May 1 is St. Tammany day, a day to rejoice in the achievements of Tammany Hall, and of St Tammany, the guardian of crooked politicians everywhere. The Sons of St. Tammany started in 1773 as a charitable club of notable revolutionary-era individuals including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and John Dickenson, but evolved into perhaps the most corrupt, and American, of political organizations. The picture of a US politician – the cartoon version at least — is the Tammany Democrat: a loud, drunken, womanizer, willing to do or promise whatever the people seem to want at the moment. Tammany and its bosses helped form this image. They helped new immigrants, but did so by creating needless government jobs, by filling them often with incompetent loyalists, and by overcharging on government contracts. Today, these Tammany ways rule in every major American city; the other clubs of the day are gone or influence-less.
In revolutionary-era America, the Sons of St. Tammany was just one of many social-charitable clubs (Americans like to form clubs), in many ways it was similar to the Masons and the Cincinnati, but those clubs were international and elitist. The sons of Tammany was purely American, and anti-elitist. It was open to anyone born on this side of the Atlantic, and had Indian customs. The Cincinnati society, for comparison, started with members who were as notable (Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Marie, Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Knox, etc.) but was originally open only to high officers of the regular army, including foreigners like Lafayette, but not ordinary soldiers, minutemen (militia), or the general public. The symbols of the Tammanies were American: the liberty-cap and the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, now a popular symbol of the Tea Party; the leader was called by an Indian name: Sachem. By contrast, the Cincinnati society symbol was the Imperial Eagle (Washington’s was gold with diamonds), and the leader was called “general”. The Tammany society began admitting immigrants in 1810 or so, while the Cincinnati society remains closed to this day, except to descendants of Revolutionary officers — an aristocratic affectation in the eyes of some.
It was Aaron Burr who first saw the opportunity to use the Tammany organization as a for-profit, political machine. In the years 1795-9, New York was suffering from yellow fever and a variety of other diseases that were taken to be caused by a lack of clean water. Burr proposed, with Tammany support, the creation of a corporation to build a new water system to bring fresh, clean water from the Bronx River to lower Manhattan via iron pipes. The Manhattan company was duly chartered, with directors who were primarily Tammany men, Republican-Democrats, and not Federalists. Federalists (Hamilton, primarily) controlled the only NY banks at the time and controlled the directorate of every chartered company in the city. The Manhattan company requested a $2,000,000 perpetual charter, twice as big as the charter of Hamilton’s Bank of New York, and a monopoly on water distribution. These were reasonable requests given the task, but unusual in the lack of Federalist or governmental oversight. But the Manhattan company was a water company, and water was needed. But Burr’s intent, all along, it seems was to build a bank, not a water company. After the charter was approved, but before signing, he amended it to allow any excess funds to be used for any legal purpose.
Money was raised, but only $100,000 used for the water system. The remaining 95% of the charter funds, $1,900,000, went to found “The Bank of The Manhattan company” — later to be known as “The Chase Manhattan Bank” or “The Manhattan Bank of Cholera.” Instead of building the reservoir in upper Manhattan and filling it with clean water as originally proposed, Burr’s Tammany trustees voted to dig wells in lower Manhattan, and placed its reservoir in lower Manhattan too, near Chamber’s St, next to a cemetery where Cholera victims were buried. New York suffered with Cholera, Typhoid, and leaky, wooden pipes until 1842 when Peter Cooper brought clean water to lower Manhattan from the Groton River via iron pipes. To this day, crooked water contracts are a staple of Tammany politics.
The Bank of the Manhattan company opened at 40 Wall St on September 1, 1799, a mere four months after the water company’s incorporation. Hamilton was furious. The company continues today as The JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest banking institutions in the world. Burr used the money and power of his company to reward supporters and to run for vice president with Thomas Jefferson’s tacit support. Except for his Tammany candidacy, John Adams would have won New York and a second term as president. Burr’s career pretty-well died after the Hamilton duel, but Tammany did well without him. By 1812, the Society built its first Tammany Hall, officially called the Wigwam, a $55,000, five-story building with a meeting hall for 2000. New York Democratic politics would center on Tammany Hall for the next century at least.
Following disappointment with John Quincy Adams, “the bitter branch of the bitter tree,” Tammy leaders went national. They recruited Andrew Jackson, a war hero and early recruit of Burr’s. They’d support Jackson if he’d hand over spoils, control of government jobs. He agreed and, as president, fired perfectly good, long-standing government employees He replaced them with Democratic loyalists. When Jackson stepped down in 1833, Tammany elected an equally corrupt New Yorker, Martin van Buren. Though there were periodic Whig and Republican reforms, Tammany learned they could wait those out. They always re-emerged like mushrooms after a rain.
A key vote-getter in the Tammany system is to provide Thanksgiving dinners and other charitable giveaways for the poor, as well as promises of jobs. By the late 1800s, William J. Brian added promises of soft money and wealth redistribution, cornerstones of the Democratic platform to this day. Tammany also tends to be for low tariffs as opposed to the high tariff ideas of Hamilton and many Whigs and 19th century Republicans. A case can be made for either view.
Tammany helped New York immigrants, particularly the Irish to get citizenship and avoid legal troubles in return for votes and occasional muscle. In other cities, Democratic clubs were less open to Catholics, reflecting the views of the common voter in each state. In the North they were pro-union, in the South anti, electing Klu Kluxers like George Wallace, Sam Ervin, and Robert Byrd. This lead to a famous split in the Democratic party about the 1968 convention. Famous Tammany leaders include William M. “Boss” Tweed, “Big” Tim Sullivan, and “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker. Sullivan famously authored the first anti-gun law, the Sullivan act; it was designed to protect his thugs against private citizens shooting them. It didn’t always work.
If you want to see Tammany politics in action, visit almost any large US city, or read its newspaper. In Chicago, the dead vote, and 4 of the last 6 governors have gone to jail. Mayor Daily famously told Kennedy that 90 percent of the registered voters of Cook County would vote for him. They did (sort of); because of this, JFK won Illinois and the presidency. In New York, voters discovered only in the 1960s that Tammany’s leader, Carmine DeSapio had been working for 30 years with known gangland murderer, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. In Detroit, where I live and corruption in the water department is legendary. Race-based job handouts, unemployment is high along with high minimum (living) wages. We’re now in the process of a $70,000,000 project to replace 100 feet of sewer pipe, and we’re building a $140 million, 3.3 mile trolley. Tammany loves all public works.
Then there is Louisiana, home to St Tammany parish. Louisiana Democrats like Huey Long and Edwin Edwards (shown at left) are unusual in that they’re proud to say that their corrupt methods are corrupt. Edwards has had two long runs as governor despite several convictions for doing illegal things he admits to doing. When Edwards was asked why he did favors for his friends. He responded: “Who should I do them for? My enemies?” Or, to quote one of Edwin Edwards campaign ads. People seem to love it, or did until the levy broke. There is a particularly American grandeur to all this. As Will Rodgers said, “America has the best politicians money can buy.” Today is the day to be proud of that uniquely American tradition. You too can grow up to buy a president.
Robert Buxbaum, April 28, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, and have written about sewage treatment, flood avoidance, and fluoride, as well as the plusses and minuses of trade unionization, and the difference between Republicans and Conservatives.