The words “Tammany Hall” can conjure up any number of images for an individual. The image or idea that probably comes to most minds is the 19th century Tammany Hall political machine. Its office was on Union Square, the northern most part of The Village. The individual most often associated with Tammany Hall is William “Boss” Tweed – the political scoundrel who single-handedly controlled most of New York City politics in the 1860s through the 1870s. In 1860, Boss Tweed officially became the leader (also called The Grand Sachem) of Tammany Hall. It is estimated that Tweed and his “band of thieves” embezzled between $75 and $100 million dollars worth of city funds between 1865 and 1871.
The building at Union Square was erected in July of 1868 and cost approximately $300,000 to construct, and it was absolutely gargantuan. Its concert hall could seat 5,000 people and was lavishly decorated with extravagant chandeliers, 35-foot ceilings, and many amenities such as smoking salons and a library. The building was so impressive that the Democratic Party rented it out for their National Convention in 1868. This solidified Tammany Hall’s status.
The reason that the Democratic Party rented out the space and not the Federalists, was because Tammany Hall – the political entity – was decidedly and vocally anti-Federalist. It grew to be one of the most influential partisan entities that was not its own political party in New York. Boss Tweed also re-configured the organization of Tammany Hall to work in his favor. He increased the size of members from 21 to 150. Often easy decisions would become tangled up in the complicated bureaucratic web that Tweed wove for the organization. These complications and the confusion allowed him to situate himself and three close friends at the center of the organization. Therefore the foursome was endowed with the most power within the organization. Outsiders called this group of men “the lunch club” because they met and ate lunch together everyday in a private room at City Hall or at The Wingate, a popular restaurant across the street.
City Hall Park also became a place that would carry Boss Tweed’s legacy for years to come. His largest and most outrageously priced project was the construction of the New York County Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street New York, New York. He embezzled incredible sums of money to finish the project – about 310 million dollars in contemporary terms. To build this structure, Tweed ordered the New York City Almshouse to be removed from this location. This site was also the center of New York’s notorious slum Five Points. Tweed’s dramatic erasure of the slum and its almshouse is a bold statement about who had the power in New York City. Obviously, the poor had no say in the demolition of their homes, and the elimination of their social environment.
Embezzlement, corruption, power-mongering: these three words seem to summarize Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall machine fairly. However, Tammany Hall was not always a corrupt and vile organization. It was actually founded on May 12, 1789 as an institution “dedicated to fill the country with institutions designed, and men determined, to preserve the just balance of power.” This early and noble proclamation obviously would not hold together in the organization’s waning years. Originally, the organization was called The Society of St. Tammany or The Columbian Order. It was named after the Native American chief Tamanend who was mythologized to have met William Penn when he arrived in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was also mythologized to be included in William Penn’s first peace treaty with the Delaware Native American tribe in April of 1683. His wigwam is rumored to have stood on the ground that is now occupied by Princeton University. Tamanend was a glorified saint, and small brotherhoods and other groups named themselves after him.
Again, the original aim of The Society of St. Tammany was to represent the underdogs in all situations pertaining to the government. Often St. Tammany would represent minority groups like the Irish or the Catholics in order to work against the centralization and consolidation of government power. It campaigned against the Know-Nothing party in the 1840s and 1850s, and it campaigned to eliminate property-ownership as a voter qualification.
The Society of St. Tammany also adopted Native American names for their own organizational purposes. For example, the trustees were elected annually and called Sachems because Sachem is the Algonquin word for “highest chief.” From these thirteen Sachems a “Grand Sachem” was elected. This person would serve as president. In the early years of the organization Tammany would bestow upon United States Presidents the honorary title of “Kitchi Okemaw” or “Great Grand Sachem.” This title was figurative, and United States presidents did not preside over any aspects of Tammany Hall. Presidents who have received this distinction include Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Jackson. The Master of Ceremonies was called a “Wiskinskie” or “doorkeeper.” The society also organized time based on lunar and solar cycles. In its early years, the organization was divided into tribes named after various animals like the Panther, Beaver or Rattlesnake – these animal names were euphemisms that represented the original thirteen colonies. They also regularly referred to their meeting place as “the wigwam.”
Given the democratic ideals and its modeling after Native American culture, it is incredibly ironic that Tammany devolved into a New York City institution rife with corruption and unfairness. Also ironically, Tammany Hall’s descent would begin with Boss Tweed’s trial in his own courthouse in 1873.
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 Publishers, 2005.
Myers, Gustavus. The History of Tammany Hall. New York: Boni & Liverirght, Inc., 1917.
Wiles, David. “Boss Tweed” and the Tammany Hall Machine. http://www.albany.edu/~dkw42/tweed.html. Accessed 14 December 2011.
“Tweed Courthouse.” Department of Citywide Administrative Services. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/resources/man_tweed.shtml. Accessed 14 December 2011.