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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 23: Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age, 1869 - 1896


William Marcy Tweed (1823 - 1878)

Tweed was the New York political boss whose grand-scale corruption symbolized the low political standards of the Gilded Age.

He got his start in politics with volunteer fire companies, which were closely tied to Tammany Hall, and he soon learned tricky devices like running dummy candidates to divide the opposition. The City Council during his service was known as the Forty Thieves.

Tweed offered $5 million to The New York Times if it would not print the information on his corruption and $500,000 to Nast if he would stop his anti-Tweed cartoons. Tweed was treated luxuriously in prison, even being allowed to take carriage rides. He escaped and fled to Cuba and Spain disguised as a sailor but was recognized and returned to harsher jail treatment.

Always genial and friendly, Tweed held no personal grudges against Thomas Nast and others who brought him down. He said he was only surprised that they wouldnt take his bribes.

Quote: (When asked how his ring had managed to keep the scandals hidden for so long): Well, we used money wherever we could. (1869)

REFERENCE: Alexander Callow, The Tweed Ring (1966).


Horace Greeley (1811 - 1872)

Greeley was the most famous newspaper editor of the nineteenth century, whose eccentric involvements in reform and politics made him an object of humor and anger.

He started on a Vermont newspaper at age fourteen and in 1841 launched the New York Tribune in close association with Whig politicians Thurlow Weed and William Seward.

At various times he supported Fourierism, ending capital punishment, prohibition, cooperative labor unions, womens rights (though not suffrage), and homesteading. He once spent a few months in an unsuccessful farming venture and then published a book called What I Know of Farming.

He had a high, squeaky voice and whiskers and always wore a broad-brimmed hat and white socks. He tried numerous times for political office, but except for a few months in Congress, he always failed. He had often been satirized but took personally the attacks on him in the 1872 campaign: one cartoon depicted him shaking hands with Booth over Lincolns body. He already showed signs of mental instability before the election and died shortly thereafter.

Quote: We are henceforth to be one American people. Let us forget that we fought. Let us remember only that we have made peace. (1872)

REFERENCE: Lurton D. Ingersoll, The Life of Horace Greeley (1974).


James G. Blaine (1830 - 1893)

Blaine was the colorful Republican politician, presidential candidate, and secretary of state during the Gilded Age.

Blaine married his wife secretly because she was a schoolteacher who was supposed to remain single. She came from a well-off Maine family, and they helped him get his start in politics there.

Although he had the grand platform manner of earlier politicians, Blaine excelled at personal contact and humorous banter. He could easily remember thousands of names and connect each of them with an anecdote about the person.

By dramatically producing and reading the Mulligan letters, which supposedly proved his involvement in railroad corruption, he convinced many people of his innocence. Although never charged with crime, he became wealthy by trading favors with the owners of railroads and other interests.

Quote: This letter requires no answer. After reading it file it away in your most secret drawer or give it to the flames.Do not say a wordno matter who may ask you. (Letter to Sherman, 1884)

REFERENCE: R. Hal Williams, Years of Decision (1978).



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