The History of Tammany Hall

Aaron Burr at the Helm

THE second period of the Tammany Society began about 1798.  Relieved of its Federalist members, it became purely partizan.  As yet it was not an “organization,” in the modern political sense;  it did not seek the enrollment and regimentation of voters.  Its nature was more that of a private political club, which sought to influence elections by speeches, pampthlets and social means.  It shifted its quarters from Barden’s Tavern to the “Long Room,” a place kept by a sometime Sachem, Abraham or “Brom” Martling,1 at the corner of Nassau and Spruce streets.  This Wigwam was a forlorn, one-story wooden building attached to Martling’s Tavern, near, or partly overlapping, the spot where subsequently Tammany Hall erected its first building—recently the Sun newspaper building.  No larger than a good-sized room the Wigwam was contemptuously styled by the Federalists “the Pig Pen.”  In that year New York City had only 58,000 inhabitants.  The Wigwam stood on the very outskirts of the, city.  But it formed a social rendezvous very popular with the “Bucktails” of the time.  Every night men gathered there to drink, smoke and “swap” stories.  Fitz-Greene Halleck has written of a later time:

“There’s a barrel of porter at Tammany Hall,
And the Bucktails are swigging it all the night long;
In the time of my boyhood ’twas pleasant to call
For a seat and cigar mid the jovial throng.”

This social custom was begun early in the life of the society, and was maintained for several decades.

Aaron Burr was the first real leader of the Tammany Society.  He was never Grand Sachem or even Sachem;  it is doubtful whether he ever set foot in the Wigwam;  it is known that it was never his habit to attend caucuses;  but he controlled the society through his friends and protégés.  The transition of Tammany from an effusive, speech-making society to an active political club was mainly through his instrumentality.  Mooney2 was a mediocre man, delighting in extravagant language and Indian ceremonials, and was merely a tool in the hands of far abler men.  “Burr was our chief,”3 said Matthew L. Davis, Burr’s friend and biographer, and several times Grand Sachem of the society.

Davis’s influence on the early career of Tammany was second only to that of Burr himself.  He was reputed to be the originator of the time-honored modes of maaufacturing public opinion, carrying primary meetings, obtaining the nomination of certain candidates, carrying a ward, a city, a county or even a State.  During one period of his activity, it is related, meetings were held on different nights in every ward in New York City.  The most forcible and spirited resolutions and addresses were passed and published.  Not only the city, but the entire country, was aroused.  It was some time before the secret was known — that at each of these meetings but three persons were present, Davis and two friends.

Though Davis was credited with the authorship of these methods, it is not so certain that he did not receive his lessons from Burr.  Besides Davis, Burr’s chief protégés, all of whom became persons of importance in early New York, were Jacob Barker, John and Robert Swartwout, John and William P. Van Ness ;  Benjamin Romaine, Isaac Pierson, John P. Haff and Jacob Hayes.4  When Burr was in disgrace William P. Van Ness, at that time the patron of the law student Martin Van Buren, wrote a long pamphlet defending him.  At the time of his duel with Hamilton these men supported him.  They made Tammany his machine;  and it is clear that they were attached to him sincerely, for long after his trial for treason, Tammany Hall, under their influence, tried unsuccessfully to restore him to some degree of political power.  Burr controlled Tammany Hall from 1797 until even after his fall.  From then on to about 1835 his protégés either controlled it or were its influential men.  The phrase, “the old Burr faction still active,” is met with as late as 1832, and the Burrites were a considerable factor in politics for several years thereafter.  Nearly every one of the Burr leaders, as will be shown, was guilty of some act of official or private peculation.

These were the men Burr used in changing the character of the Tammany Society.  The leader and his satellites were quite content to have the Tammany rank and file parade in Indian garb and use savage ceremonies ;  such forms gave the people an idea of pristine simplicity which was a good enough cloak for election scheming.  Audacious to a degree and working through others, Burr was exceedingly adroit.  One of his most important moves was the chartering of the Manhattan Bank.  Without this institution Tammany would have been quite ineffective.  In those days banks had a mightier influence over politics than is now thought.  New York had only one bank, and that one was violently Federalist.  Its affairs were administered always with a view to contributing to Federalist success.  The directors loaned money to their personal and party friends with gross partiality and for questionable purposes.  If a merchant dared help the opposite party or offended the directors he was taught to repent his independence by a rejection of his paper when he most needed cash.

Burr needed this means of monopoly and favoritism to make his political machine complete, as well as to amass funds.  He, therefore, had introduced into the Legislature (1799) a bill, apparently for the purpose of diminishing the future possibility of yellow fever in New York City, incorporating a company, styled the Manhattan Company, to supply pure, wholesome water.  Supposing the charter granted nothing more than this, the legislators passed it.  They were much surprised later to hear that it contained a carefully worded clause vesting the Manhattan Company with banking powers.5  The Manhattan Bank speedily adopted the prevailing partizan tactics.

The campaign of 1800 was full of personal and party bitterness and was contested hotly.  To evade the election laws disqualifying the poor, and working to the advantage of the Federalists, Tammany had recourse to artifice.  Poor Republicans, being unable individually to meet the property qualification, clubbed together and bought property.  On the three election days6 Hamilton made speeches at the polls for the Federalists, and Burr directed political affairs for the Republicans.  Tammany used every influence, social and political, to carry the city for Jefferson.

Assemblymen then were not elected by wards, but in bulk, the Legislature in turn selecting the Presidential electors.  The Republican Assembly candidates in New York City were elected7 by a majority of one, the vote of a butcher, Thomas Winship, being the decisive ballot.  The Legislature selected Republican electors.  This threw the Presidential contest into the House of Representatives, insuring Jefferson’s success.  Though Burr was the choice of the Tammany chiefs, Jefferson was a favored second.  Tammany claimed to have brought about the result ;  and the claim was generally allowed.8 The success of the Republicans in 1800 opened new possibilities to the members of the Tammany Society.  Jefferson richly rewarded some of them with offices.  In 1801 they advanced their sway further.  The society had declared that one of its objects was the repeal of the odious election laws.  For the present, however, it schemed to circumvent them.  The practise of the previous year of the collective buying of property to meet the voting qualifications was continued.  Under the society’s encouragement, and with money probably furnished by it, thirtynine poor Republicans in November, 1801, bought a house and lot of ground in the Fifth Ward.  Their votes turned the ward election.  The thirty-nine were mainly penniless students and mechanics ;  among them were such men as Daniel D. Tompkins, future Governor of New York and Vice-President of the United States ;  Richard Riker, coming Recorder of New.York City ;  William P. Van Ness, United States Judge to be, Teunis Wortman, William A. Davis, Robert Swartwout and John L. Broome, all of whom became men of power.

The result in the Fifth Ward, and in the Fourth Ward, where seventy Tammany votes had been secured through the joint purchase of a house and lot at 50 Dey street, gave the society a majority in the Common Council.9  The Federalist Aldermen decided to throw out these votes, as being against the spirit of the law, and to seat their own party candidates.  The Republican Mayor, Edward Livingston, who presided over the deliberations, maintained that he had a right to vote.10  His vote made a tie.  The Tammany, or Republican, men were arbitrarily seated, upon which, on December 14, 1801, eight Federalists seceded to prevent a quorum;11  they did not return until the following March.

The Tammany Society members, or as they were called until 1818 or 1814, the Martling Men (from their meeting place), soon had a far more interesting task than fighting Federalists.  This was the long, bitter warfare, extending over twenty-six years, which they waged against De Witt Clinton, one of the ablest politicians New York has known, and remembered by a grateful posterity as the creator of the Erie Canal.

1 Martling was several times elected a Sachem.  Like most of the Republican politicians of the day he had a habit of settling his disputes in person.  Taking offense, one day, at the remarks of one John Richard Huggins, a hair-dresser, he called at Huggins’s shop, 104 Broadway, and administered to him a sound thrashing with a rope.  When he grew old Tammany took care of him by appointing him to an obscure office (Keeper of the City Hall).

2 Mooney was a life-long admirer of Burr, but was ill-requited in his friendship.  At Mooney’s death, in 1831, a heap of unpaid bills for goods charged to Burr was found.

3 American Citizen, July 18, 1809.

4 Hayes, as High Constable of the city from 1800 to 1850, was a character in old New York.  He was so devoted to Burr that he named his second son for him.

5 Hammond, Vol. I, pp. 129-30.

6 Until 1840 three days were required for elections in the city and State.  In the earlier period ballots were invariably written.  The first one-day election held in the city was that of April 14, 1840.  For the rest of the State, however, the change from three-day elections was not made until several years later.

7 During the greater part of the first quarter of the century members of the Legislature, Governor and certain other State officers were elected in April, the Aldermen being elected in November.

8 Shortly after Jefferson’s inauguration Matthew L. Davis called upon the President at Washington and talked in a boastful spirit of the immense influence New York had exerted, telling Jefferson that his elevation was brought about solely by the power and management of the Tammany Society.  Jefferson listened.  Then reaching out his hand and catching a large fly, he requested Davis to note the remarkable disproportion in size between one portion of the insect and its body.  The hint was not lost on Davis, who, though not knowing whether Jefferson referred to New York or to him, ceased to talk on the subject.

9 The Common Council from 1730 to 1830 consisted of Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen, sitting as one board.  The terms “Board of Aldermen” and “Common Council” are used interchangeably.

10 Ms. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 13, pp. 351-52.

11 Ibid., pp. 353-56.