There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.'-George Washington Plunkitt, Tammany sachem

Often synonymous with political corruption, Tammany Hall usually refers to a group of powerful Democrats that held power in New York City from the 18th century up until as recently as the 1960’s, with the height of its power spanning the years 1854-1934. While sometimes at odds with the national party and local Democratic rivals, because of its control of New York City Tammany was probably one of the most influential political groups on the national political scene during much of its reign and unquestionably controlled the state and city politics of New York.

Perhaps in an effort create an identity separate from Europe, Revolutionary War era Americans began forming fraternal orders that borrowed heavily from Native American culture. Using words such as sachem1, sagamore2, winskinskie,3 and wigwam, and using quasi-Native American rituals, these Tammany4 Societies were largely social groups that, save for the New York order, were short lived.

The New York Tammany Society, or the Columbian Order, was formed in 1789 by William Mooney, a Revolutionary War veteran. Within 10 years, the group had dropped its primarily non-partisan nature when local politician Aaron Burr became Grand Sachem. Strongly anti-Federalist and pushing Jeffersonian politics and ideals, Burr transformed the somewhat arcane society into a political group, while retaining some of its role as a social order.

The group found its first home on Frankfort Street in 1811. In 1867, it moved to the then fashionable Union Square at 14th Street. Finally, in 1929, Tammany moved to Union Square and 17th Street.

Many of the reforms Tammany supported, such as citizenship rights for immigrants and the elimination of debtors' prisons, helped win the growing immigrant population into its constituency. Once firmly entrenched in the political structures of the city, Tammany became the place to go for “favors”: the charitable foundation you turned to when your home burnt down, the bail bondsman when you got locked up for getting a little too sloshed on Friday night, and the agency you used to get a job.

One of the most notorious figures associated with Tammany Hall was William March “Boss” Tweed. He became Grand Sachem of Tammany and chairman of the New York county Democratic party in 1860. With Tammany mayor Fernando Wood in office, Tweed was able to embezzle and swindle millions while rewarding his close associates with sizable kickbacks. In 1870, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast helped expose Tweed’s illegal activities. Despite loss of contracts for Harper’s and sizable bribe offers, Nast continued to investigate and expose Tammany activities. The New York Times contributed to the outcry in July by publishing the ledger books. Some of the expenditures, such as $41,190 brooms would make a Reagan era defense supplier blush. Democratic reformer Samuel J. Tilden started investigating Tweed in 1871, an inquiry that ended with Tweed’s arrest.

After this potentially fatal blow, Tammany regrouped under the leadership of John Kelly. While the blatant theft and kickbacks were no longer on the scale that they were during Tweed‘s days, Tammany remained fully in control of much of New York and its politics until the early 1930's when Samuel Seabur investigated then Mayor James Walker. Walker resigned and Fiorello H. LaGuardia was elected mayor in 1934. Tammany wasn’t totally dissolved until the mid 1960’s.

After the fall of Tweed, Tammany seemed to find a way to balance its legitimacy with some of its shadier dealings to prevent large scale public outcry. In Plunkett of Tammany Hall, we see a politician who sees his office as a blend of service and business. In his eyes, he does what any good business man would do, often at the expense of the people he serves. However, if we take his mindset and actions to be typical early 20th century Tammany, he is not that far removed from many mainstream politicians. The differences lie in Plunkett's plain spoken willingness to admit to admit his grifter nature, and the hegemonic nature of the Tammany political entity.

1.chief

2.master of ceremonies

3.door keeper

4."Tammany" comes from a legendary Delaware chief Tamanend and roughly translates to “the affable”.


Sources:

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics; William L. Riordon, public domain text, http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2810 ; Acessed June 14-15, 2004

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001, Bartleby.com ; Accessed June 14-15, 2004

Spartacus www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAtammany.htm ; Accessed June 14-15, 2004

US History www.u-s-history.com/pages/h705.html ; Accessed June 14-15, 2004

The 1911 Encycopedia, 2002-2003 by LoveToKnow, Corp http://43.1911encyclopedia.org/T/TA/TAMMANY_HALL.htm ; Accessed June 14-15, 2004

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers."Tammany Hall." Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, et. al. (Hyde Park, New York: Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, 2003). http://www.nps.gov/elro/glossary/tammany-hall.htm ; Accessed June 14-15, 2004

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