Tammany Hall

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Tammany Hall was a political machine of the Democratic Party founded in May 1789 in New York City. They took their name from Tammaned, a famous leader of the Lenni-Lanape tribe. Then, many similar societies emerged – the first in Philadephia in 1772. Yet, the one of New York destined to be the most famous. Its most famed era was during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Ultimately, it dissolved in the 1960s.

Society of St. Tammany and Columbian Order are other names for Tammany Hall.

In layman’s terms, a political machine is a group that exchanges welfare for votes on election day. For example, the politician gives a job to the poor and then makes sure that the person will vote for them. Yet, they focus on both poor and the wealthy. Thus, it tends to be crooked and immoral. Besides, a firm-autocratic leader, called “boss,” is in charge.

Tammany Hall
Former Headquarters of Tammany Hall on East 14th Street

The Rise Of Tammany Hall

Tammany hall NYC
1824 Broadway and City Hall

Tammany Hall was involved in politics as early as 1800. Candidate for vice-president Aaron Burr used the political machine to help Thomas Jefferson. His subsequent win proved essential in the race against John Adams.

In the History of New York City, immigration played a crucial role. In 1817, the Irish broke into a session at Tammany Hall in protest of their policy. Soon, the society realized the potential of immigrants and created a bond with them. 

Thus, their goal was to expand suffrage to as many white Americans as possible. Besides, from the 1820s, it accepted the Irish to become members of the society – the Irish soon fortified Tammany Hall. And by 1839, it became a branch of the Democratic Party. Previously, it was a part of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party, which dissolved in 1834. Thus, its opponents were The Federalist Party of Hamilton and later the Republican party.

The notorious boss William Tweed took control of the society in the 1850s. “Boss Tweed,” a member of the New York Senate, was one of the most corrupt politicians. Besides, he held power over Tammany Hall and New York politics in general until 1971. In 1873, he was sent to jail for his crimes. He died there five years later.

His successor, John Kelly, further transformed the society. He removed Tweed’s men and reorganized the political machine. Besides, he assigned members of Tammany Hall to certain precincts of New York. They then helped the people living in the area in various domains. Yet, these assigned members also made sure the people voted for the “correct” politicians.

Future leaders of the organization enacted many progressive reforms. Yet, they were unable to tackle the mesmerizing corruption within Tammany Hall. A bright light was Alfred Smith. Al Smith was an admired reformer, former sheriff, president of the Board of Aldermen, and 42n Governor of New York (1923-1928).

Boss Tweed
The notorious William “Boss” Tweed

The Fall Of Tammany Hall

Fiorello LaGuardia
99th Mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia

Of the 27 mayors of New York City between 1853 and 1934, when LaGuardia took office, only seven were Republican or independent. None of the seven were in office longer than one term. Hence, the power and influence of Tammany Hall is plausible. 

However, their rule was not to be forever. The Great Depression foreshadowed substantial changes. In 1933, an Italian Republican, Fiorello LaGuardia, won the seat of the city’s mayor. He was a reform-minded politician and also strongly opposed Tammany Hall.

Besides, LaGuardia was the first Republican mayor to hold office for more than one term in more than a century. This highly impactful politician served between 1933 and 1945.

In addition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was likewise reform-minded. He decided to strip Tammany Hall of federal patronage. Thus, stopping a vital influx of money. Along with the toughness of LaGuardia, this inflicted a heavy blow, and it never recovered. For the following thirty years, Tammany hall struggled before definitely collapsing in the mid-1960s.

Corruption and Scandals

As early as 1806, the first controversies and corruption scandals of Tammany Hall surfaced. For its entire existence, it seemed a well-known fact, somewhat of an idiom. The negative aura is what some most define it by. For example, Boss Tweed was one of the most corrupt politicians in American history. He was accountable for stealing millions of dollars, bribing, laundering, and more.

By definition, a political machine is dubious, immoral. It attracts corruption, trading with votes, bribery, and more. Yet, such an organization controlled New York City for over a century.

On the other hand, the organization also did a lot of good for the citizens. And, without a doubt, not all members were crooked, immoral, and corrupt. They helped many establish themselves in the city, created jobs, and provided at least some food and healthcare.

Tammany Hall
An 1899 cartoon depicting how New York’s politics works – The sun in a crooked boss of the Tammany Hall.