|Thomas Nast in the early 1870s, about the time of his
You can’t tell the story of New York’s Boss Tweed, who ruled the City with greed and grandeur in the years after the Civil War and was driven from power in a citizens’ uprising in 1872, without the fantastic drawings of Thomas Nast — the brilliant, young cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly.
Here are a few appetizer samples.
Click here for more of the story — from our newly-reissued book Boss Tweed: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.
|“As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it?” This is the most famous quote attibuted to Tweed. In truth, there is no evidence that he ever said it. Most likely, Nast simply made it up to get people mad at the Boss.|
|This cartoon, from June 1871, is the first where Nast uses the famous quote “What are you going to do about it?”|
|Thomas Nast’s lasting image of Boss Tweed as the classic American pol,
from Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1871.
Please don’t misunderstand. Stealing is wrong. Graft is bad.
Still, watching today’s politicians in Washington tripping over themselves trying to figure out ways to stimulate the economy — or trying to fix it by cutting back — I get nostalgic for the master. Bring back Boss Tweed.
William Magear Tweed, Boss of New York’s Tammany Hall machine in the 1860s and 70s, controlled mayors, governors, newspapers, and companies. He used his power to steal from the city and county — for an astounding estimated $100 million (billions of dollars in modern money) during his relatively brief time at the pinnacle.
But Tweed kept his power not just by stealing elections (which he did often). He also used his power to build. Talk about infrastructure? Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York City than anyone else in their generation. Tweed didn’t need a “Stimulus Package” to grease the economy. He used the direct method — graft.
Tweed spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly with money borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea he was cheating them. Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers. Was some of it stolen? Of course! But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.
A year after Tweed fell from power, in 1873, a financial panic hit New York and threw the city and country into the worst economic depression of the Nineteenth Century.
Graft aside, Tweed’s regime left the city and country wonderfully enriched: Their fingerprints are on every major NY creation of the Gilded Age: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tweed Courthouse, new widened streets and sidewalks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, and dozens of charities. The list is almost endless. And they left a tradition of political inclusion, a “wide tent” approach that modern politicians could only envy.
Except for all the stealing, the frauds and deceit, and the years in prison — of which there were plenty and which, to be clear, were very very wrong — he was a great man.
Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today’s financial mess. But don’t watch too closely. Tweed’s methods were not for the squeamish, and “transparency” was not part of his approach.
For more, see the new Viral History Press edition of Boss Tweed, the Corrupt who Conveived the Soul of Modorn New York.
Do modern politicians give you the creeps, migranes, stomach cramps, and worse?
Don’t fret. TWEED IS BACK !!
Today, we proudly announce the new Viral History Press LLC edition of BOSS TWEED: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.
|Tweed counting the votes, according to Thomas Nast, 1871.|
Read his incredible story — a New York Times notable book. (Click here for all the great reviews.) Share it with your political friends.
This year, skip the mealy-mouthed modern mediocrities and give BOSS TWEED for the holidays.
Can’t decide? Read the first chapter right now for free.
Buy it before January 1 and enjoy our big holiday savings.
Thomas Nast drew the above cartoon for Harper’s Weekly in August 1871 as a slam against rampant graft by New York City’s political boss William M. Tweed. Easily the most corrupt politician in American history, Tweed (the big fat man with the huge diamond chest pin in the drawing) and his circle stole an estimated $200 million from the city (billions in modern money) during their brief reign in power, a record that stands even today.
The New York Times that summer of 1871 got its hands on a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring’s account books, which it published on its front page. The disclosure — considered the newspaper Scoop of the Century back then – demonstrated that huge thefts had taken place, but failed to connect them to individual names. Nast, in his cartoon, simply asks: “Who Stole the People’s Money?” and every member of the Tammany Ring – Tweed, his top henchmen, city contractors, and the rest – points to the one next to him and his “Twas him.”
|Thomas Nast, the brilliant young artist whose Harpers Weekly
cartoons helped do in Boss Tweed’s political machine.
Ultimately, further detective work would trace the stolen money directly to Tweed’s personal bank account, and Tweed would spend much of his final years in various prisons.
All of which brings us to the humiliating spectacle being played out this week in the United States Congress, dragging the US literally to the brink of default by its failure to lift the technical debt ceiling before borrowing authority runs out on August 2. This remarkable, breath-taking act of political incompetence — the question of who is right or wrong on the underlying policy issues became moot long ago — is a financial crime almost as bad as that of Tweed and his cronies. A US default or credit downgrade will affect people across the country far more cruelly than anything Tweed did.
Yet ask any of today’s political leaders about it, and the answer is the same: Don’t blame me. Somebody else did it. It’s not my fault.
I think Tom Nast’s 1871 cartoon perfectly captures the situation in Washington, D.C. today, with a two minor changes:
- The caption should be: “Who drove the country into bankruptcy? — Do tell.”
- And instead of Tweed and his Tammany cronies, the faces in the circle should include Obama, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party zealots, the media talking heads, Democrats and Republicans, Wall Street bankers, and don’t forget George W. Bush.
The fact is, today’s political crisis is everybody’s fault. They all did it together. And now nobody takes responsibility. (Though, as I write this on Friday morning, July 30, Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) is trying to move a last-minute plan, after the House last night failed to pass Speaker John Boehner’s last attempt.)
Sorry for the rant. Hopefully the weekend will bring better news on this front.
For Christmas Eve, I give you Santa Claus, as created in America by Thomas Nast, the brilliant, edgy cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who almost single-handedly created the art of modern visual satire.
Nast’s cartoons of New York City’s untouchable corrupt Boss Tweed made Nast a unique national media star and political terror after they helped force Tweed’s arrest in 1872. Among other things, Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and pioneered personal attack politics. But he had a soft side.
Born in 1840 in Alsace, son of an army trombone player, Nast came to New York as an 8 year-old, learned English from scratch, and soon exploded on the scene as an artistic prodigy just as the newest media technology — graphic magazines — was coming of age. Barely in his 20s, he drew national fame for his sketches of Garibaldi’s march through Italy, American Civil War battlefields, and dazzling sports events like prize fights and horse races.
Nast created the drawing on the right below for Harper’s Weekly in 1863, at the height of the Civil War when thousands of families were split apart and husbands-fathers-brothers were being butchered on faraway battlefields. It’s simple sentiment made it a sensation and helped boost regular sales of Harper’s into the stratosphere. People posted copies of Nast sketches in saloons, kitchens, and storefronts.
Around this same time, Nast began making the old German fold legend Saint Nicholas a regular in his Christmas-time fare, gave him a fat belly, beard, sled, and mission to give presents. Nast drew Santa visiting Civil War soldiers at the front, then on the home front climbing down chimneys, hugging children, stuffing stockings with presents, and the rest. He made him a household name as well, as in the 1874 Harper’s cover above.
Nast himself would make a fortune as the most famous illustrator in America, but then lose it in 1885 after investing his money in a Wall Street firm run by former President Ulysses Grant (Grant and Ward) that went belly up after being victimized by an embezzler.
This week’s now-notorious New York Post “monkey” cartoon — the one showing two policemen standing over a dead monkey they’ve just shot and saying “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill” — has raised storms of protest. Whether the artist intended the monkey as Obama or not, the implication is hard to miss.
The controvercy raises a deeper fact. Political cartoons in America have a long history of treading into racism, zenophobia, and bigotry. And some of the worst have come from our most celebrated, main stream journals.
Thomas Nast (above right), for instance, is celebrated as the brilliant young 1870s artist for Harper’s Weekly whose ridicule destroyed the regime of New York City’s Boss William M. Tweed — easily the era’s most corrupt pol. Nast became the most famous, widely-read, and politically influential graphic artist of the Nineteenth Century, able to sway elections and make or break Senators. But his cartoons seethed with bigotry, against Catholics, against Irish, against immigrants, against Democrats.
Before closing the book on the current controversy, here are a few samples. The point is not to make excuses for the New York Post. Rather, to me, it’s the opposite. These examples show how dangerously easy it is for artists and journalists to let passions over today’s hot spot issues get in the way of good sense. Editors have a duty to to work hard, not to censor talented artists, but to make sure they express themselves clearly — and not to allow what might have started as a simple satire against the Stimulus Bill (obvious fair game) cross the line into ugliness.
He consistently drew Irishmen as semi-human gorillas, never far from a whiskey bottle and shackled to political mahcines. (The fellow with the whip is Peter B. Sweeny, famed chieftain of New York’s Tamman Hall from the Boss Tweed era.)
And for political enemies like Tweed, he considered capitol punushment just fine:
By the way, in case you missed it, this past Wednesday (April 3) was the 185th birthday of my own favorite icon of American civic virtue, Wm. Magear Tweed, The Boss, who presided over New York’s Tammany Hall as grafter in chief from the Civil War until late 1872. By then, Tweed and friends has stolen as estimated $45 to $200 million from the city and county treasuries — a sum worth billions in modern money. Along the way, they also did more good, did more to build the City, help the poor and immigrants get a foothold in society, and give government a friendly human face than just about anyone else of their generation.
Here the link to an interview I did on the occasion for NPR’s Bryant Street Project: