The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York
By Kenneth D. Ackerman. Carroll & Graf. 438 pp. $27
The urban political boss is an American original. In most other countries, regional and national authorities make the important decisions, and mayors attend mostly to ceremonial functions and small matters. In the United States, by contrast, cities themselves are routinely responsible for schools, roads, public health, water and sewer systems, planning, police, firefighters, parks and open spaces. And before state governments expanded dramatically in the 20th century, municipalities were even more important. Thus, in 1900, the annual budget of the city of New York was about the same as that of all 14 states along the Eastern seaboard combined, including the state of New York.
Because so much money was involved, because millions of poor immigrants were then settling in big cities, and because ethnic neighborhoods were easy for politicians to organize, the "boss system" thrived between 1860 and 1940. By far the most famous of these machines was Tammany Hall, a political organization founded in 1788 that evolved into the Manhattan Democratic Party. For many years it had a famous meeting place, also called Tammany Hall, on 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place. Its best-known leader was William M. Tweed.
Kenneth D. Ackerman's Boss Tweed is the first biography of the Tammany leader to appear in the past quarter-century. Focusing on the years after 1871, when Tweed was either in court or jail, the book is based upon solid research in the available primary and secondary sources, and is replete with rich biographical details and colorful anecdotes that bring the period to life.
And what a yarn it is. Born in New York in 1823, Tweed was big (weighing 300 pounds, or twice as much as the average adult male in 1870), garrulous, ambitious, clever and ostentatious. A former leader of both a gang and a volunteer fire company, he rose quickly through the Tammany hierarchy, winning election as an alderman and a member of Congress before he was 30. In 1863, shortly before the July riots in Northern cities over the Civil War draft, Tweed became grand sachem (the group's evocative name for its chairman) of Tammany Hall. He was soon firmly in control of the local Democratic Party. Along the way, he allied himself with Catholics, organized well-publicized efforts to feed and clothe the poor, and made it easy for new immigrants to become citizens -- and to vote early and often.
No one knows, or ever will know, how much money the Tweed ring pilfered over the next 10 years. (Accounting standards at the time were so slipshod that Enron would be considered punctilious by comparison.) The Tammany system was simple. Because all the top city officials were loyal machine operatives and in on the deal, contractors routinely overcharged the municipality for goods and services. The city paid the inflated bills, and the recipients then "kicked back" a percentage (often 50 percent or more) of the money to their fellow conspirators. In retrospect, many charges were ridiculous ($126,578 for two contractors for two days' work, or $180,000 for 40 chairs and two tables), but no one was complaining.
The boss himself was never mayor. There was no need. Everyone knew who ran City Hall. And Tweed was already -- at one and the same time -- superintendent of public works, county supervisor, state senator, chairman of the city's Democratic Party Central Committee, grand sachem of Tammany Hall and supervisor of the County Court House. He speculated extensively in real estate, and especially in properties that were about to increase in value because of unannounced public improvements. This would be illegal in the 21st century, but the practice was known as honest graft in the 19th century. Tweed fathered 10 children by his wife. He also had several girlfriends but hid his infidelities better than his graft.
The Tweed ring collapsed because of the efforts of a cartoonist, Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly; a newspaper publisher, George Jones of the New York Times; a bookkeeper, Bill Copeland; a former sheriff, Jimmy O'Brien; and a prominent attorney, Samuel J. Tilden. By the time the dust had cleared, the looting of New York had become a major scandal, Tilden had been elected president (although Republicans rigged the Electoral College, letting Rutherford B. Hayes move into the White House), and "the boss" was in prison.
Boss Tweed is a pleasure to read, but it has a few faults. Ackerman, a lawyer and former Hill staffer, does not like dates, so readers must shuffle back and forth through the pages to be clear about the sequence of events. He also does not consider historian Leo Hershkowitz's interpretation that Tweed was essentially innocent or Robert Merton's functional theory of the machine. Does Ackerman agree with Hershkowitz that Tweed's "life in the end was wasted, not so much by what he did, but by what was done to him"?
Finally, it is not clear what Ackerman means by referring to Tweed in the subtitle as "The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York." If he means that the soul of the city was rooted in Tweed's political organization, then why was Tammany Hall less successful than the Pendergasts in Kansas City or Mayor Frank ("I am the law") Hague in Jersey City or Boss Crump in Memphis? If the author means corruption, then why have Big Apple leaders been cleaner than those of so many other places, including Washington, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark? If the soul of New York has been ethnicity, then why do we not learn how Tammany maneuvered different groups into line?
In the end, Boss Tweed will always be an enigma. After he died ignominiously in 1878 in the Ludlow Street jail, several hundred working men showed up for his funeral. And E.L. Godkin of the Nation wrote the following week: "The bulk of the poorer voters of this city today revere his memory, and look on him as the victim of rich men's malice; as, in short, a friend of the needy who applied the public funds, with as little waste as was possible under the circumstances, to the purposes to which they ought to be applied -- and that is to the making of work for the working man. The odium heaped on him in the pulpits last Sunday does not exist in the lower stratum of New York society."
Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, is editor in chief of "The Encyclopedia of New York City" and the author (with David Dunbar) of "Empire City: New York Through the Centuries."