Boss Tweed: Biography, Cartoons & Quotes

Instructor: Jill Story
This lesson will describe the life of Boss William Magear Tweed, an infamous politician known for his ostentatious and corrupt behavior in New York City's Tammany Hall political machine.

Boss Tweed: The Man Who Stole the People's Money

New York City underwent a transformation during the second half of the nineteenth century due to industrial advancements, entrepreneurial ingenuity, an influx of immigrants, and political opportunists. A man of the era, William Magear Tweed, rose from humble beginnings to become one of New York City's most influential and notoriously corrupt politicians. The questionable methods that led to his ascent would also cause his downfall.

Boss William Magear Tweed
Boss Tweed

The Early Years

William M. Tweed, a fourth generation Scots Protestant, was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1823. His father was a chair-maker, and when Tweed was old enough, he worked under his father as apprentice. He also studied bookkeeping and volunteered with a local fire company.

In the 1800s, volunteer fire departments often had political ties within the community. When the fire company he was volunteering with dissolved, he helped to organize a new one, the Americus Engine Company, also known as the Big Six. As a volunteer firefighter, Tweed earned a reputation among New York City's immigrant community that helped to catapult him into a successful political career.

Tweed ran for city alderman in 1850 and lost, only to run again in 1851 and win. In 1852, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, serving one term, and in 1856 he returned to New York City politics, earning a seat on a bipartisan board of supervisors. While serving in this position, Tweed would begin to use his office for personal gain.

Political Career

As an emerging leader in New York City's Democratic Party, Tweed relied on patronage, the power to control appointments to office, and cronyism, the appointment of friends to positions of authority regardless of their qualifications, to secure a position within the Democratic political machine. This unofficial political organization, known as Tammany Hall, worked to keep the city's Democratic leaders in positions of power. By 1860, Tweed had assumed the role of head of Tammany's general committee, which gave him power over his party's nominations for city positions. Tweed once remarked, 'I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.'

Electoral Support

Political machines dominated urban politics during the latter part of the 19th century, and Tammany Hall was no exception. Leaders like Boss Tweed used their positions to acquire personal wealth, but they also enacted policies that appealed to their constituents. Tweed was visible throughout the predominantly German and Irish immigrant community, providing jobs and services to people in exchange for votes. As a result, not only was Tweed able to manipulate relationships with influential political leaders and business owners to his personal advantage, but he also gained the support of the people through elections.

Boss Tweed controls the ballot box
Boss Tweed voting ballot

Corruption

In 1868, Boss Tweed was elected to the New York Senate. That same year, he also became the grand sachem, or principal leader, of Tammany Hall. His power and influence would continue to expand. As self-appointed commissioner of public works, Tweed was privy to information related to city construction and development projects. Tweed would use this insider information to buy up real estate in future areas of development. In politics, the use of position to gain wealth is a practice known as graft. Although unethical, this behavior was not illegal at the time and contributed to Tweed's increasing affluence.

Opposition and Political Cartoons

Tweed and his affiliates, who collectively became known as the Tweed Ring, passed a city charter in 1870 that gave them control over the city treasury through a newly formed audit board. Members of the Tweed Ring made shady deals with construction companies and contractors and grossly inflated prices for city contracts.

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