Modern history

Urban Politics at the Turn of the Century

The problems that booming cities faced in trying to absorb millions of immigrants proved formidable and at times seemed insurmountable. From a governmental standpoint, cities had limited authority over their own affairs. They were controlled by state legislatures and needed state approval to raise revenues and pass regulations. For the most part, there were no zoning laws to regulate housing construction. Private companies owned public utilities, and competition among them produced unnecessary duplication and waste. The government services that did exist operated on a segmented basis, with the emphasis on serving wealthier neighborhoods at the expense of the city at large. Missing was a vision of the city as a whole, one that would view the distinct sections as part of a larger tapestry. Cities had become so large and complex that no one could stand back and see the entire picture.

Philadelphia, 1897 This photograph shows the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, which along with other cities grew enormously in the late nineteenth century. Urban politicians had to grapple with the challenges posed by the incredible pace of change, including the rapid influx of immigrants. The presence in this scene of carts, a horse, and a streetcar shows a city in transition. Library of Congress

Political Machines and City Bosses

City government in the late nineteenth century was fragmented. Mayors usually did not have much power, and decisions involving public policies such as housing, transportation, and municipal services often rested in the hands of private developers. For instance, by 1890 Chicago had eleven branches of government that were constantly at odds with one another. Bringing some order out of this chaos, the political machine functioned to give cities the centralized authority and services that they otherwise lacked. At the head of the machine was the political boss. Although the boss himself (and they were all men) held some public office, his real authority came from leadership of the machine. These organizations maintained a tight network of loyalists throughout city wards (districts), each of which contained designated representatives responsible for catering to the needs of their constituents. Whether Democratic or Republican, political machines did not care about philosophical issues; they were concerned primarily with staying in power.

The strength of political machines rested in large measure on immigrants. The organization provided a kind of public welfare when private charity could not cope satisfactorily with the growing needs of the poor. Machines doled out turkeys on holidays, furnished a load of coal for the winter, provided jobs in public construction, arranged for shelter and meals if tenement houses burned down, and intervened with the police and the courts when a constituent got into trouble. Bosses sponsored baseball clubs, held barbecues and picnics, and attended christenings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals, sometimes all in a single day. As George Washington Plunkitt, a boss in New York City’s Tammany Hall machine, reflected, it was a “strenuous life.” For enterprising members of immigrant groups—and this proved especially true for the Irish during this period—the machine offered upward mobility out of poverty as they rose through its ranks.

The poor were not the only group that benefited from connections to political machines. The machine and its functionaries helped businessmen maneuver through the maze of contradictory and overlapping codes regulating building and licenses that impeded their routine course of activities. In addition to assisting legitimate businessmen, the machine facilitated the underworld commerce of vice, prostitution, and gambling by acting as an arbiter to keep this trade within established boundaries—all for a cut of the illegal profits.

In return for these services, the machine received the votes of grateful immigrants and a plentiful supply of funds from businessmen. When challenged by reformers or other political rivals, the machine readily engaged in corrupt election practices to maintain its power. Mobilizing the “graveyard vote,” bosses took names from tombstones to pad lists of registered voters. They also hired “repeaters” to vote more than once under phony names and did not flinch from dumping whole ballot boxes into the river or using hired thugs to scare opponents from the polls.

Bosses enriched themselves through graft and corruption. They secured protection money from both legitimate and illegitimate business interests in return for their services. Boss William Marcy Tweed, the head of Tammany Hall in the 1860s and 1870s, swindled New York City out of a fortune while supervising the construction of a lavish three-story courthouse in lower Manhattan. The original budget for the building was $250,000, but the city spent more than $13 million on the structure, making out checks to Tweed’s phony associates “T. C. Cash” and “Philip F. Dummey.” The building remained unfinished in 1873, when Tweed was convicted on fraud charges and went to jail. In later years, Tammany Hall’s Plunkitt distinguished this kind of “dishonest graft” from the kind of “honest graft” that he practiced. If he received inside information about a future sale of city property, Plunkitt reasoned, why shouldn’t he get a head start, buy it at a low price, and then sell it at a higher figure? As he delighted in saying, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” What could be more American?

Yet the services of political machines came at a high cost. Corruption and graft led to higher taxes on middle-class residents. Moreover, the image of the political boss as a modern-day Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor is greatly exaggerated. Much of the proceeds of machine activities went into the private coffers of machine bosses and other functionaries and did not go to worthy public ventures. Trafficking in vice might have run more smoothly under the coordination of the machine, but the safety and health of city residents hardly improved. Most importantly, although immigrants and the poor did benefit from an informal system of social welfare, the machine had no interest in resolving the underlying causes of their problems. As the dominant urban political party organization, the machine cared little about issues such as good housing, job safety, and sufficient wages. The British observer James Bryce, who toured America in the late 1880s and admired much of what he saw, nevertheless judged the machine-controlled municipal governments to be “the one conspicuous failure of the United States.” It remained for others to provide alternative approaches to relieving the plight of the urban poor.

Urban Reformers

The men and women who criticized the political bosses and machines—and the corruption and vice they fostered—usually came from the ranks of the upper middle class and the wealthy. Their solutions to the urban crisis typically centered around toppling the political machine and replacing it with a civil service that would allow government to function on the basis of merit rather than influence peddling and cronyism. Both locally and nationally, they pushed for civil service reform. In 1883 Congress responded to this demand by passing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which required federal jobs to be awarded on the basis of merit, as determined by competitive examinations, rather than through political connections. As for the immigrants who supported machine politics, these reformers preferred to deal with them from afar and expected that through proper education they might change their lifestyles and adopt American ways.

Another group of Americans from upper- and middle-class backgrounds put aside whatever prejudices they might have held about working-class immigrants and dealt directly with newcomers to try to solve various social problems. These reformers—mostly young people, and many of them women and college graduates—took up residence in settlement houses located in urban slums. Settlement houses offered a variety of services to community residents, including day care for children; cooking, sewing, and secretarial classes; neighborhood playgrounds; counseling sessions; and meeting rooms for labor unions. Settlement house organizers, pioneers of the social work profession, understood that immigrants gravitated to the political machine or congregated in the local tavern not because they were inherently immoral but because these institutions helped mitigate their suffering and, in some cases, offered concrete paths to advancement. Although settlement house workers wanted to Americanize immigrants, they also understood immigrants’ need to hold on to remnants of their original culture.

By 1900 approximately one hundred settlement houses had been established in major American cities. Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago, contended that “the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal” and insisted that “the things which make men alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart.” Other settlement houses reflecting a similar philosophy included the South End House in Boston, directed by Robert A. Woods, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, founded by Lillian Wald. Addams and Wald, as well as other social workers, preferred a hands-on approach. They actively mobilized neighborhood residents to engage in politics and to vote for candidates who understood their problems and would campaign for improved garbage collection, housing inspection, better schools, and other community improvements.

Religiously inspired reform provided similar support for slum dwellers. In contrast to clergy such as Russell Conwell (see chapter 16), who emphasized cash more than Christ, some Protestant ministers began to argue that immigrants’ problems resulted not from chronic racial or ethnic failings but from their difficult environment. One of the best-known figures among this group was Washington Gladden, a minister who had lived in Springfield and Columbus, Ohio. Originally a defender of laissez-faire, by the mid-1880s Gladden had come to believe that unregulated private enterprise was “inequitable.” He compared financial speculators to vampires “sucking the life-blood of our commerce.” In books and from the pulpit, Gladden preached Christianity as a “social gospel,” which included support for civil service reform, antimonopoly regulation, income tax legislation, factory inspection laws, and workers’ right to strike.

Despite the efforts of social gospel advocates and the charitable organizations that arose to help relieve human misery, such as the Salvation Army, private attempts to combat the various urban ills, however well-meaning, proved insufficient. The problems were structural, not personal, and one group or even several operating together did not have the resources or power to make urban institutions more efficient, equitable, and humane. As Jane Addams noted, “Private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city’s disinherited.” If reformers were to succeed in tackling the most significant social problems and make lasting changes in American society and politics, they would have to enlist state and federal governments.


• What role did political machines play in late-nineteenth-century cities?

• Who led the opposition to machine control of city politics, and what solutions and alternatives did they offer?

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