eter Sweeny was born in New York City to Mary Barr Sweeny and James Sweeny,
immigrant Irish saloonkeepers. As a boy, he attended Catholic schools and
sometimes worked in his father's Jersey City saloon. He entered Columbia College
but left to study law under James T. Brady, an important Democratic politician.
He passed the New York bar and by 1852 had made partner at Willard, Sweeny, and
Anderson. The law firm specialized in procuring exclusive government franchises
for businesses to furnish municipal services such as utilities and
Since political contacts and clout were the lifeblood of the law firm, Sweeny
entered local politics in the 1850s as a leader in the Twentieth Ward and a
member of the general committee of the Tammany Society, the main Democratic
organization in New York City. An intelligent but shy man, Sweeny preferred
back-room negotiations to stumping for office. In 1854 he served as a lobbyist
at the state capital for various utility and transportation companies and banks.
He also served on several of their boards and became rich from investing in
them. He did run for office once, winning the position of district attorney in
1857. But he suffered an emotional breakdown during his first jury trial and
consequently resigned from office.
Ironically, like urban reformers, Sweeny despised what he perceived as the
infighting and inefficiency of democratic politics and sought to impose
centralized control to expand and improve city services like in Paris and other
European cities. But his method of accomplishing that goal was to help create a
dominant political machine-Tammany Hall-based on patronage and favor-granting to
businessmen, investors, judges, and politicians, practices that reformers
characterized as corrupt. Sweeny became known as the "Brains" behind
"Boss" William Tweed.
By 1863 Sweeny dominated Tammany's general committee, and in 1866 was appointed
city chamberlain (i.e., treasurer) by Mayor John Hoffman. In the past, the
unsalaried chamberlains had appropriated the interest off invested city monies
for their compensation. Sweeny, however, abandoned that ethically and legally
dubious custom in lieu of a nominal salary. He managed the mayoral nomination
and victory of A. Oakey Hall in 1868. A new city charter concentrated power in a
board consisting of Hall, Sweeny, and Tweed. Greatly expanding contracted city
services opened the possibility of taking kickbacks and making investments in
the franchised monopolies. When he was named director of the parks department in
1870, Sweeny switched funding from Central Park to parks in working-class
neighborhoods and swelled the employment roll.
The exposure of Tweed Ring corruption by the New York Times and Harper's Weekly,
beginning in 1871, provoked Sweeny to resign and abscond to France. His property
was valued at $6 million, and he agreed to pay a settlement of $400,000 to avoid
prosecution. Retired in disgrace from public life, he divided his time between
Paris and New York.