Welcome to the Machine: ‘Boss Tweed’

Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed

In Chicago, there’s a little joke that sums up our system of public corruption nicely. It goes something like this:

A government official needed to construct a new public facility, so he started looking into contractors around the country to do the work. He narrowed his search to three, and invited them in to present bids for the project.

The first one, from Cincinnati, provided a very straightforward presentation that laid out a very basic, functional plan. He then concluded by telling the official that he would do the project for $4 million. The second one, who was from Dallas, came in and explained that he would put together a more forward-thinking approach with contemporary design flourishes and modern green-building techniques. He added that this project would cost $6 million.

Finally, the third contractor, based in Chicago, came in. He gave no presentation, but simply told the official, “My project will cost $12 million. But I guarantee you’ll pick me.”

The official, a bit surprised, responded, “Wait a second. You haven’t told me anything about it, and it’s double the next-lowest bid. What makes you think I would take that deal?”

The guy from Chicago says, “Here’s how it’ll work: You’ll take $4 million, I’ll take $8 million, and I’ll subcontract the guy from Cincinnati to do it.”

Chicagoans can be forgiven for thinking they invented this strain of corruption, which succeeds by spreading benefits around. But the genesis of this system was not the Daley Machine, but Tammany Hall, the New York Democrats’ alchemical institution used to convert immigrant votes into wealth and power. And Tammany Hall reached its peak under the guidance of William “Boss” Tweed.

In his book Boss Tweed, former political operative and historical non-fiction author Kenneth Ackerman offers a deep and detailed — yet surprisingly accessible — history of Tweed’s rise and fall. But for the corruption, Tweed’s story could almost be seen as a manifestation of the American Dream. He had a rough-and-tumble, working class upbringing in Manhattan, but thanks to an unusually keen political sensibility and a deep understanding of human nature, he rose to the head of what was perhaps the most sophisticated system of graft that had existed up to that point in time.

Ultimately, it took a combination of skilled political rivals, dogged investigative journalism, and traitors to the Tammany system to bring Tweed down. Oh, and America’s greatest political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, whose memorable, satirical caricatures of Tweed made his face recognizable throughout the United States and even across the Atlantic. (Nast also devised the donkey and elephant symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, and created the modern image of Santa Claus.)

A Thomas Nast editorial cartoon featuring "Boss" Tweed, the bald, bearded, portly figure with the fancy diamond pin at the far left.

Ackerman’s recounting of Tweed’s political career makes him seem like the anti-Lincoln. Both politicians came from lower-class backgrounds, but Tweed’s was as urban as Lincoln’s was rural. Both were physically imposing, but Lincoln was lanky and lean, whereas Tweed was a rotund, Falstaff-like figure. Both were great communicators, yet Lincoln’s talent was in public oratory, while Tweed’s was in backroom wheeling and dealing.

Tweed and Lincoln also changed the political landscape of their era, but because of their values and styles, their legacies could hardly have been more different. Lincoln commanded the winning side of the most important war in American history and preserved the Union through sometimes extreme and extra-legal means. Tweed institutionalized corruption in New York and midwifed the modern urban political machine.

One would be inclined to say that the former is the more important of the two. But in the Land of Lincoln, it’s tough to tell who’s been more influential.

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