Franklin Roosevelt: Tammany Hall and Its Members Are Not "all objectionable"

TLS written as president commenting on the political machinations in New York City

Tammany Hall was the name given to the Democratic political machine that dominated New York City politics for almost a century, directing the flow of money, patronage and votes in state and local elections. Roosevelt first came to public attention starting in 1911 as a reformer persistently fighting Tammany, a reform stance that cost him the 1914 Democratic U.S. senatorial nomination. After that, he held Tammany Hall at arm’s length, but avoided direct confrontations. He soon came to feel that the touch of Tammany was not always poisonous, and become a dedicated supporter of Al Smith, a progressive and effective governor but a Tammany man.

Once FDR was himself governor, however, he again sought to diminish Tammany’s power, helping force its Mayor James J. Walker from office. Roosevelt’s election as president was a dual setback for the machine.

The New Deal helped alter the demographic landscape of New York by making people less dependent on Tammany for jobs and assistance, and the election of anti-Tammany reformer and Roosevelt protege Fiorello LaGuardia removed City Hall from Tammany's immediate control. Still, it retained some of its power and Roosevelt maintained a nuanced position towards it - being essentially in opposition to the machine but not holding the fact of membership in Tammany against otherwise-qualified people. James B.M. McNally was a New York Democrat and Tammany member. Roosevelt liked his qualifications and named him U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1943. There was initially opposition to the nomination on the grounds of McNally’s Tammany affiliation, but FDR stuck with him and the opposition dissipated. McNally went on to a distinguished career as Justice of the New York Supreme Court. This letter defending his choice perfectly illustrates FDR’s stance on Tammany Hall.

Typed Letter Signed as President on White House letterhead, Washington, June 29, 1943, to his long-time personal friend, Charles C. Burlingham, a New York lawyer and perhaps the leading municipal reformer of the time. “I am glad to have your second note about McNally and to know that the Bar Association has withdrawn its objection to him. I fully understand your point of view - even though I have never voted in New York City. The fact remains that tens of thousands of people in New York City voted the Democratic ticket and tens of thousands of people are members of Tammany Hall. I do not think they are all objectionable for that reason!”

This is our first Roosevelt letter on the subject of the Tammany machine, and it is an extremely frank one. Only in a letter to someone he trusted implicitly would the normally reticent FDR have confided his true, mixed feelings about Tammany.