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Tweed's New York: Another Look, by Leo Hershkowitz

Defending the Boss

Tweed’s New York: Another Look.
by Leo Hershkowitz.
Anchor Press-Doubleday. 409 pp. $12.50.

On July 8, 1871, the New York Times announced a journalistic and political coup: it had managed to get its hands on documentary evidence of enormous frauds committed against the taxpayers of New York City by the Tweed ring. These revelations helped fuel a grand-jury investigation that had already begun to examine the misdeeds of William M. Tweed, Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society, the Democratic party’s political club which, many thought, controlled city politics. The upshot of the Times campaign was that Tweed was removed from his offices, convicted in the criminal courts, and sent off to what became death in prison and a name synonymous with urban corruption.

A century or so later, Tweed once again made the Times front page. This time it was because Professor Leo Hershkowitz of Queens College said he had unearthed city documents revealing that the newspaper may have pilloried an innocent man. Tweed had been sentenced to jail on the basis of crimes for which he was never really tried and of which he most probably could not have been found guilty.

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In Tweed’s New York, Hershkowitz makes this charge and more. According to him, the Times and its allies, far from deposing Tweed in behalf of New York’s best interests, had only been acting as agents of a mean-minded collection of bankers, sensation-peddlers, and politically ambitious opportunists hiding their motives under the label of reform. Not they but Tweed had been New York’s champion—it was Tweed who expanded the city’s transportation and park facilities, who began new social programs, who defended the educational interests of the Catholic immigrants. The Times in its witch-hunting had not been saving the city from Tweed, but protecting itself from the diverse, tolerant city that Tweed represented.

Hershkowitz tells in detail how this miscarriage of justice came to pass. Tweed was born in New York in 1823 to a chairmaker of Scottish descent and no discoverable religion. He cast his first vote in 1844 for the Native Americans, his second in 1846 for the Whigs. His career as an activist began in the city’s fraternal organizations—in the Odd Fellows and the volunteer fire companies, from one of which he was suspended for having his men waylay and attack another company on the way to a fire. By 1850, Tweed had settled in with the Democrats, and gotten himself nominated for assistant alderman from the Seventh Ward. He finally became an alderman in 1851, and from then on was rarely without one public office or another. He rose through Democratic ranks, though not without setbacks. By 1863 he was elected president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, by 1867 to the state Senate, and in 1869 he was unanimously chosen as Tammany’s Grand Sachem.

But by the time he assumed that highly visible stewardship, the post was becoming something of a hazard to one’s political health. As Martin Shefter, the Cornell political scientist, has pointed out, New York was then going through the kind of time that has preceded each of its major financial crises over the past hundred years. There were new social groups to be incorporated into the city’s political system—in this case both the immigrant Irish and the newer elements of the business community who would most benefit from the city’s geographical expansion. Those who chose to build their political careers on these bases—like Tweed—had to pay something for their support. Coin of payment ranged from patronage and more or less honest kinds of graft to public and social services.

All of this cost money. And the city in Tweed’s time found it easier to raise that money through debt than through new taxes. In 1860, New York’s outstanding debt was $20 million. It rose to $56 million in 1869 and $87 million by 1871. Parts of the financial community demanded a political leadership that would give better protection to their city-related investments, and they found allies in good-government reformers more than willing to open a frontal attack on existing officials’ corruption and fraud.

Tweed became the chief target of this attack. Since the beginning of his career, the city’s press had been accusing him of various kinds of malfeasance: by 1852 the Tribune had already charged him with election bribery. But it was in 1871 that the investigators finally got what they wanted. They said they had found the records of gross padding of bills by city contractors—and that the kickback money had gone to enrich Tweed and his ring. On the basis of such evidence, over a score of indictments were handed down against Tweed. He was finally tried—while most of his alleged cronies escaped—on the misdemeanor of failing properly to audit city accounts. He was convicted in 1873 despite the tainted character of the direct evidence against him, and he was sentenced to thirteen years’ confinement for crimes that the convicting jury had been led to believe carried only a one-year sentence. He spent almost all the rest of his life in jail, and near the end of it produced a full confession of his sins, as a plea for leniency. The plea was futile, and Tweed died a prisoner in 1878.

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In all of this the reformers acted with the vindictive self-righteousness and the unrestrained partisanship that have quite rightly begun to make them an object of some contempt in modern eyes. Hershkowitz is at his best in giving vivid evidence of those qualities. But at times he wants to argue more, and this creates difficulties. Hershkowitz wants to give the impression that Tweed was innocent, that in fact he was something akin to a patron saint of New York; and so we are somehow led to believe that the charges against him were false and that a substantive travesty of justice took place. Yet on the crucial question of the kickbacks themselves, Hershkowitz’s only verdict is, “Probably no one will ever know.” In the same way we are told with some casualness about Tweed’s making money off city business (as a member of the Board of Education’s school-furniture committee, he “sold a few chairs to the city”). We are told how he made “many appointments of friends and intimates” to city government because “it was the way things were and indeed are.” We are given no assessment of the election-fraud charges that Tweed trailed behind him throughout his career. We are told that Tweed held very little power—each post of his, up to his leadership of Tammany, is described as something “of no consequence,” something that “did not mean too much.” And in the end we are left wondering how it was that Tweed managed to provide for his and his friends’ survival in public life, let alone how he managed to accomplish the many acts of service that this book credits to him.

For we are also told that Tweed had the best of motives toward the city and the best of effects on it. Tweed in the state legislature was notable for the “long series of social legislation” he sponsored. He “moved to meet the needs of an emerging metropolis. His was from the start an active and vital role, an expanding one, one indispensable to New York’s well-being. . . .” His plan to aid Catholic schools is to be understood not mainly as a vote-getting scheme but as a “solution to the problems causing concern to the city’s poor since existing private institutions no longer kept pace with the rapid urban growth.” And if a fitting statue were to be built today to Tweed, “it would be his city alive and well.”

And what of the debt that accumulated during those years? According to Hershkowitz it is not to be counted against Tweed—even though he did father all those new programs and construction projects. The debt itself, we are told, “was New York, a quality of life, population growth, industrialism, inflation, a host of factors”—certainly nothing to justify the judgments cast upon it by the “penny-wise, pound-foolish planners.”

In one sense, when he says such things, Hershkowitz is simply continuing a line of argument begun as far back as the 1940’s with the republication of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. This was the writing that came to debunk the eminently debunkable pretensions of New York’s reformers, and to point out that what they set out to destroy—the politics of the machine—had had its benefits as well as its costs. But with works like Tweed’s New York, we see this challenge to conventional wisdom ripening into a moralism of its own. The defense of the machine has become as pious and partisan as the reformers were. The attackers of the Times have come to sound like the Times itself.

When one searches for reasons behind this new moralism, one finds them not in the politics of last century’s New York but in today’s. Over the past hundred years there has been a major change in the etiology of the city’s corruption: the upper-class social descendants of those who destroyed the 19th-century machine for its dishonest practices came a century later to favor urban programs and services that led to much the same kind of practice. But beneath this difference Hershkowitz sees a similarity that he finds even more important and morally significant. To him, the free-spending fiscal policies of the Lindsayite 60’s are the functional equivalent of the free-spending practices of Boss Tweed, and the bankers who want to call New York to account today are the functional equivalent of the anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan reformers of yesteryear. If the fiscal conservatives can be shown to have been in the wrong then, we can learn a proper mistrust for their motives now.

Yet though Hershkowitz is right to note similarities where they exist, surely it is no service either to New York’s present condition or to our understanding of its history simply to exonerate from wrongdoing those whose political style one happens to admire or whose intentions one happens to approve. There are limits; New York’s leadership has transgressed them recently—and, most probably, so did Tweed. They are the limits and complications that this book chooses not to call attention to. So we find here that Tweed has once again been pressed into the service of partisan and factional polemics, and it comes as no surprise that his reputation has been somewhat distorted in the process, just as it was the last time around.

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