The History of Tammany Hall

Tammany in Absolute Control

BY 1815 Tammany Hall obtained control of the State, and in 1816 completely regained that of the city.  The Common Council and its dependent offices since 1809 had been more or less under Federalist rule, and from the beginning of the century the city had had a succession of Clintonite office-holders in those posts controlled by the Council of Appointment.

At the close of the War of 1812 the population of the city approached 100,000, and there were 13,941 voters in all.  The total expenses of the municipality reached a little over a million dollars.  The city had but one public school, which was maintained by public subscription.  Water was supplied chiefly by the Manhattan Company, by means of bored wooden logs laid underground from the reservoir in Chambers street.  No fire department was dreamed of, and every blaze had the city at its mercy.  The streets were uncleaned; only two or three thoroughfares were fit for the passage of carriages, though until 1834 the law required the inhabitants to clean the streets in front of their houses.  Many of those elaborate departments which we now associate with political control were then either in an embryo state or not thought of.

The Aldermen were not overburdened with public anxieties.  No salary was attached to the office, yet none the less, it was sought industriously.  In early days it was regarded as a post of honor and filled as such, but with the beginning of the century it was made a means of profit.  The professional politician of the type of to-day was rare.  The Aldermen had business, as a rule, upon which they depended and to which they attended in the day, holding sessions of the board sporadically at night.  The only exception to this routine was when the Alderman performed some judicial office.  Under the law, as soon as an Alderman entered office he became a judge of some of the most important courts, being obliged to preside with the Mayor at the trial of criminals.  This system entailed upon the Aldermen the trial of offenses against laws many of which they themselves made, and it had an increasingly pernicious influence upon politics.  Otherwise the sole legal perquisites and compensation of the Aldermen consisted in their power and custom of making appropriations, including those for elaborate public dinners for themselves.  It was commonly known that they awarded contracts for city necessaries either to themselves or to their relatives.

The backward state of the city, its filthy and neglected condition and the chaotic state of public improvements and expenditures, excited little public discussion.  The Common Councils were composed of men of inferior mind.  It is told of one of them that hearing that the King of France had taken umbrage he ran home post haste to get his atlas and find out the location of that particular spot.  In the exclusive charge of such a body New York City would have struggled along but slowly had it not been for the courage and genius of the man who at one stroke started it on a dazzling career of prosperity.  This was De Witt Clinton.

No sooner did a Republican Council of Appointment step into office, early in 1815, than Tammany Hall pressed for the removal of Clinton as Mayor and announced that John Ferguson, the Grand Sachem of the Society, would have to be appointed in his place.1  The Council, at the head of which was Gov. Tompkins, wavered and delayed, Tompkins not caring to offend the friends of Clinton by the latter’s summary removal.  At this the entire Tammany representation, which had gone to Albany for the purpose, grew furious and threatened that not only would they nominate no ticket the next Spring, but would see that none of their friends should accept office under the Council, did it fail to remove Clinton.  This action implied the turning out of the Council of Appointment at the next election.  Yielding to these menaces, the Council removed Clinton.  Then by a compromise, Ferguson was made Mayor until the National Government should appoint him Naval Officer when Jacob Radcliff (Mayor 1810-1811) was to succeed him — an arrangement which was carried out.2

The Wigwam was overjoyed at having struck down Clinton, and now expected many years of supremacy.  From youth Clinton’s sole occupation had been politics.  He had spent his yearly salaries and was deeply in debt.  His political aspirations seemed doomed.  Stripped, as he appeared, of a party or even a fraction of one, the Sachems felt sure of his retirement to private life forever.  In this belief they were as much animated by personal as by political enmity.  Clinton had sneered at or ridiculed nearly all of them, and he spoke of them habitually in.withering terms.

Besides, to enlarge their power in the city they needed the Mayor’s office.  The Mayor had the right to appoint a Deputy Mayor from among the Aldermen, the Deputy Mayor acting with full power in his absence.  The Mayor could convene the Common Council, and he appointed and licensed marshals, porters, carriers, cartmen, carmen, cryers, scullers and scavengers, and removed them at pleasure.  He licensed tavern-keepers and all who sold excisable liquors by retail.  The Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen were ex-officio Justices of the Peace, and were empowered to hold Courts of General Sessions.  The Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen were also Justices of Oyer and Terminer; and the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Recorder could preside over the Court of Common Pleas with or without the Aldermen.  The gathering of all this power into its own control gave further strength to Tammany Hall.

But the expressions of regret at Clinton’s removal were so spontaneous and sincere that Tammany feigned participation in them and took the utmost pains to represent the removal as only a political exigency.  The Common Council (which was now Federalist) passed, on March 21, 1815, a vote of thanks to Clinton for his able administration.3  Curiously, the very Wigwam men who had made it their business to undertake the tedious travel over bad roads to Albany to effect his removal (Aldermen Smith, George Buckmaster, Mann and Burtis) voted loudest in favor of the resolution.

Out of office, Clinton found time to agitate for the building of a navigable canal between the great western lakes and the tide waters of the Hudson.  The idea of this enterprise was not original with him.  It had been suggested over thirty years before, but it was he who carried it forward to success.  The bigotry and animus with which it was assailed were amazing.  Tammany Hall frequently passed resolutions dehouncing the project as impracticable and chimerical, declaring that the canal would make a ditch fit to bury its author in.  At Albany the Tammany representatives greeted the project with a burst of mockery, and placed obstacle after obstacle in its path.

In the intervals of warring upon Clinton, Tammany was adroitly seizing every post of vantage in the city.  The Burr men ruled its councils and directed the policy and nominations of the Republican, or, as it was getting to be more generally known, the Democratic-Republican party.  Three men, in particular, were foremost as leaders — George Buckmaster, a boat builder ;  Roger Strong and Benjamin Prince, a druggist and physician.  Teunis Wortman, one of the energetic leaders in 1807-10, was now not quite so conspicuous.  What the Wigwam lacked to make its rule in the city complete was a majority inthe Common Council.  The committees of the Council not only had the exclusive power of expenditures, but they invarigbly refused an acceptable accounting.4  The Federalists, though vanishing as a party owing to their attitude in the recent war, still managed, through local dissensions among the Republicans, to retain control of the Common Council.  The Federalists, therefore, held the key to the purse.  It had always been customary for the Mayor to appoint the Common Council committees from the party which happened to be dominant.

Established forms meant nothing to Mayor Radcliff and to Buckmaster5 and other Tammany Aldermen, who late in December, 1815, decided to turn out the Federalist chairmen of committees and put Tammany men in their places.  Radcliff imprudently printed a handbill of officers he intended appointing, copies of which he sent to his partizans.  A copy fell into a Federalist’s hands.  At the next meeting, before the Mayor could get a chance to act, the Federalist majority altered the rules so as to vest in future the appointment of all committees in a majority of the board.  The Sachems were so enraged at Radcliffs bungling that they declared they would have him removed from office.  About a year afterward they carried out their threat.

In 1816 Tammany elected not only its Congress and Assembly ticket, but a Common Council, by over 1000 majority out of 9000 votes.  This victory was the result of the wily policy of further disrupting the Federalist party by nominating its most popular men.  Walter Bowne, a late Federalist, an enemy of Clinton and a man of standing in the community, was one of those nominated by Tammany Hall for State Senator, and the support of the wealthy was solicited by the selection of men of their own class, such as Col. Rutgers, said to be the richest man in the State.

Most of Tammany’s early members, certainly the leaders, were now rich and had stepped into the upper middle class; but their wealth could not quite secure them admittance to that stiff aristocracy above them, which demanded something more of a passport than the possession of money.  Another body of members were the small tradesmen and the like, to whom denunciations of the aristocracy were extremely palatable.  A third class, that of the mechanics and laborers, believed that Tammany Hall exclusively represented them in its onslaughts on the aristocracy.  From the demands of these various interests arose the singular sight of Tammany Hall winning the support of the rich by systematically catering to them; of the middle class, which it reflected, and of the poor, in whose interests it claimed to work.  The spirit of the Tammany Society was well illustrated in its odd address on public affairs in 1817, wherein it lamented the spread of the foreign game of billiards among the aristocratic youth and the prevalence of vice among the lower classes.  Again, in May, 1817, the Tammany majority of the Common Council, under pressure from the religious element, passed an ordinance fining every person $5 who should hunt, shoot, fish, spar or play on Sunday — a law which cut off from the poor their favorite pastimes.

Here, too, another of the secrets by which the organization was enabled to thrive, should be mentioned.  This was the “regularity” of its nominations.  Teunis Wortman, a few years before, had disclosed the real substance of the principle of “regularity” when he wrote:  “The nominating power is an omnipotent one.  Though it approaches us in the humble attitude of the recommendation, its influence is irresistible.  Every year’s experience demonstrates that its recommendations are commands.  That instead of presenting a choice it deprives us of all option.”6  The plain meaning was that, regardless of the candidate’s character, the mass of the party would vote for him once he happened to be put forth on the “regular” ticket.  Fully alive to the value of this particular power, the Tammany Hall General Committee, successively and unfailingly, would invite in its calls for all meetings “those friendly to regular nominations.”  Its answer to charges of dictatorship was plain and direct.  Discipline was necessary, its leaders said, to prevent aristocrats from disrupting their party by inciting a variety of nominations.

It was through this fertile agency that “bossism” became an easy possibility.  With the voters in such a receptive state of mind it was not difficult to dictate nominations.  The general commitee was composed of thirty members ;  its meetings were secret and attended seldom by more than fourteen members.  So, substantially, fourteen men were acting for over five thousand Republican voters, and eight members of the fourteen composed a majority.  Yet the system had all the pretense of being pure democracy ;  the wards were called upon at regular intervals to elect delegates ;  the latter chose candidates or made party rules ;  and the “great popular meeting” accepted or rejected nominees ;  it all seemed to spring directly from the people.

This exquisitely working machine was in full order when the organization secured a firm hold upon the city in 1816.  The newly elected Common Council removed every Federalist possible and put a stanch Tammany man in his place.  The Federalist Captains of Police and the heads and subordinates of many departments whose appointments and removal were vested in the Common Council were all ejected.  This frequent practice of changes in the police force, solely because of political considerations, had a demoralizing effect upon the welfare of the city.  Both parties were as responsible for this state of affairs as they were for the increase in the city’s debt.  To provide revenue the Aldermen repeatedly caused to be sold ground owned by the municipality in the heart of the city.

This was one of their clumsy or fraudulent methods of concealing the squandering of city funds, on what no one knew.  They were not ignorant that with the growth of the city the value of the land would increase vastly.  It was perhaps for this very reason they sold it; for it was generally themselves or the Tammany leaders who were the buyers.  One sale was of land fronting Bowling Green, among the purchasers being John Swartwout, Jacob Barker and John Sharpe.  A hint as to the fraudulent ways in which the Tammany leaders became rich is furnished by a report made to the Common Council respecting land in Hamilton Square, bought from the city by Jacob Barker, John S. Hunn and others.  The report stated that repeated applications for the payment of principal and interest had been made without effect.7

By 1817 the Federalists in New York City were crushed, quite beyond hope of resurrection as a winning party.  The only remaining fear was Clinton, whose political death the organization celebrated prematurely.  Public opinion was one factor Tammany had not conquered.

This inclined more and more daily to the support of Clinton.  Notwithstanding all the opposition which narrow-mindedness and hatred could invent, Clinton’s grand project of the Erie Canal became popular — distinctively so throughout the State, then so greatly agricultural.  On April 15, 1817, the bill pledging the State to the building of the canal became a law, the Tammany delegation and all their friends voting against it.

Gov. Tompkins becoming Vice-President, a special election to fill the gubernatorial vacancy became necessary.  A new and powerful junction of Clinton’s old friends and the disunited Federalists joined in nominating him to succeed Tompkins.  This was bitter news to Tammany, which made heroic efforts to defeat him, nominating as its candidate Peter B. Porter, and sending tickets with his name into every county in the State.

Inopportunely for the Wigwam, the resentment of the Irish broke out against it at this time.  Tammany’s long-continued refusal to give the Irish proper representation among its nominations, either in the society or for public office, irritated them greatly.  On February 7, a writer in a newspaper over the signature “Connal,” averred in an open letter to Matthew L. Davis that on the evening of February 3, the Tammany Society hail considered a resolution for the adoption of a new constitution, the object of which was to exclude foreigners entirely from holding office in the society.  This may not have been strictly true, but the anti-foreign feeling in the organization was unquestionably strong.  The Irish had sought, some time before, to have the organization nominate for Congress Thomas Addis Emmett, an Irish orator and patriot and an ardent friend of Clinton.  As Tammany Hall since 1802 had not only invariably excommunicated all Clintonites, but had broken up such Clinton meetings as were held, this demand was refused without discussion.  The Irish grew to regard Tammany Hall as the home of bigotry ;  the Wigwam, in turn, was resolved not to alienate the prejudiced native support by recognizing foreigners; furthermore, the Irish were held to be Clintonites trying to get into Tammany Hall and control it.

The long-smouldering enmity burst out on the night of April 24, 1817, when the general committee was in session.  Two hundred Irishmen, assembled at Dooley’s Long Room, marched in rank to the Wigwam and broke into the meeting room.  The intention of their leaders was to impress upon the committee the wisdom of nominating Emmett for Congress, as well as other Irish Catholics on the Tammany ticket in future, but the more fiery spirits at once started a fight.  Eyes were blackened, noses and heads battered freely.  The invaders broke the furniture, using it for weapons and shattering it maliciously; tore down the fixtures and shivered the windows.  Reinforcements arriving, the intruders were driven out, but not before nearly all present had been bruised and beaten.8

Clinton received an overwhelming majority for Governor, Porter obtaining a ridiculously small vote in both New York City and the rest of the State.9  Thus in the feud between Tammany Hall and De Witt Clinton, the latter, lacking a political machine and basing his contest solely on a political idea — that of internal improvements — emerged triumphant.

1 Hammond, Vol. I, p. 399.

2 Valentine in his Manual of the Common Council of New York, for 1842-44, p. 163, states that Ferguson held on to both offices until President Monroe required him to say which office he preferred.  Ferguson soon after resigned the Mayoralty.  He held the other post until his death in 1832.

3 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 29, p. 150.

4 As late as July 28, 1829, the Common Council refused such an accounting.  Charles King, a prominent citizen, memorialized the Council, through Alderman Lozier, to furnish an itemized statement of the expenditure of over half a million dollars for the previous fiscal year.  By a vote of 15 to 6 the Council refused to grant the request A public agitation on the question following, the board later rescinded its action, and supplied the statement.

5 Buckmaster had a record.  On October 9, 1815, the Common Council passed a secret resolution to sell $440,000 of United States bonds it held at 97 — the stock being then under par.  About $30,000 worth was disposed of at that figure, when the officials found that not a dollar’s worth more could be sold.  Investigation followed.  Gould Hoyt proved that Buckmaster had disclosed the secret to certain Wall street men, who, taking advantage of the city’s plight, forced the sale of the stock at 95.  Buckmaster was chairman of the general commitee in 1815 and at other times, and chairman of the nominating committee in 1820.

6 New York Public Advertiser, April 13, 1809.  This journal was secretly supported for a time by the funds of the Tammany Society.

7 7 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 18, p. 359.

8 The National Advocate, May 10, asserted that the Irish entered Tammany Hall, shouting “Down with the Natives!” but the assertion was denied.

9 Clinton’s vote was nearly 44,000; Porter’s not quite 1,400.