The History of Tammany Hall

“ Hardshells ” and “ Softshells ”

THE “Barnburner”-“Hunker” factional fight was succeeded by that of the “Hardshells” and “Softshells.”  How the ludicrous nicknames originated it is not possible to say.  The “Softshells” were composed of a remnant of the “Barnburners”1 and that part of the “Hunkers,” who believed in a full union with the “Barnburners,” especially in the highly important matter of distributing offices.  The “Hardshells” were the “Old Hunkers” who disavowed all connection with the “Barnburners,” or Free Soilers, except so far as to get their votes.  This division also extended to other parts of the State, where perhaps real differences of political principle were responsible for it;  but in the city the fundamental point of contention was the booty of office.

The “Hardshells” boasted in 1852 of a majority of the Tammany General Committee which met on December 2 to choose inspectors for the ward elections of delegates to the general committee for 1853.  The control of these inspectors was the keynote of the situation, for they would return such delegates as they pleased.  Angered at the appointment of “Hardshell” inspectors, the “Softshells” broke in the door of the committee room, assaulted the members of the committee with chairs, fractured some heads and forced the “Hards” to flee for refuge to the Astor House.2

Agreeable to “usages,” the departing general committee instructed the delegates of its successor to assemble in Tammany Hall on January 13, 1853, to be installed as the general committee for the ensuing year.  Until this installation, the committee of the last year remained in power.  In the interval the Sachems, who, in the peculiar mix of politics, were for the most part “Softshells,” decided to take a hand in the game of getting control of the organization, and therefore called a meeting for the same night and at the same time.

The object of the old general committee was to allow only delegates whose seats were uncontested to vote on the organization, or the contest of seats, which would return a “Hardshell” committee.  The Sachems, on the contrary, favored voting by those who had the indorsement of two of the three inspectors.

The “Hardshells” insisted that the Sachems had unwarrantably interfered;  that this was the first time in the history of the society of any interference as to the manner of organizing the general committee;  that the only power the Sachems had was to decide between contending parties for the use of the hall for political meetings, and that even then their power was doubtful.

The Grand Sachem ordered the doors of the meeting room locked till 7:30 o’clock, at which hour both factions streamed in.  Soon there were two meetings in the same room, each with a chairman, and each vociferously trying to shout down the other.  Neither accomplished anything, and both adjourned, and kept adjourning from day to day, awaiting positive action by the society.

The “Softshell” section of the general committee called a meeting for January 20, but it was prohibited by the Sachems.  When doubt of their authority was expressed, the Sachems produced a lease executed in 1842 to Howard, the lessee of the property, by the Tammany Society, in which he agreed that he would not lease, either directly or indirectly, the hall, or any part of the building, to any other political party (or parties) whatever, calling themselves committees, whose general political principles did not appear to him or the Sachems to be in accordance with the general political principles of the Democratic-Republican General Committee of New York City, of which Elijah F. Purdy was then chairman.  Howard had also agreed that

“if there should be at any time a doubt arising in his mind or that of his assigns, or in the mind of the Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society for the time being, in ascertaining the political character of any political party that should be desirous of obtaining admission to Tammany Hall for the purpose of holding a political meeting, then either might give notice in writing to the Father of the Council of the Tammany Society, in which event it was the duty of the Father of the Council to assemble the Grand Council, who would determine in the matter and whose decision should be final, conclusive and binding.”

Of the thirteen Sachems, eleven were “Softshells” a predominance due to the activity of the “Barnburners.”  The “Hardshells,” without doubt, were in a majority in the Tammany Society and in Tammany Hall, but they had taken no such pains as had their opponents to elect their men.  The Sachems’ meeting on January 20, professedly to decide the merits of the contest, called for the ward representatives in turn.  The “Hardshells” refused to answer or to acknowledge the Sachems’ authority to interfere with the primary elections of the people.  The Sachems then named by resolution the general committee they favored, thus deciding in favor of the “Softshell” committee.  There was no little suppressed excitement, since the members of the Tammany Society, it was naively told, though allowed to be present, were not allowed to speak.

Alderman Thomas J. Barr, a member of the Tammany Society and chairman of the “Hardshell” committee, handed to the Sachems, on behalf of his associates, an energetic protest.  Summarized, it read as follows :

“Tammany Society is a private association, incorporated for charitable purposes.  There is nothing in its charter, constitution or by-laws making it a political organization in any sense of the term.  The Democrats of New York City have never, in any manner or by any act, vested in the society the right to prescribe the rules for their government in matters of political organization.

“The society comprises among its members men belonging to all the different political parties of the day.  The only political test of admission to membership is to be ‘a Republican in favor of the Constitution of the United States.’  It is, besides, a secret society, whose transactions are known only to its own officers and members, except so far as might be the pleasure of the Council to make the proceedings public.  It can never be tolerated that a body which, in the language of its charter, was created ‘to carry into effect the benevolent purpose of affording relief to the indigent and distressed,’ and which is wholly independent of the great body of the Democracy shall be permitted to sit in judgment upon the primary organization of the Democratic-Republican party of the city of New York;  and such a state of things, if its absurdity be not too great for serious consideration, would amount to a despotism of the most repugnant character and render the Democratic party of the city an object of contempt and ridicule everywhere.... Tammany Society owns a portion of the premises known as Tammany Hall, which is let to Mr. Howard and forms the plant of his hotel.  This fact is all that gives to the Tammany Society any, even the least political significance.

“The general committee derives its powers from the people, who alone can take them away.  The committee in its objects, its organization and its responsibilities to a popular constituency is wholly distinct from and independent of the Tammany Society, its council or its officers, and to be efficient for any good purpose must always so remain, leaving to the Tammany Society its legitimate duty of excluding from Tammany Hall those who are hostile to the Democracy and its principles.”3

In the bar-room many leaders of the excluded faction were assembled, surrounded by their fighting men.  When the Sachems’ adverse decision was announced, their anger found vent in a sputter of oaths and threats, and the sum of $15,000 was subscribed on the spot for the building of a rival Tammany Hall.  It is almost needless to say that the rival hall was never built.

The Sachems later replied to the protest with the defense that their lease to Howard obliged them to act as they did.  By that lease the succession of Elijah F. Purdy’s committee alone was at liberty to meet as a general committee in Tammany Hall;  they (the Sachems) had not recognized Barr’s committee as such, and moreover did not admit the claim the “Hardshell” committee made of their right to hire a room separate from the majority in a building in which they had no property whatever.  The Council of Sachems insisted that it had exercised the right of excluding so-called general committees, before;  that Tammany was a benevolent society, and that benevolent societies had the same right as others to determine who should occupy their property.

The “Hardshells” attempted to rout the “Softshells” at the regular meeting of the Tammany Society on February 12, but the Sachems’ action was confirmed by a vote of two hundred to less than a dozen.  Each faction then strained to elect a majority of the Sachems at the annual election on April 18.  Private circulars were distributed, that of the “Softshells” being signed by Isaac V. Fowler, Fernando Wood, Nelson J. Waterbury, John Cochrane and others.  It breathed allegiance to the national and State administrations, the regular organization and to the Baltimore platform.  The “Hardshell” circular had the signatures of Richard B. Connolly, Cornelius Bogardus, Jacob Brush and others styling themselves the “Old Line Democrats.”

The “Softshells” elected their ticket, and Isaac V. Fowler, afterward postmaster, was chosen Grand Sachem.  This vote of a few score of private individuals decided the control of Tammany Hall and the lot of those who would share in the division of plunder for the next year.

“With the exception of some few quarrels,” one friendly account had it, “which fortunately did not result in any personal damage to the disputants, the affair passed off very quietly.  While the votes were counted upstairs some interesting scenes were presented in the bar-room, which was crowded with anxious expectants.  Language of a rather exceptional character, such as ‘political thieves,’ ‘swindlers,’ etc., was employed unsparingly, but as the majority was peaceably inclined, there were no heads fractured.”

1 Many of the “Barnburners” had finally broken with the Democratic party, and were now acting independently as Free Soilers.  Afterward, in great part, these independents gravitated to the new Republican party.

2 This affair was exploited in the General Courts later.  Seven rioters were arrested.

3 The statements of both sides were published officially in the New York Herald, February 10, 1853, the bare facts covering more than an entire page of solid print.