Tracking The Nation’s coverage of Tammany Hall through the ages is one of the many pleasures of being the magazine’s archivist; nothing made the editors’ teeth grind so much as the Democratic Party machine and everything it represented: corruption and demagoguery in the name of taking from the powerful and giving to the powerless. Not for nothing did The Nation’s founding editor E.L. Godkin title one of his late works Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy.

On this day in 1876, Boss Tweed, the most powerful leader of the hall in the late 19th century, was remanded to the custody of the New York Police Department following his arrest in Spain. (The authorities there allegedly recognized the famous fugitive from a cartoon by the Tammany-hating caricaturist, Thomas Nast.) When he died two years later, The Nation published a remarkable editorial, “The Moral of Tweed’s Career.”

There is no city in the civilized world which does not contain plenty of men capable of doing all that Tweed did and more, if they got a chance. London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Boston, and Philadelphia, all have them in abundance; men, we venture to say, with full as much ability and audacity, with as huge a greed for money and capacious stomachs. In every one of these cities there are scores of “mute inglorious’ Tweeds, waiting for an opportunity to play his part. If we never hear of them the reason will be not that he was a man of matchless powers of mischief, but that the community they live in will not give them a chance of imitating him. He was undoubtedly an eminent man in his field, but he was not an eminently bad man. With similar culture and manure dozens like him could be raised in any great capital, and by going to any State prison much more valuable illustrations of the consequences of knavery might be produced for the use of the Sunday-school teacher.…

And let us remember that he fell without loss of reputation among the bulk of his supporters. The bulk of the poorer voters of this city to-day revere his memory, and look on him as the victim of rich men’s malice; as, in short, a friend of the needy who applied the public funds, with as little waste as was possible under the circumstances, to the purposes to which they ought to be applied—and that is to the making of work for the workingman.…

The intelligent and wealthy classes, of course, do not like to believe these things, and men with political ambition, if they believe them, do not dare to utter them; but they are none the less true and important. They constitute “the great-city problem,” which is perhaps now the most pressing one of American politics, but which politicians and primitive Americans (with the New England town governments still fresh in their minds, however) either refuse to see or shrink from dealing with. It is the problem, too, by which the seeds of that communistic spirit which is now assailing the nation’s finances was sown and is being steadily fostered. The power lodged in the hands of the penniless municipal voter over large masses of property…is keeping alive or stimulating all over the Union the schemes for getting a living out of the Government by hook or by crook which are now showing themselves in the arena of national politics, and even becoming the foundation of a party. In this new field—new in America—Tweed was simply the earliest worker, but he was not a particularly skilful worker. He lost his head very early in the day, and thus precipitated his downfall. Had he gone more slowly and carried on his operations on a smaller scale, and been simpler in his habits and less ostentatious in his pleasures, he could have retained his power until now, and might have strengthened it and made his overthrow far more difficult. A villain of more brains would have had a modest dwelling and would have guzzled in secret. He found, however, the seizure of the government and the malversation of its funds so easy at the outset that he was thrown off his guard. His successors here and elsewhere will not imitate him in this, but that he will have successors there is no doubt. The resolute refusal of the community which he spoiled and corrupted to make any essential change in the system by which he rose, or even to acknowledge the desirableness of a change, is a kind of standing invitation to all the demagogues of the world to come here and try their hands on us again, and the taxing system of nearly every city in the Union offers them a ready instrument for the attempt.

November 23, 1876

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