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Tammany Hall: Mirror of Human Greed
We often hear the road to hell is paved with good intentions and we can certainly use the history of Tammany Hall as an example of how this occurs. Tammany Hall was born from good intentions for the residents of New York, primarily the immigrants and lower working class. Helping others find work and shelter sounds like a way to improve the situations for many in the Lower East Side and this fact only brings us to question how a political party moves from this mindset to one of corruption so quickly and easily. The answer lies with the nature of man. While the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we also know that power is one of the most destructive elements known to man. When it comes to personal greed and the welfare of others, greed often wins. Tammany Hall demonstrates how corrupt and harmful the political machine can be. From it, we learn how truly good and bad the hearts of man can be.
Tammany Hall derives from the name, Tammanend, which means a "peace-loving leader of the Lenni-Lenape nation" (Hodon). The group also came to be recognized as Sons of St. Tammany and the Columbian Order. Only later were they to be known as Tammany Hall, after a meeting place at the Tammany Hotel in Frankfort. The establishment emerged from a group of men in George Washington's Continental Army wishing to form their own political organization. While we associate the name with corruption today, the group began with what might be considered honest intentions. The group wanted to help he city's poor and immigrant populations and they did in many cases -- at least in the beginning. The group became popular among the working class because many members worked as advocates for those who had difficulty with the law. Tammany Hall eventually became an affiliate of Democratic Party, a circumstance that allowed them to dominate many New York elections during their heyday.
The group's attempt to assist immigrants gave them incredible power and it earned them loyalty from a large base. This loyalty emerged in the form of votes and this is where Tammany Hall first began to earn its political capital. Many services Tammany provided were nothing more than an undeveloped welfare system but this was enough to earn favor -- and votes. However, in all fairness, it might not have started out this way. Tammany Hall did provide immigrants with certain basic things they needed, such as food, jobs and they even stepped in and acted as a mediator between the immigrants and the alien state. The shift from immigrant sympathizer to political machine is a large one and it occurred quickly.
It is easy to point fingers at a group but it is also important to remember that people make up groups. Seeing how people shaped this group is fascinating because it literally tears the humanity away from it. Aaron Burr was the first leader of the group, who was a known enemy of George Washington, according to Sara Hodon (2010). Burr was a lawyer and managed to build a good rapport with New York's wealthy while still feeling compassion for the lower classes. The immigrants entering into the city became something of an issue and Tammany took advantage of those coming into the city knowing virtually no one. Hodon writes that immigrants were often "bombarded by campaign workers or the politicians themselves" (Hodon, 2010) as soon as they exited the boats. They promised assistance in the new country and some even followed through on some of their promises, providing families with food shelter and jobs. While these deeds might have been good in the immigrants' eyes, they were questionable in the eyes of everyone else.
The influence of power is strong as Tammany suggests. It was the way the group worked on people in and around the group that gave it momentum. Hodon writes that Tammany leaders "shamelessly stuffed election ballot boxes and manipulated the immigrants who poured into New York Harbor by the thousands" (Hodon). Tammany, at one time, seemed to be a force that was unstoppable, leaving behind them a "legacy of corruption that changed New York City's political landscape forever" (Hodon). Tammany won its "first major" (Hodon) victory when Fernando Wood became mayor in 1854. The members of Tammany had to work especially hard to get an Irishman elected but it was a "tactic" (Hodon) that would pay off in later elections. Wood is credited for setting the "wheels of Tammany's corrupt machine into motion" (Hodon). The leaders of Tammany formed its basic foundation as we can see almost from the very beginning, Tammany was corrupt because opportunists began to want increasingly what was not theirs and they preyed on the little people to get it. George Washington Plunkitt serves as an excellent example of a rags to riches individual, rising from "butcher boy to political boss" (Davidson, 1990, 684). He garnered votes through serving the public, a technique envied by every "successful industrialist" (684). Plunkitt set the tone for how the Tammany political machine would operate.
Politicians might struggle with suspicion but there is a perfectly good reason why and we can trace it to Tammany Hall for an early American reference. One man that paints the perfect portrait of a rotten politician is Tammany was Marcy Tweed. According to Hodon, "no politician would epitomize big city corruption" (Hodon) like Tweed. At an early age, he ran gangs in the Lower East Side and was quite fond of violence. Tweed worked in a factory as an adult at a time when shopkeepers and business owners maintained control over New York's political and business climate and by 1840, many immigrant gangs s were working to gain influence politically, which lead to more corruption. He used "bribery, graft, and fraudulent elections to milk the metropolis of as much as 200 million dollars" (Bailey, 1994, 511), according to Thomas Bailey (1994). All political parties were doing what they felt like they needed to do to win. In the 1844 election, Tammany Democrats stuffed ballot boxes and paid off poll clerks to report incorrect numbers. They also hired crooks to pose as honest citizens in order to cast their votes. Hodon also writes that prisoners from Blackwell's Island, a nearby prison, were brought in to vote and after casting their votes, were set free. Tweed became very wealthy from deals and kickbacks from his many associates. He was ruthless and power hungry but his public persona was that of a "jovial, generous man" (Hodon). He donated money to charities and by 1870, he own Tammany, City Hall, the Legislature of New York, more than half of the state's Supreme Court and Governor's Mansion.
The good thing about bad behavior is that eventually, someone usually catches on. Tweed's behavior did not go unnoticed by everyone around him. He might have been able to pay many people to keep their mouths shut but he could not pay off all who questioned his character. One such person who could draw attention to his greed was Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for The New York Times. Hodon writes that Tweed was angered by Nast's portrayal was accurate. Interestingly, Tweed's men tried to bribe Nast, but he "balked" (Hodon) at their offer. Nast's cartoons and the concern of citizens was never enough to bring the man down but it was enough for some to keep one eye on him. The more Tweed used the city's money, the more people began to wonder. Tweed's reign came to an end with Ulysses Grant conducted a full investigation into the man and his practices. Tweed and his ring fell to the efforts of Jimmy Watson, a disgruntled worker who bribed Tweed and sent a copy of all his records to sheriff Jimmy O'Brien, who gave the information of The New York Times. He was tried and convicted of 104 counts of fraud. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison but this was reduced and he only had to pay a 250-dollar fine. He was later arrested when the governor filed civil charges against him seeking to reclaim the city's money. Tweed escaped prison and made it to Spain but even there, he was recognized, caught and sent back to prison. He was a man of strong determination and grit but he allowed power and greed to get the most of him and, as it does in many cases, his gluttony brought him down. Tammany Hall did remain a strong political force for many years after Tweed but it should be noted that the extreme excess Tweed experienced died with his reign. Tammany gradually lost its power because of the association with Tweed and corruption. However, it should be noted that the group experienced a small comeback after Tweed when John Kelly was defeated the "reform administration of Mayor Havemayor and returned control of the city to Tammany Hall" (Glaeser, 2006, 87). Kelly knew…[continue]
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