The Fall of Boss Tweed
THE book I have enjoyed most this year is Boss Tweed by Kenneth D. Ackerman (Carroll & Graf Publishers), which profiles the rise and fall of the most corrupt politician in New York history.
Despite his corruption, however, Tweed (1823-1878) was also a man ahead of his time who understood the power of the working man to effect huge political change.
Tweed also essentially created Tammany Hall, the greatest political machine in American history. The foot soldiers of Tammany Hall were the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants who streamed into New York after the Famine desperate for work and shelter.
Unlike others who demonized the Irish, Tweed embraced them, giving them jobs and places to live.
In return for that they voted en masse for Tammany candidates, thus providing Tweed with complete control over mayors, governors and every other elected official in New York State. Using the Irish as levers, Tweed built the greatest political machine in history.
The Irish were the Mexican illegal immigrants of their day - only worse. The ruling class hated them because they were seen as dirty, drunkards and unruly, and they allowed interlopers like Tweed to gain power.
Tweed was incredibly corrupt, but probably no more so than the robber barons of his day who tried to corner gold markets on Wall Street, ran massive scams on railroad stock and stole blind from everyone around them.
Tweed and his cohorts robbed everyone blind too, but in the process they also created massive public work programs and created the infrastructure of New York City as we know it today.
Ackerman says that Tweed "conceived the soul of modern New York." His mistake was to move far beyond the usual "honest graft" of some of his predecessors, but to begin stealing too much at the time.
Yet he might have got away with it were it not for one Irishman named Jimmy O'Brien that he crossed, one newspaper, The New York Times, that was just emerging as a force, one anti-Irish cartoonist, the German-born Thomas Nast of Harpers Weekly, and the Orange riots that occurred when Catholic Irish tried to stop Orangemen marching down Eighth Avenue in triumph on July 12 1871.
The Orange march in 1871 was originally banned by Tweed and his lackey, Mayor Oakey Hall, who feared violence on a massive scale because of tensions building up between the Irish groups. The Famine Irish were in no mood to tolerate the hated oppressors of the Orange Order marching through their neighborhood. Tweed understood that.
However, Governor John Hoffman, a Tweed nominee who saw himself as a future president but who needed to distance himself from Tweed in order to run, saw his opportunity to ingratiate himself with Tweed's enemies.
He ordered the parade to go ahead, and on the day panicked troopers, who included Nast in their ranks, faced a huge Irish Catholic mob determined to stop their hated antagonists from marching. The troops fired into the crowd, and some counts put the fatalities at 130 including women and children.
After the smoke had cleared and the national outcry had commenced the powers that be decided that the Irish and Tammany were fully to blame and must be put in their place.
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