The Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall: Corruption in 19th century American politics


The corrupt politician William Macy Tweed cast a corrupt shadow over New York during the mid-1800s.

The Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall become synonymous with corruption in American politics in the mid-nineteenth century. The leader of the groups, William Marcy Tweed achieved a position of power in New York in the 1850s and 1860s that gave him free reign to plunder the city’s wealth at will.

The man known as Boss Tweed took control of New York at a time when making money far outweighed the importance of politics or civic duty to its citizens. Many who made money through manufacturing, including many of Tweed’s cronies, dabbled heavily on the stock market. Black Friday on September 24, 1869 which saw many lose fortunes and Wall Street nearly crippled was due to a huge rise in the price of gold – Jay Gould the man behind a plot to make a fortune from the trade in gold was, inevitably, linked to the Tweed Ring.

The Tweed Ring managed to delay the development of New York’s subway system by several years. As Tweed owned much of the city’s overland transport network, a new system was seen as a threat to his profits. When engineer Hugh B Wilson first presented his plans to the city governor he was unfortunate enough to find one of Tweed’s stooges in place. His plans were vetoed.

Ultimately, it was the New York press that instigated Tweed’s downfall. The cartoons of Thomas Nast in the magazine Harper’s Weekly began to portray Tweed as a corrupt, lecherous vulture. Following the death of one its directors that had been on Tweed’s payroll, the New York Times began to follow suit with criticism of the Tweed Ring and investigations into the way the city was run. It was a brave course for the newspaper to take and a notable success for freedom of the press and investigative journalism in America.

However the sheer corruption of Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring stands out from this period of American history. With corruption endemic within city government, a ruthless profiteer like Tweed was able to amass a fortune at one time estimated to be approaching $200 million. His rise to power showed how money could influence practically anybody at the time – to ensure his election to the county board of supervisors in 1857, Tweed simply bribed opposition Republicans not to vote. Once he had captured Tammany Hall, a combination of Democrat social and political bodies, Tweed was unstoppable. With New York being a fiercely Democrat city and Tweed controlling nominations, he could in effect handpick the city’s power brokers. Rigging elections was another tool in his armoury; Tweed would ensure election days went his way through intimidation of Republican voters, paying crooks and drifters to vote and ensuring naturalisation for sympathetic aliens. At the peak of Tweed’s power, there was little beyond his control.

Contractors were routinely overcharged for work done, with kickbacks filtering through to the Tweed ring. Many bills presented were false; some were for work never even done. Some of the ring’s money-making scams bordered on the absurd – street lamps would be painted on rainy days so that they would immediately need repainting by a company associated with Tammany Hall, whilst Boss Tweed’s dog-walker was reputedly paid $100 a month as an interpreter even though he was illiterate.

New York eventually began to pay the price for the plundering of Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies. Between 1869 and 1870, the city’s debt rose to $97,000,000 and there was a gradual breakdown of municipal functioning. The streets were left dirty, the sewerage system was neglected and buildings were dilapidated. Tweed’s response was to pass his own charter for the city, directing even more power into his hands through placing his men on the board of audit.

Eventually, the Tweed Ring failed. Instigated largely by the attentions of the New York Times and the politician Samuel J Tilden, members of the Tweed Ring were, one by one prosecuted on corruption charges. Tweed himself was treated most harshly of all by the courts. By the time that he died in jail, a broken man, justice had caught up with Tweed. Nonetheless, his years of influence over the city make for a fascinating period of New York’s history – corruption, the making of fortunes, the power of the press and the early days of the subway system are all major themes touched by the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall. There are few more interesting characters in American history.