Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yo, Republicans Used to Rule Philadelphia

Peter McCaffery. When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867-1933.

Lincoln Steffens, a critic of urban corruption during his times around the beginning years of the 20th century, notes that Philadelphia had the dual problem of being, in his opinion, both the most corrupt city as well as the city where the citizens seemed to care less. Of course, such an attitude allowed bad practices to foster.

A Republican Party political machine successfully chose and elected many candidates from the post Civil War era until the Great Depression. The Gas Ring ran things in the 1870s only to give way to the much stronger Matthew Quay organization that arose in the late 1880s. The author notes these political organization may not be had the improper intentions that critics such as Lincoln Steffens attributed to them. It may have been to the advantage of challengers of machine practices to overstate their alleged evils.

There were political machine organizations, the author notes, yet they often faced truly contested elections. Further, the machines may have created continuing political electioneering organizations, and they had input into public policy making, they did not control all as much of the policy process as critics charged. The organizations in fact helped assimilate previously excluded ethnic groups into the political process and allowed the ignored groups entry into public policy and public employment.

For a few decades, following the Civil War, James McManes led the Republican machine and had it supported by gas and public building interests. The city paid an extra dollar a ton higher than market value with the excess funds allegedly paid to gas trustees. The Republican Party consisted of several factions, and eventually a faction led William Stokely ousted McManes. Factional divisions continued under Stokely. This was an era where wealthy people became less inclined to spend time, or be chosen for, public office and government operations were more apt to be led by full time professional middle class politicos. The Republican Party gained prominence quickly in Philadelphia, growing from a political power that obtained 1% of the vote in the 1856 elections and 53% of the vote in the 1865 elections. Philadelphia Republican leaders wisely allied with supporters of the Knows Nothings in 1857. It is noted that the national Republican Party platform against slavery was not a major issue within Philadelphia, especially since many Philadelphia traders were allied with Southern producers as well there being numerous anti-Black sentiments amongst Philadelphians.

Political leaders successfully sought to centralize and maintain their influence. The Republican Party became the center of Philadelphia politics and it was led by David Martin, Israel Durham, “Sunny Jim” McNichol, and William Vare. They created a political operation that would consistently defeat opponents. The key Republican issue was in favor of high tariffs that protected Philadelphia merchants and their employees. The conditions for a political machine were created.

Political influence did lead to economic influence. The Republican Party leaders extended their dominance over public utilities. In return, business leaders sought to ally with Republican politicians in return for support of their economic efforts. An opposition force to their power resulted but it was mostly ineffective in restraining the machine’s effectiveness.

The author argues a strong political machine operation resulted around 1887. The machine was strong because it was one unit that existed citywide, party discipline was strong, insubordinates were squashed, and the machine elected its candidates. Street gangs were an important component of the political machinery, especially since they were useful in keeping opponents from voting. Political patronage, awarding jobs in return for loyal political work, kept the machine strong. Political patronage had not been a major factor before then, as the Governor and Federal government had held more patronage jobs within Philadelphia than did city government.

While the machine brought ethnic groups into city government holding office, receiving patronage jobs, and participating in public policy decisions, African Americans were mostly left out of these processes. A coalition of the city’s wealthy and reformers attempted to create an anti-machine movement that won only 13,000 out of 90,000 votes in 1872. Stokely was ousted in 1881 yet the machinery was replaced by new leaders, such as Simon Cameron and Matthew Quay.

Cameron and Quay were supporters of the reform efforts of the city’s business leaders yet used these positions to garner political power for themselves. Grant, or changing contributions to businesses for their assistance, was a part of the machine’s fund raising mechanism. The Republican leaders had a new city charter enacted that shifted the city’s political power towards their organization. Quay controlled awarding Federal and state patronage jobs. Quay developed the first true political machine with political bosses. It is alleged he used public funds to supplement his income.

Republican party leaders became involved in public contracts. Leaders William Vare and Edwin Vare, who were brothers, received over $18 million for street cleaning from 1888 to 1921. Republican leader James McNichol with his brother Daniel received over $6 million in public contracts during the 1890s.

There was a counter reform movement. It won elections in 1905 and 1911 but the Republican leaders dominated the other elections. Republican machine candidates for Mayor received over 80% of the vote in 1899, 1903, 1919, and 1923. The Vare brothers were also politically aware and favored popular social reforms that made their candidates attractive to voters. Yet the machine saw that the elected leaders did little to enact social reforms, especially those that would have addressed the needs of low income social groups. Patronage jobs were allocated primarily to Republicans of English, Scottish, and German descent. In 1916, 5% of patronage jobs were held by people with Italian or Jewish surnames, and in 1932, 8% of patronage jobs were held by people with Italian or Jewish surnames. While political machines in other cities were noted for helping members of ethnic groups assimilate into public positions, the situation in Philadelphia was limited to particular groups and excluded others.

The Vares also made agreements with Democratic leaders which made them passive. The Republicans would even pay the rent on the Democratic headquarters to keep their loyal opposition operating.


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