The Corrupting of New York City

On January 10, 1986, an unusual story greeted New Yorkers when they opened their newspapers. One of the city’s most powerful politicians, Donald Manes, president of the borough of Queens, had been found bleeding, his wrist and ankle slit, in a car stopped by police the night before. Manes claimed that he had come to consciousness at the wheel of the weaving car after being attacked by strangers.

By April, Manes had admitted that his wounds were self-inflicted, resigned his post, and succeeded in a second attempt at suicide. Reports that Manes had actually been at the heart of an unraveling skein of corruption dominated New York’s newspapers and television newscasts. According to indictments and criminal complaints filed in various courts, nearly $3.8 million in bribes had been promised or paid to city officials, business executives, and Democratic party officials in exchange for contracts at the city’s Parking Violations Bureau. The mayor himself, the best-selling author Ed Koch, admitted that the city faced an “enormous scandal, something that we know is going to go way beyond the bribery and extortion in the Parking Violations Bureau.”

If the 1986 scandals surprised New Yorkers at all, it was only mild surprise.

Historians of the twenty-first century may marvel at the serenity with which New Yorkers contemplated these revelations that rocked the Koch administration in the early months of 1986. There were expressions of outrage, to be sure, but most of them came from people who make a business of expressing outrage. Newspaper columnists raged; television commentators looked grave; politicians eager to distance themselves from the scandal struck the appropriate poses. The public gave a great shrug. That shrug seemed to say payoffs are no big deal. If the scandal of ’86 caused any surprise at all, it was the mild surprise of seeing the headlines confirm that local government was no more honest than most New Yorkers had supposed.

The history of the government of New York City is also, in large measure, the history of the misgovernment of New York City. It is an entertaining history, full of thieves, rascals, and knaves, full of bold schemes and brazen misconduct. Now and then, as if in some ancient legend, a hero emerges to fight the bad guys. Always, below the surface, serious questions press for attention—questions that strike at the heart of our faith that “we, the people” possess the qualities that are needed to make self-government work. The story of municipal corruption in New York City is the story of the bosses who have organized and profited from that corruption, but it is more than that. It is the story of the contractors who have gotten rich from their arrangements with the bosses, but it is more than that. In the end it is the story of the people of New York City, shrugging their shoulders, selling their votes, going about their business. It is the story of democracy in America.

The Society of Saint Tammany, founded by a furniture dealer named William Mooney, was organized in New York City on May 12, 1789. A history of political corruption in New York is not quite the same thing as a history of Tammany, but Tammany plays such a large role that we might as well start with it.

Tammany, or Tamanend, was a legendary chief of the Delaware Indians whose benevolence and love of liberty led to the establishment of patriotic societies named after him in the early 1770s. The society that was organized in 1789 drew much of its support from “Liberty boys” of the middle and working classes who were opposed to the aristocratic ideas of Alexander Hamilton.

The Tammany Society was divided into thirteen “tribes,” with a sachem at the head of each tribe and a grand sachem at the head of the whole organization. In later years, once the identification of Tammany and the New York City Democratic party had become complete, the sachems were usually Democratic ward leaders in Manhattan.

The best known of Tammany’s early leaders was Aaron Burr. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, state officials in Albany appointed many of the city’s key officials. From 1822 until 1838 Tammany was a tool of the state machine, which Martin Van Buren had organized in the decade before his election to the Senate in 1821, and which he controlled so efficiently from Washington that it came to be called the Albany Regency.

Between 1840 and 1856 more than three million immigrants entered the United States through the port of New York. The population of the city itself rose from 312,710 in 1840 to 515,547 in 1850. The immigrants needed food, shelter, and jobs, and Tammany made a special effort to help.

With the decline of the Albany Regency, the power of city politicans grew. After a period of internal squabbling, Tammany took command in 1851 with the election of a City Council that soon won the nickname of the Forty Thieves. The aldermen were known to be men of large appetite, yet suspicion stirred when, to judge by a bill submitted to the city’s comptroller, each member of the council consumed at a single meeting eight pounds of beef, one and a half chickens, 225 oysters, one pound of sausage, two pounds of ham, and three loaves of bread—then topped off the meal by smoking one hundred cigars.