boss tweed ran new york -- 8/10/16

Today's selection -- from Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell. For decades in the 1800s, the American political system ran on graft and patronage:

"Economic expansion created new industries, new jobs, and new voters. For those so inclined, that meant new opportuni­ties for graft. Cities were kept together by political machines, which were tight-knit organizations that corralled votes, col­lected a percentage of profits, and kept the peace. The machine was epitomized by Tammany Hall in New York City and its majordomo, William Marcy Tweed, a Democratic boss sur­rounded by a sea of Republicans. More than any mayor, 'Boss' Tweed ran New York. His men greeted immigrants as they stepped ashore in lower Manhattan, offered them money and liquor, found them work, and in return demanded their alle­giance and a tithe. Supported by Irish Catholics, who made up nearly a quarter of New York's population, Tweed held mul­tiple offices, controlled lucrative public works projects (includ­ing the early plans for Central Park), chose aldermen, and herded voters to the polls, where they drunkenly anointed the Boss's candidates. Immortalized even in his own day by the rapier pen of Thomas Nast (has there ever been a political car­toonist who did more to define an era?), Tweed was gone by 1872, forced out and prosecuted, but the system kept going. Every city had its machine, and counties did as well. National politics was simply the apex of the pyramid that rested on local bosses and layers of graft.

All politics revolved around the Boss. 1899 cartoon from Puck

"It was a system of patronage, first and last. It had been dubbed the spoils system earlier in the nineteenth century, because to the victor of elections went the spoils of patronage -- jobs could be doled out to supporters in return for their vote come Elec­tion Day. In the years after the Civil War, the number of gov­ernment jobs grew, and so did the spoils system. Even the powerful members of the U.S. Senate were part of the patron­age game, because they were not directly elected but instead chosen by the state legislatures, which were themselves an out­growth of local machine politics. Elections were hotly con­tested not over principle but over the power of appointment that winning conferred. Senators could appoint a variety of officials at both the federal and state levels. Tens of thousands of jobs were at stake, and these jobs paid salaries, usually quite handsome salaries by the standards of the day. In return for being appointed, officials were expected to make monetary contributions to the party, and their contributions then funded the next round of campaigning.

"The contributions were known as assessments. There was nothing secretive or shadowy about them. The assessments were set by party leaders, and letters were sent each year and during each election cycle to all salaried civil servants specify­ing the amount they were expected to contribute. It was a self­-perpetuating cycle. Win an election, appoint bureaucrats, judges, administrators, and then use them to pay for the next election. That is why party organizations were so powerful, and why the presidency, even with its executive powers curtailed, remained a plum position. As chief executive, the president had the ulti­mate power of patronage. Senators decided who would occupy most of the appointments for federal offices in their states, and governors did the same for state officials. But the president of the United States appointed the postmaster general. The postal service, with a branch in every city, town, and village, com­prised nearly half the federal bureaucracy, or nearly thirty thousand employees by the 1870s, all of whom could be fired or hired after each presidential election. The president also chose the secretary of the Treasury, who headed the second­ largest federal agency, and the one responsible for overseeing the customhouses of major ports such as Boston, Baltimore, and New York. ...

"Each national election was a patronage contest. Leaders who could most effectively mobilize their networks and raise the most money through assessments tended to emerge victo­rious, which of course allowed them to consolidate their power and become that much more entrenched."


Zachary Karabell


Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885


Times Books


Copyright 2004 by Zachary Karabell


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