The History of Tammany Hall

The Jackson Element Victorious

FACTIONAL strife had not entirely smothered the demand for improvement in the city government.1  The arbitrary powers of the Common Council, composed, as it was, of one Board in which sat both Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen, excited general dissatisfaction.  Having the power of making assessments, ordering public improvements, and disposing of the public property at will, the Aldermen made no detailed account of their expenditures.  One writer advised the Aldermen to curtail some of their own extravagances:  “Why not stop,” he wrote,

“in their career of eating the most unreasonable and costly suppers every time they meet on public business and drinking such wines as they never in the course of their lives tasted before; choice wines that cost $40 a dozen ?  O! but I will soon tell a tale that will make our citizens stare.  I understand that our city expenses are now nearly $2,000 a day.”

The State constitution of 1821-22 had granted the Common Council greater powers than before in vacating and filling important offices in the city.  In 1823 the city debt was rising, and though the Common Council professed to attempt retrenchment, no real effort was made, the fathers being loth to give over the voting of pretended improvements out of which they benefited as individual contractors.  The agitation continuing, the Legislature, in April, 1824, had passed a law to “erect” two separate chambers — a Board of Aldermen to be elected from among the freeholders for two years, and a Board of Assistants for one year, with concurrent powers.  The opponents of the new branch termed it derisively the “House of Lords” and denounced its aristocratic nature.  The amendment was defeated by the radicals in June, though the interest in it was slight.  Over 8,000 electors failed to vote.

Other schemes for municipal reform dissolved in talk, and by the Spring of 1825 public attention became concentrated again on the matter of Jackson’s candidacy for the office of President.  Barely had John Quincy Adams been inaugurated when Tammany set about to make Jackson his successor.  On May 12 Sachem Nicholas Schureman, at the anniversary celebration of the society, gave this toast:  “Jackson, the Hero of New Orleans, our next President.”  Again, on July 4, the principal toast was to Jackson.2

The Jackson campaign went energetically on.  But it was rudely interrupted during the following Autumn by a fresh series of revelations regarding certain Tammany chieftains.  The legislative favoritism by which Jacob Barker was enabled to secure advantages for his Exchange Bank (1818)3 now culminated in a grave public scandal.  In September, 1826, Barker, Henry Eckford, another of the line of Sachems;  Matthew L. Davis, lately Grand Sachem, and several other accomplices were principals in one of the most extended and sensational trials which the city had known.  They stood charged with swindles aggregating several million dollars.  The Grand Jury’s indictment of September 15 charged them, and also Mark Spencer, William P. Rathbone, Thomas Vermilyea and others, with defrauding the Mechanics’ Fire Insurance Company of 1,000 shares of its own capital stock, 1,000 shares of United States Bank stock and $50,000;  the Fulton Bank of 2,000 shares of its own capital stock and $50,000;  the Tradesmen’s Bank of 2,000 shares of its own capital stock and $50,000;  the Morris Canal and Banking Company of 2,000 shares of its own capital stock and $50,000;  and the Life and Fire Insurance Company of 2,000 shares of its own capital stock.  The indictment further charged these men with obtaining fraudulently 1,000 promissory notes for the amount of nearly $100 each, belonging to the Fulton Bank;  and the same number of notes for similar sums belonging respectively to the Tradesmen’s Bank, the Morris Canal and Banking Company, and the Life and Fire Insurance Company, and with additionally obtaining by fraud the sum of $50,000, the property of Henry Barclay, George Barclay and others.4

A disagreement of the jury marked the first trial;  the second brought a conviction of the prisoners.  Tammany Hall was unwilling to see any of its leaders go to prison.  As soon as the storm of popular indignation blew over, a new trial was had for Davis, and owing to strong political influence his acquittal was the outcome.  Barker was again convicted, but, thanks to the discreet use of his money, never saw a cell.  He went South and lived on till over ninety years of age.5  Eckford fled to the Orient and died in Syria.  The severity of the law fell on the minor offenders, two of whom, Mowatt and Hyatt, went to prison for two years, and the Lambert brothers for one year.

The trial over, public interest again centered on the Presidential struggle.  Alive to the necessity of winning Tammany to his interest, President Adams chose most of his New York appointees from its organization, thereby creating in that body an alert clique of devoted partizans.  If the leaders had been able to direct the organization absolutely, Adams might have bribed nearly all of them with offices, favors or promises, but there were other deciding factors.  The first was the mass of the Democrats who favored Jackson and forced most of the leaders to his support.  The second was the organizing genius of Martin Van Buren.  He was a member of the Tammany Society, and in September, 1827, he visited New York to compose the discord in the general committee, which was divided equally on the question of the Presidency, although in the society itself a majority was for Jackson.  The Jackson men quickly gained predominant influence.  On September 27 the general committee recommended in a public address to its “fellow-citizens” that when they met in their wards, they should elect such citizens only, to represent them in their different committees, as were favorable to Jackson.  The Adams men were enraged.6  Col. James Fairlie, a veteran of the Revolution; Benjamin Romaine, Peter Sharpe, William Todd, W.H. Ireland, Abraham Stagg, Peter Stagg and John L. Lawrence, known as “the elite” of Tammany Hall, and others, denounced this action.  “Was such a power of proscription and dictation ever delegated to or practised by any other general committee?” they asked in an address.

The ward primary elections on the night of October 3 were tumultuous.  The Jackson men took possession of the meeting rooms, installed their own chairmen and passed resolutions, without allowing the Adams supporters a chance to be heard.  Both factions then alternately held meetings in Tammany Hall.  So determined was the struggle to get possession of the Wigwam that the Adams men contrived to expel their opponents from it for one day, and the Jackson men had to make their nominations in the cellar called “the Coal Hole.”  At a later meeting of the Adams faction, embracing a group of old Federalists, Col. Marinus Willett, a venerable Revolutionary patriot, who presided, spoke of “the danger and absurdity of confiding the destinies of the country to a mere arbitrary soldier.”  The meeting passed resolutions denouncing the general committee majority and reiterating its support of Adams.  The Jackson men rallied to the Wigwam in force and approved the ticket nominated in “the Coal Hole.”  The nominees were for local offices and were themselves of no particular importance.  The great question was whether New York City favored Jackson or Adams, and the coming election was the accepted test.

The Jackson men made desperate efforts to carry the city.  Now were observable the effects brought about by the suffrage changes of 1822 and 1826.  The formerly disinherited class had become attached to Tammany Hall, and the organization, entirely reversing its exclusive native policy, declared for a reduction of the five-year naturalization period.  From that time forth the patronage of aliens became a settled policy of Tammany.  In this election these aliens exercised a powerful influence, materially aiding Jackson.

Cases of fraud and violence had hitherto been frequent;  but nothing like the exhibition at the primaries and polls in November, 1827, had ever been known.  Cart-loads of voters, many of whom had been in the country less than three years, were used as repeaters in the different wards.  An instance was known of one cart-load of six men voting at six different places.  Other men boasted of having voted three and four times.  In an upper ward, where the foreign population had full sway, an American found it almost impossible to appear or vote at all.  If he tried the experiment, he was arrested immediately, his votes were taken from him and Jackson votes put in his hands.  Many of the polling places had no challengers, and most of the inspectors did duty for the Jackson ticket by a display of stout hickory branches.  By such means the Jackson men rolled up in the city a majority of nearly five thousand.

Reflective citizens of both parties were alarmed and humiliated by the events of the election.  The public conscience was not used to the indiscriminate stuffing of ballot boxes.  To the revelations of this election can be traced the origin of the Native American party, whose cry that “political privileges should belong exclusively to the natives of the country” even now was heard.  Though a year before the time for choosing a President, the result of this election strongly indicated the choice of Jackson and caused great exultation and encouragement among his supporters in other cities.  In the Winter of 1827, Tammany sent a delegation to visit him at New Orleans, ostensibly to present an address on the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, but in reality, it was supposed, to confer with him on the work to be done in his behalf.  By the beginning of 1828 the organization was controlled wholly by Jackson men.  Not a nomination, however petty, was made of a man not known to be his partizan.  The great body of Democrats approved this course on the ground that Jackson’s election was the real issue, and that local issues were subordinate for the time.  When the Adams men tried to hold anti-Jackson meetings in the Wigwam, the Sachems stepped forward and exercised a long dormant power -- a power which explains the real connection between the society and the organization, and which it frequently used later against hostile factions.  Through pressure, the lessee of Tammany Hall sold to the society his lease.  This secured, the society put in charge of the building (which was fitted in part as a hotel as well as a hall) another person, instructed not to let any room to the Adams committee.  The Adams men asked by what right a “charitable and benevolent society” interfered in politics.  But, being excluded, they could no longer claim they represented Tammany Hall — a fatal loss to them and an important advantage to the Jackson men, who now were the only Tammany organization.  The Adams committees were thus shut off from holding any meetings in the hall.

With the Adams committees put out, the Jackson men began to quarrel among themselves for local and State nominations.  The Wigwam’s inveterate foe, De Witt Clinton, was out of the way, he having died on February 11, 1828, while still Governor.  As nominations continued to be looked upon as almost certainly resulting in election, there was a swarm of candidates.7  The ambitions of few of these were gratified.  The nominations were settled beforehand by a small clique, headed, it was said, by M.M. Noah.

Of a voting population of 25,000, Tammany Hall secured a majority of 5,831 for Jackson8 and elected all its candidates except one.  That hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal votes were counted was admitted.  Boys of 19 and 20 years of age voted and were employed to electioneer for the Jackson ticket.  On the other hand, raftsmen just arrived from the interior and men who had no homes were gathered in bunches and sent to swell the Adams vote, though it is doubtful whether their votes were counted.  For the first time in city elections money was used to influence voting.

The Common Council soon after removed every officeholder not of the Jackson faith.  As a matter of course, Jackson rewarded his friends.  He made Samuel Swartwout Collector of the Port and filled every Federal local post with his Tammany adherents.

1 William Paulding was succeeded by Philip Hone (1895-6), who in turn was followed by Paulding (1826-29).

2 This anniversary was the first on which the society, since its formation, did not march in the streets and go to church.  Each “brother,” wearing a bucktail in front of his hat, went instead to the great council chamber, where the Declaration of Independence was read by Matthew L. Davis.

3 See Chapter vi.

4 Minutes of the Oyer and Terminer, Vol, 6, pp. 3-137.

5 Barker maintained that a conspiracy had been formed against him.  A pamphlet entitled, Jacob Barker’s Letters Developing the Conspiracy Formed in 1826 for His Ruin, was extensively circulated about this time or later.

6 The action of the general committee had a sweeping national importance.  “The State of New York represents the Democracy of the Union;  the City of New York gives tone to the State;  the General Committee govern the City.”  Quoted by “A Journalist” as applying to these years in his Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times, New York, 1855.

7 “Should the Independent electors,” wrote one of them, Aaron Sergeant, “give me a nomination (for Sheriff) (as there will be several candidates for the office) I shall succeed by a handsome majority.  The Sons of Erin are my most particular friends.  I rely with confidence on their support.
     “Knowing the office to be one worth $10,000 per annum, should I be elected, I shall give one-third of the income of this office to be divided equally to [among] the several charitable Religious Societies in the city.  My claims for the office are, that I am a citizen born, and my father one of the Patriots of the Revolution for seven long years...”

8 This was the first election in the State in which Presidential electors were voted on by the people.