"Boss Tweed" and the Tammany Hall Machine

David Wiles, Eaps 760


     From the Wilson readings, it is natural to think of big city "political machines" and negative connotation like "sewers." The ward based, patronage driven form of local government is commonly thought of in criminal terms and, in that sense, so are Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York City.

     There is little question that the Tweed Ring were outright thieves and that Tammany Hall did have a series of reoccurring scandals. An estimated 75 to 200 million dollars were swindled from the City between 1865 and 1871. Yet, there is more to the story than a confrontation of the machine form of city government and the ideology of reformer exhortations. Tammany represented a form of organization that wedded the Democratic Party and the Society of St. Tammany ( started in 1789 for patriotic and fraternal purposes) into an interchangeable exchange. The weave of city politics was the triangulation of the Mayor's office, the Democratic Party and the social club organization. During the Civil War era, the Society of St. Tammany became the Democratic Party equivalent to the Union League Club and the Republicans. The difference is that the Democrats won control of New York City and "The Big Apple" was, perhaps, the most important government structure in the United States for more than seventy years.

     In 1854 Fernando Wood became the first Tammany Democrat mayor of the City. 1860 William March Tweed became chairman of the New York county Democratic Party and the leader (called the Grand Sachem) of the Tammany club. For the next seventy years ( until the 1934 mayoral victory of Fiorello La Guardia) the anti machine reformers only held the mayor's office and control of the City for a total of ten years. Given the present day infamy of the "Tweed" identity to disgrace it is curious that the "rascals took so long to be thrown out."

     The success of Tammany Hall to control City politics and persist in power until the years of the Great Depression is better appreciated by understanding Samuel Tilden George Washington Plunkett.

     Samuel Tilden was the Chairperson of the New York State Democratic Party during the Tweed era and ran for President against Rutherford Hayes in 1876. He, more than any other politician, is given credit for bringing down the Tweed Ring in New York City. The problem was that he worked on the task of identifying and bring down the Tweed ring for more than a decade. Republicans charged that length of time amounted to a cover-up; Democratic argued that length of time was necessary for state power to isolate and weaken local government control. In short, Samuel Tilden was a reformer who found himself (in the early l870's) caught between the reformer desires to clean up the criminal excess of the political machine and the practical implications of gauging probable success. As he gathered information to prove Tweed criminality beyond a shadow of a doubt Tilden also wanted the state Democratic Party to not be accused of corruption or covering up. He knew the general movement for municipal reform was growing but he also knew the underlying strength of the political machine form of local government would remain regardless of the reformer success with the Tweed phenomenon.

     George Plunkett was made famous by writer William Riordan who described Tammany Hall as "a series of very plain talk on very practical politics delivered by Tammany philosopher from his rostrum-the New York County Courthouse bootblack stand."

     The book, Plunkett of Tammany Hall was first published in 1963 and contains chapters like, "honest and dishonest graft," "the curse of civil service reform," "reciprocity in patronage," " Tammany leaders not bookworms," "dangers of the dress suit in politics," "on the uses of money in politics," " bosses preserve the nation," and "Tammany the only lasting democracy." Plunkett's formula for staying on top for seven decades of New York City rule was; " Tammany is the ocean, reform the waves, and there is a lot of unofficial patronage to ride out the storms if you know the ropes. Why don't reformers last in politics? Because they are amateurs and you must be a pro. Politicians do not have to steal to make a living because a crook is a fool and a politician can become a millionaire through 'honest graft."

     When we remember Ellis Island was in New York harbor (with the Statue of Liberty) and it is estimated that two fifths of the American population have relatives that were processed through that in migration site, the Plunkett "plain talk" starts to make sense. "Think what the people of New York are. On half, more than one half, are of foreign birth. They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state....there is no denying the service that Tammany has rendered the Republic. There is no other organization for taking hold of untrained, friendless men and converting them into citizens. Who else in the city would do it? There is not a mugwump who would shake their hand."

     For that city context Plunkett advises those concerned with local governing; " Don't go to college and stuff your head with rubbish; get out with your neighbors and relatives and round up a few votes you can call your own. Study human nature and make government warm and personal." For the way the political machine routinely operates, Plunkett states, "What reformers call 'machine' we call organization. In New York City the smallest unit is the election district committee, headed by a captain. The election districts overlap with the assembly districts headed by leaders who, in turn, constitute the county executive committee. Assembly leaders are elected in primaries and elect their own party chairmen." Author Riordan points out that the New York City Democratic organization in the l920's numbered 32,000 committee men spread over five counties. The amount of patronage in l888 (when Woodrow Wilson was publishing his famous piece) for just the city county containing Manhattan and a slice of the Bronx was 12,000 municipal jobs and a payroll of twelve million dollars. At the time this was a bigger resource distribution than the Andrew Carnegie iron and steel works.

     When George Plunkett dies in 1924 he was eulogized this way;" He understood that in politics honesty doesn't matter, efficiency doesn't matter, progressive vision doesn't matter. What does matter is the chance for a better job, a better price of wheat, better business conditions. Plunkett's legacy is to that practicality."

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