To kick this blog off, I’m going to talk about William “Boss” Tweed and Thomas Nast. Tweed and Nast go together like peanut butter and jelly, if peanut butter was a notoriously corrupt politician and jelly was the father of American political cartoons.
The point is that these men are arguably the basis of political cartoons in this country, so they’re a great starting point.
To dust those APUSH cobwebs off, William “Boss” Tweed was a political boss in the New York Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall in the mid-1800s. Tweed is a modern libertarian’s nightmare, charging exorbitant amounts for goods and services that the government paid for, and lining his pockets with the profit — all on the taxpayers’ dime. He was a criminal and a corrupt politician, but in an era where that was very fashionable. He was certainly not alone.
So why is Tweed remembered as the worst of the worst? While stealing millions of taxpayer dollars didn’t help his case (Boss Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation by Denis Tilden Lynch), he’s remembered so negatively because of Nast’s depictions. Nast turned Tweed into a symbolic representation of all corrupt politicians — of which there were many — and turned him into something larger than himself. In other words, Nast mythologized William “Boss” Tweed.
Tweed’s mythology is deeper than just one symbol, which is what makes it so powerful. Nast created a lasting mythology that has shaped the way we talk about Tweed even today. I’m going to mention two examples: Tweed’s middle name, and his escape from prison.
First, let’s talk middle names. If you’ve heard of Tweed by anything other than “Boss” Tweed, you’ve probably heard him referred to as William Marcy Tweed. This name is everywhere, including in well-researched biographies of Tweed. This name, while a great one, was not Tweed’s name. Tweed’s real name was William Magear Tweed — a much more memorable name, but one that somehow we’ve forgotten.
This epidemic forgetfulness is a Nast creation. Nast identified Tweed with the middle name Marcy in a cartoon to make a commentary on his character (Them Damned Pictures: Exploration in American Political Cartoon Art by Roger A. Fischer). While the commentary faded away, the name stuck, and Tweed became less human and more caricature.
This isn’t even the most exciting Nast-Tweed mythology out there. The most exciting piece of myth that came from this cartoonist-criminal duo has to do with Tweed’s escape from prison in the early 1870s. Tweed had been arrested, tried, and found guilty of forgery and grand larceny in December of 1871. He was given considerable freedom while in prison, however, and was allowed to take walks around the city at will. One day, this walk turned into an escape; Tweed went to Cuba and then Spain. Tweed was identified, detained, and deported from Spain and spent the rest of his short life in prison (Lynch). Legend has it, Tweed was identified based on the Nast cartoon, “Tweed-lee-dee and Tilden-dum.”
Like the middle name, this legend has been presented as fact in researched histories and biographies for over a century. Today, historians are more skeptical of this legend, especially because there are no primary sources that have been identified to give any support to the tale. Tell someone who is familiar with the story of Tweed, however, and they’re likely to know about the legend.
Nast’s Tweed is a myth. According to Nast’s caricature of Boss Tweed, William Marcy Tweed was the most corrupt politician. Instead of being emblematic of an era, he was the leader of the corruption. We can’t know if the “Tweed-lee-dee” legend was presented during Nast’s time, or after, but this is an extension of Nast’s original myth. Tweed was evil, tried to escape his fate, and was caught by the newspaper-knight Thomas Nast. Tweed has been reduced to caricature and myth.
This is the true power and danger of the political cartoons. Cartoons can provide brilliant commentary, but they can also create dangerous simplifications of the issues. As cartoons live on, their context can be lost and forgotten.
Featured Image: Getty Images