Tammany Hall: Definition & History

Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

Learn how the New York political machine of Tammany Hall controlled politics through corruption and patronage, but also how it helped poor immigrant communities in the late nineteenth century. Test your understanding with a quiz.

What Were Urban Political Machines?

George Plunkitt of Tammany Hall described the urban political machine as an 'honest graft.' He explained to a journalist how he and his political allies used inside information about government projects to enrich themselves. 'It's just like lookin' ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market,' he boasted. 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.'

George Plunkitt
george plunkitt

Attitudes like this were repeated everywhere in major urban areas across America in the late nineteenth century. Politics was controlled by 'rings' such as Tammany Hall--small but powerful political insiders that managed elections and dictated party policy. Each ring had a boss, like George Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, who used his 'machine' of connections to government officials and loyalists to hold sway with an iron fist.

Plunkitt and other party bosses marched voters to the polls on election day, using parades, fireworks, and especially free booze. The bosses handpicked the candidates, used patronage to reward supporters with jobs in government and public work contracts (these were the 'spoils' of office), and made sure loyalty to the machine was rewarded and disloyalty punished.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the vast majority of America's thirty largest cities had experienced machine and boss rule in some form or another. A British visitor noted in 1888, 'there is no denying that the government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States.' Even President Ulysses S. Grant's secretary openly told a Republican Party boss, 'I only hope you will distribute the patronage in such a manner as will help the Administration.' Of all the political machines in America, none was more (in)famous than Tammany Hall of New York City.

Tammany Hall's Corruption

Tammany Hall was the most well known urban political machine, and 'Boss' William M. Tweed was the most famous of his kind. As chairman of Tammany's general committee, Boss Tweed whipped the New York City Democratic Party into shape, and he used Tammany Hall to control large areas of the city through bribery and graft.

Under Tweed's ruthless leadership, Tammany Hall was more powerful than the actual elected officials in New York's government. Tweed boasted, 'As long as I count the votes what are you going to do about it?'

William M. Tweed.
William M. Tweed.

As an added bonus, Tweed and his Tammany cronies got rich. As America rapidly industrialized in the late 1800s, he finagled a government position to supervise the building expansion of New York City's infrastructure. Tweed chose the subcontractors, overcharged them, and skimmed profits off the top.

Boss Tweed's actions came to light, however, and he was eventually sent to jail in 1871. After escaping, he was sent to prison again, where he died in 1878. But Tammany Hall's power and control over politics continued, as George Plunkitt took the helm and kept the machine at the forefront of New York City's politics through the early twentieth century.

A political cartoon showing the Tammany Tiger.
A political cartoon showing the Tammany Tiger.

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