Heroes and Villains

“Boss” Tweed and Avarice

Students will explore the vice of greed in civil society in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine “Boss” Tweed and his corrupt New York political machine, how the vice of greed affected politics and civil society, through a historical narrative, discussion guide, and contemporary political cartoons by Thomas Nast. Students will also analyze vice by examining its opposite with contribution and philanthropy.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTION: What is the importance of charity in a healthy civil society?

We can expand our understanding of a vice by examining its opposite virtue. While the topic of this lesson is avarice, or greed, and how destructive it is to civil society, we can also explore how charity benefits civil society.

Individuals can benefit others and the larger society through charitable giving that demonstrates selflessness. Charity and philanthropy help shape a healthy civil society by promoting the virtues of contribution, justice, respect, and responsibility because republican self-government is predicated on the virtues of the people.

Great philanthropists have donated and continue to donate millions and even billions of dollars to charitable causes, and moral and social uplift to improve the lives of millions of fellow citizens. James Smithson, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates are only some of the wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs who have given their fortunes to help others. But, one does not need to be a billionaire to help others in the community. Together, ordinary Americans donate billions of dollars annually to causes in their communities, around the nation, and even around the world.


  • For the following series of charitable causes, have the students raise their hands if they would support giving to the cause.
    • A children’s hospital where families do not have to pay for services
    • A program to eliminate malaria or other diseases around the world
    • A public library with free books to borrow and computer services
    • An art museum or museum of natural history such as the Smithsonian museums
    • A public park with open spaces, sporting fields, walking and biking paths, and beautiful landscaping
    • School programs such as art and music, sports and extracurricular activities, and computer devices that are not funded by taxpayer money
    • Community theater where local actors perform well-known plays or original plays
    • Local sports leagues that need uniforms and sporting equipment
    • Local programs to deliver meals, clothing, and shelter to the underserved poor of the community
    • Humane societies and animal shelters
  • Ask the students why they would choose to support one of these charitable causes. Discuss the benefit to civil society if citizens donate their money to the good of others in society. Ask students what charitable causes exist in their community and what causes might need funding.
  • Time, talent, and treasure. Besides donating money, have students think of ways that they could donate their volunteer time or their talents to the above causes that they supported.

About Launch Activities

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

The streets of New York were a teeming place after the Civil War. The unpaved dirt streets were strewn with trash thrown from windows and horse manure from animals pulling carriages….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.

Allswang, John M. Bosses, Machines, and Urban Votes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Lynch, Dennis Tilden. Boss Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2002.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Batman Begins (2005), directed by Christopher Nolan
Bruce Wayne is a billionaire orphan who is trained in martial arts and assumes the identity of Batman to fight crime. The city of Gotham is filled with corrupt city officials and police officers, overrun by vice and crime, and controlled by a crime boss. As Batman, Wayne joins forces with a single good officer, Jim Gordon, and his friend, assistant district attorney, Rachel Dawes, to fight the rampant greed and corruption that plagues Gotham and its city government. Wayne never loses faith in the citizens’ desire and ability to create a better Gotham.

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
Veruca Salt is a greedy and spoiled child who demands that her every wish be fulfilled. In this early scene in the book (and in two different versions of the movie), Veruca screams at her father to spend a fortune on candy bars that might hold a Golden Ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Her greed will later get her into trouble and causes Mr. Wonka not to select her to inherit the factory.

“As soon as my little girl told me that she simply had to have one of those Golden Tickets, I went out into the town and started buying up all the Wonka candy bars I could lay my hands on. Thousands of them, I must have bought. Hundreds of thousands!….But three days went by, and we had no luck. Oh, it was terrible! My little Veruca got more and more upset each day, and every time I went home she would scream at me, ‘Where’s my Golden Ticket! I want my Golden Ticket!’ And she would lie for ours on the floor, kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way.”

The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The Gangs of New York, (2002) directed by Martin Scorsese
“Midas—and Others” in Mythology by Edith Hamilton
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, (1939) directed by Frank Capra
The Untouchables, (1987) directed by Brian De Palma

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