The History of Tammany Hall

CHAPTER XVI
“ Barnburners ” and “ Hunkers ”
1846-1850



TWO factions had lately arisen in Tammany Hall — the “Barnburners” and the “Hunkers.”  Differences in principle had at first caused the division, but it was characterized, nevertheless, by a lively race for office.

The “Barnburners” were the radical Democrats who believed, among other things that slavery should not be extended to free territory.  The nickname was occasioned by the saying of a contractor, a few years before:  “These men are incendiaries; they are mad; they are like the farmer, who, to get the rats out of his granary, sets fire to his own barn.”

The “Hunkers” were the office-holding conservatives, very unwilling to have anything disturb their repose, and above all, opposed to the agitation of the slavery question.  Their influence was thrown wherever possible with the slaveholding States.  The term “Hunkers” arose from their characteristic of striving to keep their offices to the exclusion of everybody else—“ to get all they can and keep all they can get.”1

The quarrel was as sharply defined throughout the State as in New York City.  Such men as Samuel J. Tilden, C.C. Cambreleng, William F. Havemeyer and Minthorne Tompkins were the local leaders of the “Barnburners”;  John McKeon, Lorenzo B. Shepard,2 a brilliant young leader who was a noted orator at the early age of 19;  Edward Stralian and Emanuel B. Hart were some of the chiefs of the “Hunkers.”  This factional struggle, together with the dissatisfaction given by the city administration, weakened Tammany, whose nominee, in the Spring election of 1847, J. Sherman Brownell, was defeated by the Whig candidate, William V. Brady.  The vote stood:  Brady, 21,310;  Brownell, 19,877;  Ellis G. Drake (Independent), 2,078.  This was the first time in nine years that the city had been carried by the Whigs proper, though they were aided somewhat by the Native Americans.

“Barnburners” and “Hunkers” laid aside their differences momentarily when President Polk visited the city in June, 1847, one of his objects being to be initiated a member of the Tammany Society.  On June 26 he was waited upon at the Astor House by a deputation of the society, headed by Elijah F. Purdy.  Quite worn out after a torrid day of handshaking, Polk accompanied his escorts to the large room in the Wigwam, where members of the society were usually initiated.  Later, the President emerged, looking happy at having availed himself of membership in a political society which could sway Presidential choices and elections and perhaps determine his own future political fate.

This incident past, the factions resumed their quarrel and warred so effectually that in the general election of November, 1847, the Whigs again won, by more than 8,000 votes.  But Tammany, in its darkest moments, was fertile in expedients.  It now arranged a great meeting for February 5, 1848, in commendation of the Mexican War.  Sam Houston and General Foote made speeches, and one of the Tammany orators assured the audience that though Tammany Hall “erred sometimes,” its “patriotic ardor was never cooled.”  The success of this war brought thousands of voters back to the Democratic ranks in the city.  Besides, “Barnburners” and “Hunkers” were tiring of defeat.  Neither relished exile from office all the time.  They agreed on the nomination of former Mayor Havemeyer, who personally was popular, though the Wigwam leaders had caused his administration to be discredited.  Havemeyer was elected by the slender majority of 928 over the Whig candidate, Mayor Brady.  The Native American party had now about gone out of existence.

But the factions soon disagreed again on national questions, and sent conflicting Tammany delegations to the national convention in Baltimore, in May, 1848.  After tedious debate and much acrimony both were allowed a half vote to each delegate.  When, however, it was seen that the “Barnburners” voted with some other States in support of the principle against the extension of slavery to free territory, a movement was started to reject them.  The prospect of losing the all-important electoral vote of New York State was not pleasant to the convention.  To avoid the arbitrary rejection of either faction the committee on credentials suggested a compromise by which it refused to open the discussion as to which faction ought to be accepted until both had pledged themselves to abide by the decision of the convention.  Knowing that this would be pro-slavery, the “Barnburners” declared that “the Democracy of New York must be admitted unconditionally or not at all,” and withdrew.  The “Hunkers” took the required pledge.

Arriving home, the “Barnburner” delegates issued an address saying that a faction existed among them whose object was the perpetuation and the extension of human servitude.  Bold, unscrupulous and active, it wielded to a great degree the patronage of the Federal Government.  It addressed itself to the fears of some, to the cupidity of others.  By these means it had got possession of the late national convention and had proclaimed a candidate for the Presidency — a man who obtained his nomination only as the price of the most abject subserviency to the slave power.  The “Barnburners” then took steps to name candidates in opposition to Lewis Cass and Gen. W.O. Butler, the Baltimore nominees, who had been promptly approved by the “Hunker” element in the Wigwam.  Calling Martin Van Buren from obscurity, they nominated him for President, anticipating the action of the Free Soil convention at Buffalo in August.

Throughout the slavery agitation up to the firing on Fort Sumter, the South had no firmer supporter than Tammany.  In the hall Southern representatives spoke and spread broadcast their doctrines on every available occasion;  however ultra those doctrines might be, the Wigwam audiences never missed applauding them enthusiastically.

The “Hunkers” immediately opened a series of Cass meetings.  “All the South asks,” said Gen. Stevenson at one of them in Tammany Hall, on June 9, 1848, “is non-interference.”  He was cheered wildly.  As usual, the “regular” Democratic nominations were supported by the backbone of the Democracy in New York City — those who clung to the mere name and forms of the party as well as the active men who lived in office and luxuriated on the spoils.  The “Barnburners,” otherwise now styled the Free Soilers, were quite as active as the “Hunkers,” and their defection on election day enabled Gen. Taylor to carry the city — the supposed Democratic stronghold — by 9,883 votes.

The dissensions in the Wigwam were as pronounced in the Spring of 1849 — at least outwardly.  The two factions held separate Mayoralty conventions on the same night.  The “Barnburners” were naturally eager for Havemeyer, one of themselves, but he would not have the honor.  Hearing that the “Hunkers” were proposing Myndert Van Schaick, an extremely popular man, the “Barnburners” resolved to steal the “Hunkers’” thunder by nominating him themselves.  This they accordingly did, and the bewildered public was treated to the spectacle of Van Schaick standing as the candidate of both the recriminating factions.  There were not wanting those who professed to see in this action an agreement between the leaders on the matter of the local offices.  The Whigs elected Caleb S. Woodhull by 4,121 plurality, and secured over two-thirds of the members of the Common Council.  The Democrats of the “Old School,” — the unyielding “Hunkers” — would not vote for a candidate the Free Soilers approved of;  they either did not vote at all or voted for Woodhull.

The “Barnburners,” practically driven out of Tammany Hall by the “Hunkers,” had been meeting elsewhere.  Tiring of defeats, however, overtures for reunion were made during the Fall campaign.  A fusion resulted, not only in the city but in other parts of the State, and candidates were agreed upon.3  But no sooner had the reunion been declared than a number of irreconcilable “Hunkers” and certain other politicians — including Daniel E. Sickles, James T. Brady, “Mike” Walsh and John M. Bloodgood — formed a self-constituted “Democratic-Republican Executive Committee” to oppose the deal.  On the day before election they sent out a circular denouncing the fusion, and declaring that though it promised much it was really only a means of engrafting upon Democratic time-honored principles a set of abolition doctrines, “hostile to the peace and welfare of the Republic and repugnant to the sympathies and intelligence of the Democratic party.”4

This circular was misleading.  Neither the “Barnburners” nor the “Hunkers” had imposed any sacrifice of principle upon the other.  They merely agreed for the time being to suspend their differences in order to get a controlling influence over the disbursement of municipal finances.  The opinion of each voter on the slavery question was left untouched.

The election was hotly contested, for by the new State constitution the selection of minor State offices had been taken from the Governor and Legislature and given to the people,5 Owing to this defection of a strong Tammany group the Whigs carried the city.  The excitement in the Wigwam, when the result became known, was intense.  Four thousand Tammany men, looking either for office or party triumph, were in a frenzy.  W.D. Wallach, a politician of some note, mounted the rostrum, and under the stimulus of disappointment, held forth in a long and remarkable harangue, to which his auditors listened in comparative silence, though the same utterances at another time might have provoked a riot in the Wigwam.  Men of downright dishonesty, Wallach said, had crept into the organization by the aid of bullies and loafers.  These men of late years had managed to wield great power at Tammany primary elections, where, as everybody knew, matters long had been arranged “upon the assumption that by a free application of money, violence and roguery, the people could and should be controlled.”  What wonder was it, he asked, that thousands of quiet and respectable Democrats had ceased to bow to the authority of regular nominations, however worthy the candidates, when they found more or less of the Tammany nominating committees returned in part notoriously by violence, if not by fraud ?

The breach between the “Barnburners” and the extreme “Hunkers” was reopened and widened by this self-constituted committee’s action.  It led to the formation of two bodies, each claiming to be the genuine general committee of Tammany Hall.  One was led by Fernando Wood, who was suspected of being a “Hunker,” but was too much of a politician to be active against the “Barnburners.”  This general committee was of a compromising disposition.  In brief, it was composed mainly of what were known as political “trimmers ” — men willing to make any sacrifices of principle for individual or party success.  The other committee, of which Henry M. Western was the head, was composed of “Hunkers” and took up the interests of the self-formed “Democratic-Republican Executive Committee.”  It was the first body in the North to call a meeting to denounce the Wilmot proviso.  To all intents standing for principle, each committee sought the tremendous advantages of the possession of Tammany Hall and its political machinery.  By being recognized as the “regular” general committee, its nominations would be “regular” and as such would command the votes of the great mass of Democrats.  To obtain that recognition both committees realized the necessity of obtaining a majority of the Council of Sachems, which, in critical moments, had so thoroughly demonstrated its legal right to eject from the Wigwam any man or body of men it pleased.

The opening struggle between the factions for mastery took place at the annual election of the society on April 15, 1850.  Each body made desperate efforts to elect its list of Sachems.  The ticket in favor of a union of the factions and of reorganizing the “Wood committee” was headed by Elijah F. Purdy, then Grand Sachem, and contained the names of Isaac V. Fowler, John A. Bogert, John J. Manning and others.  Former Mayor Mickle, Charles O’Conor, Francis B. Cutting and M.M. Noah led the rival ticket.

The “Hunkers” brought to the polls many men, who, though still members of the society, long since had gone over to the Whigs and had lost the habit of attending the society’s meetings.  These men claimed the right to vote, and it was unquestionably theirs.  In law the Tammany Society was merely a charitable and benevolent corporation.  No member in good standing could be debarred from voting.  With cheerful alacrity these Whig members lent their aid in distracting the Democratic party into keeping up a double organization.  Officeholders and other men openly attached to the Whig party voted.6  When it seemed that most of the Purdy ticket was elected, the two “Hunker” inspectors suddenly found three more “Hunker” tickets in the ballot box.  Previously this box had been examined, emptied and exposed publicly.  These three ballots, if counted, would have elected one more Sachem of the “Hunker” stripe, giving that faction six of the thirteen Sachems — one short of a majority.  The two “Barnburner” inspectors refused to count them.  The result of the election being disputed, Purdy promptly took possession of the books and papers of the society.

As the best solution of the troubles, the Sachems, on April 26, determined to forbid both committees admittance to the Wigwam.  The Sachems did not acknowledge accountability to any one for their actions, not even to the society which elected them.7  Representing themselves as the supreme judges of which was the real Democratic General Committee or whether there was any,8 the Sachems let it be understood that they would act as mediators.  By a vote of 10 to 1,9 they “recommended” — an action equivalent to an arbitrary order — that the “Wood committee” provide for the election of delegates to a convention in Tammany Hall “to reorganize the New York City Democracy.”  From the substance of the invitation sent out by the society to various conspicuous personages it was evident that, though the “Wood committee” had been favored, somehow a majority of the “Hunker,” or pro-slavery Sachems was installed.10

The plan of a convention was accepted by both factions.  But by manipulating the primary elections for delegates Fernando Wood succeeded in filling the convention with his own creatures, allowing, for form’s sake, a sprinkling of opponents.  Wood, whose aim was to get the nomination for Mayor, was the chief “trimmer,” though each side made concessions.  Various equivocal resolutions touching the slavery question were adopted, and a new Tammany General Committee, comprising “Barnburners,” mild “Hunkers” and ultra-“Hunkers,” was formed.

The “Barnburners” and “Hunkers” then agreed upon a coalition in State and city, uniting on Horatio Seymour for Governor.  Despite the diplomacy of Wood, who had arranged this pact, an explosion was narrowly averted a few weeks later.  Finding themselves in a majority at a slimly attended meeting of the general committee in the latter part of September, 1850, the uncompromising “Hunkers” denounced parleying with Free Soilers, and by a vote of 16 to 11 refused to sustain Seymour.  As soon as their action became known there was a burst of indignation.  The threat was made that if the committee did not rescind it, the Council of Sachems, most of whom, it seems, Wood had won over to his plans, would turn it out of Tammany Hall.  The members of the committee hastened to meet, the ultra-“Hunkers” were routed, and the State candidates strongly indorsed.




1 The Century Dictionary derives the word from the Dutch honk, post, goal or home.  The transition in meaning from “goal” to “office” is easy and natural.

2 Shepard became Grand Sachem at an early age.  He was one of the very few influential men achieving prominence in the society or organization against whose character, public or private, no charges were ever brought.

3 New York Weekly Herald, November 3, 1849.  James Gordon Bennett, editor and owner of this newspaper, “was a recognized member of the Tammany party.”  (“Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times,” 1855, p. 80.)  When Bennett first contemplated starting a newspaper, it was to the Young Men’s General Committee that he applied for funds.  Though professing to be independent, the Herald nearly always supported Tammany Hall.  In 1837-39, however, it had supported Aaron Clark.

4 The committee advertised the stand it had taken in the Democratic journals of the city on November 5.

5 The city charter of 1846 (laws 1849 c187?) had likewise increased the number of elective offices in the municipality.

6 New York Evening Post (Democratic), April 16, 1850.

7 New York Weekly Herald, May 4, 1850.

8 Ibid.

9 Evening Post, May 2, 1850.

10 Seven Sachems signed the letter of invitation, which read in part:  “Brothers of this society look with deep concern at the present critical state of the country and are not unmindful of the services of those who are laboring to thwart the designs of the fanatics and demagogues who are waging an unholy crusade against a union of independent sovereignties, which union has done much to advance and perpetuate the principles of American liberty throughout the world.... We have no sympathy with those who war upon the South and its institutions.”