Tammany Hall Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Political machines are organizations designed to keep certain parties or factions in power. One of the earliest political machines to develop in the United States, New York City’s Tammany Hall exerted a powerful influence over the city’s politics from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The machine’s power was largely built upon its ability to deliver to the Democratic Party the rising immigrant vote in the city.

“Boss” William Marcy Tweed was one of the most crooked politicians in U.S. history but in his drive to buy and solicit the votes, he did much to help immigrants in New York City.

(Library of Congress)

Tammany Hall took its name from a Delaware Indian chief whose name was variously transcribed as Tammany, Tammend, or Tamanend. Chief Tammany was widely celebrated in the folklore of colonial America as a wise and powerful leader, and he was sometimes called Saint Tammany. In 1789, shortly after the new constitutional form of government had gone into operation, William Mooney, a small businessman in New York City, organized the Society of St. Tammany, which in its early days was also known as the Columbian Order. One purpose of the organization was to provide a kind of people’s democratic opposition to what were perceived to be the aristocratic tendencies of the Federalist Party. In its early days, the Society of St. Tammany used many Indian symbols and terms as a way of caricaturing the aristocratic airs of their opponents. Beginning in 1798, Burr, AaronAaron Burr helped to turn the organization into a powerful political force, and the society helped to deliver the New York vote for the Democratic-Republican ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Burr in the 1800 presidential election. In 1805, the Society of St. Tammany was formally incorporated as a benevolent organization. In 1830, a headquarters building named Tammany Hall was built on East Fourteenth Street.Soon the name of the headquarters became the colloquial name for the political organization.Tammany HallNew York City;Tammany HallMachine politics;Tammany HallTammany HallNew York City;Tammany HallMachine politics;Tammany Hall[cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Tammany Hall[cat]CRIME;Tammany Hall[cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall and the Immigrant Vote

Originally, Irish immigrants;and Tammany Hall[Tammany Hall]Irish immigrants and all Roman Catholics;and Tammany Hall[Tammany Hall]Roman Catholics were barred from membership in Tammany Hall, but in 1817 Irish militants invaded the organization’s offices to protest the group’s failure to recognize the rising influence of Irish voters in the city. Irish immigrants to the United States had a significant advantage over many other immigrants because they generally spoke English. With their strong sense of community solidarity and great interest in politics, they quickly became a force to be reckoned with in America. By 1820, the Irish were being accepted as members of Tammany Hall. Irish leaders came to dominate the machine, helped in part by the flood of Irish immigrants into the city during the potato famine in Ireland (1845-1852). By 1850, more than 130,000 Irish-born people were living in New York City, accounting for about one-quarter of the entire population. By 1855, the Irish made up 34 percent of the city’s voters.

Many of these recently arrived Irish immigrants were desperately poor. Tammany Hall perfected the system of delivering votes by providing services for these poor immigrants. The ward boss in each of the city’s political wards kept a close eye on his neighborhood. At a time when any public welfare from the state or local government was virtually unknown, the machine gave people in need many kinds of assistance. For example, a man looking for work would be given a referral to a job, or those in legal trouble would be provided a lawyer. If a family’s main breadwinner was sick or injured, the machine provided groceries or financial help. In return, those who received this aid were expected to vote for the machine’s candidates. The machine also helped immigrants proceed through the naturalization process, and it sometimes fraudulently arranged for an immigrant to be naturalized much earlier than the law allowed. By the end of the 1850’s, Irish politicians in New York City were moving into state politics, and their attentions were being courted by national Democratic administrations.

The first New York City mayor backed by the Tammany Hall machine was Fernando Wood, who was elected in 1855. The machine would dominate city hall for the next seventy years, with only minor interruptions. Perhaps the most notorious leader of Tammany Hall was Tweed, William Marcy “Boss”William M. “Boss” Tweed, who came to power in 1868. Tweed, who also held a seat in the New York State senate, presided over a city administration rife with corruption; estimates of the total cost of the various kinds of graft during his ascendancy are between $40 and $200 million. In 1871, Tweed was finally brought down and sent to jail by a reform-minded prosecutor, Samuel J. Tilden, who ironically had gotten his political start in the machine.

Decline of Tammany Hall

After Tweed’s fall, the power of Tammany Hall was diminished for a time, but during the late 1870’s Irish leaders such as “Honest” John Kelly and Richard Croker brought the machine back to prominence. Vestiges of Tammany Hall remained into the 1960’s, but much of its power and influence was broken during the 1930’s through attacks by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the reform mayor of New York City, La Guardia, FiorelloFiorello La Guardia.Tammany HallNew York City;Tammany HallMachine politics;Tammany Hall

Further Reading
  • Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. Well-written narrative of the career of William M. Tweed and the journalists who helped bring about his downfall.
  • Allen, Oliver E. The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993. Study of the era and political machine that spawned Boss Tweed.
  • Callow, Alexander B., Jr. The Tweed Ring. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Detailed, thoroughly documented history of Tweed and the men he handpicked to defraud the city of New York.
  • Erie, Steven P. Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Focuses specifically on Irish involvement in several American big-city machines.
  • Hershkowitz, Leo. Tweed’s New York: Another Look. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Reevaluation of the impact that Tweed and Tammany Hall had on New York City.
  • Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Boss Tweed’s New York. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965. Study of machine politics that credits Tweed with exerting strong leadership at a time of chaos and change in the growing metropolis of New York City.
  • Welch, Richard F. King of the Bowery: Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008. Detailed study of one of the most important Tammany Hall figures, Tim Sullivan, and his rise to power.

Irish immigrants

Machine politics

New York City

Political parties

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