An Elusive Unity

An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America

James J. Connolly
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    An Elusive Unity
    Book Description:

    Although many observers have assumed that pluralism prevailed in American political life from the start, inherited ideals of civic virtue and moral unity proved stubbornly persistent and influential. The tension between these conceptions of public life was especially evident in the young nation's burgeoning cities. Exploiting a wide range of sources, including novels, cartoons, memoirs, and journalistic accounts, James J. Connolly traces efforts to reconcile democracy and diversity in the industrializing cities of the United States from the antebellum period through the Progressive Era.

    The necessity of redesigning civic institutions and practices to suit city life triggered enduring disagreements centered on what came to be called machine politics. Featuring plebian leadership, a sharp masculinity, party discipline, and frank acknowledgment of social differences, this new political formula first arose in eastern cities during the mid-nineteenth century and became a subject of national discussion after the Civil War. During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, business leaders, workers, and women proposed alternative understandings of how urban democracy might work. Some tried to create venues for deliberation that built common ground among citizens of all classes, faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions. But accommodating such differences proved difficult, and a vision of politics as the businesslike management of a contentious modern society took precedence. As Connolly makes clear, machine politics offered at best a quasi-democratic way to organize urban public life. Where unity proved elusive, machine politics provided a viable, if imperfect, alternative.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6155-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Problem of Pluralism in Antebellum American Politics
    (pp. 1-27)

    Among the popular political songs circulating during the 1850s was Tom Robinson’s “Paddy’s Fight with the Know Nothings.” Sung to the tune of a popular air (either “Rory O’More” or “The Campbells Are Coming”), it told of a clash between “Paddy” and a gang of Irishmen arrayed on one side and a knot of Know Nothings on the other. In the song Paddy described the fight to “Bridget,” presumably his wife, after returning home with a black eye and bloodied nose. In his Irish accent he set the scene:

    Our party was thirty, all armed wid’ big sticks,

    Sure we’d...

  5. 1 EXPLAINING TWEED: The Limits of Consensual Politics
    (pp. 28-53)

    William Magear Tweed of New York City was perhaps the most corrupt politician in American history. He was the leader of Tammany Hall, the dominant faction of the local Democratic Party, and thus the de facto head of city government from 1866 to 1871. He used his time in power to enrich himself enormously. By one estimate he and his confederates—the “Tweed Ring”—stole $6,312,541.37 (roughly $1 billion in early twenty-first-century terms) during 1870 alone. The New York County Courthouse, built under Tweed’s watch, was supposed to cost $250,000. Kickbacks and inside deals boosted its cost to more than...

  6. 2 INVENTING THE MACHINE: Liberal Reform and the Social Analysis of Urban Politics
    (pp. 54-86)

    It is difficult to imagine a more evocative term for nineteenth-century Americans than “machine.” As mechanized production reconfigured the nation’s economic and social order, machines became highly contested symbols through which Americans (and Europeans) expressed a range of responses to rapid industrialization. As Leo Marx has noted, the machine image had “embraced a whole spectrum of meanings ranging from a specific class of objects at one end to an abstract metaphor of value at the other.”¹ It could signify power, efficiency, and complexity, and it could remind people of the deadening effects of industrial labor. Representations of machines thus cropped...

  7. 3 LABOR’S REPUBLIC LOST: The Workingmen’s Insurgency and Class Politics in the Gilded Age City
    (pp. 87-114)

    Workers, declared the Chicago labor editor Andrew Cameron in 1867, “must guard the gates of the Republic and declare to the world that it is a Workingman’s Government, and that millions of workingmen and women will bare their right arms to preserve and protect it as such.” During the decades that followed the Civil War, labor activists would strive to live up to Cameron’s declaration. They argued that the social and economic changes wrought by industrialization threatened American democracy, and they imagined themselves as a bulwark against corruption and civic decline. Though hesitant to undertake independent political action during the...

  8. 4 THE FEMININE CHALLENGE: Clubwomen and Urban Politics
    (pp. 115-134)

    Among the more notable episodes in municipal politics during the 1890s was the clash between Chicago alderman Johnny Powers and famed Hull House settlement worker Jane Addams. Concerned about horrific sanitary conditions in her neighborhood and frustrated by ineffective waste disposal, Addams sought to assume official responsibility for trash collection. Her bid for the job failed, though she did win appointment as Ward 19’s garbage inspector. Subsequent investigations revealed that Powers, the local democratic boss, had directed the district’s contract for waste disposal to an unscrupulous crony. Frustrated by his intransigence on the matter, Addams and her Hull House compatriots...

    (pp. 135-164)

    When the middle-class readers of the North American Review settled into their armchairs with the magazine’s February 1892 issue, they were likely startled to find an article by Richard Croker defending Tammany Hall. It was an unusual place for such an author and such an argument. The Review, a literary venue for the cultural elite of the Gilded Age, had been among a handful of publications at the forefront of the campaign for political reform during the 1870s and 1880s. A one-time street tough and prizefighter of limited education, Croker hardly fit the usual profile of its contributors. He had...

    (pp. 165-188)

    During his short stay in Chicago in 1893 and 1894 the controversial British journalist and reformer William Stead managed to stir things up considerably. He came to the midwestern city in November 1893 because he thought it an ideal place to launch an American branch of his civic church—an idea for a religiously based popular movement for social and political reform. A few days after arriving, he arranged for a mass meeting at the Chicago Music Hall to elicit support for his plan. The gathering attracted plenty of attention, as much for who attended as for the topics discussed....

  11. 7 THE PROBLEM WITH THE PUBLIC: Lincoln Steffens and Municipal Reform
    (pp. 189-216)

    The ascent of Lincoln Steffens was nothing short of remarkable. A successful but relatively obscure young journalist working in New York City, he began publishing a series of articles for McClure’s Magazine in late 1902 that explored the sources of corruption in city politics. These essays struck a nerve, catapulting Steffens to national prominence and establishing him as the nation’s leading voice on city politics and municipal reform. Steffens followed up with articles and books on corruption and reform in city, state, and national politics during the first decade of the twentieth century. Civic groups from cities around the country...

  12. EPILOGUE: The Last Hurrah and the Vindication of Machine Politics
    (pp. 217-224)

    Perhaps no account, scholarly or fictional, has done more to shape perceptions of urban politics in the industrial era than Edwin O’Connor’s immensely popular 1956 novel The Last Hurrah. Lay readers, critics, and scholars have all assumed that O’Connor had written a thinly disguised depiction of Boston politics and saw the book’s main character, aging Irish mayor Frank Skeffington, as James Michael Curley. Most agreed that the book offered an authentic glimpse of how machine politicians provided for the needs of immigrant, working-class voters in a personal, culturally sensitive manner. They also saw it as an endorsement of such methods....

  13. Notes
    (pp. 225-252)
  14. Bibliography: Selected Primary Sources
    (pp. 253-256)
  15. Index
    (pp. 257-264)