In the summer of 1871, William Magear Tweed was at the height of his power.1 He was not only a state senator, representing the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City, where he grew up, but also the city’s commissioner of public works. As commissioner, he was a member of what used to be called the Board of Apportionment, a predecessor to the old Board of Estimate, which oversaw city contracts and land-use decisions. (It was abolished by the US Supreme Court in 1989.) But in addition, he was Grand Sachem, the leader, of the Society of Tammany, or Grand Columbian Order,2 the Democratic Party organization that had begun as a patriotic social club in 1789 and, by the 1850s, had become the city’s dominant political power. As head of Tammany, Tweed was the king of New York, with control over nearly every politician, judge, police captain, city contractor, and ordinary petitioner who sought to perform any kind of public labor in the city. Finally, he was the owner or part-owner of several companies that had exclusive contracts to do business with the city. Chief among these was the New-York Printing Company, which had the franchise as the exclusive printer for New York County—every ballot, notice, advertisement, and contract. Tweed was an extremely rich man.
The “Tweed Ring,” which consisted of Tweed and three confederates—A. Oakey Hall, Peter Sweeny, and Richard Connolly, Tammany men all—came to power with the elections of 1868, which cemented their control of most of the highest offices in the city. Hall became mayor. Connolly was reelected comptroller. Sweeny retained his appointive position of city chamberlain (manager of the city’s bank accounts), and Tweed was reelected as county supervisor, which gave him power to manage elections and oversee treasury disbursements. But the state government in Albany still controlled much of the city’s police force and school board, the fire department, the docks, and even the city budget. Thanks partly to $200,000 worth of bribes, mainly to the state legislators in Albany, in 1870 Tweed secured the passage of a home-rule amendment to the city charter, turning control over to the mayor, and making the city virtually self-governing.
The city’s business and political leaders, ignorant of the bribes, hailed Tweed for rescuing the city from upstate interference. The complicated jurisdictional split between New York City and Albany which Tweed negotiated 135 years ago continues to this day, and upstate lawmakers, resentful of the city’s power, still try to curb it by giving the state legislature the power to nullify decisions made by the mayor and the City Council.
Tweed’s grand edifice began to fall apart only eight months after it was erected. July 22, 1871, marked the beginning of his downfall, when a disaffected office-seeker leaked to The New-York Times compromising ledger sheets that proved beyond doubt the ring’s corruption. Kenneth D. Ackerman, in his thorough and sometimes fascinating biography, puts the figure of total graft—including the money Tammany leaders and corrupt…
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