The History of Tammany Hall

The Workingmen’s Party

IN 1829 the indignation against the Tammany leaders crystallized in a “purifying” movement.  Under the direction of its banker, merchant and lawyer leaders, Tammany Hall had been made a medium for either coercing or bribing the Legislature or the Common Council into passing dozens of bank charters and franchises with scarcely any provision for compensation to either State or city.1  In 1819 the Tammany Society, in one of its pompous addresses, had recited the speculative spirit and consequent distress brought about by the multiplication of incorporated banks, and suggested that the Legislature adopt a prompt and decisive remedy tending to the abolition of those institutions.  This sounded well;  but at that very time, as before and after, the Sachems were lobbying at Albany for charters of banks of which they became presidents or directors.  By one means or another these banks yielded fortunes to their owners;  but the currency issued by them almost invariably depreciated.  The laboring classes on whom this bad private money was imposed complained of suffering severely.  Each year, besides, witnessed an increase in the number of chartered monopolies, armed with formidable powers for long periods, or practically in perpetuity.2  To the first gas company, in May, 1823, the Common Council had granted the exclusive right to light all the streets south of Grand street for thirty years, without returns of any kind to the city.3  At the rate at which the city was expanding, this was a concession of immense value, and formed one of the subjects of complaint in 1829.

While laws were instituted to create a money aristocracy, the old debt and other laws bearing on the working classes were not changed.  No attempt was made to improve a condition which allowed a dishonest contractor to put up a building or a series of buildings, collect his money and then swindle his laborers out of their wages.  The local administration, moreover, continued corrupt.  It was freely charged at this time that $250,000 of city money was being stolen outright every year.  The city charter drafted and adopted in 1829-30 contained provisions which, it was thought, might remedy matters.  It created two bodies of the Common Council — the Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen — and gave each a negative upon the propositions of the other, vesting a supreme veto power in the Mayor.  It again separated the election of the Common Council from the general election.  It abolished secret contracts and compelled all resolutions involving appropriations of public money or placing taxes or assessments to be advertised, and included other precautionary measures against corruption.  But it opposed the public wish in still vesting the appointment of the Mayor in the Common Council.

To battle against the prevailing injustices the Mechanics’ or Workingmen’s party was formed.  Its chief inspiration was Robert Dale Owen, son of the famous Robert Owen.  “Dale” Owen, as he was familiarly known, and others had recently returned to the city after an unsuccessful experiment at cooperative colonizing at New Harmony, Indiana, and a number of bright and ardent intellects gathered about him.  Boldly declaring against the private and exclusive possession of the soil and against the hereditary transmission of property, the new party won over a large part of the laboring element.  “Resolved,” ran its resolutions adopted at Military Hall, October 19, 1829,

“in the opinion of this meeting, that the first appropriation of the soil of the State to private and exclusive possession was eminently and barbarously unjust.  That it was substantially feudal in its character, inasmuch as those who received enormous and unequal possessions were lords and those who received little or nothing were vassals.  That hereditary transmission of wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other, has brought down to the present generation all the evils of the feudal system, and that, in our opinion, is the prime source of all our calamities.”

After declaring that the Workingmen’s party would oppose all exclusive privileges, monopolies and exemptions, the resolutions proceeded:

“We consider it an exclusive privilege for one portion of the community to have the means of education in colleges while another is restricted to common schools, or perhaps, by extreme poverty, even deprived of the limited education to be acquired in those establishments.  Our voice, therefore, shall be raised in favor of a system of education which shall be equally open to all, as in a real republic it should be.”

The banks, too, came in for a share of the denunciation.  The bankers were styled “the greatest knaves, impostors and paupers of the age.”  The resolutions continued:

“As banking is now conducted, the owners of the banks receive annually of the people of this State not less than two millions of dollars in their paper money (and it might as well be pewter money) for which there is and can be nothing provided for its redemption on demand...”

The Workingmen put a full ticket in the field.

Tammany Hall, dominated by some of the same men and interests denounced by the Workingmen’s party, opened a campaign of abuse.  Commercial and banking men outside the Wigwam joined ardently in the campaign.  The new movement was declared to be a mushroom party, led by designing men, whose motives were destructive.  The Evening Post, which represented the commercial element and which sided with Tammany in opposition to the new party, said that it remained for the really worthy mechanics who might have associated accidentally with that party, to separate themselves from it, now that its designs and doctrines were known.  The Courier and Enquirer, partly owned and edited by Noah,4 styled the Workingmen’s party an infidel ticket, hostile to the morals, to the institutions of society and the rights of property.  The Tammany Hall, or to speak more technically, the Democratic-Republican General Committee, declaiming on the virtues of Jackson and Democracy, advised all good men, and especially all self-respecting laborers,-not to vote the Workingmen’s ticket.

Nevertheless, its principles made such an impression that in November it polled over 6,000 votes, while Tammany, with its compact organization, could claim little more than 11,000 votes.  It was well settled that numbers of Whig workingmen voted the new party’s ticket;  and that the rich Whigs secretly worked for the success of Tammany Hall, whose ticket was almost entirely successful, though the Workingmen elected Ebenezer Ford to the Assembly.

Tammany was dismayed at the new party’s strength, and determined to destroy it by championing one of the reform measures demanded.  In January, 1830, a bill for the better security of mechanics and other laborers of New York City was introduced by Silas M. Stillwell.  The Tammany men immediately took it up as if it were their own, urged its passage and secured the credit of its adoption, when in April, much emasculated, it became a law.  It required, under penalties, the owner of a building to retain from the contractor the amount due to the mechanics employed thereon.  By exploiting this performance to the utmost, Tammany succeeded in making some inroads on the Workingmen’s party.  The organization leaders had recognized that it was time they did something for the laboring classes.  They were fast losing caste with even independent Democrats of means, because of their subservience to the aristocracy and of the common knowledge of the illegitimate ways in which they were amassing wealth.

One result of the Workingmen’s movement was the failure of the Wigwam to secure a majority in the Common Council.  This seemed to frustrate the design to reelect, as Mayor, Walter Bowne (Grand Sachem in 1820 and 1831).  Fourteen Aldermen and Assistants were opposed to Bowne, and thirteen favored him.  There was but one expedient calculated to reelect him, and to this Tammany Hall resorted.  Bowne, as presiding officer of the Council, held that the constitution permitted him to vote for the office of Mayor.  “I will persist in this opinion even though the board decide against me,” he said.  To prevent a vote being taken, seven of Bowne’s opponents withdrew on December 28, 1829.  They went back on January 6, 1830, when Tammany managed to reelect Bowne by one vote.  How this vote was obtained was a mystery.  Fourteen members declared under oath that they had voted for Thomas R. Smith, Bowne’s opponent.5  Charges of bribery were made, and an investigating committee was appointed on January 11;  but as this committee was composed of Bowne’s own partizans, it announced its inability to find proofs.  Meanwhile the general committee6 had issued a loftily worded manifesto saying that it (the committee) was established and was maintained to watch over the political interests of the Democratic-Republicans of the city and “to expose and repel the insidious and open machinations of their enemies,” that it could not discover anything wrong in the conduct of the Chief Magistrate of the city, and that it “repelled the accusations of his enemies.”

The Workingmen’s party continued its agitation, and prepared for another campaign.  In the meantime the Wigwam’s agents skilfully went about fomenting divisions, with the result that three tickets, all purporting to be the genuine Workingmen’s, were put into the field in October, 1830.  One was that of the “Clay Workingmen”;  it was composed of a medley of admirers of Clay, the owners of stock in various great manufacturing establishments, workingmen who believed in a protective tariff, Whigs,7 and a bunch of hack politicians who had taken up the Workingmen’s movement for selfish ends.  The second was that of a fragment of the Workingmen’s party of the year before, standing resolutely for their principles and containing no suspicious politicians or monopolists.  The third was that of the Agrarian party, embracing a few individuals of views too advanced even for the Workingmen’s party.

To the Clay Workingmen’s party8 Tammany Hall gave little attention, since it was made up mainly of Whigs who had always, under different names, been opposed to the organization.  But the genuine movement Tammany Hall covered with abuse.  “Look, fellow-citizens,” said the address of the “general nominating committee,”

“upon the political horizon and mark the fatal signs prognosticating evils of a dire and fatal nature Associations and political sects of a new and dangerous character have lately stalked into existence, menacing the welfare and good order of society.  These associations ... have assumed to represent two of the most useful and respectable classes of our citizens — our Workingmen and Mechanics. ... Confide in them, and when they have gained their ends they will treat you with derision and scorn!  Then rally round your ancient and trusty friends and remember that honest men and good citizens never assume false names nor fight under borrowed banners!”

To display its devotion to the cause of Democracy, Tammany Hall celebrated, on November 26, the revolution in France.  It persuaded former President James Monroe to preside in Tammany Hall at the preliminary arrangements, and made a studied parade of its zeal.  There was a procession, Samuel Swartwout acting as grand marshal.  Monroe, in a feeble state of health, was brought in a stage to Washington Square, where for ten minutes he looked on.  A banquet, the usual high-flown speeches, and fireworks followed.

The election was favorable to Tammany.  About 3,800 workingmen who had supported the independent movement the previous year, went back to Tammany, because of its advocacy of the mechanics’ lien law.  The average Tammany plurality was 3,000.  The real Workingmen’s ticket polled a vote of about 2,200;  the Clay Workingmen’s ticket a little above 7,000, and the Agrarian, 116.

For the next few years the contest of Jackson with the United States Bank drew together the energies of all Democrats supporting him.  Dropping local contests, they united to renew his power.  For the time, the Workingmen’s movement ceased to exist.

1 “The members [of the Legislature] themselves sometimes participated in the benefits growing out of charters created by their own votes;... if ten banks were chartered at one session, twenty must be chartered the next and thirty the next.  The cormorants could never be gorged.  If at one session you bought off a pack of greedy lobby agents ... they returned with increased numbers and more voracious appetite.” — Hammond, Vol. II, pp. 447-48.
    Four conspicuous “charter dealers” at Albany were Sachems Samuel B. Romaine, Michael Ulshoeffer, Peter Sharpe and Abraham Stagg, all powerful organization leaders.

2 Hammond, Vol. II, pp. 447-48.

3 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 48, pp. 59-60.

4 Noah, after falling into financial difficulties, had been ousted from the editorship of the National Advocate and had now become associated with his former political enemy, James Watson Webb, in the conduct of the Courier and Enquirer.

5 MS. Minutes of the Common Council, Vol. 70, p. 311.  Shortly after this the Wigwam men removed Smith from his post of Commissioner of the Almshouse for opposing Bowne.  So great was the haste to oust him, before the Aldermen went out of office, that one of the board seconded the motion for his removal before the motion was made.

6 The general committee was now composed of thirty-six members, mainly the directors in banking and other companies.  Remonstrances at this time were frequent that its important proceedings were a sealed book to the electors.  Among other things it dictated to the wards not only when, but where, they should meet.

7 The term “Whig” had now come to have a definite party meaning, being used as a popular designation of the group led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, officially known (1828-36) as the National Republican party.  The term is first found in American politics applied to the Separatists during the Revolution.  About 1808 it was taken by the anti-Burr faction of the Democratic-Republican party.

8 The men of this party, as a rule, voted the Anti-Masonic State ticket.  While the Anti-Masonic party occasioned political commotion in the State, there is no evidence that it had any perceptible effect on Tammany’s career.