By Victoria Martínez
If history can teach us something right now, it’s that the way to topple a bloated, greedy, inarticulate and dishonest political leader from New York who poses as a populist while perpetuating government cronyism is by revealing him to his base in a way they can understand.
Once upon a time (roughly the 1870s to early 1900s), in a period of American history known as the Gilded Age, the main issues dividing the nation were those that, by all rights, should not be the exact same ones we are dealing with today. Namely, racism, immigration-related xenophobia, human and women’s rights injustices, and extreme wealth inequality.
Although technically free, African Americans were subject to widespread and generally socially-acceptable systemic and institutionalized racism. American “nativists” (otherwise known as “old immigrants” from Europe) were concerned by the influx of “new immigrants,” whose cheap labor and “foreign” religious and cultural backgrounds they feared as inherently dangerous to America’s “greatness.” Meanwhile, actual Native Americans were being forced off their land for a variety of shameful reasons, including the building of an oil pipeline a railroad. And increasing numbers of women were fighting to obtain the same rights as men in what was widely lamented as a war on American masculinity.
During this period, more than one third of the nation’s wealth was owned by just two percent of the population, and three quarters of the wealth was held by the top 10 percent. Quite similar, in fact, to our current distribution of wealth, with recent figures showing that the top 20 percent of Americans own more than 84 percent of wealth. Then as now, the United States had one of the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world.
An illustrious era notable for the Second Industrial Revolution, Captains of Industry, and incredible artistic beauty, the Gilded Age is also infamous for unregulated business and industry, worker exploitation, and hazardous working conditions. Then there was the matter of rampant political corruption and cronyism, with a special focus on protecting the interests of big business.
Just as damp, dark places attract mold and bacteria, these conditions were perfect for the proliferation of political machines in America’s big cities. This system of political control gained and maintained power by feigning a populist platform targeted at a rousing a “silent majority.” In this case, politically disenfranchised immigrants who were promised money, jobs and forceful representation in return for votes and support.
Machine bosses and their well (financially)-oiled “machine” of similarly-elected and appointed colleagues would then do just enough to keep their constituency happy while vigorously promoting their own financial and social self-interests. This they accomplished through rigged elections and ballot fraud, cronyism and patronage, graft and bribery, press control and manipulation, and a slew of similarly corrupt tactics.
Although Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago were among the cities with notorious political machines, New York City had arguably the most notorious one of all: Tammany Hall. For almost 200 years, Tammany Hall produced quite a few notable political villains. But William M. Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed (1823-1878), stands out, both on his own “merits” and for the insight his downfall can give us about how to deal a modern incarnation.
A New Yorker by birth with Scottish and Irish ancestry, Boss Tweed was a poorly educated bully with zero knack for subtlety. His success in business was mixed, and he was declared bankrupt on at least one occasion. His suitability as a politician was first recognized when he was forced out of his job as a volunteer fireman from a notoriously violent fire company due to his especially violent behavior. From there, his ascent into politics – culminating in his reign as Tammany boss from the mid-1860s to early-1870s – was a dishonest and brutal one, characterized by levels of corruption, bullying and violence unprecedented even for Tammany Hall.
The “Tweed Ring” controlled the election and appointment of a vast array of public officials who were similarly corrupt, unqualified and incompetent – including state supreme court judges, governors and mayors, city comptrollers, and even the park commissioner – all of whom supported and protected the corrupt dealings of Tweed and Tammany Hall. Tweed and his machine profited enormously from construction projects and city development, as well as from stock holdings and seats on various company boards, and by using Tweed’s own companies for city contracts.
Contemporaries estimated Tweed’s overall theft at between $25 million and $45 million (around $570 million to $1 billion in today’s terms), and later estimates amounted to as much as the equivalent of $4 billion today.
Tweed made no effort to hide his massive personal wealth, proudly living in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and perpetually wearing a stickpin featuring a 10.5 carat diamond. But, then, he really didn’t have to hide it. Enormous effort and sums of money were spent to keep the press from publishing any “fake news” about him and the Tammany Machine. In general, the rich had nothing to lose and were rather in a good position to gain from Tweed and Tammany. Objectors – honest politicians, judges, journalists, contractors, etc. – could usually be bought with cash or patronage.
As for his constituents, Tweed managed to depict himself and the Tammany machine as their champion by effectively using tactics like distraction and hyperbole to keep them satisfied and ignorant of his fraud. At the most basic level, he gave them bread and circuses in the form of financially supporting and promoting excessive drinking, and encouraging cultural and religious turf wars, all of which kept them distracted and occupied.
At a higher level were cases like the “Tweed Charter,” state legislation passed in 1870 under the guise of reform, but which actually gave the Tammany-controlled mayor unprecedented power and the Tweed Ring tremendous financial control, all with zero accountability. One of the few objectors to the charter warned, “[it] is not a popular government; it is not a responsible government; it is a government beyond the control and independent will of the people.” The charter passed easily nonetheless, primarily at the expense of the faithful “silent majority.”
Getting the message across to Tweed’s elective base that their supposedly populist leader had been brazenly deceiving and cheating them required the use of one of the best things to come out of The Gilded Age: art. In this case, editorial cartoons.
Beginning in 1867, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast had been skewering Tweed and the Tammany machine with a stream of unflattering and revealing illustrations. In a graphic and easy-to-understand format, Nast effectively informed the public of the greed and fraud being perpetuated by Tweed and the Tammany machine. Through caricature, it was much easier to see that the bloated Tweed with his giant, ever-present diamond was far from being a man of the people, and was certainly not serving them.
In August 1870, The New York Times managed to break free from Tweed’s control and began publishing an admirable campaign of investigative journalism against him. But it was only effective up to a point, at least initially, in that it catered largely to the educated “elite” that either weren’t part of his voting base or were somehow complicit. But, seconded by the coverage in the Times, Nast increased the number of cartoons in 1870 and 1871, rattling Tweed enough that he reportedly said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
Tweed had reason to be worried. According to The New York Times in 1872:
“His [Nast’s] drawings are stuck upon the walls of the poorest dwellings and stored away in the portfolios of the wealthiest connoisseurs. Many people cannot read leading articles, others do not choose to read them, others do not understand them when they have read them. But you cannot help seeing Mr. Nast’s pictures, and when you have seen them you cannot fail to understand them. An artist of this stamp… does more to affect public opinion than a score of writers.”
It was the beginning of the end for Tweed. Eroding support for the boss culminated in the 1871 Orange Riots, composed of Tweed’s constituents. The combined efforts of Nast and The New York Times were redoubled and garnered even more attention. A Nast cartoon entitled “Let Us Prey” was published on September 13, 1871, and featured Tweed and members of his ring as vultures waiting for the figurative storm to “blow over.”
It didn’t. Boss Tweed was arrested on October 27, 1871.
It took years for full justice to be meted out, and the relaxed approach to Tweed’s incarceration enabled him to escape to Spain where he disguised himself as a seaman. Once again, it was Nast’s cartoons that brought Tweed down, facilitating his identification and leading to his final arrest and imprisonment.
Tweed died in prison on April 12, 1878, but his tactics are alive and well at the highest level of American government today. Fortunately, the last few weeks have demonstrated that there are a great many artists of all types and abilities – from cartoonists to writers to citizens with protest signs – who can, like Nast, practice their art with an eye toward toppling a “boss” of our own era.
“His creed was very simple; it was that money would buy everything. Certainly his confidence was not surprising. He had proved his creed. He had seen money work miracles. He had seen himself, a man of no cleverness and no advantages, rising swiftly by means of it from insignificant poverty to the control of a great party. It had made him master of one of the great cities of the world. It had secured for him Governors, Legislatures, councils, and legal and executive authorities of every kind. He invested in land and judges. He bought dogs and lawyers. He silenced the press with a golden muzzle and money made his will law.” – George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly, about Boss Tweed (1874).
The featured image is one of Thomas Nast’s political cartoons featuring Boss Tweed, entitled “The ‘Brains’,” from the October 21, 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly (public domain image).
 Tindall, George Brown and Shi, David E. America: A Narrative History (Brief Ninth Edition) (Vol. 2). W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, p. 589.
 Fitz, Nicholas. “Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think.” Scientific American, 31 March 2015: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/.
 Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike, Gotham. A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
 Adler, John. Doomed by Cartoon, New York: Morgan James Publishing, LLC, 2008.
 Wingate, Charles F. “Article IV: An Episode in Municipal Government.” The North American Review, July 1875.