Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities (1904)

In Shame of the Cities, leading muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens criticizes the corruption and illegal activities of political machines and bosses in late—19th and early—20th century American cities. Steffens' articles were originally published in McClure's Magazine, and in 1904 he collected them in Shame of the Cities. An excerpt of the book, this reading deals with political corruption in St. Louis and the Democratic machine of Boss Edward Butler. Much of the information gathered here was actually prepared by a local reporter, Claude Wetmore, though Steffens never credits Wetmore for helping him. Moreover, much of Steffens' moralistic tone exaggerated the actual power the city boss had.

Section 1

Section 2

Section 1: Introduction; and Some Conclusions

This is not a book. It is a collection of articles reprinted from McClure’s Magazine. Done as journalism, they are journalism still, and no further pretensions are set up for them in their new dress. This classification may seem pretentious enough; certainly it would if I should confess what claims I make for my profession. But no matter about that; I insist upon the journalism. And there is my justification for separating from the bound volumes of the magazine and republishing, practically without re-editing, my accounts as a reporter of the shame of American cities. They were written with a purpose, they were published serially with a purpose, and they are reprinted now together to further that same purpose, which was and is — to sound for the civic pride of an apparently shameless citizenship.

There must be such a thing, we reasoned. All our big boasting could not be empty vanity, nor our pious pretensions hollow sham. American achievements in science, art, and business mean sound abilities at bottom, and our hypocrisy a race sense of fundamental ethics. Even in government we have given proofs of potential greatness, and our political failures are not complete; they are simply ridiculous. But they are ours. Not alone the triumphs and the statesmen, the defeats and the grafters also represent us, and just as truly. Why not see it so and say it?

Because, I heard, the American people won’t “stand for” it. You may blame the politicians, or, indeed, any one class, but not all classes, not the people. Or you may put it on the ignorant foreign immigrant, or any one nationality, but not on all nationalities, not on the American people. But no one class is at fault, nor any one breed, nor any particular interest or group of interests. The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.

When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. “Ah, but they are all foreign populations,” I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless. And after that came Chicago and New York, both mongrel-bred, but the one a triumph of reform, the other the best example of good government that I had seen. The “foreign element” excuse is one of the hypocritical lies that save us from the clear sight of ourselves.

Another such conceit of our egotism is that which deplores our politics and lauds our business. This is the wail of the typical American citizen. Now, the typical American citizen is the business man. The typical business man is a bad citizen; he is busy. If he is a “big business man” and very busy, he does not neglect, he is busy with politics, oh, very busy and very businesslike. I found him buying boodlers in St. Louis, defending grafters in Minneapolis, originating corruption in Pittsburg, sharing with bosses in Philadelphia, deploring reform in Chicago, and beating good government with corruption funds in New York. He is a self-righteous fraud, this big business man. He is the chief source of corruption, and it were a boon if he would neglect politics. But he is not the business man that neglects politics; that worthy is the good citizen, the typical business man. He too is busy, he is the one that has no use and therefore no time for politics. When his neglect has permitted bad government to go so far that he can be stirred to action, he is unhappy, and he looks around for a cure that shall be quick, so that he may hurry back to the shop. Naturally, too, when he talks politics, he talks shop. His patent remedy is quack; it is business.

“Give us a business man,” he says (“like me,” he means). “Let him introduce business methods into politics and government; then I shall be left alone to attend to my business.”

There is hardly an office from United States senator down to Alderman in any part of the country to which the business man has not been elected; yet politics remains corrupt, government pretty bad, and the selfish citizen has to hold himself in readiness like the old volunteer firemen to rush forth at any hour, in any weather, to prevent the fire; and he goes out sometimes and he puts out the fire (after the damage is done) and he goes back to the shop sighing for the business man in politics. The business man has failed in politics as he has in citizenship....

The condemned methods of our despised politics are the master methods of our braggart business, and the corruption that shocks us in public affairs we practice ourselves in our private concerns. There is no essential difference between the pull that gets your wife into society or a favorable review for your book, and that which gets a heeler into office, a thief out of jail, and a rich man’s son on the board of directors of a corporation; none between the corruption of a labor union, a bank, and a political machine; none between a dummy director of a trust and the caucus-bound member of a legislature; none between a labor boss like Sam Parks, a boss of banks like John D. Rockefeller, a boss of railroads like J. P. Morgan, and a political boss like Matthew S. Quay. The boss is not a political, he is an American institution, the product of a freed people that have not the spirit to be free.

Section 2: The Shamelessness of St. Louis (March, 1903)

Tweed’s classic question, “What are you going to do about it?” is the most humiliating challenge ever delivered by the One Man to the Many. But it was pertinent. It was the question then; it is the question now. Will the people rule? That is what it means. Is democracy possible? The accounts of financial corruption in St. Louis and of police corruption in Minneapolis raised the same question. They were inquiries into American municipal democracy, and, so far as they went, they were pretty complete answers. The people wouldn’t rule. They would have flown to arms to resist a czar or a king, but they let a “mucker” oppress and disgrace and sell them out. “Neglect,” so they describe their impotence. But when their shame was laid bare, what did they do then? That is what Tweed, the tyrant, wanted to know, and that is what the democracy of this country needs to know.

In other cities mere exposure has been sufficient to overthrow a corrupt regime. In St. Louis the conviction of the boodlers leaves the felons in control, the system intact, and the people — spectators. It is these people who are interesting — these people, and the system they have made possible.

The convicted boodlers have described the system to me. There was no politics in it — only business. The city of St. Louis is normally Republican. Founded on the home-rule principle, the corporation is a distinct political entity, with no county to confuse it. The State of Missouri, however, is normally Democratic, and the legislature has taken political possession of the city by giving to the Governor the appointment of the Police and Election Boards. With a defective election law, the Democratic boss in the city became its absolute ruler.

This boss is Edward R. Butler, better known as “Colonel Ed,” or “Colonel Butler,” or just “Boss.” He is an Irishman by birth, a master horseshoer by trade, a good fellow — by nature, at first, then by profession. Along in the seventies, when he still wore the apron of his trade, and bossed his tough ward, he secured the agency for a certain patent horseshoe which the city railways liked and bought. Useful also as a politician, they gave him a blanket contract to keep all their mules and horses shod. Butler’s farrieries glowed all about the town, and his political influence spread with his business; for everywhere big Ed Butler went there went a smile also, and encouragement for your weakness, no matter what it was. Like “Doc” Ames, of Minneapolis — like the “good fellow” everywhere — Butler won men by helping them to wreck themselves. A priest, the Rev. James Coffey, once denounced Butler from the pulpit as a corrupter of youth; at another time a mother knelt in the aisle of a church, and during service audibly called upon Heaven for a visitation of affliction upon Butler for having ruined her son. These and similar incidents increased his power by advertising it. He grew bolder. He has been known to walk out of a voting-place and call across a cordon of police to a group of men at the curb, “Are there any more repeaters out here that want to vote again?”

They will tell you in St. Louis that Butler never did have much real power, that his boldness and the clamor against him made him seem great. Public protest is part of the power of every boss. So far, however, as I can gather, Butler was the leader of his organization, but only so long as he was a partisan politician; as he became a “boodler” pure and simple; he grew careless about his machine, and did his boodle business with the aid of the worst element of both parties. At any rate, the boodlers, and others as well, say that in later years he had about equal power with both parties, and he certainly was the ruler of St. Louis during the Republican administration of Ziegenhein, which was the worst in the history of the city. His method was to dictate enough of the candidates on both tickets to enable him, by selecting the worst from each, to elect the sort of men he required in his business. In other words, while honest Democrats and Republicans were “loyal to party” (a point of great pride with the idiots) and “voted straight,” the Democratic boss and his Republican lieutenants decided what part of each ticket should be elected; then they sent around Butler’s “Indians” (repeaters) by the vanload to scratch ballots and “repeat” their votes, till the worst had made sure of the government by the worst, and Butler was in a position to do business.

His business was boodling, which is a more refined and a more dangerous form of corruption than the police blackmail of Minneapolis. It involves, not thieves, gamblers, and common women, but influential citizens, capitalists, and great corporations. For the stock-in-trade of the boodler is the rights, privileges, franchises, and real property of the city, and his source of corruption is the top, not the bottom, of society. Butler, thrown early in his career into contact with corporation managers, proved so useful to them that they introduced him to other financiers, and the scandal of his services attracted to him in due course all men who wanted things the city had to give. The boodlers told me that, according to the tradition of their combine, there “always was boodling in St. Louis.”

Butler organized and systematized and developed it into a regular financial institution, and made it an integral part of the business community. He had for clients, regular or occasional, bankers and promoters; and the statements of boodlers, not yet on record, allege that every transportation and public convenience company that touches St. Louis had dealings with Butler’s combine. And my best information is that these interests were not victims. Blackmail came in time, but in the beginning they originated the schemes of loot and started Butler on his career. Some interests paid him a regular salary, others a fee, and again he was a partner in the enterprise, with a special “rake-off” for his influence. “Fee” and “present” are his terms, and he has spoken openly of taking and giving them. I verily believe he regarded his charges as legitimate (he is the Croker type); but he knew that some people thought his services wrong. He once said that, when he had received his fee for a piece of legislation, he “went home and prayed that the measure might pass,” and, he added facetiously, that “usually his prayers were answered.”

His prayers were “usually answered” by the Municipal Assembly. This legislative body is divided into two houses — the upper, called the Council, consisting of thirteen members, elected at large; the lower, called the House of Delegates, with twenty-eight members, elected by wards; and each member of these bodies is paid twenty-five dollars a month salary by the city. With the mayor, this Assembly has practically complete control of all public property and valuable rights. Though Butler sometimes could rent or own the mayor, he preferred to be independent of him, so he formed in each part of the legislature a two-thirds majority — in the Council nine, in the House nineteen — which could pass bills over a veto. These were the “combines.” They were regularly organized, and did their business under parliamentary rules. Each “combine” elected its chairman, who was elected chairman also of the legal bodies where he appointed the committees, naming to each a majority of combine members.

In the early history of the combines, Butler’s control was complete, because it was political. He picked the men who were to be legislators; they did as he bade them do, and the boodling was noiseless, safe, and moderate in price. Only wrongful acts were charged for, and a right once sold was good; for Butler kept his word. The definition of an honest man as one who will stay bought, fitted him. But it takes a very strong man to control himself and others when the money lust grows big, and it certainly grew big in St. Louis. Butler used to watch the downtown districts. He knew everybody, and when a railroad wanted a switch, or a financial house a franchise, Butler learned of it early. Sometimes he discovered the need and suggested it. Naming the regular price, say $10,000, he would tell the “boys” what was coming, and that there would be $1,000 to divide. He kept the rest, and the city got nothing. The bill was introduced and held up till Butler gave the word that the money was in hand; then it passed. As the business grew, however, not only illegitimate, but legitimate permissions were charged for, and at gradually increasing rates. Citizens who asked leave to make excavations in streets for any purpose, neighborhoods that had to have street lamps — all had to pay, and they did pay. In later years there was no other way. Business men who complained felt a certain pressure brought to bear on them from most unexpected quarters downtown.

A business man told me that a railroad which had a branch near his factory suggested that he go to the Municipal Legislature and get permission to have a switch run into his yard. He liked the idea, but when he found it would cost him eight or ten thousand dollars, he gave it up. Then the railroad became slow about handling his freight. He understood, and, being a fighter, he ferried the goods across the river to another road. That brought him the switch; and when he asked about it, the railroad man said:

“Oh, we got it done. You see, we pay a regular salary to some of those fellows, and they did it for us for nothing.”

“Then why in the deuce did you send me to them?” asked the manufacturer.

“Well, you see,” was the answer, “we like to keep in with them, and when we can throw them a little outside business we do.”

In other words, a great railway corporation, not content with paying bribe salaries to these boodle alderman, was ready, further to oblige them, to help coerce a manufacturer and a customer to go also and be blackmailed by the boodlers. “How can you buck a game like that?” this man asked me.

Very few tried to. Blackmail was all in the ordinary course of business, and the habit of submission became fixed — a habit of mind....

The St. Louis fellows have been trying ever since to find a purchaser for their waterworks. The plant is worth at least $40,000,000. But the boodlers thought they could let it go for $15,000,000, and get $1,000,000 or so themselves for the bargain. “The scheme was to do it and skip,” said one of the boodlers who told me about it, “and if you could mix it all up with some filtering scheme it could be done; only some of us thought we could make more than $1,000,000 out of it — a fortune apiece. It will be done some day.”

Such, then, is the boodling system as we see it in St. Louis. Everything the city owned was for sale by the officers elected by the people. The purchasers might be willing or unwilling takers; they might be citizens or outsiders; it was all one to the city government. So long as the members of the combines got the proceeds they would sell out the town. Would? They did and they will. If a city treasurer runs away with $50,000 there is a great halloo about it. In St. Louis the regularly organized thieves who rule have sold $50,000,000 worth of franchises and other valuable municipal assets. This is the estimate made for me by a banker, who said that the boodlers got not one-tenth of the value of the things they sold, but were content because they got it all themselves. And as to the future, my boodling informants said that all the possessions of the city were listed for future sale, that the list was in existence, and that the sale of these properties was only postponed on account of accident....

What of St. Louis? Some years ago, when Butler was young in corruption, he was caught gambling, and with the charge pending against him St. Louis rose to challenge him. Meetings were held all over the city — one in the Exchange downtown — to denounce the political leader, who, an offense always, had dared commit the felony of gambling. Now, when he was caught and convicted and sentenced for bribery, what did St. Louis do? The first comment I heard in the streets when we all got back that day was that “Butler would never wear the stripes.” I heard it time and again, and you can hear it from banker and barber there to-day. Butler himself behaved decently. He stayed indoors for a few weeks — till a committee of citizens from the best residence section called upon him to come forth and put through the House of Delegates a bill for the improvement of a street in their neighborhood; and Butler had this done!

From: Steffens, Lincoln. Shame of the Cities. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904.