Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History

By Rodger Streitmatter | Go to book overview

4
Attacking Municipal Corruption: The Tweed Ring

THE TWEED RING RULED New York City in the 1860s and early 1870s like no political machine before or since. Payoffs, kickbacks, padded contracts, extortion, election fraud--they were all part of what came to personify big-city corruption by profligate public "servants." William Marcy Tweed and the band of political henchmen who did his bidding ultimately stuffed their pockets with some $200 million taken from city taxpayers.

This crime against democracy was finally exposed by an unlikely antagonist: cartoons. For Thomas Nast's illustrations in Harper's Weekly gave the evil profiteering of the Tweed Ring a face, and that face appalled and enraged the people of New York. In a political crusade that spanned three years, the courageous editorial cartoonist attacked municipal corruption with a vengeance. By defying "Boss" Tweed when other journalists accepted Tweed's payoffs, Nast provided one of the earliest examples of the dramatic power that journalistic images can wield.

A year after Nast began attacking Tweed in Harper's, the New York Times joined the crusade, putting into words the accusations that Nast was communicating through pictures. When the Times published secret documents laying bare the extent of the ring's sordid activities, the series hastened the end of the corruption.

Nast deserves the most credit. The passion and impact of his unrelenting visual attacks stand alone in the annals of American editorial cartooning. Even Tweed himself ultimately came to acknowledge that

-51-

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