization, but rents its hall to the Tammany Hall General Committee, the “Tammany Hall” of political notoriety; the leading members, however, of the “Society” and of the “Hall” are identical, and the “Society” controls the meeting-place of the “Hall,” so that the difference between the two is little more than nominal. Almost from the beginning Tammany has been actively engaged in politics, being part of, and during the greater period of its existence actually representing in New York City, the Democratic party, though always subordinating the interests of the party as a whole to its own selfish interests. It has had local rivals at different times, but these, though successful for a while, have not lived long; on the other hand, the Hall has not generally been regarded with favour by the Democratic party throughout the country at large.

Soon after its founding, Tammany came under the influence of Aaron Burr. In 1800 it worked for the election of Jefferson as President. It bitterly opposed De Witt Clinton for many years and was hostile to his large Irish constituency; but, after it secured in 1822 the constitutional amendments providing for manhood suffrage and for the abolition of imprisonment of debtors, and especially after 1827 when Tammany first tried to reduce the five-year period of residence necessary for naturalization, the foreign-born element gradually came into control of the “Society” and of the “Hall.” About 1842 Irish “gangs,” which used physical violence at election time, became a source of Tammany strength. It reached its height of power about 1870, under the leadership of William Marcy Tweed (1823-78), who used his popularity as a volunteer fireman to advance himself in Tammany and who was the first “boss” of the organization, which had formerly been controlled by committees. In the mayoralty and the other administrative offices and in the common council of the city, in the chief executive office of the state, in the state legislature, and even in some of the judges' seats, Tweed had placed (or had secured the election of) accomplices or tools, or else controlled votes by purchase. In April 1870 Tweed secured the passage of a city charter which put the control of the city into the hands of the mayor, the comptroller, and the commissioners of parks and public works. A system of official plunder then began that has had few parrallels in modern times. How much was actually stolen can never be known; but the bonded debt of the city, which was $36,000,000 at the beginning of 1869, was $97,000,000 in September 1871, an increase of $61,000,000 in two years and eight months; and within the same period a floating debt of $20,000,000 was incurred, making a total of $81,060,000. For this vast sum the city had little to show. The method of plunder was the presentation of excessive bills for work done, especially in connexion with the new court-house then being erected. The bills were ostensibly paid in full, but in reality only in part, the rest being retained by Tweed, and divided amongst his followers in proportion to their importance. The total cost of the court-house to the city was about $13,000,000 — many times the actual cost of construction. The amount paid ia these two years for the city printing and stationery was nearly $3,000,000. The end came through a petty quarrel over the division of the spoils. One of the plunderers, dissatisfied with the office he had received, gave to the New York Times a copy of certain swollen accounts which showed conclusively the stealing that had been going on. When Tweed was interviewed about the frauds his only reply was, “What are you going to do about it?” The better classes, however, were now thoroughly aroused, and with Samuel J. Tilden, afterwards governor of the state, at their head, and with the assistance of the Times and of Harper's Weekly, in the latter of which the powerful cartoons of Thomas Nast appeared, completely overthrew the ring and rescued the city. Tweed was tried and convicted, but was afterwards released on a technicality of law; he was re-arrested, but managed to escape and fled to Spain; he was identified and was brought back to gaol, where he died. The rest of the gang fared little better. Within a few years and under a new leader, John Kelly, Tammany was again in control of the city. Kelly was succeeded by Richard Croker, whose reign as “boss” continued until 1901. Since 1881 Tammany has been in virtual control of the city government about one-half the time, a Tammany and a reform mayor often alternating. There were elaborate investigations of Tammany's control of the city by committees of the legislature in 1890, 1894, and 1899. The most conspicuous overthrows of Tammany since the days of Tweed were in 1894, in 1901, when practically the whole reform ticket from mayor to alderman was elected, and in 1909, when the mayor (not a member of Tammany) was the only Tammany nominee on the general ticket elected. The grosser forms of corruption that prevailed under Tweed did not as a rule prevail in later years. Instead, the money raised by and for the Hall and its leaders has come from the blackmailing of corporations, which find it easier to buy peace than to fight for their rights; from corporations which desire concessions from the city, or which do not wish to be interfered with in encroachments on public rights; from liquor-dealers, whose licences are more or less at the mercy of an unscrupulous party in power; from other dealers, especially in the poorer parts of the city, whose business can be hampered by the police; from office-holders and candidates for office; and, lastly, indirectly through corrupt police officials, from the criminal classes and gambling establishments in return for non-intervention on the part of the police. The power of Tammany Hall is the natural result of the well-regulated machine which it has built up throughout the city, directed by an omnipotent “boss.” Each of the “assembly districts” into which the city is divided sends a certain number of representatives to the General Committee of Tammany Hall. Each district also has a “boss” or leader and a committee, and these leaders form the Executive Committee of the Hall. There is also a “captain” for each of the voting precincts, over 1000 in number, into which the city is divided. The patronage of the city filters down from the real “boss” of the Hall to the local precinct leader, the latter often having one or more small municipal offices at his disposal; he also handles the election money spent in his precinct. The party headquarters in the different assembly districts are largely in the nature of social clubs, and it is in considerable degree through social means that the control of the Hall over the poorer classes is maintained. The headquarters are generally over or near a saloon, and the saloon-keepers throughout Manhattan belong as a rule to the Hall — in fact, are its most effective allies or members. It should be remembered too that the Hall is not subject to divided counsels, but is ruled by one man, a “boss” who has risen to his position by sheer force of ability, and in whose hands rest the finances of the Hall, for which he is accountable to no one. When the “Greater New York” was incorporated the power of Tammany seemed likely to grow less because it was confined to the old city (Boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx), and the Democratic organizations in the other boroughs were hostile to it. The power of the organization in the state and in the nation is due to its frequent combination with the Republican organization, which controls the state almost as completely as Tammany does the city.

See Gustavus Myers, The History of Tammany Hall (New York, 1901).