The History of Tammany Hall

The Suffrage Contest

TAMMANY HALL now entered upon a step destined to change its composition and career, and greatly affect the political course of the State and nation.  From its inception the society had declared among its objects the accomplishment of two special reforms — the securing of manhood suffrage and the abolition of the law for the imprisonment of debtors.  No steps so far had been taken by either the organization or the society toward the promotion of these reforms;  first, because the leaders were engaged too busily in the contest for office, and second, because Tammany Hall, though professing itself devoted to the welfare of the poor, was, to repeat, essentially a middle-class institution.  Having property themselves, the men who controlled and influenced the organization were well satisfied with the laws under which Tammany had grown powerful and they rich;  they could not see why so blissful a state of affairs should be changed for something the outcome of which was doubtful.  The farmer, the independent blacksmith, the shoemaker with an apprentice or two, the grocer—these had votes, and though they looked with envy on the aristocratic class above them, yet they were not willing that the man with the spade should be placed on a political equality with themselves.  In addition, most of the aristocratic rich were opposed to these reforms, and the Tammany leaders were either ambitious to enter that class or desirous of not estranging it.  Lastly, the lower classes had sided with Clinton generally;  they regarded him as their best friend;  to place the ballot unrestrictedly in their hands, Tammany Hall reckoned, would be fatuous.  As to the debtors’ law, the tradesmen that thronged Tammany were only too well satisfied with a statute that allowed them to throw their debtors, no matter for how small an amount, into jail indefinitely.

Agitation for these two reforms, begun by a few radicals, gradually made headway with the public.  The demand for manhood suffrage made the greater progress, until in 1820 it overshadowed all other questions.  The movement took an such force and popularity that Tammany Hall was forced, for its own preservation, to join.  Agreeable to instructions, the National Advocate, September 13, 1820, began to urge the extension of the right of suffrage and the abolition of those cumbersome relics of old centralizing methods, the Council of Appointment and the Council of Revision — the latter a body passing finally on all laws enacted by the legislature.  On October 7, a meeting of Democrats from all parts of the State was held in the Wigwam, Stephen Allen presiding, and the Legislature was called upon to provide for a constitutional convention for the adoption of the amendments.

The aristocracy and all the powers at its command assailed the proposed reforms with passionate bitterness.  “Would you admit the populace, the patron's coachman to vote?” asked one Federalist writer.  “His excellency (the Governor) cannot retain the gentry, the Judges, and the 'manors' in his interest without he opposes either openly or clandestinely every attempt to enlarge the elective franchise.”  “We would rather be ruled by a man without an estate than by an estate without a man,” replied one reform writer.  The Legislature passed a bill providing for the holding of a constitutional convention, and the Council of Revision, by the deciding vote of Clinton, promptly rejected it.  Doubtless this action was due to the declared intention of the advocates of the constitutional convention to abolish this body.  Again an assemblage gathered at Tammany Hall (December 1) and resolved that as the “distinction of the electorial rights, the mode of appointment to office and the union of the judiciary and legislative functions were objectional and highly pernicious,” the next Legislature should pass the pending bill.

Upon this issue a Legislature overwhelmingly favorable to the extension of suffrage and other projected reforms was elected.  The aristocratic party opened a still fiercer onslaught.  But when the Legislature re-passed the convention bill, the Council of Revision did not dare to veto it.  The convention bill was promptly submitted to the people and ratified.  On the news of its success the Democratic voters celebrated the event in the Wigwam, June 14, 1821.

Beaten so far, the Federalists tried to form a union with the reactionary element in Tammany Hall by which they could elect delegates opposed to the projected reforms.  All opposition was unavailing, however;  the reformers had a clear majority in the convention, and the new amendments, embodying the reforms, were submitted to the people.  They were adopted in January, 1822, the city alone giving them 4608 majority.1  When the Legislature took oath under the revised constitution on March 4, the bells of the city churches were rung;  flags were flung on the shipping and public buildings;  “a grand salute” was fired by a corps of artillery from the Battery;  the City Hall was illuminated at night, and the municipality held a popular reception there.  In Tammany Hall a gala banquet was spread, one toast of which ran:  “The right of suffrage — Corruption in its exercise most to be apprehended from its limitation to a few.”  After that pronouncement, so edifying in view of later developments, came another as instructive:  “The young and rising politician — May integrity and principle guide him — studying the public good, not popularity.”

So Tammany Hall built for itself a vast political following, which soon made it practically invincible.

1 A considerable increase in the number of voters was made by the suffrage reform.  The last remnant of the property qualification was abolished in the State in 1826 by a vote of 104,900 to 3,901.
      The abolition of the Council of Appointment carried with it a clause vesting the Appointment of the Mayor in the Common Council.  It was not until 1834 that the Mayor was elected by the people.  By the Constitutional Amendments the gubernatorial term was changed to two years and the election time to November.