Tammany Hall: Early History
As a political organization, perhaps Tammany Hall never has known an equal. It was a product of the madness of 19th Century New York – a time of great wealth and extreme poverty, of high aspirations and hard conditions. Tammany supervised it all, reigning supreme over city politics from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Great Depression.
The Society of St. Tammany was founded in 1786 by soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army as the political voice of the people. In 1800, Aaron Burr brought it into the fold of his fledgling Democratic Party in order to secure Thomas Jefferson’s election as president.
From then, it would ride the waves of populism on the backs of immigrant America. After the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840′s and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to New York, Tammany Hall would elect its first Mayor in 1854 in the indisputably dishonest person of Fernando Wood.
Height of Power
After that, there was no looking back. The harsh conditions of industrial America meant the people would need a friend in power. The Tammany Tiger (see above) was just such a friend, and for thousands of downtrodden immigrants, Tammany Hall was a savior. But for New York’s more established classes, the Tammany Tiger had run utterly amuck.
At the height of its power under Boss William Tweed, countless millions were stolen. In April of 1870, Tweed succeeded in changing the city charter to consolidate absolute power of the city’s finances and politics. Though it can never be known, it is estimated that Tweed and his associates stole anywhere from $400 million to $2 billion dollars in today’s terms during a two year period from 1870 to 71.
Tweed would fall from power in late 1871. Surprisingly, he was brought down by cartoons, as much as anything else. Thomas Nast, one of the most famous cartoonist of the time, made it his special goal to destroy Tweed and his cronies. Tweed would eventually die in the Ludlow Street jail in 1878.
Though Tammany’s excesses would never return to such extremes, the organization retained its hold on power until broken by Fiorello Laguardia’s election in 1934.
But the marvel of Tammany is not that it stole prodigious amounts of money, or that it governed the city like an absentee landlord. Rather, it was that it did so in broad daylight and with utter contempt for its critics. And it did so with impunity, at least until the political cartoons of Thomas Nast. Legend has it that Tweed offered Nast $1 million to “Stop them damn cartoons!” But Nast refused the bribe.
By the way, if you like political cartoons, you can find more of them here — the cartoons of Puck Magazine and Joseph Keppler.
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