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Narrative: William “Boss” Tweed

  • I can analyze the story of Boss Tweed to explain the vice of immoderation or extremism.

Essential Vocabulary

Immoderation Acting in excess or to an extreme. Lacking restraint.
Moderation The avoidance of excess or extremes.
Tenements Low-rental apartment building, typically rundown, whose facilities and maintenance barely meet minimum standards. A room or set of rooms tenanted as a separate dwelling; apartment; flat.
Patronage positions In politics and government, a spoils system (also known as a patronage system) is a practice in which a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its supporters, friends (cronyism), and relatives (nepotism) as a reward for working toward victory.


The streets of New York were a teeming place after the Civil War. The unpaved dirt streets were strewn with trash thrown from windows and horse manure from animals pulling carriages. Diseases like cholera and tuberculosis thrived in the unhealthy environment. Black smoke clogged the air from the burning coal and wood that heated homes and powered factories. Over one million people crowded into the city, and many lived in dilapidated tenements. Poverty, illiteracy, crime, and vice were rampant problems for the poor and for the Irish and German immigrants that comprised almost half the population. The city government offered very few basic services to alleviate the suffering, and churches and private charities were overwhelmed by the need.  

By the mid-1850s, “Boss” William Magear Tweed (1823 – 1878) was one of the leading politicians in New York City. He headed the Tammany Hall political machine, which controlled the Democrat Party and most of the votes. He headed the Tammany Hall political machine which controlled the Democratic Party through corruption. Tammany Hall gained support by providing essential services to citizens and then used that support to win offices for their preferred candidates to create dependence and loyalty through patronage.  He had spent a lifetime in public service and held a wide variety of local positions including volunteer firefighter, Board of Education, Board of Supervisors, and state senator. Most importantly, in 1860 he was named the “Grand Sachem” of Tammany Hall and controlled the political machine. In 1870, the state legislature granted New York City a new charter that gave local officials, rather than those in the state capital in Albany, power over local political offices and appointments. It was called the “Tweed Charter” because he so desperately wanted that control that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for it.  

After installing his own men as mayor and in other key positions, Boss Tweed helped the immigrants and poor out in many ways. Thousands of recent immigrants were naturalized as American citizens and thus had the right to vote. Tweed also made sure that the immigrants had jobs, found a place to live, had enough food, and even had enough coal money to warm their apartments during the cold of winter. In addition, Boss Tweed contributed millions of dollars to the civic institutions that benefited and cared for the immigrants such as their neighborhood churches and synagogues, hospitals, orphanages, and charities. Immigrants in New York were grateful for the much-needed services from the city and private charities. The Tweed Ring seemed to be creating a healthy society. In overwhelming numbers, immigrants happily voted for the Democrats who ran the city.  

However, all was not well in New York. The “Tweed Ring” was corruptly raking in millions of dollars in graft and skimming off the top. Tweed doled out thousands of jobs as patronage and he expected favors, bribes, and kickbacks in return. Massive building projects such as new hospitals, elaborate museums, marble courthouses, paved roads, and the Brooklyn Bridge had millions of dollars of padded costs added that went straight to Boss Tweed and his cronies. They also gobbled up massive amounts of real estate, owned the printing company that did official city business such as ballots, and received large payoffs from railroads. Soon, Tweed owned an extravagant Fifth Avenue mansion and an estate in Connecticut, gave lavish parties and weddings, and owned diamond jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars. In total, the Tweed Ring brought in an estimated $50 to $200 million in corrupt money. Boss Tweed’s greed knew few boundaries as evidenced by his immoderate, excessive lifestyle that demonstrated a lack of restraint and a lust for power. 

The corruption and greed in the New York City government cheapened the rule of law and degraded a healthy civil society. Most people in local government received their jobs due to patronage rather than merit and talent. The Tweed Ring also manipulated elections in a variety of ways. They hired people to vote multiple times, and even had sheriffs and temporary deputies protect them while doing so. They stuffed ballot boxes with fake votes and bribed or arrested election inspectors who questioned their methods. Sometimes, they simply ignored the ballots completely and falsified election results. Tammany candidates often received more votes than eligible voters in a district. In addition, the ring used intimidation and street violence by hiring thugs or crooked cops and received payoff from criminal activities they allowed to flourish. Tweed and his machine lacked any restraint with its illegal activities to preserve political power and bring is large amounts of money.  

In the end, Boss Tweed’s greed was too great, and his exploitation was too brazen. The New York Times exposed the rampant corruption, and the cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly lampooned the Tweed Ring for its illegal activities. In October 1871, Tweed was arrested and indicted shortly thereafter. He was tried in 1873, found guilty of forgery and larceny, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. He escaped in disguise to Cuba and thence to Spain in 1875 by paying $60,000 in bribes, but he was recaptured, returned to New York, and died in jail in 1878.  

The immoderation of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall represented some of the worst political excesses of the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age. Many different groups of reformers would seek to restore principles of rule of law and equal opportunity in politics and society in the coming decades. American self-government depends upon moderate political leaders and citizens working toward the common good.  

Analysis Questions

  • What problems did Boss Tweed and his political machine attempt to address in New York City?  
  • What are some examples of immoderation of the Tweed Ring?  
  • How did the greed of the Tweed Ring contribute to the corruption of the political system?  
  • Did Boss Tweed accept justice for his greed and illegal activities?  
  • Did he take responsibility for his actions? Or, did he seek to evade justice and responsibility to the end of his life? Explain your answers.   
  • Why is immoderation, or acting without self-restraint, so destructive to a healthy political system and civil society?