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Tammany Hall The Beginning of the Ward System of Politics


Immigrant Support

Tammany Hall's electoral base lay predominantly with New York's burgeoning immigrant constituency, which often exchanged political support for Tammany Hall's patronage. In pre-New Deal America the extralegal services that Tammany and other urban political machines offered served as a rudimentary, if inadequate, public welfare system. The patronage Tammany Hall provided to immigrants, many of whom lived in extreme poverty and received little government assistance, covered three key areas. First, Tammany provided the means of physical existence in times of emergency: food, coal, rent money or a job. Second, Tammany served as a powerful intermediary between immigrants and the unfamiliar state, from dealing with the police and the bureaucracy to simply obtaining a pushcart license. Third, Tammany officials offered friendship and social intercourse to immigrants who found themselves in an unfamiliar social setting.[4]

Tammany's services are exemplified by a diary entry of ward boss George Washington Plunkitt in which during the course of a day he assisted the victims of a house fire; secured the release of six "drunks" by speaking on their behalf to a judge; paid the rent of a poor family to prevent their eviction and gave them money for food; secured employment for four men; attended the funerals of two of his constituents (one Italian, the other Jewish); attended a Bar Mitzvah; and attended the wedding of a Jewish couple from his ward.[5]

Tammany Hall also served as a social integrator for immigrants by familiarizing them with American society and its political institutions and by helping them become naturalized citizens. One example was the massively expedited, although legally dubious, naturalization process organized by William M. Tweed. Under Tweed special naturalization committees were established to complete the forms, pay the fees and obtain the witnesses necessary for naturalizing immigrants, and judges were compelled to expedite naturalization proceedings.[6]

The Irish

Tammany is forever linked with the rise of the Irish in American politics. Beginning in late 1845, millions of Irish Catholics began arriving in New York. Equipped with a knowledge of English, very tight loyalties, a proclivity for politics, and what critics said was a propensity to use violence to control the polls, the Irish quickly dominated Tammany. In exchange for votes, they were provided with money and food. From 1872 onward, Tammany had an Irish "boss." They played an increasingly important role in state politics, supporting one candidate and feuding with another. The greatest success came in 1928 when a Tammany hero, New York Governor Al Smith, won the Democratic presidential nomination.



Tammany Ring, by Thomas Nast

Tweed Machine

By 1854, Tammany's lineage and support from immigrants had made it a powerful force in New York politics. Tammany controlled businesses, politics and sometimes law enforcement. Businesses would give gifts to their workers and, in exchange, tell the workers to vote for the politicians that were supported by Tammany (usually a straight Democratic ticket). In 1854, the Society elected its first New York City mayor. Tammany's "bosses" (called the "Grand Sachem") and their supporters enriched themselves by illegal means. The most infamous boss of all was William M. "Boss" Tweed, whose control over the Tammany Hall machine allowed him to win election to the New York State Senate. His political career ended when he was sent to prison along with his partner Francis I.A. Boole, after his ousting at the hands of a reform movement led by New York's Democratic governor Samuel J. Tilden in 1872. In 1892, a Protestant minister, Charles Henry Parkhurst, made a widely heard denunciation of the Hall, which led to a Grand Jury investigation, the appointment of the Lexow Committee and the election of a reform mayor in 1894.


Weakened by defeats, the tiger is hunted by enemies in 1893. Puck cartoon by F. Opper

Despite occasional defeats, Tammany was consistently able to survive and, indeed, prosper; it continued to dominate city and even state politics. Under leaders like John Kelly and Richard Croker, Charles F. Murphy and Timothy Sullivan, it controlled Democratic politics in the city. Tammany opposed William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

In 1901, anti-Tammany forces elected a reformer, Republican Seth Low, to become mayor. From 1902 until his death in 1924, Charles F. Murphy was Tammany's boss. In 1927 the building on 14th street was sold. The new building on East 17th Street and Union Square East was finished and occupied by 1929.[7] In 1932, the machine suffered a dual setback when Mayor James Walker was forced from office and reform-minded Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. Roosevelt stripped Tammany of federal patronage, which had been expanded under the New Deal—and passed it instead to Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx. Roosevelt helped Republican Fiorello LaGuardia become mayor on a Fusion ticket, thus removing even more patronage from Tammany's control.

Tammany depended for its power on government contracts, jobs, patronage, corruption, and ultimately the ability of its leaders to swing the popular vote. The last element weakened after 1940 with the decline of relief programs like WPA and CCC that Tammany used to gain and hold supporters. Congressman Christopher "Christy" Sullivan was one of the last "bosses" of Tammany Hall before its collapse.

Tammany never recovered, but it staged a small scale come-back in the early 1950s under the leadership of Carmine DeSapio, who succeeded in engineering the elections of Robert Wagner, Jr. as mayor in 1953 and Averell Harriman as state governor in 1954, while simultaneously blocking his enemies, especially Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. in the 1954 race for state Attorney General.



All politics revolved around the Boss. 1899 cartoon from Puck

Eleanor Roosevelt organized a counterattack with Herbert Lehman and Thomas Finletter to form the New York Committee for Democratic Voters, a group dedicated to fighting Tammany. In 1961, the group helped remove DeSapio from power. The once mighty Tammany political machine, now deprived of its leadership, quickly faded from political importance, and by the mid-1960s it ceased to exist. The last building to serve as the physical Tammany Hall, on Union Square, is now home to the New York Film Academy. A large decorated flagpole base within Union