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Essay on William Tweed: Civic Corruption

“The way to have power is to take it”(Martin). was said by one of the most corrupt politicians to ever walk the face of the earth, William Tweed. His name itself is a symbol of civic corruption, due to all the money he stole from New York and his methods of madness. Along the way, there was a cartoonist who had a keen insight to his dishonesty and eventually exposed him. William Tweed was ultimately brought down by the media. William Marcy Tweed came from the humbling background of Richard and Eliza Tweed on 3 April 1823.

His family was not as wealthy as most, due to the fact that his father was only a chair manufacturer. William had to leave school at the age of eleven to learn the art of chair making. From there, he was promoted to saddle maker at the age of thirteen, and then eventually became a book keeper at seventeen. When he was nineteen, he became a member of the firm, eventually marrying one of the main partner’s daughter, Jane Sladen. From there, he was one of the original members of the “Big Six” fire department. They named him foreman in 1850, which threw him then into the big, bad world of politics.

Since he was well liked at the time, a year later he was elected into office as a candidate for the Democratic Party in the Predominately Whig District. Two years later, he was then elected for the US House of Representatives, but only served one term since he preferred the local government in favor to the large scale. “From Dec 1853 to Mar 1855, Tweed missed 270 of 607 roll call votes, which is 44. 5%. This is much worse than the median of 31. 0% among the lifetime records of representatives serving in Mar 1855” (“Rep. “).

This quote shows that when Tweed was in office, he did not care about the issues or the great change he could bring to the people. All he cared about was the money. In 1856, he lost his race for alderman, however, he made friends with Peter B. Sweeny and Richard B. Connelly which eventually led to being picked to be on a board of supervisors to check election fraud. The more power he attained, the more wealthier he was. The wealthier he became, the more the money and the greed stirred up inside of him, making him want more at any cost.

Along with being on the board of supervisors, he also became head of the department and works, deputy street commissioner, and the chairman of the New York state finance committee. His old was of hard work and loyalty were long since gone, instead now learning from the New York City Common Council, aka The Forty Thieves, on how to earn cash fast through aggressiveness and luck. He increased his power by accepting bribes and placing his friends in key positions that would benefit himself more than the city. He was then elected in 1857 to be on the governing board of Tammany Hall as well as a very influential position, a sachem.

From there, he controlled the 1860 Democratic convention so he could then place all of his friends in high places. Connelly was elected county clerk, Sweeny was placed as district attorney, Bernard was elected to office of recorder, and then later promoted to New York State Supreme Court, and then he himself was named state senator in 1867. Using all of this accumulated power, he then was elected the grand sachem in 1868, or head, of Tammany Hall, which then led to the infamous, Tweed Ring. Tweed controlled about any mayor in office at this time and began to appoint more and more of his allies and friends in political positions.

Even though Tweed was named the “Boss”, that does not mean he had all of the power. “The reporter rose… when the green baize doors… were slung violently open and “Boss” Tweed, with red face, flashing eyes, and threatening manner, burst into the room… “I hear that you’re goin’ to veto such and such a bill, Governor Hoffman? ” shouted Tweed. “Such is my intention, Senator Tweed. ” replied the Governor, very white of face. “Do you know I’m behind that bill? ” raising his voice threateningly. “I have been so informed” was the answer.

If Tweed had been wholly free to chose, it is to be very much doubted whether he would have ever chosen Hoffman… It was P. B. Sweeny who put Hoffman forward and stood firmly at his back” (Hudson). This quote shows two things, Tweed himself and the Tweed Ring, which was a group of Tweed and his two closest friends who controlled the money flow of New York City. His speech to the governor shows how power hungry and malicious he was when it came to business. It also shows how that in the Tweed Ring, all of the three main ringleaders, Tweed, Connely and Sweeney, had almost equal powers and contributed equally as well.

By having equal power, control of the situation was slowly slipping from Tweed’s fingertips subconsciously. This, however, was just the beginning of the Ring’s corruption. To explain in more detail, the Tweed Ring was made when they were able to pass a charter to control the city treasury. Tweed ran the ring out of the midtown Manhattan law office even before he was elected Senate and Grand Sachem. For example, in 1864, Tweed bought a print shop and required all the businesses to patronize it if they wanted a license to operate.

He also collected huge “legal fees” from every business that had an office inside the city. On top of that, he bought a marble firm as well that had a gigantic markup for materials for public buildings. One of Tweed’s big accomplishments was in 1868 when Murphy, the head of the bridge company was desperate in completing the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge had been put on hold due to the one and a half million share of Manhattan that the alderman had not approved of. Tweed said he would help if Murphy got the aldermen to pass bridge appropriation along with about a sixty thousand bribe.

Sooner or later, a bag of cash showed up at Tweed’s office, however, the construction did not start again until Tweed received a seat on the board along with five hundred and sixty shares of the Brooklyn Bridge stock that was worth about fifty six thousand dollars. His friends however, gave him credibility where they all could gain more and more, so that by 1869, fifty percent of all bills went to the Tweed Ring and then to eighty five percent shortly after. These examples come to explain that their three main sources of income were elected and appointed offices, the public treasury, and the business community.

All of this did not even add up to their biggest project, the New York Courthouse. It was only projected to be a eight hundred thousand dollar building, but soon turned into a twelve million dollar steal that was not even finished while Tweed was still in charge. “The first modern political machine, the Tweed Ring of New York City… engaged in extensive graft, mounting into the millions of dollars, that played no small role in the rise of a reform, or anti-Tammany, force in the Democratic Party of the city, as well as the disapprobation of any organization labeled a “machine” by the press and the urban elite” (Shumsky).

This again shows how big an impact the Tweed Ring made to not just the financial state of New York at that time, but the things that followed after like the creation of more political machines. Little did they know that underneath all of this greed and corruption, someone was always watching. Nast started his attacks when the Ring began funding money out of the taxes of the people in 1869. Although the Evening Post and the Tribune tried to take down Tweed as well, their attempts were not as influential as Nast’s cartoons.

Since most of Tweed’s supporters could not read or understand the newspaper articles degrading Tweed, these pictures hit him hard. Image (Nast). For example, the one shown to the left is a representation of Tweed right after he took over the democratic convention once again in 1871. The picture showed a bag of money on Tweed’s head, symbolizing that instead of having brains to win and rise to the top, his money got him places. This was shown in Harper’s Weekly newspaper on October 21, 1871 and Tweed was outraged.

Tweed decided to come back with a bang. He rejected all of Harper’s bids for schoolbooks and destroyed fifty thousand dollars worth of books that already came in. However, Nast just came back with more and more cartoons. His most famous one, “Who Stole the People’s Money? “, Harper’s subscribers reached its high. When the people began to notice, threats came. When his threats were not successful, there came the bribes. They promised him one hundred times the amount Harper paid him in 1871. Nast held strong however, which eventually led to justice.

Since the public began to notice the attention of Tweed from his cartoons, Times began to investigate. For example, on July 1871, the Times began publishing proof of the corruption and bribery of the Ring. Tweed then was arrested two years later though, convicted in his second trial due to the hung jury{probably bribery} of the first. In November, he was then convicted on two hundred and four counts out of two hundred and twenty. He only served one year in prison but was then sent back since the city sued from for a whopping twelve million dollars.

One of the perks though was that once an evening, he could take a walk in the park or take a carriage ride to his mansion. He disappeared in the December of 1875, escaping to Cuba and Spain where he was captured and imprisoned both times, and then escaping successfully. He was then returned back to New York where he died in 1878 inside the prison. The media was in a winter wonderland. The Grange Advance published an article on Boss Tweed escaping jail and how he got there in the first place. Some people may say that Boss Tweed was overrated and not as powerful as he seemed.

Their reasons include that he could not even get elected New York’s sheriff in 1861 and because he died disgracefully in prison. Most do not know where he really came from and his financial background at the beginning of his journey. “At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Tweed was $57,150 in debt with only a few articles of clothing to his name” (Broxmeyer). This shows exactly where Tweed came from in perspective to how much he made and gained. Therefore, Boss Tweed is not “overrated” due to the fact that he built this empire from barely anything and decided to make a name for himself.

In all, William Tweed as a very powerful businessman in what he did which can be drawn from his former experiences. How he came about the ways of getting rich, however, hurt him in the long run when the media took him down. Nowadays, everything is so instant, we as a people do not think of the future consequences before we do things which usually leaves us in deep trouble in the end. The people should learn from people’s mistakes as a nation, thinking before we do something so it does not come back to haunt us in the long run.

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