Urban Politics in the United States before 1940
Summary and Keywords
The convergence of mass politics and the growth of cities in 19th-century America produced sharp debates over the character of politics in urban settings. The development of what came to be called machine politics, primarily in the industrial cities of the East and Midwest, generated sharp criticism of its reliance on the distribution of patronage and favor trading, its emphatic partisanship, and the plebian character of the “bosses” who practiced it. Initially, upper- and middle-class businessmen spearheaded opposition to this kind of politics, but during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, labor activists, women reformers, and even some ethnic spokespersons confronted “boss rule” as well. These challenges did not succeed in bringing an end to machine politics where it was well established, but the reforms they generated during the Progressive Era reshaped local government in most cities. In the West and Southwest, where cities were younger and partisan organizations less entrenched, business leaders implemented Progressive municipal reforms to consolidate their power. Whether dominated by reform regime or a party machine, urban politics and governance became more centralized by 1940 and less responsive to the concerns and demands of workers and immigrants.
The development of cities in the United States was as much a political problem as it was a social challenge. Belief in the necessity of moral consensus as the basis for politics, an expectation that leaders would possess civic virtue, and an assumption that respected gentlemen would emerge organically as communal leaders were among the ideals inherited from the colonial period. These precepts retained a purchase on the nation’s political imagination well into the 19th century, but they fit poorly with the heterogeneity, conflict, and anonymity of urban life. The result was ongoing tensions that developed around the question of how democratic politics should work in big cities.
The sharpest disagreements centered upon “bosses” and “machines.” By the middle of the 19th century, urban party leaders had come to rely heavily on a transactional method in which they exchanged patronage and services for electoral support. Patronage was not new, but its use and variety expanded dramatically as cities grew. The men who employed this approach were called bosses, and the organizations they headed came to be called machines. While these terms applied to American politics as a whole, they came to be most closely associated with public life in urban settings. During the final decades of the 19th century, bosses and machines faced withering attacks from business elites, as well as from labor groups, activist women, and some ethnic communities. These critics were not powerful enough to uproot the bosses or displace their machines, but they did succeed in achieving reforms that centralized the operations of municipal government and expanded the role of the state in addressing social problems.
The Rise of Machine Politics
By the middle of the 19th century, the largest cities in the United States were generating new forms of politics and requiring new forms of governance. Initial reservations about cities as corrupting forces—“pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” in Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted phrase—gave way to acknowledgement and ultimately acceptance of urbanization over the course of the 19th century.1 Public life in these new environments assumed a different form, one that featured working-class leaders, sharp social and cultural conflict, and the open exchange of votes for favors. Although these characteristics generated substantial consternation, they nonetheless became established features of big-city politics by the latter part of the 19th century.
Significant urban growth was evident in the United States by 1840. By the end of the century the country possessed several major metropolitan centers. In 1860 New York City was home to more than 800,000 people, Philadelphia’s population exceeded 500,000, and Chicago, little more than a camp in 1830, had grown to 109,000 residents. A massive surge of American productive capacity after the Civil War fueled further urbanization. By 1900 more than 30 million people lived in cities. After consolidating with neighboring Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island in 1898, New York City’s population reached 3.4 million, while Philadelphia and Chicago each boasted more than a million residents as the 20th century commenced. According to official accounting, more than 50 million people lived in cities in 1920, marking the point at which a majority of the U.S. population resided in communities that the Census Bureau classified as urban.
There were regional variations to this pattern. A mix of commerce and industry propelled the continued growth of eastern cities and Chicago, while manufacturing drove the development of midwestern cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit, each of which boasted populations of more than 250,000 people in 1900. Trade and resource attraction fueled modest urban growth in the West before 1900, with San Francisco and Denver being the largest cities in the region. After 1900, western and southwestern urbanization would accelerated, with Los Angeles becoming the nation’s fifth-largest city by 1940. City growth in the agricultural South was limited, although market centers such as Atlanta and New Orleans experienced significant population increases during the early 20th century.2
Urbanization produced social heterogeneity, even before the Civil War. Class gradations sharpened and took on greater significance during the early stages of American industrialization. The “mechanics interests” of the 18th and early 19th centuries became “workingmen’s” parties and trade unions in many cities as early as the 1830s, making labor protests and strikes common features of the urban scene. At the same time, a surge in immigration quickly transformed eastern cities into polyglot communities. By the 1850s more than half of the residents of New York City and Boston and a third of Philadelphians were foreign-born. Urban social geography featured slum districts and ethnic enclaves. The visibility of these settings reinforced what the poet Edwin Hubbell Chapin called the “first lesson” of city life: “the diversities of human condition.”3
Social differences generated an abundance of conflicts. Workers clashed with proprietors over wages, hours, and control of shop floors. Catholics battled Protestants, often violently, over matters of schooling, temperance, and observance of the Sabbath. Immigrants demanded civil rights in the face of nativist opposition. Business interests also pursued development opportunities, often at the expense of other portions of the community. These conflicts mattered politically in large part because of the establishment of universal white male suffrage between 1820 and 1840 in the United States. Enterprising office seekers exploited group conflicts to attract newly enfranchised voters, exacerbating social tensions in the process.
Inherited prescriptions for the conduct of public life fit poorly with this environment and quickly gave way to a plebian style of mass politics. The 18th-century ideal in which a selfless gentleman of social standing naturally assumed the role of civic leader and served the interests of a morally united community gave way to a grassroots urban ethic that celebrated working-class leadership and embraced conflict. One progenitor of this new approach was Mike Walsh, who emerged from the workingmen’s movement in New York City. He headed the Spartan Association, which was part gang, part political organization, and he used the group as a springboard for his own political ambitions during the 1840s. He expressly rejected the gentlemanly style, emphasized his proletarian roots, and welcomed combat, whether verbal or physical, as a core element of politics.4 Politicians of a similar character soon became a common feature of public life in the poor and working-class districts of large cities.
The manner in which these figures came to be called bosses underscores a key element of their method. The term boss is a derivation of baas, a Dutch word for “master.” Perhaps out of a concern to avoid the use of “master” because it evoked slavery, workers in and around New York City called small-scale employers and foremen “bosses.” Supervisors in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a key source of public employment, were among those who gave this label a political meaning during the 1840s, when they began to assign jobs on the basis of partisan loyalty. “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, who became the dominant Democrat in Brooklyn for several decades following the Civil War, used his authority over hiring in the Navy Yard to assemble a political following and rise through the party’s ranks.5 Although these kinds of patronage practices, along with other exchanges of benefits and favors for political support, were not limited to urban environs, they came to be a characteristic element of big-city public life in 19th-century America. In the eyes of some, they represented a form of corruption.
Boss politics of this sort developed chiefly at the grassroots level before the Civil War. Men of social standing were still likely to serve as mayor, in Congress, and in other citywide offices during these years, even as plebian figures dominated lower-class districts. Prominent business leaders and men from well-regarded families, such as Richard Vaux in Philadelphia, Josiah Quincy in Boston, and New York’s William Havermeyer, were among those who remained active politically, even as others of their class increasingly directed their energies to the business and philanthropic realms. Most voters, it seemed, were not ready to embrace citywide leaders who adopted the methods and style of bosses.
One exception to this pattern during the antebellum period was New York’s Fernando Wood, a controversial figure whom some scholars have classified as the first citywide boss. From a poor family, Wood became wealthy through marriage and through what some observers charged were dishonest business dealings. During the 1830s, he joined Tammany Hall, at the time one of several factions within the local Democratic Party, where he expressed sympathy for working-class interests. Eventually elected mayor in 1854, reelected in 1856, and, after a defeat, elected once more in 1860, he employed many of the patronage practices, favor trading, and cultural appeals that came to define boss politics. He defended them as necessary to govern a city as heterogeneous as New York, but he also emphasized his concern for the common good and his supposed willingness to forgo personal gain in favor of the betterment of the community. Such protestations were cover for more self-serving conduct, but they highlight the unease that greeted the emergence of an openly transactional style of politics in large cities.6
After the Civil War these methods of politics became pervasive, although centralized control remained uncommon. Ground-level urban politics during this period was highly competitive, with most districts subject to frequent, intense battles for supremacy among rival factions. In some instances a particular leader gained firm control of a single district. Politicians such as Martin Lomasney in Boston’s West End, Jim Pendergast in Kansas City’s First Ward, or Chicago’s John Powers dominated their neighborhoods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But before the 1890s it was unusual for a single figure to emerge as a citywide boss heading an extensive organization that was capable of managing the affairs of the dominant party across an entire city. One exception was William Magear Tweed, who headed a small group within the Tammany Hall organization that gained control of New York City government during the late 1860s. The “Tweed Ring” all but looted the city treasury and soon found itself immersed in a scandal that led to its undoing and galvanized antimachine campaigns across the country. Christopher Buckley managed to ride herd on San Francisco’s Democrats and control local politics for a few years during the 1880s and Tammany’s John Kelly, and his successor, Richard Croker, succeeded in reviving the organization after the Tweed scandal and consolidating control of New York City’s dominant Democratic Party during the same decade. Durable Republican machines emerged in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh during the Gilded Age, and George Cox became the most powerful political figure in Cincinnati by the late 1880s. Still, factional divisions, sharp intraparty competition, and coalition building were at least as common as boss rule in large cities through the final decades of the 19th century. If not as blatantly corrupt as the Tweed Ring, many, if not most, party politicians pursued opportunities for self-enrichment through the “honest graft” so colorfully described by Tammanyite George Washington Plunkitt.7
The Spread of Municipal Reform
Although the laws of physics do not apply to politics, it is hardly surprising that the rise of boss politics produced a nearly equal and opposite reaction. Critics of the partisan practices of urban public life appeared almost as quickly as did bosses, and they consolidated roughly as quickly as big-city machines did. Initial responses were intermittent and ad hoc. As party organizations gained power during the late 19th century, reformers established more permanent groups of their own that aimed to end boss rule. For the most part they failed to achieve that goal, but antimachine efforts would succeed in reshaping the structure of urban politics and governance during the early 20th century.
The growth of bossism during the 1840s and 1850s elicited a good deal of grumbling but only sporadic or ineffective attempts to eliminate it. In what would become a common strategy, Whigs and Republicans challenged growing Democratic power in New York City by using their control of state government to create agencies such as the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Board of Health, and the Croton Water Board. Designed to provide a counterweight to allegedly corrupt influences in New York’s municipal government, these bodies spurred conflict but did not dislodge Democratic bosses. Leading New York businessmen also organized the City Reform League in 1852 to stop the “robbery” of the city’s taxpayers and to ensure that “men of character” filled municipal offices. Hampered in part by connections to nativism and class resentment, as well as accusations of partisanship, this reform effort was short-lived, as were several similar campaigns in other cities before the Civil War. During that conflict, insistence on unity and the formation of cross-party Union Leagues all but eliminated party competition. Only in its wake would the state of city politics begin to attract sustained concern.8
The sensational scandal surrounding the Tweed Ring helped make big-city politics the subject of national debate. Tweed, a former volunteer fireman and street politician, along with a handful of colleagues, secured control of Tammany Hall; the local Democratic Party organization; and, from 1866 to 1871, City Hall. They used their power to enrich themselves, organizing kickbacks and bribes as they facilitated the city’s rapid postwar development. Matters came to a head in 1871 when the New York Times published ledgers obtained from a disgruntled coconspirator that documented the depredations of Tweed and his confederates. Public outrage followed, the “Tweed Ring” was removed from power, and the subsequent legal proceedings lasted through most of the 1870s. The scandal’s impact spread well beyond New York, earning front-page reports and stern editorializing about “Boss Tweed” in newspapers around the country. A series of powerful cartoons by Harper’s Weekly artist Thomas Nast made “Boss Tweed” a familiar figure and the archetypally corrupt urban politician.9
In the wake of the Tweed Ring scandal a new term became part of the standard political vocabulary, one that captured the social dynamics of the debate over the character of urban politics. By the end of the 1870s, reformers had popularized use of the term machine to describe party organizations. Although it was not exclusively applied to city politics, the notion of “machine” politics, or the “political machine,” became closely associated with urban party organizations. In some respects it was a misnomer, suggesting a degree of efficiency and coordination that was only rarely achieved during the late 19th century, but its symbolic properties were powerful and useful. It allowed critics to depict party politicians as lower-class factory operatives, familiar with “the wheels, shafts, and bands of the party machine,” in James Bryce’s suggestive phrase.10 Implying that the men who dominated urban party organizations were thoughtless workers, lacking the education, refinement, and respectability necessary for legitimate leadership, the term machine managed to provoke alarm and convey contempt.
During the Gilded Age, the desire to replace disreputable party bosses with the “best men,” by which reformers generally meant prominent, native-born businessmen, animated most reform campaigns. Such efforts were generally the work of short-lived “committees.” New Yorkers launched the Committee of Seventy to cleanse the city’s public life in the wake of the Tweed scandal and elect honest respectable men, but that effort faded once Tweed and his Ring lost power. Elite Philadelphians formed a Committee of Fifty-Eight for similar purposes in 1874; the same people organized a Committee of Sixty-Two the following year to pursue the same end. Committees of One Hundred became the norm during the 1880s. These ad hoc organizations worked to ensure that prominent, respectable men filled city offices. While they had occasional triumphs, such committees were short lived, and the machine-style politics to which they objected so strongly showed no signs of abating.11
Faced with an increasingly entrenched system of boss politics, reformers began to establish more durable antimachine organizations with broader agendas during the final years of the 19th century. New York’s City Club; Boston’s Good Government Association; Chicago’s Civic Federation and its offshoot, the Municipal Voters’ League; and Philadelphia’s City Party were examples of the new, more lasting type of reform body that became a stock element of urban public life from the 1890s until the 1930s. Dominated by middle- and upper-class men, these groups engaged in sustained efforts to weaken urban machines and bosses, both through direct electoral challenges and through structural reforms designed to weaken their hold on power. The men who organized these bodies established the National Municipal League in 1894, providing themselves with a means of exchanging ideas and coordinating reform campaigns.12
Journalists, most notably muckraker Lincoln Steffens, gave municipal reform efforts new momentum around the turn of the century. Most cities had experienced some form of municipal scandal, exposed by the local press, during the 1890s. A series of colorful articles Steffens published in McClure’s Magazine during 1902 and 1903 generated national momentum for campaigns to clean up city politics. In reports on scandals and corruption in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York as well as on reform efforts in Chicago, Steffens sought to “sound for the civic pride of an apparently shameless citizenship” in the hope of provoking greater support for reform. After republishing his essays in 1904, in a volume titled The Shame of the Cities, he became a sought-after expert on city government whose statements and subsequent writings galvanized political opinion in favor of significant reforms to urban civic life.13
Another source of support for these efforts was the emergence of municipal politics and governance as a focal point of political science research. Citing European models, scholars such as Albert Shaw and Frank Goodnow argued that cities could and should be governed by independent, empirically driven administrative methods. They criticized interference from state governments, much of it fed by partisan agendas, and sought to enlarge the capacity of municipal governments to manage the challenges associated with city life and city development, including transportation planning, the implementation of sanitation programs, the regulation and provision of housing, and other matters. Insulating the management of municipal affairs from state and national politics was essential, they argued, because the needs of urban communities did not correlate with the political concerns of major party organizations. Mechanisms that ensured public input in shaping municipal policy decisions were a vital component of proper city governance.14
Stoked by the energy that Steffens and other journalists created and informed by the ideas of political science, municipal reform proceeded along two lines during the Progressive Era. Some groups, most notably Chicago’s Municipal Voters’ League, concentrated on vetting, and even recruiting, candidates for office who met standards of honesty and probity. They used publicity campaigns to expose the wrongdoings of politicians and to promote the character and qualifications of their favored candidates. Initially, some of these groups attempted to reach across socioeconomic and ethnic lines to elicit support from working-class communities or to recruit men who might attract a following from blue-collar and immigrant voters, but attempts at cross-class coalition building largely foundered on the rocks of mutual suspicion and divergent political concerns. By the first decade of the 20th century, reformers had shifted their attention to implementing structural changes designed to limit patronage supplies, reduce or eliminate taxing powers, cut the number of elective offices, consolidate power in the mayor’s office or in a commission, and shift decision-making authority to unelected experts.15
Most cities enacted at least some of these reforms, put through in the hope of insulating municipal rule from partisanship and parochial interest. Some cities drew upon a model city charter developed by the National Municipal League to redesign local government. It featured a small, unicameral legislative body; an increase in mayoral power; at-large, nonpartisan elections; and increased bureaucratic oversight of municipal budgets and taxation. The purpose of these changes was to reduce the influence of party agendas and neighborhood interests on municipal decisions, especially on spending matters. Boston adopted a series of reforms based upon this model in 1909, and aspects of it were taken up in other large cities. More popular in smaller and mid-sized cities was the establishment of commission governments, an arrangement in which a small board of elected or appointed commissioners, ostensibly independent from partisan control or neighborhood allegiances, ran the city. When this structure failed to deliver on its promise of boss-free governance, some reformers advocated a city manager system, which centralized power in the hands of a single appointed official, overseen by an elected council. Ultimately, the council-manager and strong-mayor systems became the prevailing municipal structures in the United States through 1940.
Municipal reform movements remained a standard element of urban public life into the 1930s, but few lasted beyond that decade. Boston’s Good Government Association disbanded in 1934 after a series of elections setbacks made clear that popular appetite for its brand of reform had faded. Chicago’s Municipal Voters’ League persisted until 1939, at which point its operations folded into those of the Citizens Association, but its influence had waned sharply by the 1920s. New York’s City Club remained active through the 20th century, but its influence never again reached the level it had during the Progressive Era.
If one reason for the decline was the movement’s nominal success, another was its failure to uproot bossism. In most cities, reformers had implemented their prized structural reforms, centralizing urban governance and shifting authority from elected officials with partisan agendas to independent, expert-run agencies. Yet machine politics persisted, particularly in the nation’s older, industrial cities. It was the electoral successes of partisans such as William Hale Thompson in Chicago and James Michael Curley in Boston and the resilience of organizations such as Tammany Hall that finally undercut elite-run municipal reform. Only in newer urban centers of the West and Southwest, where party organizations were not as deeply rooted, did the centralization of municipal government allow well-connected businessmen to elbow aside would-be bosses and dominate local public life.
Grassroots Challenges and Alternatives to Machine Politics
Save for a brief attempt around the turn of the 20th century, business-oriented municipal reformers usually did not seek to mobilize grassroots challenges to boss power. That failure did not mean that party machines faced no opposition from below. Workers, women, and a few democratically oriented middle-class reformers viewed bosses and machines as tools of business elites (despite the support of many well-to-do men for conventional municipal reform campaigns) or impediments to a fair and inclusive public life. These activists were no more successful than traditional municipal reformers in eliminating machine rule, but they did in some respects succeed in changing the character of American urban politics and governance.
While machines relied heavily on immigrants, their inability to generate enough patronage to accommodate a steady flow of newcomers meant that party organizations regularly faced ethnic insurgencies. Many of these challenges arose among the newer, eastern and southern Europeans whose populations increased dramatically after 1900 but who did not receive as many benefits as the Irish and other more established groups. Although these newcomers did not naturalize and become voters in great numbers before the late 1920s, they did make their presence felt in ways that troubled party politicians. Civic leaders in Boston’s Jewish and Italian communities proved to be a regular thorn in the sides of bosses such as Martin Lomasney and John Fitzgerald. In New York, recent immigrants often found themselves on the receiving end of brutal treatment from the Tammany-backed city police, experiences that made them willing to back antimachine campaigns. Ethnic Catholics in Progressive Era Providence engaged in varieties of political activism that fell outside customary partisan engagement. They backed labor insurgencies, pushed for an end to suffrage restrictions, and in a few instances backed socialist campaigns. Civic activity arose from parish life as well, generally in the form of nonpartisan support for social and political reforms. When these tactics failed or were unavailable, immigrant housewives and workers turned to boycotts and street protests, some of which resulted in violence. In all of these forms, ethnically based civic action created problems for urban machines by mobilizing immigrants outside and in opposition to party structures.16
Probably the most common way that workers entered urban politics was through labor agitation, which intensified over the course of the 19th century. Political insurgencies by workers were a notable if sporadic element of big-city public life during the antebellum period. After the Civil War, some working-class activists advocated direct political action, but more often labor leaders such as Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, sought to remain above the fray. Their goal was not to carry the next election but to restore a (supposedly) lost producers republic, a goal that required a more fundamental reconfiguration of the nation’s economy and politics. This long-term agenda proved difficult as workers sought immediate relief in the midst of relentless industrialization. Demands for greater control over their daily lives and more influence on the shop floor mounted through the second half of the 19th century. By the 1880s, this sense of dissatisfaction boiled over, generating strikes, boycotts, and protests. When the local state intervened on the side of employers and business interests, working-class anger grew sharper and more politicized.
For a short period of time during the late 1880s, it appeared that labor would mount a serious challenge to urban party machines. The Knights of Labor experienced a surge in popularity in the wake of successful railroad strikes, and workers in many cities organized independent tickets of municipal offices in 1886. The controversy surrounding the bombing at a labor rally in Chicago that year further energized workingmen’s slates, which achieved notable successes in several cities. Victories by labor candidates in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and a number of smaller cities in 1886 and 1887 suggested that workers had a chance to establish a viable alternative to the major parties, one that would reform the abuses connected with boss rule. Perhaps the greatest success came not in the form of an electoral triumph, but in the strong showing of Henry George as the candidate of the Workingmen’s Party in New York City in late 1886. The land reformer received sixty-eight thousand votes, which placed him second to Democrat Abraham Hewitt and ahead of Republican nominee Theodore Roosevelt.17
George’s impressive result and successes elsewhere did not herald the arrival of a workingman’s republic, but it did position organized labor as a powerful interest within urban civic life. Politicians such as Hewitt and Chicago’s Carter Harrison moved quickly to meet at least some worker demands, bringing them into the Democratic Party’s coalition and undercutting the logic of independent working-class parties. Labor, often in the form of Central Labor Unions representing skilled workers, became a key player in city affairs, acting as an interest group and pushing municipal governments to expand their social service and regulatory efforts in ways beneficial to the working classes. Workers’ late-19th-century challenge pushed city bosses and machines to give greater weight to their concerns and laid the groundwork for the development of urban liberalism during the early 20th century.18
Not all workers were equally represented by labor’s push for power. The most influential unions of the early 20th century, many of them connected to the American Federation of Labor and tied to Democratic machines, mainly represented the interests of the most skilled, well-established workers. Women, African-Americans, and low-skill new immigrants continued to face unfair treatment and difficult working conditions, circumstances that left them vulnerable and frustrated. Some turned to socialism, more militant organizations such as the Women’s Trade Union League, and other left-wing outlets during the Progressive Era.19 Although these tactics helped certain groups gain ground, the antiradical repression that arose in the wake of World War I undercut such efforts. Most unskilled workers would not become fully engaged with politics until the mobilization of second-generation ethnics and African Americans surrounding the presidential candidacy of Al Smith and the onset of the New Deal. While in some instances these newcomers aligned with party machines, in other cases (such as that of the coalition that supported New York City’s Fiorello LaGuardia) they became key components of antiboss coalitions.
Activist women also provided a sustained challenge to boss and machine rule. Female political influence gradually expanded through the 19th century, originally through the abolitionist and temperance movements. By the Gilded Age women’s clubs and settlement houses began to advocate for urban social reforms, and they soon exerted a significant influence on public policy. These efforts came to be described as “municipal housekeeping,” a label that underscored the manner in which activist women relied upon the prescriptions of separate spheres ideology as a rationale for public action. Women reformers often cast their pursuit of sanitary reforms, educational measures, labor laws, juvenile court reform, and interventions into other areas of urban life as an extension of their responsibilities as wives and mothers. In many cases, they succeeded in persuading local government to take on new regulatory responsibilities through their campaigns, a development that many scholars cite as a key step in the expansion of the American welfare state.20
In many instances, female reformers identified bosses and machines as significant impediments to their social reform agendas. Most famously, eminent settlement worker Jane Addams pointed to South Chicago ward boss Johnny Powers as a key obstacle to achieving sanitary improvements and other reforms in her neighborhood. For a short time Addams and her Hull House colleagues spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to unseat him.21 There were other instances in which Progressive Era women reformers waded into the electoral arena. One such case was the 1894 formation of the Women’s Municipal League in New York for the express purpose of removing Tammany from power. A women’s group affiliated with the City Party in Philadelphia launched a similar initiative a few years later and eventually formed a Women’s League for Good Government that remained actively engaged with electoral politics into the 1920s. These efforts were not the norm, as most women’s groups focused on nonpartisan social reform activities, but they did constitute a notable element of a few antimachine campaigns during the 1890s and first decades of the 20th century.22
Women were also at the forefront of another important attempt to dismantle the machine. Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follett, and some women’s clubs pushed for the development of institutions and practices that fostered a more inclusive, deliberative form of politics. Addams emphasized to the middle-class readers of her many essays and commentaries the necessity of taking the ideas and values of urban immigrants seriously, rather than imagining them as members of inferior groups in need of uplift. Follett, another settlement worker and later a successful theorist of business organization, became a strong advocate for social centers, which were publicly run community spaces designed to facilitate civic discussion in urban neighborhoods. She articulated these ideas in The New State (1918), a thorough examination of how social centers could operate and how the results of the deliberations they hosted could be translated into public policy. These ideas were not the exclusive province of women. Many male reformers, most notably Edward Ward and Frederic Howe, joined in the effort, but a number of scholars suggest that women’s greater openness to cooperative action and cross-class collaboration meant that they played an outsized role in this particular brand of political reform. Although social centers and similar initiatives gained some traction during the Progressive Era, they never fully caught on and were undercut by the demand for conformity that arose after U.S. entry into World War I.23
An Era of Consolidation
The cumulative effect of urban reform efforts during the Progressive Era was not the end of the machine but a consolidation of civic authority. In industrial cities, party bosses often took advantage of the new resources created by the growth of state activism and the strengthening of municipal executives to solidify their power. This pattern occurred primarily in cities of the industrial belt stretching from the Northeast through the Midwest, where party organizations were well established. Although persistence never earned them full acceptance, bosses and machines responded to the criticism of reformers by justifying their methods. Such arguments helped them gain a measure of legitimacy in the minds of at least some observers during and after the Progressive Era. Further south and west, in younger cities with less entrenched party organizations, business leaders took advantage of the installation of strong-mayor and commission forms of municipal government to shape local public affairs to their ends. Both party machines and reform regimes capitalized on the consolidation of municipal government during the early 20th century to strengthen their grip on power, a development that resulted in increased attention to and support for key constituencies at the expense of less powerful groups.
Despite the best efforts of reformers, urban machines remained a standard element of urban-industrial public life through the Progressive Era and beyond. Repeated scandals and steady attacks could not dislodge Tammany Hall, which remained the dominant political force in New York City into the 1920s. Republican machines in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia endured even longer, as did Democratic organizations in Albany, Jersey City, and Kansas City. Although Boston’s James Michael Curley failed to translate his personal success into a durable organization, he did use the city’s strengthened mayor’s office to exert significant influence over local politics into the middle of the 20th century. In each case, the centralizing reforms of the Progressive Era helped, or at least failed to hinder, bosses and machines.24
In a number of cities, the increased availability of federal resources through the programs of the New Deal enhanced machine power. Party organizations in Pittsburgh and Kansas City found in the Works Progress Administration and other programs a welcome source of additional patronage, which was particularly necessary at a point when many children of recent eastern and southern European immigrants were coming of age politically. Boston’s Curley likewise benefited from New Deal resources. One important exception to this pattern was New York City, where Franklin Roosevelt’s suspicion of Tammany and Fiorello LaGuardia’s support for early New Deal programs paved the way for the Republican’s eleven years as mayor, beginning in 1933, and the marginalization of the Democratic machine.25
Chicago’s experience illustrates the significance of structural factors in shaping urban party operations. The city did not follow the lead of most other urban centers and significantly centralize its governance during the Progressive Era. Reformers pushed for charter reform but failed, which ensured that the city’s government and politics remained more fragmented. As a result, neither party firmly claimed power for long, although Republican William “Big Bill” Thompson corralled enough ethnic votes during the mid-1920s to gain the upper hand for his party. The Cook County Democratic Party united competing ethnic factions under the leadership of Anton Cermak during the early 1930s. After Cermak’s assassination in 1933, Irish bosses Edward Kelly and Pat Nash continued to consolidate ethnic support, firmly establishing the machine as what one scholar has described as a “House for All Peoples.” Their success was in no small part a product of the abundance of patronage and other resources made available by the New Deal. Federal support thus ensured that Chicago’s political structure ultimately came to be considered by many the quintessential urban political machine.26
Increased acceptance accompanied the persistence of machine politics. Urban bosses actively defended themselves in the face of reform criticism. Tammany boss Richard Croker was a savvy publicist who used Darwinian arguments to insist that boss rule was necessary for the management of urban affairs. He also cited the role of machines in providing welfare services and their work incorporating immigrants into the body politic. Other politicians followed suit, and by the early 20th century some observers, including journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, reformers such as Jane Addams, and popular novelists such as Paul Leicester Ford, gave credence to those claims. By the 1920s, political scientists and sociologists, particularly those associated with the Chicago school were advancing the argument that machines and bosses persisted because they delivered needed services to urban constituencies, setting the stage for a full-scale reinterpretation of urban party politics based on functionalist theory by midcentury scholars.27
Debates about machines mattered most in the Northeast and Midwest. As research by Amy Bridges and other scholars has shown, business-dominated reform regimes dominated southwestern and western cities. These municipal governments focused on promoting economic growth, limiting taxation, and coordinating planning efforts. Their overriding concerns were the maintenance of the civic order necessary to ensure business prosperity and the provision of services to their core upper- and middle-class supporters. City leaders sought to limit popular participation, particularly by workers and ethnic minorities, so as not to complicate their attempts to pursue this agenda. As a result, lower-class and ethnic groups (most notably Hispanics) wielded minimal influence.28
In this respect, southwestern and western reform regimes shared something in common with the party machines of the nation’s industrial belt. As political scientist Jessica Trounstine has argued, both forms of municipal leadership and governance tended to consolidate power and reward key constituencies at the expense of other groups in the community. While urban business and civic leaders in the Sunbelt strived to limit lower-class power, party machines in industrial cities were generally reluctant to mobilize new immigrants and share scarce resources. Only through the largesse of New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration did urban party organizations look to broaden their electoral base. Even then, there were clear racial limits to these coalitions. When African Americans began arriving in northern and western cities in large numbers, they found local party organizations to be generally unresponsive to their concerns about housing and civil rights. The exclusionary practices of both machines and reform regimes helped set the stage for political insurgencies from below, fueled by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.29
Discussion of the Literature
Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, urban historians focused heavily on machines and reformers. Influenced by Robert Merton’s speculative use of urban bossism as an example of latent functionalism in Social Theory and Social Structure, Oscar Handlin and Richard Hofstadter offered portraits of boss politics that emphasized the ways in which machine politics provided social services, coordinated fragmented urban development, and created an avenue of upward mobility for ambitious ethnics. Subsequent scholarship carried this argument further, portraying political bosses as humane and pragmatic leaders responding to the demands of urban life. These and other studies made the boss and machine seem almost natural, nearly inevitable outgrowth of ethnic working-class life in urban America, while treating reform as the expression of a native-born, Protestant, and middle-class ethos.30
This revisionist account of bosses and machines prevailed into the 1980s, when increased skepticism about functionalism fed challenges to the notion of the benevolent boss and the efficient machine. A number of scholars advanced structural and political explanations that rejected socially driven models of urban politics in America’s industrial cities. Terence McDonald challenged the functionalist interpretation during the 1980s, insisting that political considerations outweighed social impact when explaining the rise and persistence of machines in late-19th-century and 20th-century urban America. Steven Erie’s Rainbow’s End examined the history of urban politics from the 1840s to the 1980s and emphasized the importance of connections to state and national party organizations, rather than social functions, as key determinants of machine durability. Other scholars, including David Hammack, Amy Bridges, Ira Katznelson, and Martin Shefter also generated new explanations of the origin and evolution of urban machines that found their roots in the strategic political choices of partisans rather than in the cultural inheritances of particular ethnic groups.31
Another effect of the rejection of the functional interpretation of the machine was a broadening of the scholarly understanding of what constituted urban politics. Philip Ethington’s The Public City took such an approach, drawing upon Jurgen Habermas’s conception of the public sphere to examine a variety of voluntary action and public discussion in late-19th-century San Francisco. James Connolly’s account of Boston politics during the Progressive Era examined a range of civic action—including neighborhood improvement groups and ethnic organizations as well conventional electioneering—that blurred distinctions between bosses and reformers. Evelyn Sterne’s study of the significance of the Catholic Church to the public life of Providence, Rhode Island, brought to the fore the role of religious organizations in ethnic politics. These and other studies constituted one response to the complaints of many scholars that the traditional boss-versus-reformer framework was stale and misleading.32
Renewed attention to the role of class and the significance of organized labor also reinvigorated the study of urban politics in the era of industrialization. Training their sights on the political activity of workers and those who claimed to represent them, labor historians documented the central role of working-class organizations in mobilizing voters and shaping policy. In part, this body of research used close attention to grassroots public life to challenge broadly gauged studies of voting behavior that emphasized the ethnocultural determinants of party affiliation and downplayed the political salience of class identities. Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic offered evidence of antebellum working-class consciousness, while a number of scholars, including Leon Fink, Richard Oestreicher, and David Scobey, traced labor’s mobilization of workers amid the Great Upheaval of the late 1880s and weighed its long-term significance. Richard Schneirov’s Labor and Urban Politics argued convincingly that the emergence of labor as a political force in Chicago during the late 19th century offers a fuller explanation of the rise of urban liberalism during the Progressive Era than do interpretations that rest chiefly upon the supposed generosity and tolerance of party bosses. Examining 1920s and 1930s Chicago, Lizabeth Cohen assigned a primary role in the mobilization of newer immigrants to the labor movement rather than the local party machine.33
Scholarship on women’s activism has had a similarly broadening effect. Initial studies of the development and impact of the women’s club movement by historians such as Estelle Freedman and Karen Blair, as well as later work by Maureen Flanagan, made the case that middle-class women assumed significant public roles well before the national adoption of woman suffrage. Focusing on clubs and settlements, much of the research in this area has demonstrated the impact of lobbying and other extra-electoral work by these groups. Activist women successfully persuaded municipal and state governments to take on new regulatory and relief responsibilities during the Progressive Era. Some scholars credit this work with laying essential groundwork for the growth of the American state in the 20th century and for expanding the definition of politics to include social welfare activism. Other research documents the ways in which some women engaged directly with electoral politics, campaigning in support of particular reformers and, usually, in opposition to machine politicians. More recent work has also pushed beyond the early focus on white middle-class women to document the ways in which working-class, African American, and immigrant women engaged in efforts to advance the interests of their communities.34
Pushing beyond a simplistic boss-reformer dichotomy has made urban politics an attractive context in which to analyze the evolution of American democracy. As the United States industrialized, the civic life of cities became the site of particularly intense conflict and debate. Class tensions, ethnic differences, and the multiplication and divergence of interests created new challenges, and scholars have examined the political dimensions of these developments to better understand how Americans redefined democracy in the face of the heterogeneity of modern life. Kevin Mattson and Laura Westhoff turned to Progressive Era urban reform to discover ideas and practices that represented creative responses to these challenges. A number of historians have found innovative, well-crafted approaches to remaking public life in the thought and actions of settlement workers, most notably Jane Addams. Robert Johnston located powerful and compelling demands for democratic reform in the political ideas and actions of the petit bourgeoisie of Portland, Oregon. Alan Lessoff and James Connolly returned to the study of bosses and reformers, but with a focus on the representations produced by and about these actors, to detect changing conceptions of urban democracy and pluralism. These and other studies signal the growing importance of pre–World War II urban politics as the cauldron in which Americans forged ideas and practices that might guide us as we address the challenges presented by modern American public life.35
Manuscript collections abundantly document reform efforts, especially those of the middle and upper classes, but only a few collections provide access to the thinking and action of urban bosses. Party leaders were famously closed-mouthed and so left few manuscript records. Some maintained scrapbooks, including Philadelphia’s Israel Durham, and two Boston politicians, James Michael Curley and Martin Lomasney.36 Helpful documentation of Tammany’s history can be found in the Edwin Patrick Kilroe Papers at Columbia University.37 Municipal reform groups were more likely to provide primary source materials, and the records of organizations such as Boston’s Good Government Association and Chicago’s Citizens Association (which include the papers of that city’s Municipal Voters’ League) are available.38 Valuable papers and diaries of individual reformers include those of journalists E. L. Godkin and Boston’s George Read Nutter.39 Lincoln Steffens’s extensive papers document his impact on popular views of urban politics.40 While grassroots labor activism is only infrequently documented, the Henry George papers are an important exception that shed light on his insurgent campaign for mayor of New York City.41 The papers of Jane Addams contain much information about her ideas and impact on urban civic thought.42 Important collections documenting women’s activism include the records of the Chicago Women’s Club and those of Philadelphia’s Anna Blakiston Day.43 Printed materials are also an important source of information about urban politics, including major newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and campaign materials, but there are far too many to include in a brief summary.
(2.) Campbell Gibson, “Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States, 1790–1990” (Population Division working paper no. 27, United States Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC, 1998).
(3.) Edwin Hubbell Chapin, Humanity in the City (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1854), 17.
(4.) Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 327–335
(5.) James J. Connolly, An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 9.
(6.) Jerome Mushkat, Fernando Wood: A Political Biography (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990).
(7.) Jon C. Teaford, The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870–1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 175–187; Martin Shefter, “The Emergence of the Machine: An Alternative View,” in Theoretical Perspectives on Urban Politics, ed. Willis D. Hawley et al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976), 14–44; and Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 20.
(8.) Connolly, Elusive Unity, 23, 25–26; and Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 161.
(9.) Alexander B. Callow Jr., The Tweed Ring (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); and Kenneth D. Ackerman, Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005).
(10.) Connolly, Elusive Unity, 62–65; and James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, 3d ed., vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1899), 75.
(11.) Teaford, Unheralded Triumph, 194.
(12.) Frank Mann Stewart, A Half-Century of Municipal Reform: The History of the National Municipal League (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950).
(13.) Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities (New York: McClure, Philips, 1904), 1.
(14.) Alan Lessoff and James J. Connolly, “From Political Insult to Political Theory: The Boss, the Machine, and the Pluralist City,” Journal of Policy History 25.2 (2013): 151.
(15.) Connolly, Elusive Unity, 193–197.
(16.) James J. Connolly, The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism: Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900–1925 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 55–66; Thomas M. Henderson, Tammany Hall and the New Immigrants (New York: Arno Press, 1976); Steve Erie, Rainbow’s End, 91–106; and Evelyn Savidge Sterne, Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
(17.) Leon Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); and David Scobey, “Boycotting the Politics Factory: Labor Radicalism and the New York City Mayoral Election of 1884,” Radical History Review 28–30 (1984): 280–325.
(18.) Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864–97 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).
(19.) Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875–1920 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
(20.) Karen Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868–1914 (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1980); Maureen Flanagan, Seeing with Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871–1933 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power, 1870–1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(21.) Harold L. Platt, “Jane Addams and the Ward Boss Revisited: Class, Politics, and Public Health in Chicago, 1890–1930,” Environmental History 5.2 (April 2000): 194–222.
(22.) Jo Freeman, “One Man, One Vote; One Woman, One Throat”: Women in New York City Politics, 1890–1910,” American Nineteenth Century History 1.3 (Autumn 2001): 101–123; S. Sara Monoson, “The Lady and the Tiger: Women’s Electoral Activism in New York City before Suffrage,” Journal of Women’s History 2 (Fall 1990): 103–135; and Drew E VandeCreek, “Unseen Influence: Lucretia Blankenburg and the Rise of Philadelphia Reform Politics in 1911,” in We Have Come to Stay: American Women and Political Parties, 1880–1960, ed. Melanie Gustafson, Kristie Miller, and Elisabeth Perry (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999).
(23.) Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1902), 221–279; Mary Parker Follett, The New State: Group Organization the Solution for Popular Government (New York: Longmans Green, 1918); Kevin Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998); and Philip J. Ethington, “The Metropolis and Multicultural Ethics: Direct Democracy versus Deliberative Democracy in the Progressive Era,” in Progressivism and the New Democracy, ed. Sidney Milkis and Jerome Mileur (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
(24.) Erie, Rainbow’s End, 20; M. Craig Brown and Charles N. Halaby, “Machine Politics in America,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17.3 (Winter 1987): 587–612.
(25.) Bruce M. Stave, The New Deal and the Last Hurrah: Pittsburgh Machine Politics (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970; Lyle Dorsett, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the City Bosses (New York: Kennikat Press, 1977); Charles H. Trout, Boston, the Great Depression, and the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); and Thomas Kessner, Fiorello LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York: McGraw Hill, 1989).
(26.) Maureen Flanagan, Charter Reform in Chicago (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987); and John M. Allswang, Bosses, Machines, and Urban Voters, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
(27.) Lessoff and Connolly, “From Political Insult to Political Theory”; and Harold F. Gosnell, Machine Politics: Chicago Model (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937).
(28.) Amy Bridges, Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Robert B. Fairbanks, For the City as a Whole: Planning, Politics, and the Public Interest in Dallas, Texas, 1900–1965 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998); and Martin Shefter, “Regional Receptivity to Reform: The Legacy of the Progressive Era,” Political Science Quarterly 98.3 (Autumn 1983): 459–483.
(29.) Jessica Trounstine, Political Monopolies in American Cities: The Rise and Fall of Bosses and Reformers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Diane M. Pinderhughes, Race and Ethnicity in Chicago: A Reexamination of Pluralist Theory (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
(30.) Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. ed. (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1957), 75n, 98, 80; Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (New York: Little, Brown, 1951), 187–198; Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage, 1955), 182–186; John Allswang, Bosses, Machines, and Urban Voters: An American Symbiosis, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); Zane Miller, Boss Cox’s Cincinnati (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000); Leo Hershkowitz’s Tweed’s New York: Another Look (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1978); and John D. Buenker, “Sovereign Individuals and Organic Networks: Political Cultures in Conflict During the Progressive Era,” American Quarterly 40.2 (June 1988): 187–204.
(31.) Terrence J. McDonald, “The Problem of the Political in Recent American Urban History: Liberal Pluralism and the Rise of Functionalism,” Social History 10.3 (October 1985): 323–345; Terrence McDonald, The Parameters of Urban Fiscal Policy. Socioeconomic Change and Political Culture in San Francisco, 1860–1906 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Erie, Rainbow’s End; David Hammack, Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1982); Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Ira Katznelson: City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); and Shefter, “Emergence of the Machine.”
(32.) Philip J. Ethington, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Connolly, Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism; and Sterne, Ballots and Bibles.
(33.) Wilentz, Chants Democratic; Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy; Richard Oestreicher, Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit, 1875–1900 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Scobey, “Boycotting the Politics Factory”; Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics; and Lisabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
(34.) Estelle Freedman, “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870–1930,” Feminist Studies 5.3 (Autumn 1979): 512–529; Blair, Clubwoman as Feminist; Flanagan, Seeing with Their Hearts; Daphne Spain, How Women Saved the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); and Freeman, “One Man, One Vote; One Woman, One Throat”; Monoson, “The Lady and the Tiger.”
(35.) Jean Elshtain, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Louise Knight, Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Laura Westhoff, A Fatal Drifting Apart: Democratic Social Knowledge and Chicago Reform (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007); Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public; Robert Johnston, The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Lessoff and Connolly, “From Political Insult to Political Theory.”
(36.) Israel W. Durham Scrapbooks, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA; James Michael Curley Scrapbooks, College of the Holy Cross Library, Worcester, MA; and Martin Lomasney Scrapbook, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.
(41.) Henry George Scrapbooks, Selected Volumes on New York Mayoral Campaign. UCLA Libraries and Collections (microfilm), Los Angeles, CA.