The History of Tammany Hall

Slow Recovery from Disaster

THE Tammany men fared badly for a time.  During 1809 the Council of Appointment removed numbers of them from office.  In November the Federalists elected a majority of their Aldermanic ticket, and in April, 1810, they elected their Assembly ticket by the close majority of 36.  Even when the Federalists were beaten the following year, it brought no good to Tammany, for a Clintonite Council of Appointment dispensed the offices.  Clinton, though ousted from the Mayoralty in 1810 to make room for the Federalist Jacob Radcliff, was again made Mayor in the Spring of 1811.

But before long affairs took another turn.  Tammany was the only real Republican organization in the city.  It stood for the national party.  As men were inclined to vote more for party success than for particular local nominees, Tammany’s candidates were certain to be swept in at some time on the strength of party adherence.  While the rank and file of the organization were concerned in seeing its candidates successful only inasmuch as that meant the success of democratic principles, the leaders intrigued constantly for spoils at the expense of principles.  But whatever their conduct might be, they were sure of success when the next wave of Republican feeling carried the party to victory.

De Witt Clinton’s following was largely personal.  Drawing, it was estimated, from $10,000 to $20,000 a year in salary and fees as Mayor, he lived in high style and distributed bounty liberally among his supporters.  His income aroused the wonder of his contemporaries.  The President of the United States received $25,000 annually; the Mayor of Philadelphia, $2,000.  “ Posterity,” said one observer, “will read with astonishment that a Mayor of New York should make the enormous sum of $15,000 out of his office.” This was no inconsequential salary at a time when a man worth $50,000 was thought rich; when a good house could be rented for $350 a year, and $750 or $800 would meet the expenses of the average family.  Many of those whom Clinton helped picked a quarrel with him later, in order to have a pretext for the repudiation of their debts, and joined Tammany.

Tammany had the party machine, but Clinton had a powerful hold on the lower classes, especially the Irish.  As United States Senator he had been foremost in having the naturalization period reduced from fourteen to five years, and he made himself popular with them in other ways.  He, himself, was of Irish descent.

The Irish were bitter opponents of Tammany Hall.  The prejudice against allowing “adopted citizens” to mingle in politics was deep; and Tammany claimed to be a thoroughly native body.  As early as May 12, 1791, at Campbell’s Tavern, Greenwich, the Tammany Society had announced that being a national body, it consisted of Americans born, who would fill all offices; though adopted Americans were eligible to honorary posts, such as warriors and hunters.  An “adopted citizen” was looked upon as an “ exotic.”  Religious feeling, too, was conspicuous.  It was only after repeated hostile demonstrations that Tammany would consent, in 1809, for the first time to place a Catholic — Patrick McKay — upon its Assembly ticket.

The accession of the Livingston family had helped the society, adding the support of a considerable faction and “respectability.”  The Livingstons, intent on superseding the Clintons, seized on Tammany as a good lever.  Above all, it was necessary to have a full application of “respectability,” and to further that end the society put up a pretentious building — the recent Sun newspaper building.  In 1802 the Tammany Society had tried by subscription to build a fine Wigwam, but was unsuccessful.  The unwisdom of staying in such a place as Martling’s, which subjected them to gibes, and which was described as “ the Den where the Wolves and Bears and Panthers assemble and drink down large potations of beer,” was impressed upon the Sachems who, led by Jacob Barker, the largest shipbuilder in the country at the time, raised the sum of $28,000.  The new Wigwam was opened in 1811, with the peculiar Indian ceremonies.  Sachem Abraham M. Valentine — the same man who, for malfeasance, was afterward (May 26, 1830) removed from the office of Police Magistrate1 — was the grand marshal of the day.

From 1811 the Tammany, or Martling, men came, under the general term of the Tammany Hall party or Tammany Hall; the general committee was called technically the Democratic-Republican General Committee.  The Tammany Society, with its eleven hundred members, now more than ever appeared distinct from the Tammany Hall political body.  Though the general committee was supplied with the use of rooms and the hall in the building, it met on different nights from the society, and to all appearances acted independently of it.  But the society, in fact, was and continued to be, the secret ruler of the political organization.  Its Sachems were chosen yearly from the most influential of the local Tammany political leaders.

De Witt Clinton aimed to be President of the United States and schemed for his nomination by the Republican Legislative caucus.  Early in 1811 he sought and received from the caucus the nomination for Lieutenant-Governor.  He purposed to hold both the offices of Mayor and Lieutenant-Governor, while spending as much time as he could at Albany so as to bring his direct influence to bear in person.  As a State officer he could do this without loss of dignity.  He would have preferred the post of State Senator, but he feared if he stood for election in New York City Tammany would defeat him.  The chiefs, regarding his nomination as treachery toward Madison, immediately held a meeting and issued a notice that they ceased to consider him a member of the Republican party; that he was not only opposing Madison but was bent on establishing a pernicious family aristocracy.

When the Clinton men tried to hold a counter meeting at the Union Hotel a few days later, the Tammany men rushed in and put them to flight.2  Tammany was so anxious to defeat Clinton that it supported the Federalist candidate for Lieutenant-Governor, defeating the aggressive Mayor.  But Clinton obtained the caucus nomination for President.  His partizans voted the Federalist Assembly ticket (1812) rather than aid the Republican ticket of Tammany Hall.  Assisted by the Federalists, Clinton received the electoral vote of New York State, but was overwhelmed by Madison.  His course seemed precisely that with which Tammany had charged him — treason to the party to which he professed to belong.  In a short time the Wigwam succeeded in influencing nearly all the Republicans in New York City against him.

One other event helped to bring back strength and prestige to Tammany Hall.  This was the War of 1812, which Tammany called for and supported.  On February 26, four months before war was declared, the Tammany Society passed resolutions recommending immediate war with Great Britain unless she should repeal her “Orders in Council.”  The members pledged themselves to support the Government “in that just and necessary war” with their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”  The conservative element execrated Tammany, but the supporters of the war came to look upon it more favorably, and about a thousand persons, some of whom had been members before but had ceased attendance, applied for membership.  Throughout the conflict Tammany Hall was the resort of the war-party.  At the news of each victory the flag was hoisted to the breeze and a celebration followed.  The successful military and naval men were banqueted there, while hundreds of candles illumined every window in the building.  On August 81, 1814, 1150 members of the society marched to build defenses in Brooklyn ;  but this was not done until public pressure forced it, for by August 15 at least twenty other societies, civil and trades, had volunteered, and Tammany had to make good its pretensions.

The leaders prospered by Madison’s favor.  From one contract alone Matthew L. Davis reaped $80,000, and Nathan Sanford was credited with making his office of United States District Attorney at New York yield as high as $80,000 a year.  The lesser political workers were rewarded proportionately.  Having a direct and considerable interest in the success of Madison’s administration, they were indefatigable partizans.  Some of the Tammany leaders proved their devotion to their country’s cause by doing service in the Quartermaster’s Department.  Among these were the two Swartwouts (John and Robert), who became Generals, and Romaine, who became a Colonel.

This war had the effect of causing the society to abandon its custom of marching in Indian garb.3  In 1813 the Indians in the Northwest, incited by British agents, went on the war-path, torturing and scalping, devastating settlements and killing defenseless men, women and children.  Their very name became repulsive to the whites.  The society seemed to be callous to this feeling, and began preparations for its annual parades, in the usual Indian costumes, with painted faces, wearing bearskins and carrying papooses.  The Federalists declared that these exhibitions, at all times ridiculous and absurd, would be little short of criminal after the cruelties which were being committed by the Tammany men of the wilderness.  These attacks affected the Tammany Society so much that a majority of the members, consisting mainly of the politicians and young men, held a secret meeting and abolished all imitations of the Indians, in dress and manners as well as in name, and resolved that the officers should thereafter bear plain English titles.

Mooney opposed the change.4  He would not listen to having those picturesque and native ceremonies, which he himself had ordained, wiped out.  He resigned as Grand Sachem, and many of the Sachems went with him.  On May 1, 1813, Benjamin Romaine was elected Grand Sachem, and other “reformers” were chosen as Sachems.  On July 4 the Tammany Society marched with reduced numbers in ordinary civilian garb.  From that time the society contented itself with civilian costume until 1825, when its parades ceased.

The attitude of the political parties to the war had the effect of making Tammany Hall the predominant force in the State, and of disorganizing the Federalist party beyond hope of recovery.  Tammany began in 1813 to organize for the control of the State and to put down for all time De Witt Clinton, whom it denounced as having tried to paralyze the energies of Madison’s administration.  Meanwhile the Federalist leaders in the city, with a singular lack of tact, were constantly offending the popular feeling with their political doctrines and their haughty airs of superior citizenship.  To such an extent was this carried that at times they were mobbed, as on June 29, 1814, for celebrating the return of the Bourbons to the French throne.

The organization of Tammany Hall, begun, as has been seen, by the formation of the general, nominating and correspondence committees, in 1806 and 1808, was now further elaborated.  A finance committee, whose duty it was to gather for the leaders a suitable campaign fund, was created, and this was followed by the creation of the Republican Young Men’s General Committee,5 which was a sort of auxiliary to the general committee, having limited powers, and serving as a province for the ambitions of the young men.  The Democratic-Republican General Committee was supposed to comprise only the trusted ward leaders, ripe with years and experience.  About the beginning of the War of 1812, it added to its duties the issuing of long public addresses on political topics.  These general committees were made self-perpetuating.  At the close of every year they would issue a notice to the voters when and where to meet for the election of their successors.  No sooner did the committee of one year step out than the newly elected committee instantly took its place.  There were also ward or vigilance committees, which were expected to bring every Tammany-Republican voter to the polls, to see that no Federalist intimidation was attempted and to campaign for the party.  The Tammany Hall organization was in a superb state by the year 1814, and in active operation ceaselessly.  The Federalists, on the contrary, were scarcely organized, and the Clintonites had declined to a mere faction.

The Tammany leaders, moreover, were shrewd and conciliating.  About forty Federalists — disgusted, they said, with their party’s opposition to the war — joined the Tammany Society.  They were led by Gulian C. Verplanck, who severely assailed Clinton, much to the Wigwam’s delight.  Tammany Hall not only received them with warmth, but advanced nearly all of them, such as Jacob Radcliff, Richard Hadfelt, Richard Riker and Hugh Maxwell, to the first public positions.  This was about the beginning of that policy, never since abandoned, by which Tammany Hall has frequently broken up opposing parties or factions.  The winning over of leaders from the other side and conferring upon them rewards in the form of profitable public office or contracts has been one of the most notable methods of Tammany’s diplomacy.

1 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 72, p. 137.  Judge Irving and an Aldermanic committee, after a searching investigation, found Valentine guilty of receiving from prisoners money for which he did not account to the city.

2 Hammond, Vol. I, p. 294.

3 R.S, Guernsey, New York City During the War of 1812.

4 Mooney had now become opulent, being the owner of three or four houses and lots.

5 The moving spirit in this committee for some years was Samuel L. Berrian, who had been indicted in August, 1811, for instigating a riot in Trinity Church, convicted and fined $100.