|Digital History ID 3052|
To many late 19th century Americans, he personified public
corruption. In the late 1860s, William M. Tweed was the political boss of New York City. His headquarters, located on East 14th
Street, was known as Tammany Hall. He wore a diamond, orchestrated
elections, controlled the city's mayor, and rewarded political
supporters. His primary source of funds came from the bribes and
kickbacks that he demanded in exchange for city contracts. The
most notorious example of urban corruption was the construction
of the New York County Courthouse, begun in 1861 on the site of
a former almshouse. Officially, the city wound up spending nearly $13 million--roughly $178 million in today's dollars--on a building that should have cost several times less. Its construction cost nearly twice as much as the purchase of Alaska in 1867.
The corruption was breathtaking in its breadth and baldness.
A carpenter was paid $360,751 (roughly $4.9 million today) for one month's labor
in a building with very little woodwork. A furniture contractor
received $179,729 ($2.5 million) for three tables and 40 chairs.
And the plasterer, a Tammany functionary, Andrew J. Garvey, got
$133,187 ($1.82 million) for two days' work; his business acumen
earned him the sobriquet "The Prince of Plasterers."
Tweed personally profited from a financial interest in a Massachusetts
quarry that provided the courthouse's marble. When a committee
investigated why it took so long to build the courthouse, it spent
$7,718 ($105,000) to print its report. The printing
company was owned by Tweed.
In July 1871, two low-level city officials with a grudge against
the Tweed Ring provided The New York Times with reams of documentation
that detailed the corruption at the courthouse and other city
projects. The newspaper published a string of articles. Those
articles, coupled with the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in
Harper's Weekly, created a national outcry, and soon Tweed
and many of his cronies were facing criminal charges and political
oblivion. Tweed died in prison in 1878.
The Tweed courthouse was not completed until 1880, two decades
after ground was broken. By then, the courthouse had become a
symbol of public corruption. "The whole atmosphere is corrupt,"
said a reformer from the time. "You look up at its ceilings
and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the greatest,
the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place."
Boss-rule, machine politics, payoff and graft, and the spoils
system outraged late 19th century reformers. But were bosses
and political machines as corrupt as their critics charged?
George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic
political machine, distinguished between "honest" and
"dishonest" graft. Dishonest graft involved payoffs
for protecting gambling and prostitution. Honest graft might involve
buying up land scheduled for purchase by government. As Plunkitt
said, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
Paradoxically, a political machine often created benefits for the city. Many machines professionalized urban police forces and instituted
the first housing regulations. Political bosses served the
welfare needs of immigrants. They offered jobs, food, fuel, and
clothing to the new immigrants and the destitute poor. Political
machines also served as a ladder of social mobility for ethnic
groups blocked from other means of rising in society.
In The Shame of the Cities, the muckraking journalist
Lincoln Steffens argued that it was greedy businessmen who kept the
political machines functioning. It was their hunger for government
contracts, franchises, charters, and special privileges, he believed,
that corrupted urban politics.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th
centuries, urban reformers would seek to redeem the city through
beautification campaigns, city planning, rationalization of city
government, and increases in city services.
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