Two hundred 14 years ago this week, on May 12, 1788, the Society of St. Tammany was founded in New York City. Although it originally had no connection to politics or to the Irish per se, it would eventually give rise to the infamous political machine Tammany Hall and become an institution fundamentally identified with the Irish urban experience.
The Society of Saint Tammany, or Columbian Order, was founded as a fraternal society as an egalitarian alternative to the many aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs founded at the time, most notably the Society of the Cincinnati. The latter had been established by former officers of the Continental Army and was widely feared by many as an organization dedicated to overthrowing the new nation’s republican government in favor of a monarchy.
Tammany’s founders and early members were mainly artisans and small merchants. The organization’s primary founder was an Irishman named William Mooney, a paper hanger, upholsterer, and furniture dealer who served in the Continental Army. The goals set out by Mooney and his fellow Tammanyites were simple: to foster fraternity among the membership, raise money for charity, and champion American patriotism.
Despite Mooney’s ethnic heritage, Tammany would be, as one early historian put it, “a strictly 100-percent American organization,” with a hostile attitude toward immigrants. Foreigners, especially those born in Ireland, were barred from membership in those early years.
To emphasize the organization’s democratic principles, its founders chose to name it in honor of Christopher Columbus (hence, Columbian Order) and St. Tamamend, or Tammany as he was often called. Tammany was a legendary Delaware Indian sachem who lived in the late-17th century in present-day eastern Pennsylvania. Colonial records indicate that he greeted William Penn upon his arrival in October 1682 and proceeded to assist the fledgling Quaker colony in its efforts to find food and shelter and to avoid conflict with the local Indians.
Decades later and long after his death, Tammany had become such a folk hero — much like Paul Bunyon in a later era — that artisans and workingmen in cities like Philadelphia and New York began to refer to him affectionately as St. Tamamend. For reasons not entirely clear Tamemend, like all good saints, was eventually accorded his own day — May 1 initially, then May 12 — for festive celebrations. It was for this reason that the Society of St. Tammany’s founders chose May 12 as the founding day in 1788.
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One of Tammany’s chief functions in these pre-politics years, it seems, was to whoop it up on patriotic holidays such as George Washington’s Birthday, Evacuation Day, and July 4th. These celebrations often got out of hand and brought the Tammany Society scorn from more proper New Yorkers. “It is painful to observe the ridicule which is annually thrown upon this glorious event by some semi-barbarians calling themselves the Tammany Society,” snarled the editor of the American Citizen and Commercial Advertiser after a particularly raucous July 4th in 1809. “Instead of commemorating the birth of the nation with that manliness and dignity which the occasion calls for and inspires, we see them with pain and disgust daubing their faces with paint, crowding their heavy heads with feathers; making savages in appearance more savage; representing as they term it, the genius of the nation in the person of some one who has no genius.”
Tammany officials eventually toned down these excessive displays of patriotic zeal, but not because of upper-class criticism. Rather, the change occurred as several Tammany leaders, most especially Aaron Burr, transformed the society into a political organization. As part of this transformation into a political entity, Tammany had to renounce its original hostility to foreigners, especially the largest group of them, the Irish. This made perfect sense politically, since most Irish New Yorkers in the late 1790s and early 1800s supported the Jeffersonians, the party eventually called Democrats. They liked Jefferson’s democratic style, which stood in sharp contrast to the more elitist Federalists. They also liked his party’s staunch opposition to the anti-Irish Alien and Sedition Acts and support for France (by definition an anti-British posture).
The transition from a nativist organization to one that welcomed foreigners took time. Early indications of the change came in 1809 when Tammany supported the candidacy of an Irish Catholic named Patrick Mckay for State Assembly. But that prejudice still ran high in the organization was made clear in April 1817 when 200 Irishmen proceeded from Dooley’s Tavern to Tammany Hall (now the name of the party’s headquarters) to demand the nomination of Thomas Addis Emmett, the Irish nationalist and brother of Robert Emmett, for Congress. When their demands were rebuffed, the Irish stormed the building, throttled any Tammany member they could get their hands on, and smashed all the furniture.
Despite this incident, Tammany soon moved to embrace the Irish vote. In 1821 New York State abolished property requirements for white male voters, thereby greatly expanding the electorate. Thenceforth political power was determined not by money or family ties but by the number of votes garnered on election day. Tammany, now led by Martin Van Buren, realized this immediately and committed the organization to an agenda that appealed to the city’s growing masses of poor immigrants and workers: abolition of imprisonment for debt, free public education, and tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, Tammany gained the loyalty of the poor by giving them jobs, handouts, and rent money, By the 1840s Tammany was a rising power in New York City politics and well on its way to becoming the most famous political machine in America.
In these decades before the Civil War, the Irish provided Tammany with votes and little more. Few of the leadership positions in the organization, nor the political offices it sought, were held by the Irish. They were expected to vote for Tammany in exchange for favors and jobs. That would change in the 1870s after “Boss” William Tweed (himself Scots Presbyterian) was packed off to jail in one of the greatest political scandals in U.S. history. His successor, “Honest” John Kelly, was the first of 10 consecutive Irish-Catholic Tammany bosses. It was not long before the Irish came to dominate the organization not simply as voters, but also as leaders.
But that’s another story for another day.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 8, 1916: Four more participants in the ill-fated Easter Rising are executed by British firing squad.
May 9, 1650: At the Battle of Clonmel, Black Hugh O’Neill defeats Oliver Cromwell’s army.
May 12, 1902: United Mine Workers head John Mitchell declares a strike that lasts five months, ending only with President Theodore Roosevelt’s unprecedented decision to intervene as a neutral party to help reach a settlement.
May 8, 1895: Archbishop and television priest Fulton Sheen born in El Paso, Ill.
May 10, 1810: Union General and U.S. Senator James Shields is born in Altmore, Co. Tyrone.
May 13, 1906: Playwright Samuel Beckett is born in Dublin.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.