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Definition: Tammany from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1872) : of, relating to, or constituting a group or organization exercising or seeking municipal political control by methods often associated with corruption and bossism

Tam•ma•ny•ism \-॑i-zəm\ n

Summary Article: Tammany
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(tăm'Әnē) or Tammany Hall, popular name for the Democratic political machine in Manhattan.


After the American Revolution several patriotic societies sprang up to promote various political causes and economic interests. Among these were the Tammany societies, founded in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. The societies took the name of a Delaware chief, Tamanend, who is said to have welcomed William Penn and to have signed with him the Treaty of Shakamaxon.

The Tammany Society, or Columbian Order of New York City, the only Tammany society to have a long life, was formed c.1786 and was incorporated in 1789. Divided into 13 tribes, corresponding to the 13 states, it had as its motto “Freedom Our Rock”; its rites and ceremonials were based on pseudo–Native American forms, and the titles of its officials were also pseudo–Native American. Although its activities were at first mostly social, ceremonial, and patriotic, the society gradually became the principal upholder of Jeffersonian politics in New York City.

A Political Force

After 1798, Tammany came under the control of Aaron Burr. While Tammany was fighting the political forces of De Witt Clinton, it consolidated its position in the city. Tammany backed Andrew Jackson for president, and after his victories in 1828 and 1832 it became a dominant force, fighting for democratic suffrage and the abolition of imprisonment for debt in New York state.

Although it stood for reforms on behalf of the common people, it was nonetheless increasingly controlled by men of the privileged classes. The hostility of workingmen toward this “aristocratic” control promoted splits within the Democratic party in the city and state, such as the revolt of the Locofocos in the 1830s and the contest between the Barnburners and the Hunkers in the late 1840s. Tammany meanwhile triumphed over the Know-Nothing movement and the local Whig party alike and steadily gained strength by bringing newly arrived immigrants, the great majority of them Irish, into its fold. The immigrants were helped to obtain jobs, then quickly naturalized and persuaded to vote for their benefactors. Because of the willingness of Tammany to provide them with food, clothing, and fuel in emergencies, and to aid those who ran afoul of the law, these new Americans became devoted to the organization and were willing to overlook the fraudulent election practices, the graft, the corruption, and the other abuses that often characterized Tammany administrations. Eventually, the protections provided to Irish immigrants by Tammany led to such reforms as child labor laws, minimum wage, and workers'compensation.

Flagrant abuses during the reign of William M. Tweed led to reforms instituted (1872) by Samuel J. Tilden. However, Tammany returned to power under John Kelly, and the boss system (see bossism) became firmly entrenched in New York City. Corruption under Richard Croker provoked new investigations, such as that initiated by Charles Parkhurst, and when Seth Low became (1901) mayor, Tammany was eclipsed for a time.

Charles Murphy succeeded Croker as boss. His reign was interrupted by the brief administration of John P. Mitchel, who, like Gov. William Sulzer, was a Democrat but an opponent of Tammany. Alfred E. Smith, a protégé of Murphy, became strong enough to create a “new” Tammany, in which he was an important figure. Corruption in city politics continued, however, and investigations, including that headed by Samuel Seabury (1930–31), of the city magistrates' courts completely discredited Tammany Hall and ultimately brought about the resignation (1932) of Mayor James J. Walker.


Tammany suffered a telling defeat in the election of 1932 and did not regain its former strength in succeeding elections. The organization declined greatly during the administrations of Fiorello LaGuardia, 1933–45. The decline was accelerated by woman's suffrage, immigration restriction, and the social programs of the New Deal, which weakened voters' dependence on the machine.

After World War II, Tammany revived considerably under the leadership of Carmine De Sapio, who successfully promoted the nomination and election of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., as mayor in 1953 and of W. A. Harriman as governor in 1954. De Sapio's leadership, however, came under increasing attack from reformers in the Democratic party. In 1961, Wagner was elected for a third term as the leader of a movement against boss rule, and De Sapio was ousted from his position as Tammany chief by the reform forces. Later attempts (1963, 1965) by De Sapio to regain power failed, and during the mayoralty of John V. Lindsay (1966–73), Tammany passed out of existence as a political machine.

  • See Myers, G. , The History of Tammany Hall (1901; 2d ed. rev. and enl., 1917, repr. 1973);.
  • A. Connable; E. Silberfarb, Tigers of Tammany (1967);.
  • Werner, M. R. , Tammany Hall (1932, repr. 1970);.
  • Mushkat, J. , Tammany (1971);.
  • Golway, T. , Machine Made: Tammany and the Creation of Modern American Politics (2014).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018