Boss Tweed, Democratic Party Leader
William Tweed is perhaps the best known corrupt politician in American History that wasn’t ever a US President. The sad fact of the matter is that while there is and has been astonishing corruption in the White House, it is at the local and state level that we’ll find the worst offenders, of which William ‘Boss’ Tweed was perhaps the worst ever.
William Tweed was a Democratic politician in New York City (and later in the state of New York) for much of the mid to late 1800s. At the pinnacle of his political and economic influence, Tweed was the third largest landowner in New York City, and controlled the most powerful Democratic Political Machine ever to exist.
In 1858, Tweed became the head of the Tammany Hall Political Machine. His influence spread throughout the city to the point where he ruled elections, dictated results by stuffed ballot boxes, and appointed who he wanted to posts throughout the city. By the time the 1869 election rolled around, Tweed and his cronies were in total control of the New York City government and much of the state government as well. His former protegé, JOhn T. Hoffman, was elected governor, and Tweed was able to bring power back to the Democratically controlled City Hall (and away from Republican state committees) by bribing Republican legislators.
By returning control over the city’s finances to City Hall, Tweed was able to appoint members of the Tammany Hall to the Board of Audit, essentially giving him complete control over the city. Tweed also personally appointed several of his men in other positions within the city.
There is a lot to unravel surrounding Tweed’s power, so much more than we can cover here. Tweed committed a lot of crimes during his time in power, from voter fraud and intimidation to embezzlement and many other crimes. Estimates in the decades following Tweeds eventual arrest say that Tweed embezzled as much as $200 million from the city’s accounts over his reign (other reports say that it was between $25 and $45 million). You have to remember that that is $200 million in 1860s money, it would an astronomical amount today (Well over $2 billion in 2015 dollars if our math is right).
Tweed was arrested in late 1871, and went on trial in 1873. He was found guilty, but was eventually released. He was arrested again in November 1876 in Cuba, and was imprisoned for the rest of his life. During the months that led up to his initial arrest, scandals surrounded Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine. Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly and was often drawing cartoons depicting Tweed’s corruption, especially in those months leading up to Tweed’s arrest. Tweed is reported to have said a regarding those cartoons: “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”