When the political leader “Boss” Tweed was arrested in New York on corruption charges in the fall of 1871, among his many assets was a luxury hotel.Located up the road from City Hall, the Metropolitan was a 400-room, five-story building described at its 1852 opening as a site that “fairly dazzles and bewilders the visitor, and causes him to think of the palaces of ‘Arabian Nights’ tales.
” Tweed had acquired the hotel at the peak of his political power. He renovated the Italian Renaissance-style building at great expense, and he turned over management to his son, Richard.Advertisement:The city’s elite patronized the hotel from day one, and it was the epicenter of business and politics in New York.
Tweed held court there when managing public affairs as the head of Tammany Hall, a powerful Democratic political machine.His downfall, however, transformed the Metropolitan into an unlikely monument to scandal. Boss Tweed had bankrupted the city by embezzling funds while building himself a vast business empire.
Today, politics is again a place to make a fortune, at least for one prominent politician. Shortly before winning the 2016 election, Donald Trump celebrated the grand opening of Trump International Hotel, down the street from the White House. In 2018 alone, the D.C. hotel generated US$40 million in revenue by drawing heavily from a clientele with government business.
Unlike other modern presidents, Trump refuses to divest from personal business, raising the question where the search for profit ends and his public service begins.But if the situation appears new, it is hardly unprecedented.
Boss Tweed, depicted by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly in 1871.
WikipediaParty businessThe Gilded Age, which lasted from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, was a period when wealth flowed from success in politics.Advertisement:Leaders in both parties became powerful and rich, building personal influence, crafting alliances, generating money and constructing the political machines necessary to win elections — all while serving in government.
When researching my upcoming book, “Electoral Capitalism: The Party System In New York’s Gilded Age,” I found political fortunes that were quite impressive. Politicians in New York and elsewhere made themselves into some of the country’s earliest millionaires.During that period, what qualified individuals for party leadership was their ability to use the electoral system to finance a range of personal and political ventures.
For example, Tweed’s political ascent spawned an entire financial sector owned and managed by Tammany Hall.Advertisement:As state senator, he supported the legislative charter of new savings banks headed by himself and other Tammany politicians. The capital of these banks came from city funds which Tweed controlled from his seat on the Board of Audit, corporate donors looking for political favors,.