Nonfiction History of United States: David McCullough’s The Great Bridge
i. Thesis Statement
During the building of Brooklyn Bridge in early the 1870s to 1880s, majority of the historians had emphasized the death (John Augustus Roebling) and sickness (Washington Roebling) of the two prominent characters as the project’s principal challenge. However, according to David McCullough (1933) in his nonfiction novel, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972), the corruption during the Tammany Hall era that caused the major delay and hardship in the building of the Brooklyn bridge.
ii. Background of the Study
The story of the book centers in three prominent characters who contributed greatly in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, particularly John Augustus Roebling (German-born engineer), Washington Roebling (J.A. Roebling’s son) and Emily Warren Roebling (W.Roebling’s wife). History had emphasized on John Washington’s death due to tetanus that eventually caused the failure of immediately implementing the designs of the bridge suspension. McCullough (1933) revealed in his novel that a corruption occurred during the time of civil war and economic issues in Tammany Hall era.
Overview of the Book
The controversy of Tammy Hall struck the historical background of the Brooklyn bridge and its economic significance in the history of United States. According to McCullough’s book, corruption had caused the entire delay of the project. In the beginning of the novel, John Roebling already established the plan for the Brooklyn Bridge on 1869; however, due to the various questionings (e.g. suspension scales, aerodynamics, etc.) and the holding of the budget within the Tammany Hall, the bridge project was delayed for at least three years before the actual construction proceeded. According to Jones (2007), the Tammany Hall was, by nature, a democratic party that controlled electoral decisions of New York City, immigrant support, and participated in political activities associated (94). However, by the time William Tweed (1823-1878) and his associates set within the hall, various issues of corruptions and illegal billings generated from public works and infrastructure had been associated within the hall.
According to McCullough, the Roebling’s were one of the many victims of Tweed’s Ring in terms of forcefully proposing 155 to 65% increase on public infrastructure budgetary needs (119). McCullough proposed that the corruption of William Tweed a.k.a “Boss Tweed” of Tammany Hall was the cause of the project delay and not entirely the social issues that occurred during that time. Although, McCullough supported the historical claims stating civil wars and social inconsistencies caused the slowing down of the construction. According to McCullough, if the corruption did not occur, Brooklyn bridge could have been finished in three and a half years and not more than 15 years.
Furthermore, the Brooklyn Bridge project should not have contributed in New York City debt increase from $36 million to $136 million in 1868 to 1870 if such corruption did no occur. In significance of this historical account, McCullough proposed that the problems of Brooklyn Bridge were not merely the disease chains among the Roebling father and son, but most appropriately, due to the heavy corruption that occurred even the project’s conception. Such issue illustrated how main cities of United States had experienced the effects of corruptions from fraud leadership and corrupted projects, which most historical accounts failed to expose. In fact, there were little available literatures depicting the corruption that occurred during the construction of the Brooklyn bridge.
Throughout the scenarios of McCullough’s revelations of the Brooklyn Bridge project, he stated various quantitative accounts that had been validated during the accounts assessment and budget evaluations of the Brooklyn Bridge project. In addition, Grand jury investigations and the sentences against William Tweed were parallel to the statements of McCullough (Vick 362). The sequence of dates and events, project account assessment and organizational supports (e.g. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York Bridge Company, etc.) had already validated the claims of McCullough (Miller 165). McCullough proposed few significant evidences that proved the occurrence of corruption through Boss Tweed and his associates (e.g. Francis I.A. Boole, etc). In his first argument, Tweed had not only desired the recollections from the government funds allocated to the Brooklyn bridge project; rather, Tweed had invaded the non-voting stocks and various accounts to place the project under his credit.
“Although there was substantial dispute at the time (e.g. civil war, trade route problems, etc), it appears that 1680 of the 5000 shares of voting stock plus $55,000 in cash was paid someone to Boss Tweed in return for arranging for New York City to contribute its cash subscription to non-voting stock” (McCullough 131)
McCullough proposed that the corruption occurred between Boss Tweed and the project’s general contractor, who held another 1600 shares in the Bridge Company. By making such joint deal with Tweed, the two-thirds of voting stock would be placed under their entitlement.
On the second argument, McCullough criticized the handling of Tweed and the forceful increase he had directed in the bridge’s budget proposal during the account assessment of the project. According to McCullough, “the $5,000,000 capitalization was chosen based upon a revised estimate presented to the legislature about which Roebling was not consulted, and did not agree” (119). After the release of the budget, the construction was already delayed from its official start, which was on 1869. From then on, corruption did not stop and feasibility demands of the project materials had also been compromised under the supervision of Tweed (e.g. Hewitt Wire Supplier controversy, etc.) (Miller 165; McCullough 374). The death of J.A. Roebling in 1869 due to Tetanus contributed to the delay of construction; however, McCullough did not consider this as a direct impact to the construction since the overall plan and proposals of the bridge had already been completed in 1867 and W. Roebling was appropriately trained by his father in continuing the construction. Although, according to McCullough, the corruption had progressed even after the death of J.A. Roebling until 1872.
Evaluation of the Author’s Assertion
Despite of the few literatures pertaining to the corruptions of the Brooklyn Bridge project, the gathered scholarly literatures supported the statements of David McCullough, especially the corruption and stolen accounts of William Tweed discovered in 1972. According to Miller (2001), the Brooklyn Bridge project was approved in March 3, 1869 since the New York Legislature had already approved the bridge design of J.A. Roebling on April 16, 1867 under the New York Bridge Company (164). Similar to the statements of McCullough in his book, the design was already ready in 1867 and placed under the property of New York Bridge Company under the representation of John Roebling.
After the approval and signing of contract, the Company had agreed to complete the task from January 1, 1870 until April 16, 1867 (three and a half year contract) (Miller 164). As supported by McMillan and Keith (1998), the United State’s Treasury Department by the Dockery Commission in 1895 had validated the grave corruptions that occurred in the 1870s channeled through public work projects (e.g. Brooklyn Bridge project, etc.) and campaigns initiated by the government. According to Miller (2001), then undisclosed ownership of William Tweed and a number of his associates was discovered in October 1872, which consequently caused the legislature to require the cities of Brooklyn and New York in May 1875 to buy out all the private shareholders in the New York Bridge Company in order to publicized the ownership and to complete the construction of the Brooklyn bridge (164). As added by McCullough, the risk of project incompletion was already at hand during that year due to the budget conspiracy that occurred.
Comparison of Author’s Interpretation
In comparison of the two reading materials, the issues of conspiracy and corruption, political abuse of powers and illicit public acts were indeed present during the 1870s. As with the statements and revelations of McCullough, Brooklyn Bridge project was only one of the proven corrupt government programs under the official, William Tweed. Political powers, associate conspiracies and regime tendencies (e.g. Tweed ring, etc.) had influenced the dirty schemes that occurred within the management of Tammany Hall. In addition, such schemes had greatly affected the trends of the present by public fund losses, increase of debts and the damage of public trust towards their local officials.
Opinion on Quality of Evidences
Considering the personal response towards the novel, the work of McCullough was fully supported by documents and legal accountant records proving the occurrence of such corruptions and public code violations under the leadership of William Tweed. In addition, the contents of the novel were validated by existing scholarly studies and government accounts. The Tammany hall was not entirely corrupt during the earlier days, and was actually functioning according to its rightful cause; however, as the fraud officials (e.g. William Tweed, Francis I.A. Boole, etc.) sat in their position, political abuse of powers and corruption had already occurred. This became the problem during the Brooklyn Bridge project, which eventually caused the (1) increase of New York City debt, (2) compromised the bridge construction deadline from 3 to almost 15 years, and (3) misplaced the budget allocated solely for the project. Overall, the book of McCullough was well written and tightly supported by facts and historical records.
Jonnes, Jill. Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: the Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels. New York, U.S.A: Viking Publishing, 2007.
Keith, P, and S J. McMillian. “Efficient accounting systems: justifying US accounting practice in an unregulated commercial environment.” Journal of Accounting History 3.1 (June 1998): 115-139.
McCullough, David. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York, U.S.A: Simon & Schuster Publishing, 1972.
Miller, John B. Principles of Public and Private Infrastructure Delivery. London, New York: Springer, 2001.
Vick, Steven G. Degrees of Belief: Subjective Probability and Engineering Judgment. New York, U.S.A: American Society of Civil Engineers Publications, 2002.