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
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 publics 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. Harpers 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.