The History of Tammany Hall

Struggles of the Presidential Factions

INEVITABLY the greater part of the newly created voters gravitated to Tammany Hall, but they did not instantly overrun and rule it.

A new set of leaders came in view.  Wortman and Judah had been forced from public life through the lottery exposures of 1818, and Broome had lost prestige.  Hubbard had fled; Haff, Buckmaster, Strong and Prince were no longer powerful, and Jonas Humbert, who until 1820 had been a person of some authority, was now no longer in public notice.  Stephen Allen and Mordecai M. Noah, with a following of some of the old Burrites, were now regarded as being at the helm.

The pro-Tammany Council of Appointment chosen late in 1820, before the new constitutional amendments were adopted, had removed Colden and appointed Allen (Grand Sachem about this time) Mayor1 in his place.  Noah was made Sheriff, and all the other offices were filled with Wigwam men.

The new voting element coming into the organization had to be impressed with the traditional principle of discipline.  Otherwise there might be all kinds of nominations, whose effect upon the machine-made “regular” nominations of the organization would be disastrous, if not destructive.  To this end the different ward committees passed resolutions (April 27 and 28, 1822) declaring in nearly identical terms that the sense of a majority, fairly expressed, ought always to govern, and that no party, however actuated by principle, could be truly useful without organization.  “Therefore, that the discipline of the Republican party, as established and practised for the last twenty-five years, has, by experience, been found conducive to the general good and success of the party.”2

In 1822 Clinton declined to stand for re-election.  Tammany Hall was considered so invincible in the city that the Clintonites and the remnant of the Federalists refused to nominate contesting candidates for Congress and the Legislature.  Experience demonstrating that almost all the voters cast their ballots for the “regular” ticket without asking questions, competition for a place on that ticket, which now was equivalent to election, became sharp.  When, on October 80, the nominating committee reported the name of M.M. Noah for the office of Sheriff, Benjamin Romaine moved to have that of Peter H. Wendover substituted.  Two factors were at work here;  one was religious prejudice against Noah, who was a Jew;  the other and greater, was the struggle between the partizans of Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and William H. Crawford to get control of Tammany Hall, as a necessary preliminary to the efforts of each for the nomination for President.3  Romaine was an Adams supporter and could easily have nominated a ticket independent of Tammany Hall, but it would have lacked “regularity,” and hence popular support.  A row ensued;  and while Noah’s party rushed out of Tammany Hall claiming the “regular” nomination, the other faction, by the light of a solitary candle, passed resolutions denouncing Noah and claiming that Wendover was the “regular” nominee.

Each of the candidates put himself before the people, declaring that a majority of the nominating committee favored him as “regular.”  The leaders of the organization inclined to Noah, as one of its heads, but Wendover skillfully appealed to Anti-Semitic bigotry and gathered a large following.  The Sachems dared not interfere between them, and each in consequence had a room in Tammany Hall, where his tickets were distributed and his agents made their headquarters.  Noah was defeated at the polls;  but his defeat did not impair his influence in Tammany Hall.  He was a person of singular ability.  A facile writer and effective manipulator, he maintained his hold.

“Regularity,” then, was the agency by which the leaders imposed their candidates upon the thousands of voters who, from their stores and benches, offices and farms, went to the polls to deposit a list of names prepared for them.  The voters were expected only to vote;  the leaders assumed the burden of determining for whom the voting should be done.  An instance of the general recognition of this fact was given in 1820 when the counties of Suffolk, Queens, Kings and Dutchess voted to discontinue the practice of holding Senatorial conventions in Tammany Hall because a fair expression of the wishes of a great proportion of the Democratic-Republican electors was not obtainable there.  At the same time, and for years later, complaints were frequent that the ward meetings had long since become an object of so little interest that they were nearly neglected;  and that a small knot of six or eight men managed them for their own purposes.

In 1823 attempts Were made by different factions to obtain the invaluable “regular” nominations.  Seemingly a local election, the real point turned on whether partisans of Jackson, Adams or Crawford should be chosen.  Upon this question Tammany Hall was still divided.  The nominating committee, however, was for Jackson.  The voters were bidden to assemble in the hall at 7 o’clock on the evening of October 30 to hear that committee’s report.  When they tried to enter, they found the hall occupied by the committee and its friends.  This was a new departure in Tammany practices.  Since the building of the hall the nominating committee had always waited in a lower room for the opening of the great popular meeting, and had then marched up stairs and reported.  To head off expected hostile action by the Adams men, the committee this time started proceedings before the appointed hour.  The names of its candidates were called and affirmed in haste.  Gen. Robert Swartwout, a corrupt but skillful politician and an Adams supporter, proposed a substitute list of names, upon which the chairman declared that the meeting stood adjourned.  A general fist-fight followed, in the excitement of which Swartwout took the chair, read off a list of names and declared it adopted.  Epithets, among which “liar” and “traitor” figured most, were distributed freely.  Both tickets went to the people under the claim of “regularity,” and each carried five of the ten wards.

Though Robert Swartwout4 was for Adams, another Swartwout (Samuel), an even shrewder politician, was Jackson’s direct representative in the task of securing the organization’s support for President.  A third and less important group were the Crawford advocates.  They were led by Gen. John P. Van Ness, an adroit intriguer and one of the old Burr chieftains of Tammany., In 1821 Adams, then Secretary of State, ascertaining that Van Ness, as president of the Bank of the Metropolis, was indebted to that institution to the amount of $60,000 and that its affairs were in bad condition, transferred the account of the State Department to another bank.  From that time Van Ness bore deep hatred against Adams, and supported Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury, for President.  Crawford had deposited as a standing balance with Van Ness about the same sum Adams had withdrawn, notwithstanding the bank’s suspicious character.  The Crawford men went first about the business of obtaining complete ascendency in the Tammany Society.  With that end in view they tried in 1823 to elect a Grand Sachem favoring Crawford.  The old Burr faction now brought forth a Presidential candidate of its own in the person of John C. Calhoun, and taking advantage of the absence of most of the society’s members, dexterously managed to elect William Todd, a partisan of Calhoun, Grand Sachem.

The popular voice for Jackson becoming daily stronger, some of the Adams leaders changed about.  Perhaps having a premonition that Adams would be chosen President by the House of Representatives, the general committee of Tammany Hall, on October 3, 1823, resolved that the election of President by that branch of Congress was “an event to be deprecated,” and that the constitution ought to be so amended as to give the election directly to the people without the intervention of electors.  The ward committees passed similar resolutions.  This action was on a line with that of a few years before when the Wigwam, fearing the nomination of Clinton for Governor by legislative caucus, recommended that State nominations be made by a State convention of delegates.  In the following April (1824) Jackson’s friends filled Tammany Hall and nominated him for President.

Before the election came on, however, the organization, in the full swing of power, again brought public odium upon itself.  DeWitt Clinton, having filled his gubernatorial term, was now serving in the modest post of a Canal Commissioner, without pay and utterly without political power.  Yet Tammany carried its hatred of him so far as to cause the Legislature to remove him (April 12, 1824), despite the protests of a few of its more sagacious members.5

Naturally, this petty act caused an immediate and strong reaction in a community endeared to Clinton by that splendid creation of his energy — the Erie Canal.  No sooner did the news reach New York City than 10,000 persons held an indignation meeting in the City Hall Park and in front of Tammany Hall.  Throughout the State similar meetings were held.  In spite of the politicians, the cyclonic popular movement forced Clinton to be again a candidate for Governor.

The chiefs regretted their folly.  At the same time they were subjected to public criticism in another direction.  One of them, William P. Van Ness, Burr’s companion at the Hamilton duel, a Judge of the United States District Court, took it upon himself to select Tammany Hall permanently for a court-room, his object being to have the Government pay rent to the Tammany Society.  His colleague, Judge Thompson, a scrupulous official, indignantly asked why the courts were not to be held in the City Hall, as usual.  Judge Van Ness defiantly held court in Tammany Hall, Judge Thompson going to the City Hall.  Public disgust asserting itself, an investigation was set afoot.  Van Ness tried to throw the blame on his marshal.  But this officer, as was conclusively shown, acted under written instructions from Van Ness in refusing to consider any other place than Tammany Hall, and he agreed to pay to the society $1,500 a year rent.  The lease, which was made under the plea that no room was available in the City Hall, contained a stipulation that not only should the tavern be allowed in Tammany Hall but that the court-room should be used, when required, as the meeting place of the society or of the political conventions.  The citizens assembled in the wards and denounced the proceeding.  The Aldermen decided to shift the responsibility which Van Ness attempted to place upon them.  Their committee reported (October 24, 1824 ),6 that the City Hall always had been and would be at the service of the United States Court Judges, and that a room had been set apart especially for their use.  Judge Van Ness was forced to return to the City Hall to hold court.7

Tammany now had recourse to its customary devices in endeavoring to bring out its usual vote in the coming election.  The general committee announced that at no period in the last twenty years had the welfare and perpetuity of the party more imperiously required a rigid adherence to ancient usages and discipline.  This was meant to play on the partizan emotions of the Democrats.  It was likewise a threat to punish any man of independent views who disobeyed the orders of the general committee.  Such summary, veiled notifications of the general committee were seldom disregarded by those who profited or expected to profit by politics.  After toasting their “squaws and papooses” on July 4 the society impressively made this toast: “May regular nominations ever prevail”—a thrust at the method of Clinton’s nomination and a warning for the future guidance of all Tammany men.

Tammany further attempted to counteract the impetus of the Clinton movement by touching at length upon its own patriotism in the past and by stirring up class hatreds.  On the vital issues the Wigwam was silent;  but in another long fulmination it recalled the “sins” and “treason” of Clinton against the Democratic party.  “He is haughty in his manners,” it went on, “and a friend of the aristocracy — cold and distant to all who cannot boast of wealth and family distinctions and selfish in all the ends he aims at.”

The partizans of Jackson carried the city.  Presidential electors were still selected by the Legislature, and it is therefore impossible to determine Jackson’s vote.  A fusion between the Clintonites and the People’s party caused the defeat of most of Tammany’s Assembly candidates, but the victors were Jackson men, and Clinton himself had declared for Old Hickory.  The full Jackson strength was shown in the vote for the three Tammany candidates for Congress, who were elected.

Clinton’s victory was sweeping.  The near completion of the Erie Canal, for which he had labored so zealously and which Tammany had opposed so pertinaciously, made him the idol of the people, and he was again elected Governor, carrying even New York City by 1,031 majority.  That eye was blind which could not see in the opening of the canal the incalculable benefits Clinton had estimated from the first.  This great work secured as a virtual gift to New York City the inland commerce of the vast empire west of the mountains, no rival being able to contend for it.  The trade of the canal almost immediately increased the city’s business $60,000,000 annually, and year by year the amount grew.  Along its course a hundred new and thrifty villages sprang into existence, and the State’s wealth and population went upward by leaps and bounds.

Compared with this illustrious achievement, a summary of the record of Clinton’s antagonists, the Tammany leaders, makes but a poor showing.  Contributing to the development of democracy, for the most part, only so far as it benefited themselves;  declining to take up even the question of manhood suffrage until forced to, they did little or nothing, even in the closer domain of the city, for the good of their own time or of posterity.  In the years when Clinton was engaged in projecting and building the canal, they were too busy wrangling over offices or cribbing at the public treasury to improve city conditions.  The streets were an abomination of filth.  The local authorities long refused, despite public pressure, to take steps to have the city furnished with pure water.  As a result of the bad water of a private corporation and the uncleanliness of the streets, yellow fever and cholera had several times devastated the city, and in one year (1822) it was so deserted that grass grew in the streets.  To make up for municipal deficits the city fathers continued selling the public land, that might have been made into parks or retained for future uses, buying it in as individuals.  Between 1813 and 1819, according to the admission of the Tammany organ in the latter year, $440,847 worth of land, whose present value probably amounts to tens of millions of dollars, was thus fraudulently disposed of.8  In a word, their records, public and private, furnish an extreme contrast to the record of Clinton, who, while a politician when need be, gave his years and his talents to the completion of a public work of the greatest utility and importance.

1 The first election for Mayor by the Common Council, under the new constitution, resulted in the choice of William Paulding, Jr., 1833-25.

2 Advertisements of the ward committees in the National Advocate, April 29, 1822.

3 It is a convincing commentary on the absolute disruption of party lines at this epoch that a contest could arise in such an organization as Tammany Hall between supporters of men of such diverse political beliefs as Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.

4 When United States Navy Agent in 1820, Robert Swartwout became indebted to the Government in the sum of $68,000, a defalcation he could not make good.  The Government took a mortgage on his property for $75,000.  This and political influence saved him from prison.  It was because of Adams’s efforts in his behalf that his extraordinary devotion to the sixth President was credited.  Tammany Hall, considerate of human infirmity, continued him in full favor as a leader.  These facts were brought out in the suit of the United States Government against Francis H. Nicholl, one of Robert Swartwout’s sureties, before Judge Van Ness in the United States District Court, April 8, 1824.

5 Journal of the Senate, 1824, p. 409.

6 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 52, pp. 75-78.

7 During this agitation Jacob Barker, Judge Van Ness and M.M. Noah repeatedly presented, in the public prints, arguments in favor of using Tammany Hall as a court-room.  We shall have need to refer to Barker again on another page.

8 For a part of this time, it should be stated, the Federalists were in power.