Corrupt and Contented
In July 1903, at the height of the period of reform we have come to call the Progressive Era, crusading journalist Lincoln Steffens published the fifth in a series of articles exposing municipal corruption in the United States. His subject was Philadelphia, and to his mind it was worse than any other place he had investigated. “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” Steffens declared. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”
Steffens’ reports helped launch a period of investigative reporting that President Theodore Roosevelt labeled “muckraking” in a moment of pique, but the phenomenon was otherwise quite compatible with his own reform orientation. Muckraking faded with the reform era itself, but the impression never fully disappeared that Philadelphia deserved the label Steffens had given it. Inquirer columnist Karen Heller invoked Steffens more recently in connection with reports of political pressure to direct $50 million to a favored candidate to operate a charter school. Can so little have changed? Is Philadelphia still corrupt and still contented?
Steffens was in the business of selling magazines, and no doubt he heightened his account for effect. There’s no evidence, really, for the story he recounted of a “party of boodlers” divvying up their graft in unison with the ancient chime of Independence Hall. His account of misfeasance was well enough documented to leave a lasting effect, however. Despite a number of good government efforts, some of which continue today, including the Committee of Seventy dating to 1904, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which started as the Bureau of Municipal Research, and the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, the suspicion lingers that the public remains all too acquiescent in a political system riddled with conflicts of interest and hidden from adequate public scrutiny.
The system Steffens described had its roots in the nineteenth century. Some blamed election day improprieties and the exchange of political favors on the bad effect of masses of newcomers to the city, many of them immigrants with little experience with democratic practice. Anti-immigration sentiment reached a peak with the mid-century rise of a nativist movement, which attempted to extend the waiting period for citizenship to 21 years for the foreign born and to discipline immigrant workers through the prohibition of alcohol. The year this movement reached its peak, in 1854 with the election of a nativist mayor, the city consolidated with the county, and a very different political dynamic ensued.
An expanded city needed a variety of public services. The provision of new streets, gas and water mains, and public transportation all generated opportunities for money to change hands. As permits were issued, as charters were granted, as the number of city workers expanded to 15,000 by the time Steffens wrote, the lines between public power and private profit converged. Something had to hold this fragmented system together, and taking a cut—“honest graft’ as Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt famously labeled the practice—seemed to be part of the necessary price. But that price could be exorbitant too. The traction magnates William L. Elkins and Peter A.B. Widener consolidated so much money and power for themselves, they formed the model for Theodore Dreiser’s own muckraking trilogy, beginning with The Financier in1912.
One monument to the system not matched in any other city Steffens examined was Philadelphia City Hall. Covering fully four acres at the heart of the city where William Penn had laid out four squares to form a central park, the massive structure took thirty years to build and cost $24 million, fully $14 million in overruns. Politicians shepherding the project extracted a host of benefits for themselves, all the time keeping thousands of city workers employed.
The political machine Steffens described had only recently consolidated, following a reform effort that culminated in passage of a new city charter in 1887. What he described was the aftermath of such efforts, when the “morning glory” reformers, as their critics liked to call them, retired from public life to take up their private pursuits once again. Given even greater power under the new rules, partisan politicians again emerged triumphant, supported by continued growth in patronage positions that reached 23,000 in the 1920s, second only to New York City.
1951: Republican Reign Ends
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal failed to unseat the city’s Republican political machine, but spurred by many of the reforms instituted at the national level in the 1930s, Joseph Clark, together with Richardson Dilworth, brought the Republican reign to an end with their elections as mayor and district attorney respectively in 1951. Not incidentally, their election coincided with passage of a home rule charter, which instituted a professional managing director for the city and required civil service exams for many jobs that had been previously doled out as political patronage.
It might be too much to accept Karen Heller’s implication that the Clark-Dilworth years represented only a short hiatus between 85 years of entrenched and calcified Republican rule and 60 years of entrenched and calcified Democratic rule. Whatever good intentions or formal mechanisms were instituted in the 1950s, however, they clearly did not prevent the practice we routinely describe as pay-to-play from infecting public governance, not just in Philadelphia but throughout the region. The central features of the ward system Steffens described in 1903 remain in place today in the city, and in the suburbs service contracts can be repaid quite legally in the form of political contributions to the party controlling the bidding. Occasionally a politician will step far enough over the line to be punished under the law. Vincent Fumo and Wayne Bryant come most readily to mind. For the most part, the system prevails in forms that would be still recognizable to earlier generations.
It was Steffens’ belief that his reports would arouse public opinion sufficiently that it would ultimately cleanse the system. That tradition continues with investigative journalism and widespread use of the Internet to expose corruption. It’s just possible that the Tea Party and Occupy Philadelphia each manifest signs of an awakened electorate. Like Steffens, however, we should not be blind to the obstacles to reform. Transparency and accountability need mechanisms for their sustainability. It won’t be enough to reign in political excesses like DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program) or to assure that only verified voters cast their ballots. If this is to be yet another Progressive era, voters need to pressure both political parties to make far more effective use of public revenues, even while acknowledging how important those investments are to the modern metropolis.
Howard Gillette is Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers University-Camden.
Topics: Public Power and Responsibility
Launched in March 1978, the FBI sting operation known as Abscam led to the conviction of a U.S. senator, six congressmen, three Philadelphia City Council members, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, for taking bribes from undercover agents pretending to be the Arab sheiks. The FBI secretly filmed the transactions in hotel rooms in ⇒ Read More
The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia attempted to persuade Philadelphians to vote against the ratification of a new constitution for Pennsylvania in 1838 because the word “white” had been inserted prior to “freemen” as a qualification for voting. Written by African American leader Robert Purvis (1810-98), the ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia’s Fifth Ward, south of Chestnut Street near the Delaware River, became infamous in the late nineteenth century for election-day riots among the Irish, blacks, and the police, with ward boss William “Bull” McMullen (1824-1901) at the center of the violence. By the early twentieth century, the area had become known as the “Bloody Fifth,” ⇒ Read More
Bootleg liquor, produced illegally during Prohibition (1920-33), flowed into the Philadelphia region from a variety of sources, including overseas shipments, small home stills, large stills in urban factories and country barns, beer breweries, and manufacturers of industrial alcohol. Philadelphia’s location at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, ⇒ Read More
From the arrival of its first patients in 1911 to 1990, when the Commonwealth formally closed it down, the Philadelphia State Hospital, popularly known as Byberry, was the home for thousands of mental patients. In its early decades Byberry was controlled by the city, and from 1938 onward it was one of the several hundred ⇒ Read More
Constructed over a thirty-year period at a cost approaching $25 million, Philadelphia City Hall stands as a monument both to the city’s grand ambitions and to the extravagance of its political culture. Controversial from the outset–for its location, its architecture, and the patronage it commanded on behalf of its construction–the structure nonetheless came to be ⇒ Read More
On Friday, August 28, 1964, a scuffle with police at the busy intersection of Twenty-Second Street and Columbia Avenue sparked a three-day riot involving hundreds of North Philadelphians hurling bottles and bricks at police and looting stores. With the Columbia Avenue Riot, Philadelphia joined six other cities, including Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, ⇒ Read More
As Philadelphia expanded physically after its 1854 consolidation of city and county, building contractors wielded a greater degree of political power as they paid politicians and civil servants handsomely for the rights to construct the city’s infrastructure. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of the “contractor boss”—a construction magnate who wielded political power directly ⇒ Read More
Crime is inextricably linked to Philadelphia’s shifting economic fortunes. Its history reflects the region’s status as a port and point of entry for goods, immigrants, and migrants, where concentrations of both wealth and poverty developed in a center of American commerce and industry. As a type of economic activity, forms of crime changed dramatically as ⇒ Read More
The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) was created nearly one hundred years ago as a bi-state commission for the purpose of building a single toll bridge. By the 1930s regional leaders had started to envision a larger maritime role for their new agency, but efforts to broaden its powers to include port operations were repeatedly ⇒ Read More
On March 5, 1910, between 60,000 and 75,000 workers complied with the Central Federated Union’s call for a general strike in solidarity with the striking streetcar workers employed by Philadelphia’s Rapid Transit Company (RTC). Business and political elites feared that the strike would spread to other parts of Pennsylvania and to cities where workers had ⇒ Read More
From the early nineteenth century onward, Philadelphia spawned an abundance of mysterious tales starring shadowy strangers, fantastic happenings, and deadly conspiracies. Prominent genre writers including Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), George Lippard (1822-54), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) made the City of Brotherly Love the birthplace of American gothic literature. Although the gothic arguably reached its ⇒ Read More
The grand jury, enshrined in common law and inscribed in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, has represented a force for citizen participation in the judicial process as well as for government power. The grand jury has the power to indict in felony cases and the broad right to investigate crimes. Although Delaware, Pennsylvania, ⇒ Read More
The reform wave that swept through City Hall in the mid-twentieth century owed much of its power to the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM), a volunteer group of corporate leaders who believed the city’s scandalous political corruption threatened its economic future. Formed in 1948, they called themselves “practical men” who wanted Philadelphia to work more effectively ⇒ Read More
The expression “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” is derived from a fictional epitaph that locally-born entertainer W.C. Fields (1880-1946) proposed for himself in Vanity Fair magazine in 1925: “Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” By implying that Philadelphia would be slightly preferable to the grave, the joke tapped a vein ⇒ Read More
The Killers is a sensational urban gothic tale written by the journalist, novelist, and labor activist George Lippard (1822-54) in 1849. It exposes Philadelphia’s class and racial conflicts and its gang warfare, criticizes corruption in government and finance, and lambasts the city’s new experiment in incarceration, the solitary confinement system of Eastern State Penitentiary. Illustrated ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia mayoralty, almost as old as the city itself, has changed markedly since its inception. When the post was created in the eighteenth century, citizens put up their own money in order to avoid having to serve. By the early 2000s, in contrast, candidates and supportive political action committees poured millions into mayoral elections. ⇒ Read More
During eight decades of continuous operation (1908-87), Pennhurst evolved from a model facility into the subject of tremendous public scandal and controversy before the federal courts ordered it closed and the remaining residents moved elsewhere. Twenty years after its closure, the Pennhurst campus was recognized as an International Site of Conscience and its history became ⇒ Read More
The Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW), founded in 1836, was in 2015 the largest municipal-owned utility in the United States. While supplying residents with fuel for heating and cooking, PGW also became a flashpoint of controversy over whether such a utility should be owned by the city or operated by a private corporation. Although a number of ⇒ Read More
Created by state law in 1854 to maintain public order, prevent riots, and apprehend criminals, the Philadelphia Police Department operated for its first hundred years under direct control of politicians and served the reigning party’s interests by collecting graft as well as apprehending vagrants and solving crimes. During the twentieth century, especially in the latter ⇒ Read More
Urban areas in the United States have always attracted destitute persons, including immigrants and internal migrants fleeing even worse poverty and harsher conditions elsewhere. Philadelphia and its environs were no exception, having had a reputation as “the best poor man’s country” reaching as far back as the city’s founding in 1682. Despite the area’s vibrant ⇒ Read More
In the late 1700s, on the heels of the American Revolution, Philadelphia emerged as a national and international leader in prison reform and the transformation of criminal justice practices. More than any other community in early America, Philadelphia invested heavily in the intellectual and physical reconstruction of penal philosophies, and the region’s jails and prisons ⇒ Read More
Despite the national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, Philadelphia earned a reputation rivaling Chicago, Detroit, and New York City as a liquor-saturated municipality. The Literary Digest described Pennsylvania as a “bootlegger’s Elysium,” with every city as “wet as the Atlantic Ocean.” The Quaker City in particular was singled out, by newspapers from New ⇒ Read More
George Lippard (1822-54) published The Quaker City; Or, the Monks of Monk Hall in 1844-45 in serial installments, which were then collated as a novel. A gothic tale, set in Philadelphia and inspired by a linked pair of real-life urban crimes, the novel juxtaposes a plot centered on greed, amorality, and debauchery against the then-popular ⇒ Read More
Snaking its way through parts of North and Northeast Philadelphia, the Roosevelt Boulevard, formally known as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Boulevard, has become one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. Initially conceived amid political maelstroms during the “corrupt and contented” phase of Progressive Era Philadelphia, “the Boulevard,” as it became ⇒ Read More
With the Walking Purchase of 1737, Pennsylvania officials defrauded the Delaware Indians out of a vast amount of land, perhaps over one million acres, in the Delaware and Lehigh Valleys. John Penn (1700-46) and Thomas Penn (1702-75), the sons of William Penn (1644-1718), with James Logan (1674-1751), the provincial secretary of Pennsylvania, devised the land ⇒ Read More