December 4, 1875 A Blizzard of Bacon

A hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.


Before the first Europeans arrived in the “new world”, descendants of the Nanticoke inhabited a region from Delaware north through New Jersey and southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. The Europeans called them “Delaware”.  These indigenous Americans called themselves “Lenni-Lenape” literally translating as “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” (Hat tip, http://www.nanticoke-lenape.info).

In the early 1680s, Chief Tammamend (“The Affable”) of the Lenni-Lenape nation took part in a meeting with English colonists. He is supposed to have said that his people and the newcomers would “live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.”

Treaty_of_Penn_with_Indians_by_Benjamin_West
Treaty of Penn with Indians, by Benjamin West

“Tammany” to the settlers, Chief Tammamend became a living symbol of peace and friendship, between the two peoples. He died in 1701, but his legend lived on. Tammany societies would spring up over the next hundred years, from Georgia to Rhode Island.

8-22-Tamanend

Tammany Societies adopted native terms with leaders calling themselves Grand Sachems and meeting in halls called “Wigwams”. The most famous of these, was New York.

By the turn of the 19th century, what had begun as social a club had morphed into a political machine. Tammany helped Aaron Burr counter Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati when Burr went on to win New York’s two electoral votes in 1800.

Without help from “Tammany Hall”, historians believe John Adams would have been re-elected.

After Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, the Tammany machine all but owned government in New York: city and state, alike.

Boss_Tweed

The 19th century was a time of massive immigration, providing an ever-expanding base of political and financial support for urban politicians. Political machines helped new arrivals with jobs, housing and citizenship, a veritable model “constituent service”. Under the surface dwelled a dark underbelly of graft and corruption.

In those days, volunteer fire companies were closely associated with street gangs, with strong ethnic ties. Rivalries were so potent that buildings were known to burn, as opposing fire companies brawled on the streets below.

William Magear Tweed dropped out of school at 11 to learn his father’s chair-making trade and later apprenticed, to a saddler. A brief stint as member of volunteer fire co. Engine 12, brought the man to the attention of democrat party leaders. Apparently there was something appealing about a man, willing to wade into his adversaries with an axe.

While still in his early twenties, Tweed joined forces with the “forty thieves”, a group of aldermen known as some of the most corrupt politicians, in the city’s history.

Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast was a vehement opponent of the Tammany Hall machine, here in an 1871 cartoon entitled, :Let us prey”.

By the 1860s, now “Boss” Tweed had established a new standard in public corruption. Biographer Kenneth Ackerman wrote: “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization“.

Contractors were instructed to multiply invoices. Checks were cashed through a go-between, settling with the contractor and dividing the rest between Boss Tweed and his cronies. The system inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million at a time the Alaska purchase, went for $7.2 million. That’s about $125 million, today.

One carpenter billed $360,751 for a month’s work. One month. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days. Tweed orchestrated $65,000 in bribes to aldermen alone, to secure the bond issue for the Brooklyn Bridge.

New York Corruption - New York Under Tweed's Thumb

Some among the self-styled “Uppertens”, the top 10,000 amid New York’s socioeconomic strata, fell in with the self-dealing and corruption of the Tammany Hall machine. Others counted on an endless supply of cheap immigrant labor.

The system worked while Tweed’s Machine kept “his people” in line until the “Orange Riots” of 1870-71 broke out between Irish Catholics and Protestants, killing 70.

Tweed’s downfall began in 1871 when city auditor James Watson was killed in a sleigh accident. Ring members frantically attempted to destroy Watson’s records but it was too little, too late. The New York Times, back when it was a newspaper, had a feast. Boss Tweed was arrested on October 27, 1871, and tried on charges of public corruption.

There were mistrials and retrials and, in the end, Boss Tweed was sentenced to 12 years. He escaped on December 4, 1875 and fled to Spain where he worked for a time, as a common seaman. Unfortunately for him he was recognized from one of Nast’s cartoons and returned home on the USS Franklin, to finish his sentence.

Now a broken man, Tweed agreed to testify before a board of aldermen. Having done so, Democrat governor Samuel J. Tilden reneged on the deal and sent the man back to prison. Former State Senator, former Member of the United States Congress, one of the largest property owners in New York city, William Magear Tweed contracted pneumonia and died in prison on April 12, 1878. Mayor Smith Ely refused to permit the flag, to be lowered to half-staff.

An 1877 aldermen’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s graft cost New York taxpayers between $25 and $45 million. New York Times estimated $200 million, equivalent to an astonishing $2.8 Billion, today.

Boss Tweed was gone. The reeking sewer of corruption of which he was part, moved on. By the end of the 19th century, ward Boss Richard Croker ran a system of graft and corruption the likes of which Boss Tweed could have only dreamed.

Nast-Tammany_crop
Cartoonist Thomas Nast denounced the Tammany machine as a ferocious tiger, devouring democracy.

In the end, three things killed the Tammany Hall system. Early Irish arrivals had been primary beneficiaries and major supporters of Tammany’s patronage system, but there are only so many favors to go around. Continued immigration diluted Tammany’s base, and later arriving Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants found themselves frozen out.

Next is the spoils system, itself. To this day, too many think it’s government’s job to “Bring home the Bacon”, not seeming to realize that they themselves, are the hogs. The Roosevelt administrations’ efforts to fix the Great Depression resulted in a blizzard of bacon from an increasingly Nationalized federal government, separating the local machines from local bases of support.

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Last came “reformers” such as New York governor and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occasionally built enough steam to hurt the Tammany machine.

Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, he of the famous “Dewey Wins!” photograph, managed to put several Tammany Hall leaders in jail, along with such unsavory supporters as “Lucky Luciano”.

Republican Fiorello La Guardia served three terms as New York mayor between 1934-’45, the first anti-Tammany mayor, ever re-elected. A brief resurgence of Tammany power in the 1950s met with Democratic party resistance led by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, and party politician Herbert Lehrman. By the mid-1960s, the Tammany Hall system was dead.

Tammany Hall was a local manifestation of a disease afflicting the entire country. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and others:  all suffered their own local outbreak.

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Tammany Hall, Union_Square

The Ward Boss lives on in places like Chicago but, like the Jeffersons, the corruption has “moved on up”. Today, rent seekers and foreign powers pay tens of millions in “speaking fees” and other “pay-for-play” schemes. Sound familiar?

Like a certain vice President bragging on camera, about withholding a Billion dollars in foreign aid. Unless an ally fires the prosecutor looking into the “business dealings” of a 47-year mediocrity, and his son. I bet that sounds familiar, too.

A hundred years ago, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Evening Post E.L. Godkin wrote, “A villain of more brains would have had a modest dwelling, and guzzled in private. His successors here will not imitate him in this. But that he will have successors, there is no doubt”. Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.  Boss Tweed could tell you.   It’s as true today as it was in his time.

Featured image, top of page: Nast cartoon, “Who stole the people’s money?…twas him”.