William Marcy Tweed

William Marcy Tweed (1823-1878) was an American politician and leader of Tammany Hall. The Tweed ring, which defrauded New York City of millions, made his name a symbol of civic corruption.

William Tweed was born in New York on April 3, 1823. His father was a chair manufacturer. Tweed left school to learn chair making at the age of 11. At 13 he was apprenticed to a saddlemaker; at 17 he became a bookkeeper in a brush business, at 19 joined the firm, and at 21 married the daughter of the firm's chief owner. But Tweed, "full of animal spirits, " as one contemporary described him, found greater excitement in New York's volunteer fire department. In 1850 he became foreman of the celebrated "Americus No. 6" company, which, a year later, helped elect him Democratic alderman.

In Tammany Hall politics there were at least two classic routes to power—hard work combined with loyalty, or aggressiveness and luck. Tweed followed the latter. After serving as an alderman, he was in the U.S. Congress for a term (1853-1855); not only did this experience destroy Tweed's appetite for national politics but it put him out of touch with New York politics. But Tweed soon gained power in party and city affairs. His official positions included membership on the city board of supervisors, state senator, chairman of the state finance committee, school commissioner, deputy street commissioner, and commissioner of public works.

During the 1860s Tweed parlayed political influence into hard cash. Despite meager legal knowledge, he opened a law office to dispense "legal services" to such corporations as the Erie Railroad. He bought a printing company that monopolized city contracts, and a marble company that sold materials for the new courthouse at exorbitant prices. By 1867 Tweed was a millionaire and moved his family to a fashionable neighborhood. The following year he became grand sachem of Tammany.

The Tweed ring began in 1866, tightening operations in 1869, when "Boss" Tweed and others arranged that all bills to the city would henceforth be at least one-half fraudulent, a proportion later raised to 85 percent. The proceeds went equally to Tweed, to the city comptroller, to the county treasurer, and to the mayor. A fifth share was used to bribe officials and businessmen. The boss rallied diverse groups behind his regime by providing "something for all."

Tweed was well suited by temperament and personality for this. Almost 6 feet all, a ruddy 300 pounds, he combined coarse good fellowship with practiced suavity, becoming a favorite of all, including, for a time, some of New York's "best people." Like a good 19th-century entrepreneur, he maximized short-run profits, which were massive. The county courthouse cost $12 million; two thirds was fraudulent. Between 1866 and 1871 (when the ring was exposed) the Tweed ring's services cost the city between $40 and $100 million.

The reform coalition that exposed the ring included city patricians, the New York Times, and assorted political enemies within both parties; motives varied. The battle ended with imprisonment for Tweed and several associates. Initially sentenced to 12 years, Tweed went free in 1875. Rearrested on further charges, he was reimprisoned following a sensational escape to Spain. He died in jail on April 12, 1878. A century later, his grotesquely dishonest career seems a significant chapter in the urban crisis, social and governmental, which Americans have not been able to solve.


Further Reading on William Marcy Tweed

Tweed's career is treated in Denis T. Lynch, "Boss" Tweed (1927), and William A. Bales, Tiger in the Streets (1962). Gustavus Meyers, The History of Tammany Hall (1901), and Morris R. Werner, Tammany Hall (1928), set Tweed in the context of Tammany history. Seymour J. Mandelbaum, Boss Tweed's New York (1965), stresses Tweed's part in providing leadership in a fragmenting metropolis. Alexander B. Callow, Jr., The Tweed Ring (1966), is a well-written and meticulously documented narrative.

Additional Biography Sources

Hershkowitz, Leo, Tweed's New York: another look, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.