William Tweed


     William Magear Tweed (1823-1878), more commonly known in American
history as “Boss Tweed,” was an object of scathing criticism by Thomas Nast.
Tweed was a New York City politician who led a group of corrupt politicians
who gained power in the Democratic party in 1863, when Tweed was elected
“Grand Sachem” of Tammany Hall. Originally a fraternal organization formed in
1786, the Society of Tammany grew more political in the nineteenth century
and its building became the site where the Democratic party activists often met.
Although he held minor elective offices, Tweed primarily exercised power
through his control of patronage, the ability to appoint supporters to jobs in
New York City government. For instance, after he was appointed
commissioner of public works, Tweed enlarged the street maintenance crew to
include twelve jobs as “manure inspectors.”
     Not only did Tweed maintain and increase his power by rewarding his
supporters, he also profited personally from business conducted by the city of
New York. For a company to receive business contracts with the city, it had to
inflate its prices and kick back a portion of its income to Tweed and his closest
associates in local government. This coterie of corrupt politicians enriching
themselves at the public’s expense was known at the time as the Tweed Ring.
     The Tweed Ring was successful in part because it was popular among many
voters, especially the Irish immigrants who had flooded the city in search of a
better livelihood. Tweed and his friends ensured that Irish-American supporters
received jobs and other assistance from the city government and from
companies doing business with the city.
     For Nast, Tweed personified two great evils afflicting American society after
the Civil War: corruption and greed, on the one hand, and the influence of Irish
immigrants on the other. Harper’s Weekly and the New York Times crusaded
against corruption in city government in 1870 and 1871. Nast used his talents in
a campaign to undermine Tweed and rally good government forces to
overthrow the boss. Cartoon after cartoon pictured Tweed as a thief. In
addition to his caricatures of Tweed, Nast created the Tammany Tiger as a
symbol for the Ring, and sometimes he used it as a more general symbol for the
Democratic Party.
     Nast succeeded in creating a negative image of Boss Tweed but was less
successful in turning him out of power. Eventually, rivals in the Democratic Party,
who sought the spoils of office for themselves, turned on Tweed. They provided
evidence of his corruption to local newspapers, which eventually gave
prosecutors the proof needed to convict Tweed. Businesses hoping to recover
money extorted by the Tweed Ring also sued the fallen boss. He eventually fled
the country, but was captured and returned. Tweed died in prison.


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