Boss Tweed and the Tammany Republicans

By Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer

William Linton, Jr., The House That Tweed Built: Dedicated to Every True Reformer [Republican or Democrat] (Cambridge, MA: The American News Company, 171), 23.

William Linton, Jr., The House That Tweed Built: Dedicated to Every True Reformer [Republican or Democrat] (Cambridge, MA: The American News Company, 171), 23.

The Tweed Ring was more than a Democratic Party scandal. William “Boss” Tweed, leader of Tammany Hall -- Manhattan's county Democratic organization -- was chief architect of the scheme that embezzled millions of dollars of public funds between 1868 and 1871.[1] Yet, Republicans also deserve a fair share of the blame. Generations of historians have breezed past cross-party links with little more than a few references.[2]

A clique of officeholders, the so-called Tammany Republicans, openly joined with the Tweed Ring during its climb to power. As early as 1868, newspapers reported “a nice little arrangement.” The group was “doing their best to defeat our Mayor and reelect the regular Tammany incumbent,” complained the New York Tribune. “Perhaps this is the very way to promote Gen. Grant’s election. Do they expect to nominate him in Tammany Hall?”[3]

Over the next three years this junior partnership would flower into policymaking, spoils, and business deals. At their peak, and against much resistance, Tammany Republicans even managed to control the party apparatus in the city. Only after the Ring’s collapse were “regular republican” rivals able to purge the long arm of Tammany Hall from membership rolls and party offices, sending the exiles into the Liberal Republican bolt of 1872 that nominated Horace Greeley for president.

“None But Honorable Men, And Very Few Even of Them”

The Tweed Ring was an alliance of convenience among officeseekers. Nearly a decade before he rose to power, William Tweed, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, grasped the value of forming a “small club” to guide nominations and carry primary elections. “[I]n such an organization we want none but honorable men,” he wrote to a confidant, “and very few even of them.”[4]

By the 1860s, Tweed formed exactly this type of interpersonal coalition to gain control of Tammany Hall. The inner circle joined native-born former Whigs like Oakey Hall with some of the first Irish leaders to break into Tammany’s elite, Peter Sweeny, a second generation lawyer, and Richard Connolly, a bank clerk from County Cork.[5] Working in concert, the Ring mobilized the electoral power of underrepresented immigrant and working-class voters through class-based, ethnic appeals and an expansionist proto-Keynesian agenda of urban development.[6]

There were two shades of affiliation with Tammany Republicans. A group of fellow travelers loosely coordinated with Tweed and their support was conspicuously transactional. More important was the corps of allies in the city who participated in Tweed’s expansive political and business enterprises. The following sections will elaborate on these distinctions and make clear that Tammany Republicans were not minor figures in public life.

Tammany Hall Interior decorated for the 1868 Democratic National Convention. Source: New York Pubic Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Tammany Hall Interior decorated for the 1868 Democratic National Convention. Source: New York Pubic Library via Wikimedia Commons.

“Wages of Iniquity”

To govern New York City, the Tweed Ring required the consent of at least some Republican state legislators. The central problem for Tammany in the immediate post-war years was that it could sweep city and county offices; yet, Republicans entrenched in Albany had withdrawn local control for that very reason. The Charter of 1857 placed much of everyday governance into the hands of Republican-appointed Metropolitan Boards.[7] In this context, William Tweed, state senator from the Fourth District, reached out to like-minded Republicans who would support the devolution of taxing, spending, and other basic municipal powers like police authority back into local (Tammany) hands.

The “Tweed Charter” of 1870 and its adjunct, a Tax Levy bill, returned home rule to New York City. Amidst the restructuring, a Board of Audit was created that included Tweed, Hall, Sweeny, and Connolly, each founding Ring members. Mayor Hall swiftly appointed Tweed the Commissioner of Public Works, a consolidation of several old executive units. Sweeny took over the new Parks Department. These legal creations were the primary venues from which the Ring tripled city debt and laundered money through inflated bills to preferred contractors.[8]

Later investigations uncovered a trail of checks and cash paid out from Boss Tweed to eleven Republican state senators who supported the home rule bills.[9] George Bliss was a lawyer and Republican activist who sat on the city’s 1857 version of the Board of Health before it was abolished and replaced. Pressing legislators to oppose the Tweed-backed reforms, he claimed that John B. Van Petten, a Methodist minister and war veteran from the Twentieth Senate District in Herkimer County, “read in my presence one afternoon a speech attacking the bill violently and the next day spoke and voted for the bill.”[10] Faced with a Democratic legislative majority for the first time since 1845, albeit a slim one, morale among the Republican caucus fell to a low ebb. Meanwhile, trusted figures like Hugh Hastings of the Albany Commercial Advertiser heavily lobbied senators in favor of charter revision.[11]

There were no magical arguments that swayed Van Petten and the other senators. According to a reconstruction of Tweed’s accounting, he received $20,000 in exchange for his support ($378,305, adjusted for inflation).[12] Rumors of payoffs abounded, even if actual evidence of systematic bribery was only uncovered in subsequent years, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.[13] Among the legislature’s “Third House,” an informal group of mercenary lawmakers and lobbyists, the cost of votes was “as well known as the price of gold on Broad street.”[14] The Tribune spoke for disenchanted Republicans across the state in condemning this “baker’s dozen of Republican thieves” who “sold themselves to Tammany for cash in hand, and have gone home with the wages of iniquity in their pockets.”[15] With a single exception, the entire senate Republican caucus voted for the new charter.

“A Vast Body of Placemen”

Bribery aside, Republicans benefited from the Charter of 1870 by gaining a host of sinecures in the newly reorganized local government. For example, Henry “Hank” Smith, who began his political career in the 1850s with Tweed on the Board of Supervisors, was appointed to the Police Commission, along with Benjamin F. Manierre, another Republican. Smith was subsequently elected the commission’s president with support from the Democratic majority, a move that raised eyebrows at the time.

Hank Smith was the ideal Republican front man to return police to local control. A longtime friend of Tweed’s, Smith was Vice President of the Americus Club, headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut. Americus was the Ring’s social front and a Tammany institution. But the club also boasted members like Sheridan Shook, Owen W. Brennan and Andrew Bleakley, the last two founding members of the Republican Party in New York.[16] Reciprocally, Owen was Commissioner of Charities and Corrections and President of the Blossom Club located on Fifth Avenue where Tweed was Vice President and Smith sat on the Board of Directors.[17] Owen was also the older brother of Matthew T. Brennan, one of the first Five Pointers of Irish-American origin elected to citywide office.[18] With their independent political base, the Brennans were on-again, off-again Tweed allies.

Most importantly, the Ring routed city money through newly chartered savings banks run jointly by Police Commissioner Hank Smith and William Tweed. To manage the Bowling Green and Guardian Savings banks, Smith was the recipient of $104,641.48 in personal loans directly from the Boss -- the largest by far of any single client, worth over $2 million today.[19] The banks also hosted city deposits from the Police and Fire Departments and purchased municipal bonds the Ring was selling as fast as possible. In his capacity as President of the Bowling Green Savings Bank, Smith also managed personal accounts on behalf of members of the Tweed Ring, as well as speculative pools of investment in real estate, railroads, and financial markets.[20]

High-level appointments distributed to Tammany Republicans were lucrative. Most positions went to the city’s conservative Republican faction, which found safe haven with Tammany while Radicals were ascendant during Reconstruction. Thomas Murphy, one of the few Irish officeholders in the state party, and a “shoddy” contractor of military hats during the war, is an example.[21] He won places on Tweed’s infamous commission to widen Broadway, which produced immense cost overruns, and also on the school board. Murphy held a 20 percent investment in $542,500 of property co-owned by Tweed and Sweeny around Central Park; his share would be worth nearly $2.2 million today.[22] Another rising spoilsman, Chester Arthur, held the position of legal counsel to the city’s Tax Commission. Arthur’s princely salary was $10,000 per year, or $200,000 today.[23] Ultimately, the true windfall associated with commissions under the Charter of 1870 lay in their speculative potential to influence property values, adjust or recommend payments, and to allocate contracts. Republicans shared eagerly in these spoils.

Thomas Murphy, Collector of the Port of New York. Source: Mass Historia, http://walternelson.com/dr/murphy.

Thomas Murphy, Collector of the Port of New York. Source: Mass Historia, http://walternelson.com/dr/murphy.

In all, there were roughly eighty men who accepted positions brokered by Tweed who also were active in Republican circles, either as dues-paying members or party officials. The majority of appointments were not to blockbuster positions but rather petty offices: tax assessors, police administers, fire marshals, engineers, dock workers, printers, bell ringers, school inspectors, and clerks.[24] Lower appointees were overwhelming connected with the Henry Smith Club in downtown Manhattan and to Thomas Murphy’s Twenty-Second Street Organization. The ability of these brokers to situate followers in patronage positions, even when their own party was out of power, was a substantial competitive advantage.

In fall of 1870, Republicans hotly debated the growing influence of Tammany within the party. Resolutions to strip officeholders under Democratic management from party positions or delegations to the state convention were voted down at a series of raucous meetings chaired by Benjamin Manierre and allies like John Cochrane. The New York Herald pointed out the obvious problem. Such a policy would effectively disenfranchise “a vast body of placemen,” including several members of the General Executive Committee, the party’s governing body in the city.[25]

In a show of force, police appeared at these assemblies. The stated intent was to prevent disorder. Smith and Manierre’s police had previously stood guard over Tweed’s meetings at Tammany Hall when rivals challenged him from within.[26] Now, it was Republicans who cried intimidation at their own meetings.[27] During one of the many late-night sessions that reached an impasse between Tammany and anti-Tammany forces, a heckler moved to adjourn until Boss Tweed himself could be invited to come and take a seat on the floor.[28] Straight-ticket Republicans were surprised to find they were outsiders in their own party.

Left with no choice, anti-Tammany forces split from the city’s General Committee. Led by former mayoral candidate William A. Darling, they gathering in their own assembly and swiftly passed the blocked resolutions condemning those who accepted cross-party patronage. “The history of the Republican Party in New-York City,” declared one preamble, “demonstrates the fact that a number of the Republican District Associations have been, and are now, controlled to an alarming extent by emissaries and official subordinates of the Tammany Hall Democracy.” The meeting of dissidents at Twenty-Second Street and Broadway brought out the “honest and earnest Republicans” who petitioned the state committee to intervene and reorganize the local party.[29] Dueling meetings continued for months, with the anti-Tammany forces convening at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Both groups claimed the mantle of party regularity.


“Tammany Ballot-Box Stuffers, Robbers and Pirates”

Two events brought an end to the Tammany Republicans. The first was the Tweed Ring’s collapse in the fall of 1871. The second defining event was President Ulysses S. Grant’s overwhelming reelection one year later.

Credible evidence of municipal fraud in the press began in the summer of 1871 and sparked a massive anti-Ring mobilization that altered the city’s political landscape. An emergency Committee of 70 composed of the city’s business elite moved quickly to apply economic and legal pressure on public officials.[30] Tweed, Hall and Connolly -- all Tammany Democrats -- were targeted by name in the reformer’s public appeal to save the city from political corruption. In his own address to the September 4th mass meeting at Cooper Union, however, Robert B. Roosevelt alluded to wider culpability in the “combination” of rapacious politicians from both parties.”[31] Within a year, the Ring’s inner circle had fled the country or landed in jail. The Ring was vanquished. Its Republican allies were isolated.

A new constellation of forces arose in the reckoning. Roscoe Conkling seized control of the Republican Party at the Syracuse convention only weeks after the emergency reform meeting at Cooper Union. Dueling delegations -- Tammany and anti-Tammany -- arrived at Weiting Hall both claiming to represent the city. As a compromise the two groups were fused with each receiving half of the votes. Conkling decisively turned the mood of the convention, however, with a speech that ripped the Tammany Republicans. To thunderous applause, he reminded delegates “a horde of Tammany ballot-box stuffers, pirates and robbers had controlled and debauched the Republican organization in the city of New York.” The purge officially began with a vote to reorganize the local chapter. With Conkling himself up for reelection, the U.S. Senator campaigned on the issue across Western New York to secure Grant’s reelection and a Republican legislative majority. [32]

The convention maneuver and purge was equally aimed at Reuben Fenton, Conkling’s principal intraparty rival, and was accomplished with the help of Tammany turncoats. Chester Arthur had resigned his municipal sinecure shortly before the first volley of New York Times jeremiads on the Ring’s fraud. He took up the dirty work of reorganization on Conkling’s behalf.[33] Thomas Murphy also discovered a new patron in Conkling, who had belatedly supported his U.S. Senate nomination to be Port Collector at the New York Customhouse against Fenton’s choice for the job. The Stalwart faction was thus born from the ashes of the Tweed Ring.

“Horror Greedy”

In a strange twist, Boss Tweed’s Republican allies found themselves on the same side of a losing struggle along with Horace Greeley, an icon of reformism. Over the years, Greeley faithfully sounded the alarm about Tammany Hall and denounced its influence. But his stringent opposition to Grant’s renomination was apparently enough to overcome those misgivings, arising from disputes over customhouse patronage and blind personal ambition.[34] Greeley declined to support Conkling’s pro-Grant purge and a strange bedfellow alliance was born from all of those shut out from the party.[35] Prominent Tammany Republicans like Hank Smith cast their lot along with an amalgam of civil service reformers, advocates of southern appeasement, and ultimately, Democrats. The Liberal Republican bolt fused on a common ticket with the Democratic Party to nominate Horace Greeley for president in 1872.

“Tammany Hall under Horace Greeley’s Colors: Any Thing to Beat Grant.” NYPL digital collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-064f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Tammany Hall under Horace Greeley’s Colors: Any Thing to Beat Grant.” NYPL digital collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-064f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

There were many surprises over the course of Greeley’s campaign, including the muddling of long-held positions on the tariff and freedmen’s rights. One of the Grant campaign’s most devastating lines of attack, however, showcases the oddity of the new Democratic Party-Liberal Republican alignment. In pursuit of a fusion ticket, Horace Greeley quietly entered into a business partnership with Boss Tweed and Nathaniel Sands, the Tweed Ring’s preferred broker of municipal bonds. The company was called the Tobacco Manufacturing Association. Horace Greeley, a man who personally abstained from tobacco and urged others to as well, received $5,000 worth of shares and served as director. The company manufactured cigars with “some system of rotary knives.” The labor process was partially automated but the product was artfully marketed as hand-made. For a brief period, the Association supplied “cheap ones” to “low-rum mills throughout the City at quite a low figure.”[36]

Forming business partnerships to court political allies was a classic Tweed strategy of coalition building. He had done the same with fellow Ring members in real estate ventures and with high profile antagonists like Alexander T. Stewart, the department store baron, when negotiating to incorporate the Viaduct Railway. The true value of the tobacco enterprise was not in any prospect for great riches but in laying the groundwork for mutual trust. Horace Greeley, who was instrumental to the formation of the Republican Party in New York, and long served as editor of its chief organ, the Tribune, now threw his support behind the Democratic congressional ticket and even the renomination of John T. Hoffman, Tweed’s disgraced ally in the governor’s office.[37]

Veterans of the anti-Tweed mobilization in New York excoriated Greeley’s political reinvention. Thomas Nast saddled the fusion nominee with the albatross of “Horror Greedy,” and captured the farce in caricatures with tobacco shares stuffed in his jacket pockets. Nast ventriloquized Greeley with sayings like “I hate tobacco but not tobacco shares.”[38] Meanwhile, Grant loyalists pointed to the business partnership as proof that “Horace Greeley was on the side of the plunderers.”[39] One letter to the editor published in The Nation sounded off on the campaign’s alienating tone: “[T]here was never so disgusting a struggle… When Grant is charged with avariciousness and unscrupulous greed, his friends point out that Greeley but lately lost his name, for money, to two of the worst rogues in New York, Tweed and Nathaniel Sands, to establish a tobacco monopoly.”[40]

Conclusion

Tammany Republicanism was a category applied by the press and political enemies to a rump of officeholders who collaborated, to varying degrees, with the Tweed Ring. The moniker was meant to be derisive. Nevertheless, it provides a meaningful historical marker of factional strife in the period similar to group labels such as “Radical” and later “Stalwart” Republicans. The episode also offers a window into the fluidity of political allegiances in Gilded Age New York. The Tweed Ring’s brief hegemony in city politics was the centripetal force that pulled together a disparate but ambitious group of officeholders who crisscrossed traditional party lines. When the Ring was broken, so were they.

The scandal’s fallout brought a host of careers to an end in the Republican Party. Hank Smith died in 1874, bankrupt. His obituary noted the presence of followers of all parties, with Democrats, Liberal Republicans, and Republicans all “mingling around his death-bed.”[41] At the funeral, a Methodist minister eulogized Smith for his lifelong “virtue and integrity” in public service. A more fitting epitaph would be one of the circumspect voices recorded from the debate whether to strip Tammany Republicans of party credentials: “We are all a little besmeared with mud in this political arena.”[42]


Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toledo.


[1] Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer, “The Boss’s ‘Brains’: Political Capital, Democratic Commerce, and the New York Tweed Ring, 1868-1871” Journal of Historical Sociology 28, No. 3 (September 2015): 374-403.

[2] Denis Lynch, “Boss” Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1931), 316; Andrew Callow Jr., The Tweed Ring (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 81, 108; John W. Pratt, “Boss Tweed’s Public Welfare Program,” New-York Historical Society Vol. 45 (October 1961): 396-411; Seymour Mandelbaum, Boss Tweed’s New York (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1965), 66, 82; Leo Hershkowitz, Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977), 149-155; Kenneth Ackerman, Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005), 80.

[3] The 1868 Democratic National Convention was hosted at Tammany Hall. New York Herald, February 2, 1869; New York Tribune, November 18, 1869.

[4] William Tweed to James Murphy, February 8, 20, 1855, William M. Tweed, Folder 1: Letters 1846-1857, New-York Historical Society [hereafter N-YHS].

[5] According to Samuel J. Tilden, “The very definition of a ‘Ring’ is that it encircles enough influential men in the organization of each party to control the action of both party machines; men who in public push to extremes the abstract ideas of their respective parties, while they secretly joining their hands in schemes for personal power and profit.” Quoted in Lynch, Boss Tweed (1931), 212. For profile of Ring leadership, see Callow, Tweed Ring (1966), 33-47.

[6] Broxmeyer, "Boss’s 'Brains'" (2015), 374-403.

[7] Tyler Anbinder, “Fernando Wood and New York City’s Secession From the Union: A Political Reappraisal,” New York History Vol. 68 (January 1897): 67-92; James F. Richardson, “Mayor Fernando Wood and the New York Police Force, 1855-1857” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50, No. 1 (January 1966): 5-40.

[8] Municipal indebtedness leaped from $3 million to $9 million under three years of the Ring’s management.

[9] Tweed also cut checks to upstate Democrats. Mr. Tweed’s Statements and Promises, Folder 195-270: Tweed Case, Box 1: 1873-1886, Charles S. Fairchild Papers, N-YHS.

[10] Autobiography of George Bliss, Volume I, unpublished manuscript, 198-200, George Bliss BV Bliss Papers, 1846-1897, N-YHS.

[11] Callow, Tweed Ring (1966), 223.

[12] Names of State Senators With Whom Tweed Had Dealings, Tweed Case, Fairchild Papers, N-YHS.

[13] Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Alderman Appointed to Investigate the ‘Ring Frauds’ Together With Testimony Elicited During the Investigation, Document No. 8, Board of Alderman, January 4, 1878 (New York: Martin B. Brown, 1878), 19-22.

[14] Albany Sun, February 6, 1871.

[15] Reprinted from the Tribune in the Mobile Register May 15, 1869.

[16] “The Americus Club…is composed of the leading men of Tammany Hall and the conservative republicans, with a few radicals.” Boston Daily Advertiser, January 11, 1868. For a list of club members, see Jay Gould’s Personalized Americus Club Handbook, Jay Gould Papers: 1859-1893, N-YHS.

[17] Francis Gerry Fairfield, The Clubs of New York: With An Account of the Origin, Progress, Present Condition, and Membership of the Leading Clubs (New York: Henry L. Hinton Publisher, 1873). [reprinted Arno Press, New York Times Company, New York 1975], Chapter 10.

[18] Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001): 164-5, 309-10, 323.

[19] Gross Amounts Paid to the Following Persons, Tweed Case, Fairchild Papers, N-YHS.

[20] For a full account of Tweed’s banking sector see Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer, “Political Capitalism In the Gilded Age: The Tammany Bank Run of 1871,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (forthcoming January 2017).

[21] New York Times, July 3, 1870.

[22] Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, May 27, 1871, Vol. 7., No. 167, 264. See also Thomas Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Arthur (Newtown, CT: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 58.

[23] Thomas C. Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur (New York: 1975), 49-50.

[24] For public “blacklists” of Tammany Republicans, see New York Tribune, June 13, 1870; New York Times, August 19, 1871. See also the U.S. Senate investigation into Thomas Murphy’s management of the customhouse for an additional list that includes salaries. United States Senate, Testimony in Relation to Alleged Frauds in the New York Custom-House Taken by the Committee on Investigation and Retrenchment Vol. 3, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Report No. 227 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 439-440.

[25] New York Herald, October 16, 1870.

[26] Lynch, Boss Tweed (1931), 330.

[27] New York Tribune, March 29, 1870.

[28] New York Herald, October 16, 1870.

[29] New York Times, December 2, 1870.

[30] Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Chapter 6.

[31] Appeal to the People of the State of New York, Adopted by The Executive Committee of Citizens and Taxpayers for the Financial Reform of the City and County of New York (New York: Free Press Association, 1871), 14.

[32] Alfred Ronald Conkling, Life and Letters of Roscoe Conkling: Orator, Statesman, Advocate (New York: Charles Webster & Co., 1889), 341-3, 345-6; David Jordan, Roscoe Conkling: Voice in the Senate (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971), 154-8.

[33] Reeves, Gentleman Boss (1975), 74-5.

[34] Mitchell Snay, Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 175-80.

[35] Jordan, Conkling (1971), 154-6.

[36] New York Times, October 25, 1871, June 3, 1872.

[37] Owego Times, June 6, 1872.

[38] Harper’s Weekly, November 2, 1872.

[39] New York Times, September 10, 1872.

[40] The Nation, September 26, 1872.

[41] New York Times, February 24, 1874.

[42] New York Herald, October 16, 1870.