Harmony In Old Tammany Hall
( Originally Published 1893 )
POLITICIANS OF THE OLDEN TIME-SAMUEL SWARTWOUT'S STRANGE CAREER-THURLOW WEED AND HORATIO SEYMOUR-STATESMEN OF THE NEW SCHOOL-HARMONY IN OLD TAMMANY HALL
A BIT of wisdom which fell from the lips of Mr. Pickwick, and which Count Smorltork eagerly caught up and transferred to his tablets as " ver good-fine words to begin a chapter," read in its transferred condition as follows : " The word poltic surprises by him-self ` a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude.' While this is true, no reminiscence of the city of half a century ago would be complete that did not revive the memories of the politicians of that day. They are worth remembering, too. " There were giants in the earth in those days," and zealous partisans though they were, their patriotism no less than their abilities made there- men of mark in the land. De Witt Clinton thought it an honor to be an alderman of New York, and when the Golden Age returns, in which such men as he shall again be Willing to take up the burdens of office, the era of political rings and jobs will pass away.
"Old Hickory," "the Fox of Kinderhook," "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," and "the Mill Boy of the Slashes" are among my early recollections of political badges and war cries. I remember often to have seen famous Sam Swartwout, whom Andrew Jackson bequeathed as a legacy to his successor, extracting a promise from Mr. Van Buren that he should not be disturbed in his office of Collector of the Port until his term had expired. Of colossal build, erect, and straight as an arrow-until age had bent his stalwart form a little in ripening it for death's harvest-Sam Swartwout was a man of mark when he passed along the street. He came of Revolutionary stock, and with his two brothers served in the War of 1812. They dealt extensively in paints and dyewoods, and almost as largely in politics. John, the oldest brother, was appointed United States Marshal for this district by President Jefferson, but was removed by the latter at the beginning of his second term, when he made a clean sweep of all the friends of Aaron Burr, to whom, when he was Vice-president, he had assigned the New York appointments. This made trouble at once. John Swartwout challenged De Witt Clinton to mortal combat, and they met on the old duelling-ground at Hoboken. The challenger was brought home with a bullet in his thigh. Richard Riker, afterwards Re-corder of the city, and known in political and social tradition as " Dickey" Riker, made some unpalatable criticism upon the matter, and was promptly challenged by Robert Swartwout. They met on the field of honor across the Hudson, and Mr. Riker was wounded so severely that he limped to the close of his life. It was an era of personal responsibility. Men were held to strict account for their criticism of contemporaries, and such an exchange of epithets as in these later days at times distinguishes our deliberative bodies would then have led to a fusillade that would have made a battle-field of City Hall or State Capitol. The invitation to step over to Hoboken and adjust matters with a pair of pistols was, of course, a barbarity, but it led to a remarkable politeness and a discriminating choice of words in public speech or written document. Even then a challenge was liable to be sent on general principles; and it could not be refused. Bernard, the actor, in his autobiographical account of a visit paid to New York in the early part of the century, speaks of a call made upon him at his hotel by Mr. Coleman, editor of The Evening Post. After an hour's pleasant chat, the editor excused himself on the score of an engagement, and it was not until the next day that Mr. Bernard learned that the engagement in question was an invitation to fight a duel at Hoboken. It was a matter of course, the custom of the day ; and politicians, journalists, and even men of business (like Robert Swartwout, who was a merchant, and was wedded to Miss Dunscombe at the house of his brother-in-law, Philip Hone), were ready to maintain their opinions with powder and ball.
At this time Samuel Swartwout, the youngest of the brothers, was in the South with Aaron Burr. De-voted to the fortunes of that adventurous pioneer of a new empire, he had gone with him to the South-west to assist in setting up a new field of rule and conquest on the Mexican border. When Burr was on trial at Richmond, Samuel Swartwout was there as his private secretary and friend, and became the sharer of his prison. As ready as his brothers for the trial by combat, he sent a challenge to General Wilkinson, and when the latter declined to receive it, on the ground that he would not hold correspondence with traitors and conspirators, the ardent challenger promptly posted him as a coward and poltroon. Released and returning to this city, he served in 1812 as adjutant of the celebrated Irish Greens, and afterwards did duty on the staff of General Jackson at the battle of New Orleans. It was the friendship which Jack-son conceived for stalwart Sam Swartwout that made the latter Collector of the Port, and kept him in office eight years in spite of the protests of Tammany Hall. When it came to the case of his personal friends, " Old Hickory " was immovable.
I never cross the meadows beyond Bergen Hill but the memory of the Swartwouts comes back to me. They dreamed, seventy years ago, that these meadows might be reclaimed and made a vast market-garden to supply the metropolis. With them to think was to act. They purchased 4200 acres of the salt-marsh in 1815. It was subject to overflow by the tides and was mostly under water. Business men regarded the scheme as visionary and would have nothing to do with it. But the brothers were rich men for that day, and John Swartwout did not hesitate to embark every penny of his $200,000 in the speculation. They went sturdily to work, built ten miles of embankment, dug 100 miles of ditch, reclaimed 1500 acres of solid ground, and announced that they would raise upon these resurrected fields all the vegetables that would ever be needed in New York. Three years of this work absorbed their money and broke up their regular business. But Robert secured the appointment of Naval Agent, and the brothers went ahead with unwavering faith. At the close of another year they applied to the city corporation for aid, but it was re-fused. Then, still believing that there were "millions in it," they mortgaged everything and kept on. As a last resort, they sent their maps and plans to Holland, in the hope that they would interest the Dutch devotees of canals, but this proved a failure also. The brothers were impoverished, and the swamp-except the district they reclaimed-is still a prey to the sea. When in summer the train dashes across the miles of swamp land beyond Hoboken, and the long, salt grass, jewelled with wild flowers of brilliant hue, sways and tosses to the breath of the wind, it seems to me as I look out from the car window as if the wild roses and the meadow-grasses were growing over the graves of those buried hopes of seventy years ago. Perhaps, though, like all such failures, it is but the seed of future success. The pioneer never reaps the harvest.
Another old-time politician whom I remember was Churchill C. Cambreling. One of the most distinguished of the commercial representatives of the city in his day, he has been forgotten this many a year. Courteous, refined, and accomplished, few men of his day exerted a more powerful influence here or at Washington. Nine times he was elected to Congress, where he served on the most important committees, and Monroe, Jackson, and Van Buren eagerly sought his aid and counsel. President Van Buren appointed him Minister to Russia, and this was the close of his political career. I have instanced the case of Mr. Cambreling to show how fleeting is political fame. The man whom the whole city delighted to honor has now no place in the city's memory. His successor in Congress, Mike Walsh, has been better remembered, and traditions of his political powers are still told around the watch-fires of the clans. It was he who said that " Any dead fish can swim with the current, but it takes a live fish to swim against it," and that " It requires more statesmanship to cross Broadway at Fulton Street than to be a Representative in Congress from a rural district."
Forty years ago I met Thurlow Weed for the first time, in the island of Santa Cruz, where he was wintering for his health, and had interested himself in the emancipation of the slaves in that island. Outside of politics, I knew him well afterwards. On the subject of politics he was inscrutable. He counselled with no one, but made his own plans and had them executed. Whether his influence was for good or evil is not a matter for discussion here. In his peculiar role of Warwick the king-maker he has had no successor. I found him at his best in his talks about literature.
When wise King Solomon remarked that there was nothing new under the sun, he might have included politics, though politics was not much of a business in his day. Thrones sometimes went the way of a Broadway railroad franchise, and were privately sold to the highest bidder, but the sword usually settled all disputes. This latter method had the advantage of largely reducing the number of political aspirants and of occasionally exterminating the entire opposition, root and branch, or, speaking politically, primary and convention-thus leaving quiet folk a better chance of fireside peace and comfort. In our day history continually repeats itself in politics as in other phases of public life. Prophets have arisen who pro-claim the wonderful discovery of a new and original panacea for the ills of mankind. They promise to abolish poverty, to banish thorns and thistles, and make the land bring forth nothing but grapes and olives, and to create a millennium through the ballot. They feed on ashes. Their pretended patent is but the antiquated prescription of dead and buried quacks -moth-eaten and ghostly in its flimsiness. Sixty years ago, in 1827, Fanny Wright, the famous free-thinker and land-reformer, and William Cobbett, the radical writer and member of the British Parliament, came to New York and ventilated their peculiar views to large audiences that-were chiefly composed of artisans and laborers. Their promise of a restored Eden, in which land and wealth should be held in common, was so captivating that they were able to organize an enthusiastic Labor Party in this city, which was so successful that it sent Ely Moore to Congress as its standard-bearer. But in two or three years it ceased to exist as an organization, having become merged into the old Jacksonian Democratic Party, upon whose policy it ingrafted in some measure its peculiar political views. A similar fate is likely to befall the present labor movement-or at least that part of it which proposes to undertake the job of reforming that portion of creation which President Zachary Taylor designated as "all the world and the rest of mankind." What the genius of Fanny Wright and the brain of William Cobbett could not compass cannot be accomplished by the words of Powderly and McGlynn, of Henry George and Lucy Parsons.
Horatio Seymour used to say that the City of New York was a State by itself, entirely distinct in its interests and customs from the rural districts of the interior. " I have always advised candidates for State or Federal offices who do not belong in the city," he said to me, " to keep away from New York while their campaign was in progress-a piece of advice which I always followed in my own case." Yet he had a great admiration for the metropolis, and the number of his friends here was legion. I recall a summer afternoon when I sat with him on the porch of his home upon the slope of the Deerfield Hills, looking up and down the lovely panorama of the Mohawk Valley- the grandest highway of nations in the world-when he gave me a characteristic chapter of his experience at the hands of Tammany Hall. " I had opposed Tam-many," he said, " in the nomination of a Judge of the Court of Appeals, and they had been defeated. The leaders left the Convention vowing vengeance. Later in the campaign I accepted an invitation to speak in Tammany Hall, and though anticipating a disturbance, there was nothing else to be done but to go. When the night came the hall was crowded. I remarked to Captain Rynders that possibly there would be trouble when I spoke, but he replied that there was no danger, that unity was the rule and harmony must be preserved. As I rose to speak there was considerable disturbance in the rear of the hall. At the same time I noticed a line of men extending from each farther corner of the room to a point in the centre. Each man held his silk hat in one hand above the heads of the crowd, and as the wedge-shaped line gradually fell back there was more room and better order. After it was over I asked Captain Rynders what was the meaning of the movement. It appears that the line of men with silk hats held aloft was a phalanx of select shoulder-hitters, who preserved the unities of their hats with the left hand and hit out with the right. They had forced the malcontents to the rear, then closed their lines upon them, pushed them back to the door, and threw them down- stairs. It was accomplished so quietly and effectively that the disturbing element found itself in the middle of the street before it had a chance to make a demonstration. ' No,' said Captain Rynders to me, reflectively, ' we never have any trouble-unity is the rule and harmony must be preserved.' `But don't you have a feud afterwards?' ' Bless your heart, no, Governor; those same men crept up-stairs afterwards like so many little lambs and listened to you quietly to the end. Harmony was preserved, you see.'"