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Politics in Muckrakers & Reformers

Grass Roots

In 1904, muckraker Lincoln Steffens compiled his recent periodical articles into a collection that dubbed corrupt machine politics The Shame of the Cities. Chronicling the bribery and corruption that plagued many American municipalities, from St. Louis to New York, Steffens argued that Americans must shed their propensity for ethnic stereotyping and scapegoating if they ever hoped to effectively reform their government. While Steffens interviewed a New Yorker who blamed political corruption on the "Catholic Irish," he found the same problems in "St. Louis, a German city," and "Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders." Everywhere he went, the ethnic composition of politicians changed, but the political corruption remained. For Steffens, the explanation of the true problem was a simple one: "politics is business. That's what's the matter with it."65 To combat this infusion of money into the political system, Steffens suggested that party loyalty should be a thing of the past, that voters should cast their ballots on the true merits of individual candidates rather than allegiance to parties. Yet Steffens eventually became disillusioned with the entire system of American democracy and embraced socialism as a remedy to "that which makes good men do bad things"—which was, in Steffens's ultimate opinion, the influence of capitalism on American politics.66

Most Progressives were not willing to take such a radical step. Instead, they aimed their reformist zeal at the place where government seemed the most inefficient and corrupt: the local level. Progressives sought not only to improve the government's role in people's daily lives but to reform the structure of government itself, albeit in a more conservative fashion than Steffens's socialism. Progressive mayors and governors captured control of local politics in several Midwestern cities and states, turning their jurisdictions into laboratories of Progressive reform.

John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois from 1892 to 1896, was a German immigrant with little formal schooling who had initially made his reputation by arguing that the American judicial system was weighted against the poor. He continued to champion the cause of social equality, worker's rights, and poor relief throughout his tenure in office. Altgeld pardoned the three surviving anarchists who were convicted in the infamous Haymarket Square bombing of 1886, arguing that they had not been granted their constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial, and that they were convicted on insufficient evidence. (The Haymarket incident took place in Chicago during a workers' rally for an eight-hour day, when a bomb was thrown into a crowd of some 1,500 people, killing seven policemen and four civilians. Eight anarchist leaders were tried and convicted of inciting violence, though no evidence was ever produced that they had made or thrown the bomb, or even knew the bomber at all.) Altgeld also denounced fellow Democrat and President Grover Cleveland for his decision to send federal troops into Illinois during the Pullman Corporation strike of 1894. Altgeld had actively campaigned for Cleveland during the 1884 presidential election, but he was outraged by what he considered to be the "unconstitutional" use of the Army for the purposes of "government by injunction."67 Altgeld was willing to use the state militia in order to maintain law and order during labor uprisings, but he was staunchly opposed to the deployment of troops for the purpose of breaking a strike or committing any violence toward workers.

In Detroit, Michigan, Mayor Hazen Pingree—a former factory worker—forced telephone and gas companies to lower their rates and established a municipal power plant. In Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Tom L. Johnson held public meetings in a giant circus tent in order to get his constituents involved with the governing process. Johnson had made his money building street railways in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Detroit, and that experience showed him first-hand the detrimental effects of "bossism"—the domination of urban party organizations by a single "boss"—in politics. Steffens called Johnson the "best mayor of the best-governed city in the United States."68 Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones was a factory owner in Toldeo, Ohio, who gave his workers paid vacations and an eight-hour workday before he was elected mayor in 1897. As mayor, Jones went on to support workers' unions, the construction of new parks throughout the city, and free kindergartens and night schools for the people of Toledo.

In 1900, a devastating category-four hurricane produced a tidal wave that deluged the Gulf Coast community of Galveston, Texas. Natural disaster was compounded by a second tragedy of human making: Galveston's City Council failed to effectively administer relief and provide for reconstruction. Appalled by the city's lack of response to the hurricane crisis, the state stepped in in 1901 to appoint a five-man commission of experts to assume the duties of municipal governance. The commission plan (or system) of government was a departure from the traditional municipal structure in that it replaced the traditional city council with an elected commission of three to seven people. Each commissioner served as the head of a city department, with the presiding commissioner serving as mayor. The commissioners were essentially municipal directors who were elected every two years, and who were supposed to be more accountable to the voters and therefore more focused on business and economics than the in preexisting system, which functioned on the basis of political patronage and corruption. The commission government of Galveston did so well that it stayed on after its immediate recovery responsibilities were concluded, and the "Galveston system" became a Progressive model for effective local management.

Another disaster in Dayton, Ohio created another Progressive model: the city manager. After a devastating flood in 1913, the city commissioners appointed a professional city manager to supervise the municipal departments. Within a decade, more than 300 American cities had appointed city managers. Both commission governments and city experts embodied the Progressive faith in expertise, efficiency, and order as the keys to social progress. Such solutions seemed all the more impressive in contrast to the corrupt old patronage system, in which a handful of well-connected political bosses profited handsomely by doling out party jobs as "rewards" for loyal supporters and abusing their authority in order to maintain power.

At the state level, Progressives initiated the direct primary to combat the stranglehold of the political machines by denying them control over the party nomination process. By 1916, every state but three—Rhode Island, New Mexico, and Connecticut—had adopted some version of the direct primary, allowing voters to decide which candidates would receive party nominations for office. To make elected leaders more accountable, reformers also devised the recall, which even extended into the judiciary (an unpopular group in the Gilded Age, given judges' propensity for overturning reform legislation). Corrupt (or even merely unpopular) lawmakers and judges could be tossed out of office by angry voters. Finally, Progressives devised the referendum—by which the electorate could reject or approve laws passed by the state legislature—and the initiative, a provision that empowered voters themselves to propose legislation.

The Progressive electoral reforms—primary, referendum, recall, and initiative—were all designed to strip political power from corrupt insiders while giving it back to ordinary voters. Yet, over time, some of these well-intended reforms fell prey to the very influences of wealth and power they were designed to thrwart. Municipal measures like the adoption of commission governments and city managers made local governance more efficient, but also more concentrated into fewer hands, and not necessarily more responsive to the needs of the community. The recall has seldom been employed. Since its inception, the initiative in practice has often served anti-democratic ends, as a handful of powerful sponsors have used the tool to propose legislation that served their own special interests. The Progressives failed in their ultimate goal of taking power away from "the interests" and returning it to "the people." As historian Leon F. Litwack has astutely observed, "outbursts of reform lasted only a short time, rising or falling with the enthusiasm of one outstanding leader. The professional, full-time bosses usually outlasted the amateurs; they became somewhat more careful, perhaps, but they were still powerful."69 Progressives devised many innovative and sometimes substantive democratic reforms, but their well-intentioned efforts did not always yield sure-fire results. Admirable reformist ideas were always beset by the ever-present factors of greed, corruption, and self-interested power. Not even the heralded virtues of expertise and technological development were foolproof safeguards against social problems that may, in the end, be endemic to the human condition.

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