The History of Tammany Hall

Tammany Quarrels with de Witt Clinton

THE quarrel between Tammany and De Witt Clinton arose from Clinton’s charge in 1802 that Burr was a traitor to the Republican party and had conspired to defeat Jefferson.  De Witt Clinton was a nephew of George Clinton.  When a very young man he was Scribe of the Tammany Society.  Owing to the influence of his powerful relative, backed by his own ability, he had become a United States Senator, at the promising age of thirty-three.  His principal fault was his unbridled temper, which led him to speak harshly of those who displeased him.  George Clinton thought himself, on account of his age and long public service, entitled to the place and honors heaped upon Burr, whom he despised as an unprincipled usurper.  He was too old, however, to carry on a contest, and De Witt Clinton undertook to shatter the Burr faction for him.  To oppose the Tammany Society, which embraced in itself nearly all there was of the Republican party in New York City, was no slight matter.  But De Witt Clinton, with the confidence that comes of steady, rapid advancement, went about it aggressively.  He had extraordinary qualities of mind and heart which raised him far above the mere politicians of his day.

Such of the elective offices as were allowed the city were filled by the Tammany Republicans from 1800 to 1809.  State Senators, Assemblymen and Aldermen were elective, but the Mayor, Sheriff, Recorder, Justices of the Peace of counties -in fact, nearly all civil and military officers from the heads of departments and Judgeships of the Supreme Court down to even auctioneers — were appointed by a body at Albany known as the Council of Appointment, which was one of the old constitutional devices for centralizing political power.  Four State Senators, chosen by the Assembly, comprised, with the Governor, this Council.  Gov. Clinton, as president of this board, claimed the exclusive right of nomination, and effectually concentrated in himself all the immense power it yielded.  He had De Witt Clinton transferred from the post of United States Senator to that of Mayor of New York City in 1803, and filled offices in all the counties with his relatives or partizans.  The spoils system was in full force, as exemplified by the Council’s sudden and frequent changes.  Though swaying New York City, Tammany could get only a few State and city offices, the Clintons holding the power elsewhere throughout the State and in the Council of Appointment, Hence in fighting the Clintons, Tammany confronted a power much superior in resources.

One of the first moves of the Clintons was to get control of the Manhattan Bank.  They caused John Swartwout, Burr’s associate director, to be turned out.  Some words ensued, and De Witt Clinton styled Swartwout a liar, a scoundrel and a villain.  Swartwout set about resenting the insult in the gentlemanly mode of the day.  Clinton readily accepted a challenge, and five shots were fired, two of which hit Swartwout, who, upon being asked whether he had had enough said that he had not; but the duel was stopped by the seconds.

While the Clintons were searching for a good pretext to overthrow Burr, the latter injudiciously supplied it himself when in 1804 he opposed the election of Morgan Lewis, his own party’s nominee for Governor.  Burr’s action gave rise to much acrimony; and from that time he was ostracized by every part of the Republican party in New York except the chiefs of the Tammany Society, or Martling Men.  He fell altogether into disgrace with the general public when he shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, July 11, 1804.  Tammany, however, still clung to him.  Two of Tammany’s chiefs — Nathaniel Pendleton and William P. Van Ness — accompanied Burr to the field; John Swartwout, another chief, was at Burr’s house awaiting his return.  The Tammany men looked upon much of the excitement over Hamilton’s death as manufactured.  But as if to yield to public opinion, the society on July 13 issued a notice to its members to join in the procession to pay the “last tribute of respect to the manes of Hamilton.”

In the inflamed state of public feeling which condemned everything connected with Burr and caused his indictment in two States, the Sachems knew it would be unwise for a time to make any attempt to restore him to political power.  They found their opportunity in December, 1805, when, strangely enough, De Witt Clinton, forced by the exigencies of politics, made overtures to form a union with the Burrites in order to resist the powerful Livingston family, which, with Gov. Morgan Lewis at its head, was threatening the Clinton family.  The Burrites thought they would get the better of the bargain and be able to reinstate their chief.

The negotiators met secretly February 20, 1806, at Dyde’s Hotel.  John Swartwout and the other Tammany chiefs insisted as conditions of the union that Burr should be recognized as a Republican; that his friends should be well cared for in the distribution of offices, and that “ Burrism ” should never be urged as an objection against them.  The Clintons, anxious to beat down the Livingstons, were ready to agree to these terms, knowing that Burr’s prestige was utterly swept away and that any effort of his followers to thrust him forward again would be a failure.  Clintonites and Burrites set to drinking hilariously as a token of good will.  But their joy was premature.

When the body of the Tammany men learned of the arrangement they were aroused.  The Sachems drew off, and the Tammany Society continued to revile Clinton and to be reviled in return.

It was just before this that the Tammany Hall political organization, as apparently distinct from the Tammany Society, was created.  In 1805 the society made application for, and obtained from the Legislature, the charter, which still remains in force, incorporating it as a benevolent and charitable body “for the purpose of affording relief to the indigent and distressed members of said association, their widows and orphans and others who may be proper objects of their charity.”

The wording of the charter deluded only the simple.  Everybody knew that the society was the center around which the Republican politics of the city revolved.  It had its public and its secret aspects.  “This society,” says Longworth’s American Almanac, New York Register and City Directory for 1807-1808, in a description of Tammany, “has a constitution in two parts — public and private — the public relates to all external or public matters; and the private, to the arcana and all transactions which do not meet the public eye, and on which its code of laws are founded.”

The Sachems knew that to continue appearing as a political club would be most impolitic.  Year after year since 1798 the criticisms directed at the self-appointed task of providing candidates for the popular suffrage grew louder.  In 1806 these murmurings extended to Tammany’s own voters.  Honest Republicans began to voice their suspicions of caucuses which never met and public meetings called by nobody knew whom.  The Sachems, though perfectly satisfied with the established forms which gave them such direct authority, wisely recognized the need of a change.

It was agreed that the Republicans should assemble in each ward to choose a ward committee of three and that these ward committees should constitute a general committee, which should have the power of convening all public meetings of the party and of making preparatory arrangements for approaching elections.  This was thl origin of the Tammany Hall General Committee, which, consisting then of thirty members, has been expanded in present times to over five thousand members.

At about the same time each of the ten wards began sending seven delegates to Martling’s, the seventy forming a nominating committee, which alone had the right to nominate candidates.  The seventy met in open convention.  At times each member would have a candidate for the Assembly, to which the city then sent eleven members.  These improvements on the old method gave, naturally, an air of real democracy to the proceedings of the Tammany faction in the city and had the effect of softening public criticism.  Yet behind the scenes the former leaders contrived to bring things about pretty much as they planned.

The action of the nominating committee was not final, however.  It was a strict rule that the committee’s nominations be submitted to the wards and to a later meeting of all the Republican electors who chose to attend and who would vote their approval or disapproval.  If a name were voted down, another candidate was substituted by the meeting itself.  This was called the “great popular meeting,” and its design was supposed to vest fully in the Republican voters the choice of the candidates for whom they were to vote.  But in those days, as has always been the case, most voters were so engrossed in their ordinary occupations that they gave little more attention to politics than to vote; and the leaders, except on special occasions, found it easy to fill the great popular meeting, as well as other meetings, with their friends and creatures, sending out runners, and often in the winter, sleighs, for the dilatory.  To the general and nominating committees was added, several years later, a correspondence committee, which was empowered to call meetings of the party when necessary, the leaders having found the general committee too slow and cumbersome a means through which to reach that important end.

To hold public favor, the Tammany Society thought prudent to make it appear that it was animated by patriotic motives instead of the desire for offices.  That the people might see how dearly above all things Tammany prized its Revolutionary traditions, the society on April 13, 1808, marched in rank to Wallabout, where it laid the cornerstone of a vault in which were to be placed the bones of 11,500 patriots who had died on board the British prison ships.  On April 26, the vault being completed, the remains were laid in it.  The Tammany Society, headed by Benjamin Romaine and the military; the municipal officials, Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins, members of Congress, Army and Navy officers, and many other detachments of men of lesser note participated in the ceremony.

The Federalists maintained that Tammany’s patriotic show was merely an election maneuver.  Subsequent developments did not help to disprove the charge.  The society proclaimed far and wide its intention of building a monument over the vault, and induced the Legislature to make a grant of land worth $1,000 for the purpose.  Associations and individuals likewise contributed.  The political ceremonies connected with the burial having their expected effect, Tammany forgot altogether about its project until ugly rumors, pointing to the misuse of the money collected, forced the society in 1821 to petition the Legislature for further aid in erecting the monument.  On that occasion the Tammany Society was denounced bitterly.  It was brought out that such was Tammany’s interest in the monument that no request was ever made for the land granted by the Legislature in 1808.  The Legislature, however, granted $1,000 in cash.1  This sum was not enough; and as Tammany did not swell the amount, though its Sachems were rich with the spoils of office, a resolution was introduced in the Assembly, March 4, 1826,2 stating that as the $1,000 appropriated February 27, 1821, had not been used for the purpose but remained in the hands of Benjamin Romaine, the society’s treasurer, it should be returned, and threatening legal proceedings in case it was not.  This resolution, slightly amended, was passed on a close vote.  There is, however, no available record of what became of the $1,000.

During three years, culminating in 1809, a series of disclosures regarding the corruption of Tammany officials astounded the city.  Rumors grew so persistent that the Common Council was forced by public opinion to investigate.  In the resultant revelations many Tammany chiefs suffered.

Benjamin Romaine, variously Sachem and Grand Sachem, was removed in 1806 from the office of City Controller for malfeasance, though the Common Council was controlled by his own party.3  As a trustee of corporation property he had fraudulently obtained valuable land in the heart of the city, without paying for it.  The affair caused a very considerable scandal.  The Common Council had repeatedly passed strong resolutions calling on him to explain.  Romaine must have settled in some fashion; for there is no evidence that he was prosecuted.

On January 26, 1807, Philip I. Arcularius, Superintendent of the Almshouse, and Cornelius Warner, Superintendent of Public Repairs, were removed summarily.4  It was shown that Warner had defrauded the city as well as the men who worked under him.5

Jonas Humbert, Inspector of Bread and sometime Sachem, was proved to have extorted a third of the fees collected by Flour Inspector Jones, under the threat of having Jones put out of office.  In consequence of the facts becoming known, Humbert and his associate Inspector, Christian Nestell, discreetly resigned their offices-probably to avert official investigation.6

Abraham Stagg, another of the dynasty of Grand Sachems, as Collector of Assessments failed, it was disclosed in 1808, to account for about $1,000.7  Two other Assessment Collectors, Samuel L. Page (for a long time prominent in Tammany councils), and Simon Ackerman, were likewise found to be embezzlers.8  Stagg and Page managed to make good their deficit by turning over to the city certain property, but Ackerman disappeared.

John Bingham, at times Sachem, and a noted politician of the day, managed, through his position as an Alderman, to wheedle the city into selling to his brotherin-law land which later he influenced the corporation to buy back at an exorbitant price.  The Common Council, spurred by public opinion, demanded its reconveyance.9 Even Bingham’s powerful friend, Matthew L. Davis, could not silence the scandal, for Davis himself had to meet a charge that while defending the Embargo at Martling’s he was caught smuggling out flour in quantities that yielded him a desirable income.

But worse than these disclosures was that affecting the society’s founder, William Mooney.  The Common -Council in 1808 appointed him Superintendent of the Almshouse, at an annual recompense of $1,000 and the support of his family in the place, provided that this latter item should not amount to over $500.  Mooney had a more exalted idea of how he and his family ought to live.  In the summer of 1809 the city fathers appointed a committee to investigate.  The outcome was surprising.  Mooney had spent nearly $4,000 on himself and family in addition to his salary; he had taken from the city supplies about $1,000 worth of articles, and moreover had expended various sums for “trifles for Mrs. Mooney” — a term which survived for many years in local politics.  The ofttimes Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society could not explain his indulgences satisfactorily, and the Common Council relieved him of the cares of office, only one Alderman voting for his retention.10

Most of these leaders were only momentarily incommoded, the Tammany Society continuing many of them, for years after, in positions of trust and influence.  Mooney subsequently was repeatedly chosen Grand Sachem and Father of the Council ;  Romaine was elected Grand Sachem in 1808, again in 1818, and frequently Sachem; Matthew L. Davis was elected Grand Sachem in 1814 and reelected in 181511 and was a Sachem for years later ;  Abraham Stagg remained a leader and continued to get contracts for street paving and regulating, and neither Jonas Humbert nor John Bingham suffered a loss of influence with the Wigwam men.

Meanwhile the Sachems were professing the highest virtue.  The society’s calls for meetings ran like this:

“Tammany Society, or Columbian Order — Brothers, You are requested to assemble around the council fire in the Great Wigwam, No. 1, on Saturday, the 12th inst., at 9 o’clock A.M. (wearing a bucktail in your hat), to celebrate the anniversary of the Columbian Order and recount to each other the deeds of our departed chiefs and warriors in order that it may stimulate us to imitate them in whatever is virtuous and just.”12

The public, however, took another view of the matter.  These scandals, and the showing of a deficit in the city’s accounts of $250,000, hurt Tammany’s prestige considerably.  The Republican strength in the city at the election of April, 1809, showed a decrease of six hundred votes, the majority being only 116, while the Federalists carried the State, and thus secured control of the Council of Appointment.

The lesson was lost on the leaders.  The society at this time was led by various men, of whom Teunis Wortman13 was considered the chief power.  Wortman was as enraged at the defection of these few hundred voters as his successors were at a later day at an adverse majority of tens of thousands.  He caused a meeting to be held at Martling’s on May 19, and secured the appointment of a committee, with one member from each of the ten wards, instructed to inquire into the causes contributing to lessen Tammany’s usual majority.  The committee was further instructed to call a general meeting of the Republican citizens of the county, on the completion of its investigation, and to report to them, that it might be known who were their friends and who their enemies.  Here is to be seen the first manifestation of that systematic discipline which Tammany Hall thereafter exercised.  Wortman’s plan excited both Clintonites and Federalists.  The committee was called “the committee of spies,” and was regarded generally as the beginning of a system of intimidation and proscription.

In the passionate acrimony of the struggle between Tammany and the Clintons, the Federalists seemed to be well-nigh forgotten.  The speakers and writers of each side assailed the other with great fury.  One of these was James Cheetham, a Clinton supporter and editor of the American Citizen.  Goaded by his strictures, the Tammany Society on the night of February 28, 1809, expelled him from membership on the grounds that he had assailed the general Government and vilified Jefferson.

In the American Citizen of March 1, Cheetham replied that the resolution was carried by trickery.  “Tammany Society,” Cheetham continued, “was chartered by the Legislature of the State for charitable purposes.  Not a member of the Legislature, when it was chartered, imagined, I dare to say, that it would be thus perverted to the worst purposes of faction.”  On May 1 he sent this note to the Grand Sachem:

“Sir, I decline membership in Tammany Society.  Originally national and Republican, it has degenerated into a savage barbarity.”

Cheetham then wrote to Grand Sachem Cowdrey for a certified copy of the proceedings, saying he wanted it to base an action which he would bring for the annulment of the charter of the Tammany Society for misuser.  Cowdrey expressed regret at not being able to accommodate him.  “Tammany Society,” wrote Cowdrey,

“ is an institution that has done much good and may and undoubtedly will do more. ... I do not think one error can or ought to cancel its long list of good actions and wrest from it its charter of incorporation, the basis of its stability and existence.”

The American Citizen thereupon bristled with fiercer attacks upon Tammany.  “Jacobin clubs,” says “A Disciple of Washington,” in this newspaper, July 29, 1809,

“are becoming organized to overawe, not only the electors but the elected under our government ;  such are the Washington and the Tammany Societies.  The latter was originally instituted for harmless purposes and long remained harmless in its acts ;  members from all parties were admitted to it ;  but we have seen it become a tremendous political machine.... The Washington Jacobin Club, it is said, consists of at least two thousand rank and file, and the Tammany Jacobins to perhaps as many. ... The time will come, and that speedily, when the Legislature, the Governor and the Council of Appointment shall not dare to disobey their edicts.”

Tammany retaliated upon Cheetham by having a bill passed by the Legislature taking away from him the position of State Printer, which paid $3,000 a year.

Tammany’s comparative weakness in the city, as shown in the recent vote, prompted Clinton to suggest a compromise and union of forces.  Overtures were made by his agents, and on July 13, 1809, twenty-eight of the leaders of the Clinton, Madison, Burr and Lewis factions met in a private room at Coleman’s Fair House.  Matthew L. Davis told them the chiefs ought to unite ;  experience demonstrated that if they did they would lead the rest — meaning the voters.  Tammany, he said, welcomed a union of the Republican forces so as to prevent the election of a Federalist Council of Appointment.  Davis and Wortman proposed that they unite to prevent any removals from office ;  that the two opposition Republican clubs in turn should be destroyed and that their members should go back to the Tammany Society, which, being on the decline, must be reenforced.  Or, if it should be thought advisable to put down the Tammany Society, “considering its prevailing disrepute,” then a new society should be organized in which Burrites, Lewisites, Clintonites and Madisonians were to be admitted members under the general family and brotherly name of Republican.

De Witt Clinton cautiously kept away from this meeting, allowing his lieutenants to do the work of outwitting Tammany.  A committee of ten was appointed to consider whether a coalition of the chiefs were practicable ;  whether, if it were, the people would agree to it ;  whether the Whig (opposition Republican) clubs should be destroyed and whether the Tammany Society should be re-enforced.

The meeting came to naught.  In this effort to win over the Tammany chiefs, De Witt Clinton abandoned his protege and dependent, Cheetham, who had made himself obnoxious to them.  Finding Clinton’s political and financial support withdrawn, Cheetham, out of revenge, published the proceedings of this secret meeting in the American Citizen, and, awakening public indignation, closed the bargaining.  A few nights later a Tammany mob threw brickbats in the windows of Cheetham’s house.  By his death, on September 19, 1810, Tammany was freed from one of its earliest and most vindictive assailants.

1 Journal of the Assembly, 1821, p. 532, also p. 758.

2 Ibid., 1826, p. 750.

3 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 16, pp. 239-40 and 405.

4 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 16, pp. 288-89.

5 Ibid., p. 316.

6 Ibid., p. 50.

7 Ibid., Vol. 18, p. 194.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., Vol. 20, pp. 355-56.

10 Ibid., Vol. 20, p. 303.  The full report on Mooney’s administration appears in Ibid., pp. 376-92.

11 Although the subsequent laws of the Tammany Society forbade the successive reelection of a Grand Sachem, the incumbent of the office was frequently permitted to “hold over.”

12 Advertisement in the Columbian, May 14, 1810.

13 Wortman had been a follower of Clinton and had been generously aided by him.  He suddenly shifted to Tammany, on seeing better opportunities of advancement with that body.