Thomas Nast and His Battle with Corruption of Tammany Hall

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The life of Thomas Nast and his battle with the corruption of Tammany hall and boss tweed reads more like a narrative fit for Hollywood than history. One man, taking on the corruption in his city using nothing but political cartoons, doesn’t exactly sound like a likely story. It’s hard to believe just how influential a simple drawing in a newspaper could really be, and yet history has proven that David can indeed defeat Goliath again and again. Time and time again the story of the underdog captivates our attention; 300 Spartans against thousands, a lone hero with talents and abilities far surpassing our own fighting a battle we can’t against a force they barely have the strength to handle. This is one of those tales, the underdog, winner take all fighting till the knockout duel for the ages. And it all began in the early 1800’s.

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William Magear Tweed (a.k.a. “Boss” Tweed) began his political career by starting a volunteer fire department in 1848. He did that for about 11 years or so until he was elected to congress (Doomed By Cartoon, Adler). Nothing truly exciting had happened as of yet, this was still setting the stage. Bill Tweed had not yet become the corrupt tyrant and villain yet, and would need to know the ins-and-outs of politics before he could be any stretch of successful. After that he began helping the first Tammany mayor, Fernando Wood in his campaign for mayor of New York. In doing so he learned a few very important tricks of his trade, including working with the majority of the population to gain their votes.

And that trick would come to be very valuable indeed. At the time New York was experiencing a major influx of immigrants (mostly European). By 1860 roughly 48% of New York was foreign born from the great migration period. These immigrants were more than likely desperate, gullible, illiterate and willing to do anything for money and food. Some saw needy and hurting people, others saw competition. Tweed saw an opportunity. If he could get them voting rights and then help them in exchange for their votes he could easily win any election.

He could have gone for the mayoral office, but he knew where his power lay. He quickly became the head of the Tammany hall political party, managing to hold both major positions (the grand Sachem and the chairman of the general committee) at the same time, solidifying his dominance over the already dominating political party at the time. From there he began to position his allies as a master maneuvers his chess pieces. A friend in the state supreme court. A former coworker as head of the city treasury. A political ally in the mayoral office. Another Tammany hall man as the city controller. Essentially, Tweed had a man in every high ranking position possible and had total control of the government. Without any honest politicians in office, the Tammany hall ring seemed unstoppable. Even if there were any honest politicians, it would have been hard to stay honest when offered $30,000 dollars for a simple vote on a tax bill. And if bribery failed, the head of the police department also just so happened to be an old friend of Tweed.

And just to make sure he was completely defraud-proof, he (or one of his supporters) ended up buying out most of the influential journals of their day. One paper estimated that “54 daily and 26 weekly newspapers in New York City and state received advertising subsidies from the ring for at least not attacking-if not actively supporting-it’s administration” (Doomed By Cartoon, Adler). Bottom line: there were few journalists in the state who weren’t being paid not to speak out against the ring, and fewer still with the courage to do so even if they weren’t being paid.

And even if there was anyone able to speak out against Tweed among the people themselves, none of them saw any need or had any desire to. They wouldn’t have known about any of the extortionately high tax bills that were passed to fund the greedy ring. They had no way of knowing about all the bribery and intimidation of the truly honest people. All they knew was this man was paying them money they desperately needed and fed their children who were desperately hungry in exchange for writing a name on a piece of paper and putting it in a box. “Vote early, vote often” became Tweed’s motto as he had his men round up immigrants and told them to vote as many times as they saw fit so long as they voted for the same person. These constituents more than likely had no clue as to the corruption involved in this. Most would have been illiterate and few would have spoken english so it wouldn’t have been possible for them to read all about it in the daily paper.

And that would be where our hero steps into the scene. Thomas Nast’s career in political cartoons began early on when he began drawing for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, or Times, or Harper’s Weekly, or any number of the other publications his drawings were featured in. However, he remained relatively unknown and unimportant until 1864. It was in that year that he published “Compromise With The South.” The cartoon displays an injured union soldier with his head bowed shaking hands with a southern soldier over a grave marked “In Memory of the Union Heroes who Fell for a Worthless Cause.” At this point the war was not yet over and Lincoln had just been re elected, which means this image was not drawn as a representation of what had happened yet. Nast was attempting to warn everyone affected by the war or even involved in it that this would be their future if they did not continue on. This picture was a warning, and a highly effective one at that.

This very cartoon became so popular it was circulated twice in the largest publication of their day, Harper’s Weekly, and the republican party asked for it to use in their posters. This one cartoon managed to give Nast the publicity he would need later on, and established him as one of the boldest political commentators of his day. By this point he had already been drawing with Harper’s weekly, the largest publication available, full time for two years. This just so happened to make him even more well known, which meant more influential people (and more of the common people) would pay attention to his work. This became crucial as he needed the common man to see his drawings to make a difference. The only way to inform them before Nast was through printed articles, but nearly half the population of New York at the time was illiterate. So when Nast began exposing the ring’s corruption through his cartoon it would have been novel to most people. And as soon as the people really learned what went on in the room where it happens they might stop voting for Tammany hall. Tweed was aware of this, he was once quoted with saying, “I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures.” Every time the ring made a selfish decision, or swindled the people under the guise of taxes and legislation, or acted far beyond the scope of their power, Nast made a joke out of it. 

When they attempted to bribe him with $1.8 million (in today’s money) to go to europe to ‘study art’ during election season, he pretended to be interested until they raised the price to five times that until he said he had been planning on staying from the start. When that failed Tweed went for his closest ally, Times. He tried to by a 34% controlling stock in the paper to at least limit the damage. When that didn’t work, Tweed and friends decided to threaten to pull Harper textbooks from schools (which would have meant about $50,000 lost for the publication). At the time Harper was also the largest supplier of textbooks to schools and Tweed pulling their books from the shelves would have meant his publishing companies texts would have been taught instead. Of course Nast simply had to make a cartoon about it, so he did. 

Entitled “The New Board of Education” it depicts Sweeney (the man seen as the brains of the ring) tossing the old textbooks out a window while Hall and Tweed teach young children new texts that are all written by Tweed and all praise the leaders of the ring. This criticism would be continued on for months after in cartoons like “That's What’s the Matter”, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” and “A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to Pass.” Eventually, public opinion finally began to wane against Tweed which culminated in the election that year when Tammany Hall lost significant power. While Nast’s cartoons had a major impact, they mainly impacted after the Orange Riot of 1871. Before the riot Tammany hall had maintained its power through the people, and the reason the elite gave them power over the people was because they thought the hall had control over them. The riot where Tammany hall both bent under the weight of public opinion and then failed to prevent the very thing they promised to stop managed to convince the powerful people that Tammany hall didn’t have as much power as they thought, and the not so powerful followers that maybe Tammany hall wasn’t entirely on their side at all. From this point on all Nast had to do was emphasize the thinking that was already becoming common; that the hall could be stopped, and that it should be. The final nail in the coffin was when Times exposed all of the corruption of the ring in a front cover issue. 

When they did that they simultaneously proved that they could not be trusted by the public, and subsequently that those who supported them only because they were too powerful should not support them anymore. It was at that point that Boss William Magear Tweed lost all power and authority he held. He lost any hope for regaining it in the subsequent trial and arrest (until he ran to Spain, where he was identified from one of Nast’s cartoons and sent back to the US), but he lost all power when the people stopped backing him. Looking back over the events that led to his fall their were really only three factors. 

The expose piece published by Times was easily the most immediate cause for the fall of the Tweed ring, with the Orange riot coming in a close second. But neither one of those would have had the same impact without the images that accompanied them the entire time. There was no one piece of art created by Thomas Nast that single-handedly brought down Tweed, no individual cartoon that triggered a domino affect. Instead, it was the culmination of many smaller dominoes, the combination of Nast’s relentless pace, clever witticisms and gift for influencing through his pictures. Each picture was worth a thousand words, the only difference between his cartoons and the articles written by his peers was his cartoons were far more accessible and just as constant. He managed to draw over 2,000 cartoons over the course of his career and each of those cartoons managed to wear down at public opinion bit by bit. The defining trait of his influence was not in the immediacy of the change he created, but in the quantity of quality he managed to produce again and again. 

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