Image: Thomas Nast’s cartoon depiction of William M. “Boss” Tweed, Grand Sachem of the Society of St. Tammany, also known as “Tammany Hall,” published in Harper’s Weekly in January 1871.
Conroe, June 4 – Montgomery County, Texas, in 2017 has much resemblance to New York City of Tammany Hall times, especially at the height of the political machine between 1858 and 1871, when William M. “Boss” Tweed ran the organization as well as the city itself. Every citizen of Montgomery County who cares about the future of our community should learn from the history of the Tammany Hall organization.
The Tammany Hall organization started as a benevolent association in 1786, which incorporated as the Society of St. Tammany in 1789 to support New York City mayoral campaigns and oppose the Federalist Party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. The founders, who included Aaron Burr, later Vice President of the United States, drew the name from an Indian chief. There is no St. Tammany.
The Tammany Hall organization grew slowly but hit a more rapid pace in the 1850s when it began to the burgeoning immigrant population coming to New York. Until its end in 1966, Tammany Hall appealed to the city’s immigrants and lower socioeconoic classes as its base.
William M. Tweed became the Grand Sachem of the Society in 1858. “Boss” Tweed was a New York state legislator but more importantly he was a great political organizer. Tweed organized Tammany Hall in to wards, districts, and precincts, each of which having their own organization whose structure mirrored the central organization of the Tammany Hall political machine.
Tweed rapidly took over the city’s treasury, purchasing department, and public works programs. As his biographer wrote in the landmark work, Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York:
“It’s hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed’s system … The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.”
Tweed developed a strong relationship with the city’s law enforcement community. Tweed exercised strict control over the ability of police leaders and officers and of other members of the political machine to communicate with others. Tweed demanded payments from city suppliers and lived opulently, especially for a man whose trade was making chairs.
In early 1871, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, began to lampoon Tweed and the Tammany Hall machine in Harper’s Weekly. A local newspaper, The New York Times, began to write about Nast and his depictions of the Tweed organization. The New York Post, a Federalist paper, which Hamilton had founded in 1801, had always opposed Tammany Hall.
Nast’s cartoons and political caricatures carried great appeal to the citizens of New York many of whom could not read in the 19th century. Even Tweed acknowledged their appeal, “”I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
Nast’s and Harper’s Weekly‘s campaign against Tweed lasted for nine months from January to October, 1871, before they emboldened local law enforcement authorities to arrest, try, and eventually convict Tweed on corruption charges. Previously, Tweed had threatened Nast and his publishers through his control of the police.
Tweed died in prison.
Tweed’s downfall didn’t translate into the end of the Tammany Hall machine. New Yorkers had let the machine organize for far too long for the downfall of one person to bring it down.
The end didn’t come until 1933 when Fiorello La Guardia won election as the Mayor of New York City. Another anti-Tammany politician, New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, became President of the United States that year. In 1939, Republican New York City District Attorney Thomas Dewey began consistent criminal prosecutions of leaders within the Tammany Hall organization. The final blow to Tammany Hall came in 1966 when John V. Lindsey won election as Mayor of New York City on a platform of putting the final nail in the coffin of the machine.
Tammany Hall controlled the city of New York in a manner similar to efforts to control Montgomery County through taxation, the treasury, salaries, the purchasing functions, information technology, public works, and inappropriate intrusion into law enforcement.
Fortunately, this community enjoys wonderful law enforcement leaders such as the Sheriff’s Department’s Kevin Ray, Oliver Coward, Bryan Carlisle, Ken Culbreath, and so many others, such as Constables Ryan Gable and Rowdy Hayden, and such as District Attorney Brett Ligon and District Judges Phil Grant, Patty Maginnis, and others. None of those people are perfect, but they seem independent of the efforts to turn the Montgomery County government into a political machine such as the one from which New York City suffered for almost two hundred years.