Boss Tweed Historical Overview WKSHT

Name: ______________________
Date: ________
Mr. Armstrong
SS8 | AIM #: ___
Boss Tweed & Political Corruption
Historical Overview
To many late 19th century Americans, he
personified public corruption. In the late
1860s, William M. Tweed was the political
boss of New York City. His headquarters,
located on East 14th Street, was known as
Tammany Hall. He wore a diamond,
orchestrated elections, controlled the city's
mayor, and rewarded political supporters. His primary source of
funds came from the bribes and kickbacks that he demanded in
exchange for city contracts. The most notorious example of
urban corruption was the construction of the New York County
Courthouse, begun in 1861 on the site of a former almshouse.
Officially, the city wound up spending nearly $13 million-roughly $178 million in today's dollars--on a building that
should have cost several times less. Its construction cost nearly
twice as much as the purchase of Alaska in 1867.
The corruption was breathtaking in its breadth and baldness. A
carpenter was paid $360,751 (roughly $4.9 million today) for
one month's labor in a building with very little woodwork. A
furniture contractor received $179,729 ($2.5 million) for three
tables and 40 chairs. And the plasterer, a Tammany functionary,
Andrew J. Garvey, got $133,187 ($1.82 million) for two days'
work; his business acumen earned him the sobriquet "The
Prince of Plasterers." Tweed personally profited from a financial
interest in a Massachusetts quarry that provided the courthouse's
marble. When a committee investigated why it took so long to
build the courthouse, it spent $7,718 ($105,000) to print its
report. The printing company was owned by Tweed.
In July 1871, two low-level city officials with a grudge against
the Tweed Ring provided The New York Times with reams of
documentation that detailed the corruption at the courthouse and
other city projects. The newspaper published a string of articles.
Those articles, coupled with the political cartoons of Thomas
Nast inHarper's Weekly, created a national outcry, and soon
Tweed and many of his cronies were facing criminal charges
and political oblivion. Tweed died in prison in 1878.
The Tweed courthouse was not completed until 1880, two
decades after ground was broken. By then, the courthouse had
become a symbol of public corruption. "The whole atmosphere
is corrupt," said a reformer from the time. "You look up at its
ceilings and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the
greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place."
Boss-rule, machine politics, payoff and graft, and the spoils
system outraged late 19th century reformers. But were bosses
and political machines as corrupt as their critics charged?
George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, New York's
Democratic political machine, distinguished between "honest"
and "dishonest" graft. Dishonest graft involved payoffs for
protecting gambling and prostitution. Honest graft might
Your Notes, Analysis, Insights, etc.
involve buying up land scheduled for purchase by government.
As Plunkitt said, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
Paradoxically, a political machine often created benefits for the
city. Many machines professionalized urban police forces and
instituted the first housing regulations. Political bosses served
the welfare needs of immigrants. They offered jobs, food, fuel,
and clothing to the new immigrants and the destitute poor.
Political machines also served as a ladder of social mobility for
ethnic groups blocked from other means of rising in society.
In The Shame of the Cities, the muckraking journalist Lincoln
Steffens argued that it was greedy businessmen who kept the
political machines functioning. It was their hunger for
government contracts, franchises, charters, and special
privileges, he believed, that corrupted urban politics.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries,
urban reformers would seek to redeem the city through
beautification campaigns, city planning, rationalization of city
government, and increases in city services.
Essential Question:
How do you interpret this political cartoon as it pertains to Boss
Tweed? How might you explain this cartoon to someone who
doesn’t know anything about the man?