What was Tammany Hall? Unless you’re from New York City, lived here or have an odd interest in 19th century NYC politics, I suspect you would have no idea what Tammany Hall was. In short, it was a NYC political organization (affiliated with the Democratic Party), incorporated in 1789 and dominated New York City politics from about 1854 through about 1934.
At the height of its power, Tammany Hall was lorded over by William M. Tweed, better known as “Boss” Tweed. Besides being a director at various companies, he was also a NYC land owner (one of the largest at the time) and a proprietor of the gaudy Roman palazzo influenced Metropolitan Hotel.
After an undistinguished stint in the US House of Representatives, Tweed was appointed to the New York City Board of Supervisors and became a member of the Board of Audits. And it was here that he began his large-scale graft.
Thanks to the Boss Tweed era, history considers Tammany Hall one of the more unsavory political machines in history (at least to date). But, like anything, there was some good along with the bad. Before Tweeds lordship, Tammany Hall served as a rudimentary public welfare system and helped the burgeoning influx of immigrants (in particular, the Irish that arrived in NYC during Ireland’s potato famine) by supplying basics like employment, food, shelter and in some cases, financial aid.
Tammany Hall didn’t ask for much in return. Just your vote … or in most cases, many votes.
Unlike the idiot leaders of certain modern political parties who ask for your vote while fanning the flames of racism, propagating deception and openly fleecing the very constituency that supports them, Boss Tweed was not an idiot and recognized “. . . that the support of his constituency was necessary for him to remain in power, and as a consequence he used the machinery of the city’s government to provide numerous social services, including building more orphanages . . . he also fought for the New York State Legislature to donate to private charities of all religious denominations, and subsidize Catholic schools and hospitals (that’d no doubt be the Irish influence) . . . Tweed also pushed through funding for a teachers college . . . as well as salary increases for school teachers.”
As both a member of the Board of Audits and the Board of Supervisors, Tweed never failed to line his pockets and those of his friends (aka the Tweed Ring). Even while fleecing New York City, he still managed to do some good; the main business thoroughfare Broadway was widened between 34th Street and 59th Street, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began, land was secured for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Upper East Side and Upper West Side got developed, etc. Make no mistake, Tweed and his ring made millions as a result of all of this, but all of these things benefited NYC . . . they still do.
While it’s not very hard to think of a politician, and party, as corrupt as Tammany Hall was, there is no evidence to suggest that person or party provides even a shred of any public, or political, decency the way Tweed and Tammany Hall did.
Two things led to Tweed’s quick fall from political power. One was the Orange Riot of 1871. Tweed had ixnayed a parade of the Irish Protestants (the Orangemen) celebrating a “historical victory against Catholicism” much to the chagrin of New York City’s Protestant elite. In typical fashion, the elite whined until the Tammany Hall machine reversed Tweed’s decision. A reversal that resulted in over 60 people being killed and more than 150 being injured.
The second thing may sound familiar. After an article titled “Gigantic Frauds of the Ring Exposed” (the Tweed ring) appeared in The New York Times in August of 1871 and hinted of a potential worldwide financial crisis. “The expose’ provoked an international crisis of confidence in New York City’s finances . . . European investors were heavily positioned in the city’s bonds and were already nervous about its management . . . New York’s financial and business community knew that if the city’s credit was to collapse, it could potentially bring down every bank in the city with it.”
Because the elite knew best, obviously, they “. . . met at Cooper Union in September to discuss political reform . . . The consensus was that the ‘wisest and best citizens’ should take over the governance of the city and attempt to restore investor confidence.” That ring any bells? (Hint: see The Big Short for more information)
Months after the Orange Riot and the expose’, Tweed went into a downward spiral that included criminal charges, financial fines, a 12-year prison sentence (reduced to one year) and going on the lam to Spain to avoid further financial restitution and criminal charges. After being caught and returned to New York City, Tweed was desperate and broken eventually capitulating to testify about his financial shenanigans in exchange for his freedom. After his testimony, then New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden (and a Tweed Tammany Hall outcast) would have none of it and reneged on the deal.
William M. “Boss” Tweed languished in the Ludlow Street Jail and died of pneumonia on April 12, 1878.
I’m far from a Tweed apologist, the guy sounds like he was a bully, a snake oil salesman and giant asshole (sound familiar?) BUT even at his worst, Boss Tweed still managed to do good things for the betterment of his constituents and his city (to be fair, to his and his cronies financial advantage). But many of those things still benefit NYC and its visitors.
So what’s the story here?
While corruption, graft, brazen cronyism, financial impropriety, misplaced loyalties, immoral and unscrupulous behavior and downright stupidity are nothing new in politics (especially modern politics), we are somehow living in an era where new depths of this kind of depraved political behavior is being mined.
And while modern politicians can often be purchased as easily as toilet paper (and often use their constituents in the same capacity – see Trump administration and that set of hell-bound minions); even despite all of that history shows us that it is possible to be a disreputable narcissist who has the moral turpitude of a piece of shit and still do something decent.
So, as you go to vote tomorrow (please do), and you consider who to vote for, ask yourself which candidate is likely to have not only your best interest in mind, but also the best interest of everyone.
Rest assured, there is hope. It may sound pithy, but history also shows us that karma works . . . and it’s very often a bitch.