The Kingmaker and the Democratic Boss


In the 1870s, media was just starting to become powerful, and pictures were more powerful than words. And one cartoonist, Thomas Nast, was the kingmaker.

Over the course of his career as a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast had an enormous impact on pro-Union sentiment in the Civil War, on support for the burgeoning Republican party, and on a variety of social causes. His most dramatic political victory, though, was his dethroning of William Magear “Boss” Tweed, a corrupt politician and the controller of the Democratic party in New York City.

Boss Tweed gained enormous wealth and political influence through the Tammany Hall ring, a political organization that he twisted to his own corrupt ends. The Society of Tammany was formed as a fraternal organization in 1786, but it grew into a political group over the course of the 19th century. Democratic party members met at the society’s New York headquarters, and Tweed first became involved with the group in a series of minor elective offices. His influence grew as he saw opportunities to accept bribes from his supporters in exchange for city contracts and government jobs, a process called political patronage. Tweed’s corruption was bolstered by the official political positions he held. After he became commissioner of public works, for instance, Tweed added twelve unnecessary “manure inspector” jobs to the department to reward his supporters for their contributions. By the time of Tweed’s influence, Tammany Hall controlled the Democratic Party’s political nominations: it was the Democratic “machine.”

In addition to collecting bribes for public positions, Tweed also increased his personal power and wealth by pocketing money from business conducted by the city government. For a company to secure a contract with city government, the business had to push up its prices and kick back some money to Tweed and his cronies. The Tammany Hall politicians who profited from government contracts became known as the Tweed Ring. It’s estimated that over the course of his criminal career, Tweed stole from $30 to $200 million dollars, which is anywhere from to $365 million to $2.4 billion today. He flaunted his wealth, wearing a diamond on his shirt and living in a vast Fifth Avenue mansion.

Boss Tweed and his associates were successful in large part because they were popular with key groups of voters. Tweed courted the Irish immigrant population that poured into the city in the mid-nineteenth century. The Tweed ring favored Irish-Americans, providing them with jobs, money, and assistance from companies with city contracts.

For radical Republican Thomas Nast, Tweed was emblematic of what he perceived to be the worst element of American society in the years after the Civil War: corruption motivated by greed. Through Harper’s Weekly and The New York Times in the early 1870s, the equity-minded Nast levied cartoon attacks against Tweed and his associates. Nast routinely portrayed Tweed as a thief, a vulture picking the corpse of New York City, and, most famously, as a rotund crook with a bag of money for a head. Nast created the Tammany Tiger as a symbol for the Tweed Ring, and he sometimes used the tiger as a more general symbol for the Democratic Party. Many of Tweed’s immigrant supporters were illiterate, so Nast’s cartoons were more effective in moving public opinion than print could ever be. Tweed was so incensed by the cartoons that he gave the order to “stop them damn pictures!” The Boss supposedly offered Nast a bribe of $500,000 (more than 100 times Nast’s annual salary) to leave the city for Europe.

Nast turned the public against Tweed, but could not, on his own, put Tweed out of power. He did manage to change public opinion, though. In the 1871 election a significant portion of the Tammany ring was voted out of office.

In the end, Tweed’s cronies displaced him, seeking the spoils of the top spot for themselves. His former allies provided proof of his corruption to local newspapers, which gave city prosecutors the information they needed to convict Tweed on a litany of fraud, forgery, and larceny charges. Local businesses compounded the Boss’s legal troubles, suing him for money he had extorted. After his escape from prison, Boss Tweed escaped across the Atlantic to Spain. When he tried to enter that country, though, his entry was barred by a Spanish customs official who couldn’t read English, but who apparently recognized Tweed from Nast’s caricatures. Tweed was repatriated to America, where he died in prison.