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Wednesday April 17, 2024

People’s verdict

The book also recounts how Tweed courted immigrants and turned the New York Supreme Court into a “naturalization mill”

By Mir Adnan Aziz
February 20, 2024
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) hold a protest demonstration against alleged rigging in General Election 2024, held at Ring Road in Peshawar on February 17, 2024. — PPI
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) hold a protest demonstration against alleged rigging in General Election 2024, held at Ring Road in Peshawar on February 17, 2024. — PPI

Electoral fraud is as old as choosing a ruler itself. The high priests of Rome would add days and even months to the Roman calendar to keep compliant officials in office longer than their tenure or strike days off to shorten that of non-compliant ones.

Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy. Here, in the 1960s, archaeologists made a remarkable discovery at a landfill. They discovered a heap of 8,500 ostaraka or ceramic tokens used as ballots. Researchers deduced that these were votes from 471 BC, organized by an opposing group to be cast by dubious means.

In more recent history, one of the most monumental characters who ascended to great influence in American politics was William Magear Tweed, a 19th-century fireman-turned-politician. His motto was: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating”. Kenneth Ackerman describes him in his book ‘Boss Tweed’ as one who “orchestrated massive voter fraud, used patronage and bribery to sway judges, drained the city’s coffers and made money through such shady deals as faked leases and selling overpriced products and services to the city on a massive scale.”

The book also recounts how Tweed courted immigrants and turned the New York Supreme Court into a “naturalization mill”. This was evident by the fact that in a span of 20 days, he expanded the pool of eligible immigrant voters from a few hundred to 60,000 by bribing the judges.

In 1861, the foundation stone for the New York County Courthouse was laid. Tweed purchased a marble quarry in Massachusetts to supply the stone. His appointed contractors inflated invoices raising the original $.25 million budget to $12 million. The building earned infamy as the Tweed Courthouse.

A 10.5-carat diamond solitaire stickpin adorned Tweed’s chest. The Common Council he headed consisted of 20 Aldermen (municipal legislators) and 20 Assistant Aldermen. With the power to appoint policemen and precinct commanders, judge criminal trials and license saloons, they gained notoriety as the ‘Forty Thieves’ (rings a bell!).

Eventually, it was Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, who would bring about the downfall of Boss Tweed. The Nast cartoons irked Tweed to a degree that he is said to have burst out: “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing these damned pictures!”

Undeterred, Nast’s scathing images in Harper’s weekly helped New York voters to oust Tweed from the corrupt leadership of Tammany Hall, a political machine that had embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars and bribed critics into silence. Nast’s cartoon depicted this fall as that of Roman Consul Caius Marius who was exiled in disgrace to the ruined city of Carthage. He portrayed Tweed as wearing a crown of dollars leaning on an empty treasury box with a broken sword and yet glaring in defiant disbelief.

Countries and nations have moved on from these beginnings of corruption and patronage to build a governance system and society built on justice, accountability and order. Unfortunately, our power elite remains ever-mired to alter realities through deception. Magicians make people disappear, cut people in halves and pull out rabbits from hats. Harmless illusions otherwise, they become sinister acts when perpetrated in reality.

Political philosopher Juan Linz asserted that democracy can never be consolidated until it becomes the only game in town. This, he said, can only be achieved when (i) each power centre actor accepts the legitimacy and supremacy of the system (ii) when citizens identify with the existing constitutional order and (iii) when any change to the existing order can take place only through due process and within a binding constitutional framework.

Unfortunately, our power elite has always dismissed these essentials. Realities have always been altered through deception. Roman philosopher Seneca cautioned centuries ago that ‘to err is human but to persist is diabolical’. The past cannot be undone but the future can be different only if mistakes of the past are acknowledged and shunned.

There has been so much corruption and injustice, so much greed leading to shattered dreams. Patronage and want have been exalted; sincerity and honesty have been scorned. Laying their faith in an incarcerated individual, the people have thwarted the attempt to eject bunnies out of hats.

Each audacious and oppressive attempt has been foiled as the people moreover the women, salute to them, have spoken despite all odds. No individual or power centre, however strong, has any right whatsoever to infringe upon this resounding verdict by the people. Not anymore!


The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at: miradnanaziz@gmail.com