Tweed of Tammany
Where unions fell short of looking after the needs, wishes, and demands of the masses, American city governments spawned “bosses” who operated “political machines.” The big-city boss was characteristically a demagogue, who presented himself as a common man looking out for the interests of the common man. In reality, bosses were corrupt politicians, enriching themselves and their cronies at the expense of their constituents.
Typical of the big-city bosses was William Marcy Tweed (1823-78) of New York, who worked his way up through the city’s political machine (known as Tammany Hall, after the name of a powerful Democratic club). Tweed eventually came to dominate municipal and then state politics. In 1861, Tweed had scarcely a dollar to his name; by 1871, he had amassed a fortune in excess of $2.5 million—all built on influence peddling and kickbacks from the sale of city contracts and franchises. Tweed gathered about himself a band of cronies, called the Tweed Ring, who collectively siphoned off anywhere from $40 million to $200 million in public funds. Tweed was convicted of fraud in 1873, but he fled to Spain. During his heyday, he had been ruthlessly caricatured by the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), and in 1876, Tweed was recognized through a Nast cartoon. As a result, Tweed was arrested and returned to New York, where he died after serving two years in prison.