The History of Tammany Hall

Resistance to Aristocracy

THE Society of St. Tammany, or Columbian Order, was founded on May 12, 1789, a fortnight later than the establishment of the National Government, by William Mooney.1  “His object,” says Judah Hammond,2 an early member of Tammany, “was to fill the country with institutions designed, and men determined, to preserve the just balance of power.  His purpose was patriotic and purely republican.  The constitution provided by his care contained, among other things, a solemn asseveration, which every member at his initiation was required to repeat and subscribe to, that he would sustain the State institutions and resist a consolidation of power in the general Government.”

Before the Revolution, societies variously known as the “Sons of Liberty” and the “Sons of St. Tammany” had been formed to aid the cause of independence.  Tammany, or Tamanend, was an Indian chief, of whom fanciful legends have been woven, but of whose real life little can be told.  Some maintain that he lived in the neighborhood of Scranton, Pa., when William Penn arrived, and that he was present at the great council under the elm tree.  His name is said to have been on Penn’s first treaty with the Indians, April 23, 1683.  He is also described as a great chief of the Delaware nation, and his wigwam is said to have stood on the grounds now occupied by Princeton University.  The fame of his wisdom, benevolence and love of liberty spreading to the colonists, they adopted his name for their patriotic lodges.  When societies sprang up bearing the names of St. George, St. Andrew or St. David and proclaiming their fealty to King George, the Separatists dubbed Tammany a saint in ridicule of the imported saints.  The Revolution over, the “Sons of Liberty” and the “Sons of St. Tammany” dissolved.

The controversy over the adoption of the Federal constitution had the effect of re-uniting the patriotic lodges.  The rich and influential classes favored Hamilton’s design of a republic having a President and a Senate chosen for life, and State governments elected by Congress.  Opposed to this attempt toward a highly centralized government were the forces which afterward organized the AntiFederalist party.  Their leader in New York was Governor George Clinton.  The greater number of the old members of the Liberty and Tammany societies, now familiarly known as “Liberty boys,” belonged to this opposition.

During this agitation Hamilton managed to strengthen his party, by causing to be removed, in 1787, the political disabilities bearing upon the Tories.  New York was noted for its Tories, more numerous in proportion than in any other colony, since here, under the Crown, offices were dispensed more liberally than elsewhere.  In the heat of the Revolutionary War and the times immediately following it, popular indignation struck at them in severe laws.  In all places held by the patriot army a Tory refusing to renounce his allegiance to King George ran considerable danger not only of mob visit, but of confiscation of property, exile, imprisonment, or, in flagrant cases of adherence to the enemy, death.  From 1783 to 1787 the “Liberty boys” of the Revolution, who formed the bulk of the middle and working classes, governed New York City politics.  In freeing the Tories from oppressive laws, and opening political life to them, Hamilton at once secured the support of a propertied class (for many of them had succeeded in retaining their estates) numerous enough to form a balance of power and to enable him to wrest the control of the city from the “Liberty boys.”

The elevation to office of many of the hated, aristocratic supporters of Great Britain inflamed the minds of the “Liberty boys” and their followers, and made the chasm between the classes, already wide, yet wider.  The bitterest feeling cropped out.  Hamilton, put upon the defensive, took pains in his addresses to assure the people of the baselessness of the accusation that he aimed to keep the rich families in power.  That result, however, had been partially assured by the State constitution of 1777.  Gaging sound citizenship by the ownership of property, the draughtsmen of that instrument allowed only actual residents having freeholds to the value of £100, free of all debts, to vote for Governor, LieutenantGovernor and State Senators, while a vote for the humbler office of Assemblyman was given only to those having freeholds of £20 in the county or paying forty shillings rent yearly.  Poor soldiers who had nobly sustained the Revolutionary cause were justly embittered at being disqualified by reason of their poverty, while full political power was given to the property-owning Tories.

“The inequality,” wrote one who lived in those days,

“was greatly added to by the social and business customs of the times.  ... There was an aristocracy and a, democracy whose limits were as clearly marked by manner and dress as by legal enactment. ... The aristocracy controlled capital in trade, monopolized banks and banking privileges, which they did not hesitate to employ as a means of perpetuating their power.”

Dr. John W. Francis tells, in his Reminiscences, of the prevalence in New York for years after the Revolution of a supercilious class that missed no opportunity of sneering at the demand for political equality made by the leather-breeched mechanic with his few shillings a day.

Permeated with democratic doctrines, the populace detested the landed class.  The founding of the Society of the Cincinnati was an additional irritant.  Formed by the officers of the Continental army before disbandment, this society adopted one clause especially obnoxious to the radicals.  It provided that the eldest male descendant of an original member should be entitled to wear the insignia of the order and enjoy the privileges of the society, which, it was argued, would be best perpetuated in that way.  Jefferson saw a danger to the liberties of the people in this provision, since it would tend to give rise to a race of hereditary nobles, founded on the military, arid breeding in turn other subordinate orders.  At Washington’s suggestion the clause was modified, but an ugly feeling rankled in the public mind, due to the existence of an active party supposedly bent on the establishment of a disguised form of monarchy.

It was at such a juncture of movements and tendencies that the Society of St. Tammany or Columbian Order was formed.  The new organization constituted a formal protest against aristocratic influences, and stood for the.widest democratization in political life.

As a contrast to the old-world distinctions of the Cincinnati and other societies, the Tammany Society adopted aboriginal forms and usages.  The officers held Indian titles.  The head, or president, chosen from thirteen Sachems, corresponding to trustees, elected annually, was styled Grand Sachem.  In its early years the society had a custom, now obsolete, of conferring the honorary office of Kitchi Okemaw, or Great Grand Sachem, upon the President of the United States.  Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Jackson were hailed successively as the Great Grand Sachems of Tammany.  After the Sachems came the Sagamore, or Master of Ceremonies, a Scribe, or secretary, and a Wiskinskie,3 or doorkeeper.  Instead of using the ordinary calendar designations, the society divided the year into seasons and these into moons.  Its notices bore reckoning from the year Columbus discovered America, that of the Declaration of American Independence and of its own organization.  Instead of inscribing:  “New York, July, 1800,” there would appear:  “Manhattan, Season of Fruits, Seventh Moon, Year of Discovery three hundred and eighth; of Independence twenty-fourth, and of the Institution the twelfth.”  In early times the society was divided into tribes, one for each of the thirteen original States; there were the Eagle, Otter, Panther, Beaver, Bear, Tortoise, Rattlesnake, Tiger, Fox, Deer, Buffalo, Raccoon and Wolf tribes, which stood respectively for New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.  A new member of the Tammany Society had the choice of saying to which of these tribes he cared to be attached.  Frequently the members dressed in Indian garb and carried papooses in their public parades.  They introduced the distinction between “long talks” and “short talks” in their public addresses.  The name “Wigwam” was given to their meeting-place, and Barden’s Tavern was selected as their first home.

At the initiation of the Grand Sachem a song beginning, “Brothers, Our Council Fire Shines Bright, ethoh!” was sung, and at the initiation of a member another song was sung, beginning:

“Sacred’s the ground where Freedom’s found,
And Virtue stamps her Name.”

The society contemplated founding a chain of Tammany societies over the country, and accordingly designated itself as Tammany Society, No. 1.  A number sprang into life, but only a few — those in Philadelphia, Providence, Brooklyn and Lexington, Ky., continued for any time, and even these disappeared about the year 1818 or a few years later.

The society showed its Indian ceremonies to advantage and gained much prestige by aiding in the conciliation of the Creek Indians.  After useless attempts to make a treaty with them, the Government undertook, as a last resort, in February, 1790, to influence Alexander McGillivray, their half-breed chief, to visit New York, where he might be induced to sign a treaty.  To Col. Marinus Willett, a brave soldier of the Revolution, and later Mayor of New York City, the mission was intrusted.  In July, 1790, Willett started North accompanied by McGillivray and twenty-eight Creek chiefs and warriors.  Upon their arrival in New York, then the seat of the National Government, the members of the Tammany Society, in full Indian costume, welcomed them.  One phase of the tale has it that the Creeks set up a wild whoop, at whose terrifying sound the Tammany make-believe red-faces fled in dismay.  Another version tells that the Tammany Society and the military escorted the Indians to Secretary Knox’s house, introduced them to Washington and then led them to the Wigwam at Barden’s Tavern, where seductive drink was served.  On August 2 the Creeks were entertained at a Tammany banquet.  A treaty was signed on August 13.

In June of the same year Tammany had established, in the old City Hall, a museum “for the preservation of Indian relics.”  For a brief while the society devoted itself with assiduity to this department, but the practical men grew tired of it.  On June 25, 1795, the museum was given over to Gardiner Baker, its curator, on condition that it was to be known for all time as the Tammany Museum and that each member of the society and his family were to have entrance free.  Baker dying, the museum eventually passed into the hands of a professional museum-owner.

Tammany’s chief functions at first seem to have been the celebration of its anniversary day, May 12;  the Fourth of July and Evacuation Day.  The society’s parades were events in old New York.  On May 12, 1789, the day of organization, two marquees were built two miles above the city, whither the Tammany brethren went to hold their banquet.  Thirteen discharges of cannon followed each toast.  The first one read:  “May Honor, Virtue and Patriotism ever be the distinguishing characteristics of the sons of St. Tammany.”  John Pintard,4 Tammany’s first Sagamore, wrote an account5 of the society’s celebration of May 12, 1791.  “The day,” he says,

“was ushered in by a Federal salute from the battery and welcomed by a discharge of 13 guns from the brig Grand Sachem, lying in the stream.  The society assembled at the great Wigwam, in Broad street, five hours after the rising of the sun, and was conducted from there in an elegant procession to the brick meeting house in Beekman street.  Before them was borne the cap of liberty;  after following seven hunters in Tammanial dress, then the great standard of the society, in the rear of which was the Grand Sachem and other officers.  On either side of these were formed the members in tribes, each headed by its standard bearers and Sachem in full dress.  At the brick meeting house an oration was delivered by their brother, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, to the society and to a most respectable and crowded audience.  In the most brilliant and pathetic language he traced the origin of the Columbian Order and the Society of the Cincinnati.  From the meeting house the procession proceeded (as before) to Campbell’s grounds, where upwards of two hundred people partook of a handsome and plentiful repast.  The dinner was honored by his Excellency [George Clinton] and many of the most respectable citizens.”

The toasts, that now seem so quaint, mirror the spirit of the diners.  “The Grand Sachem of the Thirteen United Fires,” ran the first, “may his declining sun be precious in the sight of the Great Spirit that the mild luster of his departing beams.may prove no less glorious than the effulgence of the rising or transcendent splendor of his meridian greatness.”  The second:  “The head men and chiefs of the Grand Council of the Thirteen United Fires -may they convince our foes not only of their courage to lift, prudence to direct and clemency to withhold the hatchet, but of their power to inflict it in their country’s cause.”

Up to 1835, at least, toasts were an important feature in public dinners, as they were supposed to disclose the sentiments, political or otherwise, of the person or body from whom they came.  In this fashion the Tammany Society announced its instant sympathy with the French Revolution in all its stages.  On May 12, 1793, the sixth toast read:  “ Success to the Armies of France, and Wisdom, Concord and Firmness to the Convention.”  “The first sentence was hardly articulated,” a newspaper6 records, “when as one the whole company arose and gave three cheers, continued by roars of applause for several minutes;  the toast was then given in whole and the applauses re-iterated.”

At ten o’clock that morning, the same account relates, “the society had assembled at Tammanial Hall, in Broad street, and marched to St. Paul’s Church, where Brother Cadwallader D. Colden delivered to a crowded and brilliant audience an animated talk on the excellence of the Government and situation of the United States when contrasted with those of despotic countries.”  In the procession were about 400 members in civilian dress.  From each hat flowed a bucktail — the symbol of Liberty — and the standard and cap of Liberty were carried in front of the line.  From the church “the Tammanials went to their Hall, where some 150 of them partook of an elegant dinner.”

Public feeling ran high in discussing the French Revolution, and there were many personal collisions.  The Tammany Society was in the vanguard of the American sympathizers’ and bore the brunt of abuse.  The pamphlets and newspapers were filled with anonymous threats from both sides.  “An Oneida Chief” writes in the New York Journal and Patriotic Register, June 8, 1793:

A Hint to the Whigs of New York:  To hear our Brethren of France villified (with all that low Scurrility of which their enemies the English are so well stocked) in our streets and on the wharves; nay, in our new and elegant Coffee House; but more particularly inthat den of ingrates, called Belvidere Club House, where at this very moment those enemies to liberty are swallowing potent draughts to the destruction and annihilation of Liberty, Equality and the Rights of Man, is not to be borne by freemen and I am fully of opinion that if some method is not adopted to suppress such daring and presumptuous insults, a band of determined Mohawks, Oneidas and Senekas will take upon themselves that necessary duty.”

There is no record of the carrying out of this threat.

Despite its original composition of men of both parties, the Tammany Society drifted year by year into being the principal upholder of the doctrines of which Jefferson was the chief exponent.  Toward the end of Washington’s administration political feelings developed into violent party divisions, and the Tammany Society became largely Anti-Federalist, or Republican, the Federalist members either withdrawing or being reduced to a harmless minority.  It toasted the Republican leaders vociferously to show the world its sympathies and principles.  On May 12, 1796, the glasses ascended to “Citizen” Thomas Jefferson, whose name was received with three cheers, and to “Citizen” Edward Livingston, for whom nine cheers were given.  “The people,” ran one toast, “may they ever at the risk of life and liberty support their equal rights in opposition to Ambition, Tyranny, to Sophistry and Deception, to Bribery and Corruption and to an enthusiastic fondness and implicit confidence in their fellow-fallible mortals.”

Tammany had become, by 1796-97, a powerful and an extremely partizan body.  But it came near being snuffed out of existence in the last year of Washington’s presidency.  Judah Hammond writes that when Washington, before the close of his second term,

“rebuked self-creative societies from an apprehension that their ultimate tendency would be hostile to the public tranquillity, the members of Tammany supposed their institution to be included in the reproof, and they almost all forsook it.  The founder, William Mooney, and a few others continued steadfast.  At one anniversary they were reduced so low that but three persons attended its festival.7  From this time it became a political institution and took ground with Thomas Jefferson.”

To such straits was driven the society which, a short time after, secured absolute control of New York City, and which has held that grasp, with but few and brief intermissions, ever since.  The contrast between that sorry festival, with its trio of lonesome celebrators, and the Tammany Society of a few years afterwards presents one of the most striking pictures in American politics.

1 Mooney was an ex-soldier, who at this time kept a small upholstery shop at 23 Nassau street.  He was charged with having deserted the American Army, September 16, 1776, and with joining the British forces in New York, where for a year he wore the King’s uniform.  The truth or falsity of this charge cannot be ascertained.

2 Hammond, Political History of the State of New York, Vol I, p. 341.

3 So spelled in all the earlier records.  Later, the s in the penultimate syllable came to be dropped.

4 John Pintard was one of the founders of the New York Historical Society, the Academy of Design and other institutions.  He was a very rich man at one time, but subsequently failed in business.

5 Dunlap’s American Daily Register, May 16, 1791.

6 New York Journal and Patriotic Register, May 15, 1793.

7 This statement of Hammond probably refers to May 12, 1797.