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Corruption And Greed Of William M Tweed History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Modern day gangs are a far cry from the gangs of nineteenth century New York City. Although the inner city slums remain the center of gang activity, the face of the American gangster has changed dramatically over the years. In the late nineteenth century, the American gangster was given free reign over his portion of the Five Points in a political gamble by the corrupt New York City politician, William M. Tweed. The corruption seen in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Gangs of New York” did depict realistic images of the relationships between the political machine which governed over late nineteenth century New York and the gangs who were forced to survive within the poverty stricken streets of the city [1] . William M. Tweed, the major political boss at the time, in fact used criminal devices along with strategic relationships with actual gang members in order to continue his prominence and rule over the city, despite the obvious infractions committed to the face of democracy. Just as pictured in Scorsese’s film, as well as Tyler Anbinder’s infamous work, Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Sole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum [2] , “Boss” Tweed flexed his political muscle mainly through the implementation of gang violence as his own personal police force which in turn granted him votes and a false sense of permanence in nineteenth century New York City. Rather than acting as a true politician should have and discouraged all forms of organized crime, William “Boss” Tweed actually used such gang activity as a major force which kept his political career afloat; therefore leaving the state of New York broke while political criminals were allowed free reign over state funds and resources-backed up by a police force of gang members.

New York City during the late nineteenth century was a combination of two very different worlds. On one hand were the rich elite who lived on the upper side of the city, fancy free of drafts and all the other miseries which came with being poor in the inner city at the time. The neighborhood known as the Five Points, now part of lower Manhattan [3] , was infamous for its crime and political corruption. Far from the glamour and glitz of upper Manhattan, these poor New York residents had to deal with rampant crime, corrupt city officials, and deplorable living conditions even in an industrial age. While the more affluent members of American society became richer off of the increasing advances brought through the Industrial Revolution, the poor classes of America’s inner cities were forced to deal with the brunt of such advancements. It was the poorer classes who were the ones working strenuously throughout the day for pennies, while the upper classes benefited of the labor of thousands of immigrants, natives, and even children. The horrid conditions of the city were just made worse with the massive amounts of immigrants flocking to the city on a daily basis [4] . Although mainly from Eastern Europe and Ireland, these immigrants made up the extreme culturally diverse fabric of early American inner cities. However, this environment was not always as pleasant as the common melting pot theory would assume.

This time period came with massive amounts of new Americans along with massive amounts of native Southerners succeeding from the Union. The political environment of Martin Scorsese’s award winning film was one of great division and chaos in the form of the Civil War. In the years which the major portion of both the film and the novel take place, the entire country was in political and physical turmoil. The Civil War strictly divided the sentiment of the nation and left many citizens in horrible positions in both the North and the South. Although New York City never saw physical fighting during the war, the citizens of the city felt the strain of war. Both native born Americans from previous English Protestant immigrations, as well as newly arrived Irish Catholics were affected by the losses and gains of the Union during the Civil War. During this time period, one of the most infamous drafts, outside of the Vietnam era, in American history was implemented to provide the Union side with much needed man power [5] . This draft took all able bodied American men and placed them in sure danger on the front lines of the bloodiest American war. However, this fate was avoided with a mere $300 paid to the Union government [6] . Although this fee seems relatively meager by today’s standards, this was an enormous amount for the poor of New York City’s slums. The residents of the Five Points were paid only a few dollars per week, and could therefore not afford to avoid service within the Union Army. This further divided the city’s poor from the more affluent citizens who were not forced into the line of fire for a country which they had only recently pledged allegiance to.

During this time period, masses of Irish immigrants entered into the United States through the infamous Ellis Island in New York City. Of the thousands of Irish entering onto American soil each year, very few actually attained the status which was promised to them by the earlier Irish immigrants into “The Golden Door.” [7] Many settled into an unforgiving city which detested their very presence and made life almost as hard as it would have been in the famished Ireland itself. Many of those who attained a quick citizenship were even more quickly drafted into the Union Army. As if life in the hard streets of the Five Points wasn’t hard enough, the American government and native citizens did all they could to make it that much harder. During the time period in question, a fresh Irish immigrant had to struggle to find work in a prejudice society.

The influxes of Irish immigrants began a nationalist sentiment which severely divided the city. The earlier English Protestant immigrants who made up a large portion of the poor classes of New York City created a prejudiced atmosphere which limited the activities and earnings of these new Irish immigrants. The portrayal of the “Nativist” gang in Martin Scorsese’s film was in fact a real occurrence largely in response to the large influx of Irish immigrants into the city [8] . Many citizens of New York’s poor slums banded together against the rising waves of Irish immigrants, and organized crime followed suit. The newly arrived Irish immigrants responded with forming their own gangs centered around the Five Points area in New York City. These two factions of New York’s lower classes constantly conflicted with each other, both in terms of job competition as well as simple prejudice held by the “Nativists” against their newly arrived fellow immigrants.

Along with these divisions came corruption in the form of state and city governments with the implementation of the political machine Tammany Hall headed by the infamous William M. Tweed. The infamous figure started his political career as a volunteer fireman in New York and quickly rose in ranks within the context of the Five Points and beyond. Tweed largely relied on the underground criminal enterprises of “Nativist” gangs in order to keep up his forced popularity despite the obvious mass corruption coming out of his office [9] . Throughout his entire career as a New York politician, a reported tens of millions of dollars were embezzled out of the New York City budget based on work which was never actually implemented. According to many historians and later court documents, Tweed was exposed as being a corrupt political leader, who ended up stealing millions of dollars from the state in apportioned budgets for work which was never conducted. “Boss” Tweed actually employed known gang members of both “Nativist” and Irish origins in order to keep his corrupt political machine running smoothly. Faulty budget plans, thug like justice, and plain out unethical actions ended up the highlight of Tweed’s political career. The character of Bill “The Butcher,” seen in Scorsese’s award winning film, is a relatively accurate portrayal of the criminals and simple minded thugs which were employed under the state docket under “Boss” Tweed in order to keep the masses of poor Five Points residents under his belt for the next upcoming election [10] . In a time of complete chaos in the form of civil war, there was little other government support to keep the masses of poor natives and immigrants from noticing the massive amount of corruption stemming from city hall.

Part of the corruption involved with “Boss” Tweed and his corrupt political machine included recruiting active gang members to enforce political decisions and ensure future elections. These gangsters were used mainly to keep the poor masses voting in favor of “Boss” Tweed’s political machine in Tammany Hall. Tweed had originally sided specifically with the “Nativist” population in order to isolate the Irish immigrants and gain more lower class American votes [11] . However, as depicted in the film, when the tide of Irish immigrants began to out way the power of the “Nativist” vote, Tweed quickly changed his tune and began to market more of his criminal propaganda towards the massive numbers of eligible Irish voters, effectively turning his back on the population who gave him the power he so happily abused while in office. This is effectively portrayed in the 2003 film, in which Tweed appears as first the employer of “The Butcher,” who later attempts to appeal to the Irish Amsterdam in order to gain the Irish vote in a last ditch effort to retain his lofty position in New York politics. This portrayal showed the betrayal and true corruption which fueled the mind behind Tammany Hall in the late nineteenth century. This political organization was funded by the tax payers of New York, and enforced by the city’s gangsters. Criminals were employed under the state budget as political advisors and representatives, when their real job was quite clear-to sway the vote for the corrupt “Boss.” These criminal employees ended up creating the extremely corrupt atmosphere which represented the political atmosphere of New York Politics in the mid to late nineteenth century. Thugs like “The Butcher,” who ruled the poor neighborhoods with an iron fist were paid directly from the New York City tax payer’s pockets, and were therefore allowed free reign for their criminal activities as long as they produced the much needed votes in favor of the corrupt William M. Tweed [12] . These criminals were the enforcers and the law breakers all wrapped up into one package, one which will haunt the legitimacy of New York politics for generations to come. Anbinder’s novel touches on the brutal force which was employed by “Boss” Tweed during his time as a New York politician. Not only did he employ known gang members as part of his direct staff, but he encouraged the development and livelihood of the various Five Point gangs as a way to further encourage the lawless nature of inner city New York politics. This sentiment is captured in the violence portrayed in the film “Gangs of New York,” which depicts specifically the violence perpetuated by the thugs employed by the Tammany Hall political machine headed by the notorious “Boss” Tweed.

At the same time this corrupt system was ruling over the streets of New York, the impoverished Irish immigrants finally began standing up against the xenophobic American system which kept them poor. The riots which broke out at the end of the film represent the extreme unrest which had resonated within the minds of both native Americans as well as foreign born newcomers who were forced into a service which they did not truly understand. As violence erupted on the streets of New York, a new age of New England politics was beginning to take shape. The riots depicted in the film “Gangs of New York” represent the dissent of the poor Irish class with both the larger American government as well as the corrupt political system of New York City at the time. This swayed much of the political weight away from corrupt agents such as the infamous Tweed, who was later convicted by the state of New York for embezzlement of city funds and various other crimes which typified his position in office. He later died in jail, separated far away from the millions of dollars he and his criminal thugs helped to cipher away from the city of New York and all of its necessities [13] .

The extreme corruption of New York City’s Tammany Hall is most exemplified through the use of the various gangs of the Five Points as a sort of policing system which was meant to turn out votes and keep down any opposition to the “Boss,” William Tweed. This entire generation, occurring in the late nineteenth century represents a complete lack of organized government and an outburst of organized crime as infiltrating the city and state governments. Most people know the fact that Tweed was a corrupt leader with only selfish greed in his eyes, yet many still don’t know the extent of his corruption. Tweed actually used the various gangs living in the Five Points to maintain his strong political position through brute force and scare tactics. Although the modern world has produced its fair share of corrupt politicians praying on the weaker poor classes, no administration will ever compare to the scandal and corruption caused in the era of Tammany Hall run by the notorious William M. Tweed.


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