Preface to the First Edition (1901)

In most men’s minds a certain spell of wonder attaches to the career and character of the Tammany Society and Tammany Hall.  The long continuance of this dual power;  its control of the city, infrequently interrupted, throughout the century;  the nature of its principles, the method of its practices and the character of its personnel — all these combine to furnish a spectacle which exerts over the general mind a peculiar and strong fascination.

It was under the sway of this mood that I began the investigation which has resulted in this volume.  I had no thought, on beginning, to carry the work so far: I sought merely to satisfy my curiosity regarding the more important particulars of Tammany’s history.  But I soon learned that what I sought was not easily to be obtained.  The few narratives already published were generally found to be either extravagant panegyrics, printed under the patronage of the Tammany Society, or else partisan attacks, violent in style and untruthful in statement.  Usually both were characterized by their paucity of real information no less than by the number of their palpable errors of fact.

Turning from these, I determined to find the facts for myself.  My search led me first through the files of all the available newspapers from 1789 to the present time, and thence — for origins and contributory causes — through publications as far back as 1788; thence through State and city histories, and a great number of biographies, sketches, essays, political pamphlets and broadsides.  The fragmentary matter gleaned from these sources was found to be extremely valuable in helping to form the continuous thread of a narrative, and in determining contemporary spirit;  but the statements and conclusions, particularly with regard to the character and conduct of public men, were generally contradictory and inconclusive.  Realizing this, I began the last phase of my search — a task that has led me through numberless dreary pages of the Minutes and Documents of the Common Council (which for the years previous to 1831 exist only in manuscript), Journals and Documents of the Senate and Assembly, including the reports of various legislative committees;  Congressional and Executive Records, Treasury Reports, Records of the Police, Common Pleas, Superior and Supreme Courts; Minutes of the Oyer and Terminer;  Grand Jury Presentments, and Records of the Board of Supervisors.  Finally, I have had the good fortune, in developing the story of the middle and later periods, of having secured many valuable interviews with a number of men who actively participated in the stirring events of thirty, forty and even fifty years ago.

The purpose to write a book became fixed as my search progressed.  The work is finished, and the result is now to be given to the public.  What I have sought to produce is a narrative history — plain, compact and impartial.  I have sought to avoid an indulgence, on the one hand, in political speculation, and on the other, in moralizing platitudes.  Such deductions and generalizations as from time to time I have made, seem to me necessary in elucidating the narrative;  without them the story would prove to the reader a mere chronology of unrelated facts.

If my narrative furnishes a sad story for the leaders and chieftains of the Tammany Society and the Tammany Hall political organization, the fault is not mine, but that of a multitude of incontestible public records.  It was in no partizan spirit that I began the work, and in none that I now conclude it.  I have always been an independent in politics;  and I have even voted, when there seemed to me ample reason for doing so, a Tammany ticket.  I have tried to set down nothing in malice, nor with such exceptions as are obviously necessary with regard to living men, to extenuate anything whatever.  Those who may be tempted to consider my work partial and partizan, on account of the showing that it makes of Tammany corruption and inefficiency, will do well to read carefully the pages relating to the Whigs and to some other opponents of Tammany Hall.

The records show that a succession of prominent Tammany leaders were involved in some theft or swindle, public or private.  These peculations or frauds ranged, in point of time, from 1799 and 1805-6 to the later decades;  in the matter of persons, from the founder of the Tammany Society to some of the subsequent “bosses,” and in gradation of amount, from the petty thousands taken by Mooney, Stagg and Page, in the first decade of the century, to the $1,220,000 taken by Swartwout in 1880-88, and the undetermined millions taken by Wood and Tweed in the fifties, sixties and first two years of the seventies.  From nearly the beginning of its active political career, Tammany leaders, with generally brief interruptions, thus continued to abstract money from the city, the State and the nation — the interruptions to the practice generally coinciding with the periods when Tammany in those years was deprived of political power.

My search has shown me the absurdity of the pretense that any vital distinction exists between the Tammany Society and the Tammany Hall political organization.  Tammany members industriously propagate this pretense, but it has neither a historic nor an actual basis.  From 1805, the date of the apparent separation of the organization from the society, the Sachems of the latter have ruled the policies of the former.  Repeatedly, as in 1828, 1888, 1858, and 1857, they have determined the “regularity” of contending factions in the organization, and have shut the hall to members of the faction against which they have decided.  The Sachems have at all times been the leaders in the political body, and the control of the society in every year that Tammany has held control of the city, has determined the division of plunder for the ensuing year.  The Tammany Society and the Tammany political organization constitute a dual power — but, unlike Ormuzd and Ahrimanes, a duality working by identical means for an identical end.

The records show that Tammany was thus, from the beginning, an evil force in politics.  Its characteristics were formed by its first great leader, Aaron Burr, and his chief lieutenant, Matthew L. Davis; and whatever is distinctive of Tammany methods and policies in 1900 is, for the most part, but the development of features initiated by these two men one hundred years ago.  It is curious to recall, on looking back to the time when my researches began, the abundant evidences of misapprehension regarding Tammany’s earlier history.  “No especial discredit attached to Tammany Hall before Tweed’s time,” wrote, in effect, Mr. E.L. Godkin in an essay published a few years ago.  State Senator Fassett, in 1890, made a similar statement in his report on the investigation of conditions in New York City.  “Down to the time,” he says, “that the Tammany ‘ring,’ under the leadership of William M. Tweed, took possession of the government of New York City ... the office [of Alderman] was held in credit and esteem.”  The exact reverse of both statements is true; and abundant proof of my contention, I believe, will be found in the pages of this book.  Another instance may be given — though the opinion expressed, instead of being founded upon misapprehension, may charitably be set down as one of misjudgment.  “I was a Sachem of Tammany,” said a one-time noted politician recently, before the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, “in the days when it was an honor to be a Sachem.”  The precise time he did not specify; and it would be difficult to identify it from the description he has given.  Certainly, since 1805, the office of Sachem has been one ill calculated, of itself, to bring particular honor to the incumbent.

It would be dishonest to pretend for a moment that Tammany has been alone in its evil-doing; it has been simply the most ingenious and the most pretentious; and its practices have a historic continuity and persistence not shared by any of its rivals.  The Whigs, for instance, sought in every possible way to outdo Tammany in election frauds; they stuffed ballot boxes, colonized voters, employed rowdies and thugs at the polls and distributed thousands of deceptive ballots for the use of their opponents.  In fiscal frauds, likewise, they left a record well-nigh equaling that of Tammany.  The Native Americans imitated both Whigs and Tammany men, and the Republicans have given instances at Albany of a wholesale venality unapproached in the history of legislative bodies.  Among the few exceptions, during the earlier half of the century, to the general prostitution of civic ideals, was the career of the Workingmen’s party (1829-81) and of its successor, the Equal Rights party (1884-88).  The principles of both these parties were far in advance of their time; and though the effect tended somewhat to the temporary heightening of political standards, a reaction followed, which again brought in a long period of fraud and corruption.

But shameful as this record is, it is one which, viewed in the light of present practises and present ideals, gives the basis for a robust faith in the future.  The hiding of vice and the employment of indirect methods in cheating and plundering, are themselves an evidence of the existence of moral standards; and it is unquestionable that Tammany to-day outwardly conforms to ethical demands which would have been scoffed at a half century ago.  No one can read the details of political history without acknowledging a growing betterment in political methods.  “ Hardly a man [before the Civil War] could be found,” says Jesse Macy in his recent History of Political Parties in the United States, “who felt himself too virtuous to go into politics.  The sensitively moral were not repelled by political methods which to-day are regarded as disgraceful.” And further along he says:  “It is easy to forget that, from the very nature of moral progress, it often happens that intelligent moral leaders of one generation will in all good conscience say and do things which only the conscious hypocrite or the knave of a later generation can do.”  Pessimism as to political progress secures no support from real research.

It may be asked, and with some show of reason, how it has been possible for New York City to achieve its present rank in population, in wealth, in commerce and in transportation facilities; how it has acquired its splendid libraries, its magnificent buildings, its museums, its parks, its benevolent institutions, in the face of this continued dominancy of corruption, violence and fraud.  The answer is simple: the city has grown despite these adverse influences.  The harbor of New York is one factor; the Erie Canal (constructed notwithstanding the opposition of the dominant political party of the city) is another; the tremendous growth of the nation, and the thousand external influences that determined the location of the nation’s metropolis, are yet other factors.  The city has grown to magnificence and world-wide influence; but it has paid dear tribute for every forward step it has taken.  Imagination fails at picturing the metropolis that might have been, could the city throughout the century have been guided and controlled in the light of present-day civic ideals.

The difficulties of securing the publication of this work by any of the regular publishing houses proved insurmountable.  Two of the best known firms wrote that they could not encourage me to submit the manuscript to them for consideration.  Four others considered its publication “inadvisable,” though their readers had returned favorable recommendations.  One other declined it without giving reasons.  More recently, when the offer of certain responsible persons who had read the manuscript, to guarantee the expense of its publication, was made to a certain house, the firm replied:  “.. we should hardly feel warranted in locking horns with Tammany Hall...”  It was thought that perhaps an out-of-town house might issue it, but here again declinations were forthcoming.  Finally it was decided to attempt its publication by private subscription.  To this end I solicited individual advances to a publication fund, from a number of the city’s public-spirited citizens.  The appearance of the work at this time is due to the kindly interests of these men.

Acknowledgments for the courtesies tendered me, and for material aid rendered in the project of issuing the work, are due to a number of persons:  To the public-spirited citizens of different political faiths, who, while familiar with the scope of the work, contributed the funds for its publication without insisting upon a censorship of the manuscript or its alteration in any way for political purposes; and particularly to Mr. James B. Reynolds, Mr. James W. Pryor and Milo R. Maltbie, Ph.D.

Gustavus Myers.
New York City, January, 1901.

Foreword to the New Edition (1917)

Since the original publication of this work, a large number of inquiries have appeared in the Publisher’s Weekly and have come from other quarters requesting information as to where copies of The History of Tammany Hall could be obtained.  For the last ten years this work has been in continuous demand but unavailable.  For reasons fully set forth in the preface to that issue, the edition of 1901 was brought out in the face of difficulties.  Not the least of these was the self-expressed dread of certain publishing houses to bring out a work which (as some of them frankly admitted in their letters of declination) might bring reprisals to them in some unexplained form or other.

Hence to all intents and purposes, that edition was in the nature of a restricted private edition.  Denied the usual and almost indispensable publication and distribution facilities by the publishing houses, the work necessarily was subject to obvious disadvantages, and, so far as circulation went, practically took rank as a suppressed book — not, it is true, suppressed by any particular agency, but by the circumstances of the case.

In 1913 Mr. Edward Kellogg Baird, a public-spirited attorney in New York City, kindly undertook, in behalf of the author (who was absent in another country at the time) to see whether some one of the publishing houses would not bring out a new edition of The History of Tammany Hall, brought down to date.  In his letters to these publishers, Mr. Baird pointed out that there never had been any lack of general interest in this work, and referred to the extremely large number of reviews in important publications in many countries treating the book at length and commending its purpose and scope.  Mr. Baird also called the attention of publishers to the fact that the book was recognized as the only authority on the subject;  that it had been tested by time;  that there had never been a libel suit arising from any of the statements made therein;  and that, therefore, there could be no valid objection on the part of any publisher that publication of further editions would lead to any legal trouble.

With such possible objections thus disposed of in advance, Mr. Baird confidently expected that he would find at least one of the old-established publishers who would not be deterred by such considerations as influenced them to refuse publication in 1901.  But the replies were virtually repetitions of those received twelve years previously.  One of the first replies, dated February 24, 1913, from the senior member of a New York publishing house, read as follows:

“For the very same reason that the author of The History of Tammany Hall was unable to obtain a publisher for the original edition, leads us to decide unfavorably so far as we are concerned.  The policy of publishing the book was the first question raised by one of my partners, before he had a chance even to read the preface, and we as a firm have decided that the objection is too strong to permit us to bring the book out over our imprint.  I am sorry that we must be so cowardly, for the book itself is worthy of reissue, and I personally should be glad to see it published by my firm...”

At about the same time, the head of another prominent and older New York publishing house — a citizen, by the way, who had served as foreman of a noted grand jury exposing Tammany corruption — wrote this reply:

“I have given due consideration, with my partners, to the suggestion you are so kind to submit to us in regard to the publication of a new edition of The History of Tammany Hall brought down to date. ... I must report that our judgment is adverse to the desirability of re-issuing such a book with the imprint of our house.  I should be individually interested in obtaining a copy for my own library in case you may be able to secure for the work a satisfactory arrangement with some other house.”

An equally well-known New York publishing house sent this declination:  “We have looked over with interest The History of Tammany Hall, which you were good enough to submit to us, but are sorry to say that after a careful examination we are unable to persuade ourselves that we could successfully undertake its publication.”  The head of still another old-established New York publishing house wrote, on March 4, 1913, a long apologetic letter giving his reasons for not caring to undertake the publication of the work, the principal of those reasons being the plea that there was not sufficient prospect of gain “to compensate for some of the unpleasantness its publishers would have to endure.”  Yet a year later a magazine published by this identical house contained a laudatory reference to “Myers’s excellent History of Tammany Hall.”

On April 10, 1913, Mr. Baird wrote to a prominent Boston publishing house.  “Before offering the book,” Mr. Baird wrote in part, “ I want to tell you frankly that it has been turned down by other publishers, not because of any lack of excellence or authenticity, but simply because, as several of the publishers have frankly acknowledged, they ‘are afraid of reprisals from Tammany Hall.’

“Your house has been suggested by a publisher as one which is probably not so timid as some others, and as you are located out of town you are therefore not subject to local influences, and I write to ask if you would be interested in having the publication submitted to you.

“I might add that I have been lecturing on this subject at the City Club and other prominent clubs in the city, and the subject itself seemed to bring out record audiences wherever the lecture was given, and it is because so many people have asked me where they can obtain copies of Mr. Myers’s book, that I am prompted to endeavor to have a reprint of it.”

The reply of the Boston publishing house was a curt declination.

Subsequently the following letter was received by the author from a prominent New York City attorney:

“I have been endeavoring to purchase a copy of The History of Tammany Hall published by you, but as yet have been unable to find a copy in any of the book stores.  I shall appreciate it very much if you can tell me where I can obtain a copy.

“You may be interested to know that a few months ago a number of booksellers were given instructions to purchase and retire all outstanding copies of the book.  For whose account this order was given I do not know.  I am told by the booksellers that an advertisement for the book resulted in their being able to purchase only a few copies.”

To the present publishers the author gives all due appreciation for their unqualified recognition of the need of the publication of this work.

Gustavus Myers.
March, 1917.