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The Boss

1.

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 businesses skimmed off inflated city contracts—at around $45 million (about $900 million today), most of it taken in only two and half years.

Ackerman believes that Tweed and Tammany had a far larger importance in history, both for good and ill, than their scant two years in power would suggest. On the one hand, the Tweed ring contributed to building and modernizing the city, helping to finance the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, paving many miles of roads, and dramatically increasing the value of New York real estate. On the other hand, the ring truly earned its reputation as an almost universal symbol of political corruption.

But for corruption to thrive, good people must remain silent. This was certainly the case with the Tweed Ring. Looked at with the benefit of the hindsight of almost a century and a half, the Tweed Ring holds our interest not only as an example of corruption run rampant but of the timidity of reformers, who were for years reluctant to intervene. The newspapers, for the most part, said little—they were taken in by Tweed’s genial way with reporters and were benefiting handsomely from the huge amounts of advertising the city bought in their pages.

Of all the reformers, Samuel Tilden was in the strongest position to challenge Tweed. A lawyer with long involvement in New York politics—he would later, in 1876, become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee—and an earned reputation as an upright if somewhat remote public figure, Tilden was a very wealthy man by the late 1860s (his proud mansion on Gramercy Park is now the National Arts Club). He commanded enough respect in the city to ensure that if he spoke up against the ring, people would listen. Whether they would rally to his side was another question.

But Tilden lacked Tweed’s easy way with the working classes, and his constituency was small—and so he was intimidated by the ring’s power. During the fight over the charter in Albany, he backed down; soon after, as chairman of the state Democratic Party convention, he acquiesced in every Tweed demand, even refusing to allow a group of Tweed’s opponents to lodge an official protest against Tweed’s tactics on the convention floor. This earned him the Times‘s dismissal as an “ornamental subordinate” who acted only “with the approbation of William M. Tweed.” Tilden was not alone. Only after the ring was exposed in the press did Wall Street and other of the city’s leaders begin to realize their stake in reform.

2.

New York in the mid-nineteenth century was dangerous, filthy, and violent. It was also undergoing vast change. The Catholic population was growing rapidly, with a recent and heavy influx of immigrants chiefly from Ireland and Germany. New York was still dominated by Protestants, however. Today, when the city’s newspapers define the various electoral voting blocs, “the Protestant vote” isn’t mentioned, but back then Protestants held a popular Orange Irish parade every summer commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, in honor of the defeat of the Catholic James II.

Tweed was born in 1823, four years before the abolition of slavery in New York, the fifth and youngest child of a chair-maker. He was not Irish Catholic, but Scottish and Protestant. His upbringing was modest, though not penurious. His father, Richard Tweed, tried to advance his son socially, sending him to boarding school in New Jersey, but the young Bill dropped out, and apprenticed himself to his father. Richard Tweed later switched from making chairs to manufacturing brushes, and young Bill joined the business as his father’s bookkeeper. But he was a driven man, far too ambitious and socially curious to be content as a shopkeeper’s accountant.

In his late teens, Tweed—already “a tall overgrown man, full of animal spirits,” according to one account—had become a member of the Americus “Big Six” fire company. Volunteer fire companies were new, clublike organizations which had considerable prestige. The Americus “Big Six,” named after Amerigo Vespucci and consisting of seventy-five young men, was considered dashing and was particularly esteemed.3 Their red shirts, it was said, sartorially inspired Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Risorgimento, who may have seen the brigade in 1850 during a parade down Broadway held in his honor. These volunteer fire brigades were a path to politics, and it is not surprising that Tweed was drawn to them. On Election Day 1844, he asked a local poll-watcher how many votes were expected to be cast in the city that day. The veteran said that, with 45,000 voters enrolled citywide, and assuming the customary 92 percent turnout, the total would be about 41,000. When Tweed looked at the next day’s papers and saw that 55,000 ballots had been cast, politics began to interest him even more.

He began his ascent in the 1850s. First elected as a city alderman and a member of the school commission, Tweed won a seat in Congress in 1852, but found national issues far less rewarding than local ones. After joining Tammany he rose quickly to the top tier of its leaders. Tweed met the other three members of the ring in the 1850s, but their alliance was not firmly cemented until after the Civil War.

During the 1850s and early 1860s there were rumors about Tweed’s involvement in voter fraud and padded city contracts, but these remained rumblings. It was the draft riots of 1863 in New York that proved decisive in Tweed’s rise to power. Congress had passed a conscription law which was signed by President Lincoln and contained a provision allowing anyone able to do so to buy his way out of the draft for $300. Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York, opposed the law, and refused to enforce it. The council of aldermen which was at the time the city’s main legislative body was dominated by Copperheads—“peace” Democrats, many of whom were supporters of the Confederacy. As army officials were announcing the beginning of the draft lottery, the news of Gettysburg was making its way to New York: a Union victory, but at the cost of more than 23,000 Union soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. Few of New York’s workingmen were willing to fight.

On Monday, July 13, the streets exploded in violence. The demonstrators were those, mostly poor and Irish, who couldn’t afford to buy themselves out. Led to the draft office by a group of volunteer firemen, they smashed the selection wheel—literally a large wheel with names appended to it—and then set fire to the building. Crowds began to rampage through the city, smashing windows, setting fires, looting, and killing. The mayor, a well-to-do Republican named George Opdyke, fled City Hall and took up quarters in a hotel. Governor Seymour, who was in New Jersey when the riots broke out, returned to the city to huddle in the hotel with the mayor, afraid to face the crowds that at one point were surrounding the mayor’s house on Fifth Avenue.

With the governor and the mayor paralyzed, Tweed took control. He knew that his credibility depended on it: “Tammany over the years,” Ackerman writes, “had linked its fate to these same immigrants who were now tearing up the city.” When Opdyke and Seymour at last decided they had to face their constituents, they did so with Tweed at their side. After the second day of rioting, they retreated from the streets, leaving Tweed, by himself, urging calm.

His words went largely unheeded: by the time the riots were crushed by army troops on the fourth day, one hundred people had died, many of them black. But Tweed had earned a reputation as a strong leader, as New York politicians still do, just by being visible during a crisis. After the riots, his popularity grew when he traveled to Washington and persuaded the War Department to permit Tammany to run the next draft lottery. After the lottery was held, he headed a committee that considered the appeals of 1,034 draftees, found substitutes for 983, and excused 49 of them. Only two who originally appealed chose to join the army and go to fight. Tweed’s intervention, writes Ackerman, made everyone happy: “Lincoln got his soldiers, the city had order, and the poor had relief from a law blatantly unfair to them.”

  1. 1

    Magear is correct, although I remembered from my high school textbooks that the man’s name was William Marcy Tweed. Ackerman, in a footnote, observes that Marcy was a reference to 1830s New York governor William Marcy, following “a then-common custom in the press of assigning political celebrities with middle names of famous people.”

  2. 2

    The physical “Tammany Hall” built by Tweed in 1868 still stands on the east side of Union Square, the inscription still gracing the red brick building that now houses the New York Film Academy. It cost $300,000 to build, a staggering amount then. The 1868 Democratic National Convention was held there.

  3. 3

    See Denis Tilden Lynch, Boss Tweed (Boni and Liveright, 1927).

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