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, 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 kept his power by stealing elections. 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 also used his power to build. Talk about infrastructure? Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York and bring immigrants and the working poor into the social mainstream than anyone else in his generation. Tweed didn’t need a “Stimulus Package” to grease the economy. He used the direct way — graft. He spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea they were being bilked. Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers. But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.
Boss Tweed knew how to spread the wealth around. The rich, the poor, all prospered. Stock prices and property values both soared. Taxes stayed low. His system collapsed only when the New York Times got its hands on a purloined copy of the Tweed Ring’s secret account books and exposed them on its front pages — the journalistic Scoup of the Nineteenth Century. By then, Tweed had been humiliated by the cartoon satires of Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly (see cartoon above), making him an easy mark for a politically ambitious prosecutor like Samuel Tilden.
A year after Tweed’s fall from power, in 1873, a financial panic threw New York and the country into the worst economic depression ever expeirienced till that time.
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 as similiar to Barack Obama and John McCain as the stories of foul play.
But for the stealing — which, to be clear, was wrong — he was a great man.
Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today’s financial mess. Just don’t watch too closely. “Transparency” certainly was never part of his approach. Tweed’s methods were not for the squeamish.
For more, see my own book: Boss Tweed, the Corrupt who Conveived the Soul of Modorn New York.