Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Society of St. Tammany and New York City

The first Wigwam of the Society of St. Tammany in New York City.

On May 12 1789 the Society of St. Tammany was founded largely by Revolutionary War veterans in New York City.  It was actually a branch of a network of clubs founded originally in Philadelphia.  But while the other lodges withered and disappeared within a generation, Tammany in New York grew, adapted, thrived, and became a political power house. 
The Society took its name from a Tamanend, a chief of the Lanape tribe—also known as the Delaware—who made peace with the Quaker founders of Pennsylvania.  The Society’s ritual, pass words, and ceremonial costumes aped Native American.  The leader was called the Grand Sachem and its meeting place was the Wigwam.  

An invitation sent to Founding Father John Dickinson to join the Mother Lodge of the Society of St. Tammany in Philadelphia.  Unlike the lodge founded later in New York, many of the most important citizens of Philadelphia including Benjamin Franklin, the merchant/money lender Biddle Brothers,  James Hamilton, Thomas Mifflin, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, who all would make history.
The New York Society was dominated by tradesmen and mechanics and who were drawn to support of the emerging Jeffersonian party.  Whereas New Yorker Alexander Hamilton organized a powerful Federalist presence in the city based around the elite Order of Cincinnatus composed of Revolutionary War officers and the city’s wealthy merchants and professionals, the lower class Tammany members tended to overlap in membership with the Democratic Societies.  By 1800 a parallel political organization, separate from, but sharing membership and meeting space with the fraternal order, was established.  Crafty politician Aaron Burr, not a member of the Society himself, gathered the political branch into a potent force, complete with organization down to the ward level.  He crushed the Federalists in the City while the aristocratic Clinton family carried much of the Hudson Valley delivering the state’s Electoral College votes, and thus the Presidential Election to the Democratic-Republican ticket of Jefferson and Burr.  In the process he nearly became President himself, but that is a story for another entry. 
Tammany erected their first building at Nassau and Frankfort Streets.  It was officially name the Wigwam, but it was soon known by all as Tammany Hall as was the political operation.  By 1829 Tammany was the official body of the Democratic Party in the city.  During this period many Tammany leaders were also Free Masons, another source of power. Until immigrants—mostly Irish and Catholic—began pouring into the city in unprecedented numbers in the 1840’s Tammany was largely Protestant and nativist.  It actually opposed the first efforts of the Irish to enter into politics.  But shrewd Tammany Sachems, beginning with Fernando Wood, soon saw the writing on the wall and eventually welcomed the Irish and incorporated their considerable political skills.  
Fernando Wood was the first Sachem to begin to reach out to immigrants.  He became the first Tammany Mayor and during the Civil War was a pro-Confederate and painful thorn in the side of Abraham Linoln.

Tammany Hall secured the loyalty of largely poverty stricken new immigrants by providing charity and relief at a time when none was forthcoming from the government.  They also provided a social network in the new country and helped educate immigrants in the language and culture of their new nation.  Through an ever widening patronage system they provided jobs.  And finally Tammany organized special teams to expedite citizenship for the immigrants, sometimes by outright bribery of officials, which got the grateful newcomers quickly onto the voting rolls.  It was a winning proposition developed to perfection by William “Boss” Tweed, himself a former nativist, who became Sachem in 1856. 
By that time the Hall had already elected Fernando Woods its first Mayor.  Tweed and his associates used their power to establish the infamous Graft Ring that stole the City, State, and Federal governments blind for the next twenty years. 
After the Civil War Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall became the arch enemy of a parade of reformers—and of the Republican Party who used their tarnished image against Democrats nationally.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast created the Tammany Tiger as a symbol for Democrats and relentlessly lampooned Tweed and his cronies.  
This Thomas Nast cartoon of the Tweed Ring--Boss Tweed is the fat man--has become a staple of American history text books and shaped most of our images of Tammany Hall.

Reform Democrats led by Governor Samuel Tilden, who had national ambitions, realized that Democrats could never retake Federal power as long as Tweed poisoned the atmosphere.  They forced him out as Sachem in 1872 and shortly after he was sent to prison on bribery charges. 
With Tweed and the worst of his cronies gone, John Kelly finally led the Irish to control of Tammany Hall themselves, leading to its period of greatest power.  For the next sixty years they were the undisputed masters of the Democratic Party in the City and produced every party candidate for mayor.  Their power extended to the state level as well.  Although reform candidates could sometimes win an election after a particularly egregious outbreak of scandal, over all Tammany rolled on undisturbed. 
The Hall reached it greatest heights with the election of Alfred E. Smith as governor and James J. Walker, Gentleman Jimmy, as mayor in the 1920’s.  They even had enough muscle to elevate the Happy Warrior to the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1928—the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party.  But the downfall of Walker on corruption charges and Smith’s estrangement from reform Democratic Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was a blow to their power.  

The election of Catholic Al Smith as Governor and securing the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1928 represented the apex of power for Tammany Hall.
When elected president F.D.R. stripped the Hall of its substantial Federal patronage.  Then he supported the election of reformer Fiorello La Guardia on a fusion ticket striping City patronage as well.  It was a crippling blow. 
After World War II Tammany Hall rallied for a comeback under the decidedly non-Irish leadership of Carmine DeSapio.  He rebuilt Tammany and modernized it.  He beat an incumbent Italian-American mayor, Vincent R. Impellitteri with Robert F. Wagner in 1953 and the next year put W. Averell Harriman in the Governor’s seat.  In the process he earned the eternal enmity of Eleanor Roosevelt for derailing the political career of her son Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.  She worked for years to undermine DeSapio and Tammany in every way possible.  
Carmine de Sapio, the last Tammany Boss used Wasp fronts like Averell Harriman and Robert Wagoner (who converted to Catholicism) as good government fronts for Tammany buisness as usual.  When they turned against him and the Hall, it doomed the organization's power.
With another round of scandals brewing, Wagoner abandoned Tammany for his second re-election bid and trounced the mope the Hall put up against him.  There would never again be another Tammany mayor.  By 1961 DeSapio was out as leader and would be indicted and jailed on corruption charges later. 
When Ed Koch’s Village Independent Democrats seized the Manhattan Party apparatus from the shell of Tammany it was all over.  By the end of the decade Tammany Hall was extinct.  

The last Wigwam today.
Its last building on Union Square still stands and houses the New York Film Society.

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