Kenneth Ackerman’s Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York is a richly colored tale of ambition, greed, and skullduggery in Gilded Age America. Perhaps because of his experiences working in Washington in the last decades of the twentieth century, Ackerman has been drawn to the history of the Gilded Age, the raucous and flamboyant period in American history between the end of the Civil War and the Progressive era. Many commentators of the late twentieth century wondered if the gaudily prosperous years dominated by the likes of President Ronald Reagan were not another age of excess. One can easily imagine businessmen Michael Milken, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates all thriving in the industrialized society of the century before their own. Certainly the scandals, crashes, and bubbles of the 1980’s and 1990’s would have been familiar to the tycoons and Wall Street operatives of the 1880’s and 1890’s.
The Gilded Age marked the real emergence of modern America. The period received its name from a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner which famously criticized the political and economic corruption which sprang up in the years following the Civil War. The triumphant Republican Party, heir to the “American System” of Henry Clay and the economic nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, felt no compunctions about using the power of the national government to spur economic development, through the Homestead Act, subsidizing railroads, or enacting a high protective tariff. The Civil War and the nationalist perspective it fostered also changed the scale of the political and economic environments in which Americans operated. Farmers, laborers, and business owners all found themselves beholden to forces outside local control. The unprecedented mobilization of men and material for the conflict accustomed Americans to political and economic projects that dwarfed antebellum dreams.
The Civil War, as so many wars do, also ushered in a period of ethical laxity, a reaction perhaps to the sacrifices and heightened passions of the conflict. Corruption became noticeable during the war as profiteers grew rich selling the government goods that were often overpriced and substandard. Ackerman notes that even the distinguished firm of Brooks Brothers clothiers sold the Union Army twelve thousand uniforms made of “shoddy,” ground-up rags, which disintegrated in a good rain. The moral and legal laissez-faire of the war years paved the way for the rise of the “robber barons,” businesspeople who would make ruthless use of the favorable political climate in order to accumulate enormous fortunes. At the same time, they would foster an extraordinary industrial revolution in America.
In 1890, the United States would be the leading industrial power in the world. By the end of this messy era, the modern United States had come into being. Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian republic was a memory. The future belonged to the cities. More and more Americans were working in factories and offices instead of on farms. The economy was increasingly being shaped by the ebb and flow of consumer demand. A vibrant popular culture had emerged, nurtured by mass media. In 1896, William McKinley’s famous victory over William Jennings Bryan, the last great spokesman for rural America, would ratify a social and economic fait accompli.
Ackerman has explored this historical ground in two previous books. In the first, The Gold Ring (1988), he detailed the attempt by the notorious Wall Street manipulators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to illicitly corner the gold market in 1869. In the second, Dark Horse (2003), he described the election and subsequent assassination of President James Garfield. A study of William Marcy Tweed is a natural subject for Ackerman. The story of Boss Tweed combines in highly dramatic form the themes of politics, money, and corruption. Tweed dominated New York City at a time when it was becoming America’s regnant metropolis. He was a great builder. During his years in power, millions were spent on Central Park, sewers were laid and streets paved. An expensive new courthouse went up, and the Brooklyn Bridge began to span the East River.
All this was constructed at a costa huge cost which has never fully been documented in graft and fraud. Tweed was more than a civic visionary; he was the head of one of the first great urban political machines. He was a master of vote fraud and manipulation. He “bought” individual politicians and on one occasion was accused of buying the state...
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