Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 52: An American View of Municipal Government in the United States - The American Commonwealth, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 52: An American View of Municipal Government in the United States - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 1 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995).
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
An American View of Municipal Government in the United States
In England there are said to be three kinds of cities: cities by prescription, like London and Exeter, which have been cities from time immemorial; cities that are such because they have been the seat of a bishop; and cities organized under the modern Municipal Corporations Act. In the United States, twenty municipal corporations received charters as cities during the Colonial period. These charters, in order to be valid, had to be confirmed after the Revolution by the legislature of the state in which the city was located. In other words, a city in the United States is the creature of the legislature of the state in which it is. The legislature’s power over the city’s form of government is substantially absolute, except as the legislative power may be limited by the state constitution. As there are forty-eight states in the Union, and as there were, according to the census of 1910, seven hundred and seventy-four cities in the United States with a population of eight thousand or more, it will be readily understood why there is no uniform type of city charter even for the more modern cities. The city of Washington, in the District of Columbia, which belongs to the nation, is subject to the direct legislation of Congress. In this respect it is unique. Its inhabitants enjoy no vote even as to local affairs. It is administered by a Commission of Three, appointed by the president of the United States, subject to confirmation by the Senate, and is probably the only city in the United States without a mayor.
Any European student of politics who wishes to understand the problem of government in the United States, whether of city government or any other form of it, must first of all transfer himself, if he can, to a point of view precisely the opposite of that which is natural to him. This is scarcely, if at all, less true of the English than of the Continental student. In England as upon the Continent, from time immemorial, government has descended from the top down. Until recently, society in Europe has accepted the idea, almost without protest, that there must be governing classes, and that the great majority of men must be governed. The French Revolution doubtless modified this idea everywhere, and especially in France, but even in France public sentiment on this point is a resultant of a conflict of views. In the United States, however, that idea does not obtain at all, and, what is of no less importance, it never has obtained. No distinction is recognized between governing and governed classes, and the problem of government is, in effect, an effort on the part of society as a whole to learn and apply to itself the art of government. Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent that the immense tide of immigration into the United States is a continually disturbing factor. The immigrants come from many countries, a very large proportion of them being of the classes which, in their old homes, from time out of mind, have been governed. Arriving in America, they shortly become citizens in a society which undertakes to govern itself. However well disposed they may be as a rule, they have not had experience in self-government, nor do they always share the ideas which have expressed themselves in the Constitution of the United States. This foreign element settles largely in the cities of the country. It is estimated that the population of New York City contains approximately eighty per cent of people who either are foreign-born, or are the children of foreign-born parents. Consequently, in a city like New York, the prolem of learning the art of government is handed over to a population that begins, in point of experience, very low down. In many of the cities of the United States, indeed in almost all of them, the population not only is thus largely untrained in the art of self-government, but it is not even homogeneous. So that an American city is confronted not only with the necessity of instructing large and rapidly growing bodies of people in the art of government, but it is compelled at the same time to assimilate strangely different component parts into an American community. It will be apparent to the student that either one of these functions by itself would be difficult enough. When both are found side by side the problem is increasingly difficult as to each. Together they represent a problem such as confronts no city in the United Kingdom, or in Europe.
The American city has had problems to deal with also of a material character, quite different from those which have confronted the cities of the Old World. With the exception of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York, there is no American city of great consequence whose roots go back into the distant past even of America. American cities as a rule have grown with a rapidity to which the Old World presents few parallels. London, in the extent of its growth, but not in the proportions of it; Berlin since 1870, and Rome in the last few years, are perhaps the only places in Europe which have been compelled to deal with this element of rapid growth in anything like a corresponding degree. All of these cities, London, Berlin, and Rome, are the seats of the national government, and receive from that source more or less help and guidance in their development. In all of them an immense nucleus of wealth existed before this great and rapid growth began. The problem in America has been to make a great city in a few years out of nothing. There has been no nucleus of wealth upon which to found the structure which every succeeding year has enlarged. Recourse has been had of necessity, under these conditions, to the freest use of the public credit.
The city of Chicago, for example, with its population of two millions of people, was a small frontier trading post eighty years ago. Within that period everything has been created out of the fields. The houses in which the people live, the waterworks, the paved streets, the sewers, everything which makes up the permanent plant of a city, all have been produced while the city has been growing from year to year at a fabulous rate. Besides these things are to be reckoned the public schools, the public parks, and many municipal monuments of every kind. American cities as a rule have a more abundant supply of water than European cities, and they are usually more enterprising in furnishing themselves with things which in Europe may be called the luxuries of city life, but which, in America, are so common as to be regarded as necessities. Especially is this true of every convenience involving the use of electricity. There are more than half as many telephones, for example, in the city of New York alone, as there are in the whole of the United Kingdom.
The necessity of doing so much so quickly, has worked to the disadvantage of the American city in two ways. First, it has compelled very lavish expenditure under great pressure for quick results. This is precisely the condition under which the best trained businessmen make their greatest mistakes, and are in danger of running into extravagance and wastefulness. Few candid Americans will deny that American cities have suffered much, not alone from extravagance and wastefulness, but also from dishonesty; but in estimating the extent of the reproach, it is proper to take into consideration these general conditions under which the cities have been compelled to work. The second disadvantage under which American cities have laboured arising from this state of things has been a very general inability to provide adequately for current needs, while discounting the future so freely in order to provide their permanent plant. When the great American cities have paid for the permanent plant which they have been accumulating during the last half century, so that the duty which lies before them is chiefly that of caring adequately for the current life of their population, a vast improvement in all these particulars may reasonably be expected. The standard of city paving and of street cleaning in American cities, as a whole, is much higher now than it was when the first edition of this book appeared in 1888. In other words, time is a necessary element in making a great city, as it is in every other great and enduring work. American cities are judged by their size, rather than by the time which has entered into their growth. It cannot be denied that larger results could have been produced with the money expended, if it had always been used with complete honesty and good judgment. But to make an intelligent criticism upon the American city, in its failures upon the material side, these elements of difficulty must be taken into consideration.
Looked at in this light, the marvel would seem to be, not so much that the American cities are justly criticisable for many defects, but rather that results so great have been achieved in so short a time. New York City, for example, is just finishing the last of three suspension bridges, every one of which, in size and capacity, exceeds all other suspension bridges in the world. The city has also built a fourth bridge of the cantilever type, which, in capacity, much exceeds the great Forth Bridge, though the span is less long. New York has also developed in its corporate capacity, in cooperation with and under the direction of organizations of private citizens, a natural history museum that is second to no other, an art museum that is fairly counted among the greatest of art museums, a botanical garden that is rapidly forging towards the first rank, a zoological garden that in size and equipment excels any other, and an aquarium that is also worthy of leading rank. Each of these institutions is free. They are visited annually by millions of people; are all related to the public school system of the city, and stand as high for scientific usefulness as for public service. The city of Boston is steadily carrying towards completion one of the most remarkable systems of municipal parks and boulevards to be found in any country; and that is a poor American city, indeed, that does not tax itself freely to provide pleasure grounds for its people. Probably Berlin alone, among the great cities of Europe, is as well lighted as New York; and some of the cities of the Middle and Far West are proportionately better lighted than New York. The city of St. Louis, a city of 687,000 people, conducted successfully, a few years ago, a World’s Fair on a scale as great as has ever been attempted. These are but illustrations of what American cities have accomplished in many important fields.
One particular in which the American city may be thought to have come short of what might have been expected, may be described in general terms as a lack of foresight. It would have been comparatively easy to have preserved in all of them small open parks, and generally to have made them more beautiful, if there had been a greater appreciation of the need for these things and of their future growth. The Western cities probably have erred in this regard less than those upon the Atlantic coast. But while it is greatly to be regretted that this large foresight has not been displayed, it is, after all, only repeating in America what has taken place in Europe. The improvement of cities seems everywhere to be made by tearing down and replacing at great cost, rather than by a far-sighted provision for the demands and opportunities of the future. This unfortunate result in America has flowed, in part from the frequent tendency of population to grow in precisely the direction which was not anticipated. An interesting illustration of this last factor is to be found in the city of Washington. The Capitol was made to face towards the east, under the impression that population would settle in that direction. As matter of fact, the city has grown towards the west, so that the Capitol stands with its back to the city and faces a district that is scarcely built upon at all.
All the troubles which have marked the development of cities in the United States, however, are not due to these causes. Cities in the United States, as forms of government, are of comparatively recent origin. The city of Boston, for example, in the state of Massachusetts, although the settlement was founded more than two hundred and fifty years ago, received its charter as a city so recently as 1822. The city of Brooklyn received its charter from the state of New York in 1835. In other words, the transition from village and town government into government by cities, has simply followed the transition of small places into large communities. This suggests another distinction between the cities of the United States and those of Great Britain. The great cities of England and of Europe, with few exceptions, have their roots in the distant past. Many of their privileges and chartered rights were wrested from the Crown in feudal times. Some of these privileges have been retained, and contribute still to the income, the pride, and the influence of the municipality. The charter of an American city represents no element of prestige or inspiration. It is only the legal instrument which gives the community authority to act as a corporation, and which defines the duties of its officers. The motive for passing from town government to city government, in general, has been the same everywhere—to acquire a certain readiness of action, and to make more available the credit of the community in order to provide adequately for its own growth. The town meeting, in which every citizen takes part, serves its purpose admirably in communities up to a certain size, or for the conducting of public work on not too large a scale. But the necessity for the easy use of the public credit in providing for the needs of growth has compelled rapidly growing communities, in all the states, to seek the powers of a corporation as administered through a city government.
It will be perceived that the great growth of cities in the United States has thus resulted in the rapid transformation of a rural population into a population largely dwelling in cities; and this rapidly transformed urban population has been called upon, without any qualifying experience, to solve the difficult problem of city government. For many years, Americans applied to cities the theories which they had successfully embodied in the government of their states. It is only as some of these theories have broken down, when applied to cities, that Americans have begun to realize that they have on their hands a problem, new for them, which must be solved, so to speak, by rules of its own. Superficial observers may think that they have said all that needs to be said, when they have asked, “How can anyone expect to get good city government with manhood suffrage?” Manhood suffrage is an element in the problem, certainly; and the problem must be solved with manhood suffrage as a factor. But manhood suffrage, even in cities, is by no means a source of difficulty only. Every European city, comparable in size to any one of a half dozen American cities, swarms with soldiers. Outside of London this is less true of England than of the Continent. The population of American cities is much more heterogeneous than the population of these European cities; yet the American cities are free from soldiers, and although they have a smaller police force than corresponding European cities, public order is just as well preserved. The fact is that in American cities the people keep themselves in order, because they feel that the city is theirs. Manhood suffrage in American cities, as everywhere else in the United States, wakes the people up and develops a population of great average capacity.
Why is it, then, that Americans are less proud of their institutions, as illustrated in city government, than anywhere else?
In other words, why is it that American cities, despite their good points, have so much difficulty in securing a city government that needs no apology? Some of the reasons, at least, may be indicated. Growing, as they have done, out of villages and towns, and compelled to go to the legislature of the state for their charters, American cities have seldom received in the first instance such adequate grants of power over their local affairs as to enable them to grow without constant resort to the legislature for additional powers. The states, also, have used the city for many purposes as the agent of the state. Out of these two circumstances has grown the habit, in almost every state, of interfering through the legislature with the details of city expenditure and city administration. The story of municipal reform in the United States is everywhere a story of the effort, by constitutional amendment, to limit the power of the state legislature to interfere with the details of city government.
The Constitution of the United States gives to the president great administrative power, including great power of appointment. The constitutions of the states, on the other hand—certainly of all the original states—looked to division of power as a source of safety; so that, instead of electing a governor with power to appoint the administrative officers of the state, as the president does for the United States, the principal administrative officers of the state, as well as the governor, are all elected by the people. Unhappily, this latter policy was almost uniformly followed in the organization of cities. Elective officers were made numerous, and the terms of office short. As a result, efficiency was impossible, and anything like effective responsibility to the voters could not be secured. It is taken, and will still take, a long time for Americans to realize that responsibility to the people is best maintained when elective officers are few in number, but have ample authority; and that efficiency is greatest when elected officials have adequate power to do right, even if they sometimes do wrong. The progress making in the direction of reducing the number of elected city officials is well illustrated by Boston’s new charter, granted in 1909. This charter reduces the number of elected officials, in Boston, from ninety-seven to ten.
City inefficiency was greatly increased, also, by the demoralizing maxim, which came into the political life of the country in 1834, “To the Victors belong the Spoils.” Under the influence of that battle cry, which was adopted by all political parties, even the subordinate civil service of the cities became as unstable as the sea.
In the matter of preventing interference by the state in the local affairs of the city, one state after another has passed constitutional amendments aimed at that evil. In the state of New York, no law affecting a city can be passed until it has first been submitted to the local authorities: in the larger cities to the mayor, and in the smaller cities to the mayor and common council. Public hearings are given in every city before action can be taken by the local authorities, and the bill is then returned, with or without the approval of the city, to the branch of the legislature in which the bill originated. The legislature has the authority to repass the bill, notwithstanding the protest of the city. The bill, if accepted by the city, or if passed by the legislature a second time, then goes to the governor for approval or disapproval, as in the case of any other state law. If a bill is passed for the first time by the legislature, so near the end of its session that the time given to the city for its consideration does not admit of its repassage by the legislature in the event of its nonacceptance by the city, then the nonacceptance by the city is fatal to the bill. In other words, by reason of this amendment to the constitution of the state of New York, adopted in 1894, no action can be taken by the legislature of the state without notice to the city. In almost every case the attitude of the city is final. It is only in matters of the first consequence that the judgment of the city is ever overruled by the legislature.
When this chapter was revised in 1906, the states of Missouri, California, Washington, Minnesota, and Colorado had adopted constitutions granting to the cities of those states, with various restrictions, the authority to make their own charters, which, when made, are not easily amendable by the legislature. City-made charters in California must be confirmed by the legislature; but the legislature, thus far, has always confirmed the city’s action. Since 1906, the states of Oregon, Oklahoma, and Michigan have followed in the same path. In other words, the movement to prevent the interference by legislatures in the local affairs of cities throughout the states of the Union has already acquired great momentum, and it is not likely to be many years before this obstacle to good city administration has been overcome throughout the Union.
In the matter of securing more efficient administration of cities, it is evident that permanency of tenure of the subordinate administrative officials is a great factor in the situation. The definite adoption of the policy of civil service reform by the United States, in 1883, has been followed very generally by the states of the Union in relation to the civil service not only of the states, but also of the cities of the states. In the state of New York this policy has been embodied in the constitution of the state, and applies not only to the state administration, but to the administration of all the cities and local subdivisions of the state. Much remains to be done to bring about an ideal condition throughout the Union, but the right path has been entered upon, and it is likely to be followed to the end.
Responsibility to the people for administration in cities has been sought by two main methods. In the cities of New York and Philadelphia, and now in Boston, by its new charter, the mayor of the city is given the absolute power of appointment and removal of the heads of the administrative departments. The recent charter of the city of Boston provides a new limitation upon the power of appointment, from which, theoretically, much is to be hoped. It will be interesting to observe how it works in practice. The charter requires that the mayor, in filling responsible offices, shall appoint “recognized experts in such work as may devolve upon the incumbents of said offices, or persons specially fitted by education, training, and experience to perform the same.” These officers are to be “appointed without regard to party affiliation or residence at the time of appointment”; and the mayor’s appointment does not become operative, unless at least a majority of the state Civil Service Commission certify, within thirty days, that a careful inquiry into the qualifications of the appointee satisfies them that the appointee “is qualified by education, training, and experience” for the office to which he has been appointed. It will be observed that this provision gives to the state a certain administrative control over the appointments of the mayor of Boston; but administrative control by the state is far less objectionable than legislative control; for administrative control by the state is likely to be used, as it is in England, to help and not to embarrass the city. It is, evidently, clearly within the right of the state to insist, as a matter of uniform policy, that all appointments to office, within the state, shall involve the element of fitness as determined by a standard fixed by the state itself. It is a commentary on city administration, as it has been illustrated in Boston, that the state of Massachusetts should find it necessary to pass upon the special fitness for the work to be done, of an appointed city official. But no one familiar with the government of large cities throughout the United States imagines for a moment that Boston has been a sinner in this particular above all other cities. The special importance of this charter provision lies, on the contrary, in the fact that it is an intelligent effort to find a remedy for a widespread evil. The working of this clause, therefore, will be of immense interest, not only to the city of Boston but to all the cities of the Union.
The conclusions of the Boston Finance Commission, which was appointed originally by the mayor, and subsequently given special authority by the state of Massachusetts, and which proposed the new charter, are of interest as indicating the trend of modern American opinion. The Commission says:
The legislative measures which the commission regards as essential to enable the people of Boston to redeem their government may be summarized as follows:
The permanent Finance Commission referred to is a body of five, to be appointed by the governor of the state, with power “to investigate, publish, and advise.” This, also, is a new departure in American practice, and one that is likely to be widely followed, if it works well.
The other direction in which greater efficiency in city administration has been sought, is that which is known as the “Commission” or “Galveston” plan. In 1900 the city of Galveston, in Texas, was visited by a great tidal wave. The damage done to the city was so great as almost to threaten it with obliteration. In the presence of this emergency, the people of Galveston besought the legislature to amend the city charter, so as to give the city power to deal with the situation. The governing body of the city was reduced to a board of five members, presided over by an official known as mayor-president. This board has full legislative and administrative power for the city. It creates the city departments to be administered, and, by a majority vote, divides the administration of the departments among the members of the board, including the mayor. The mayor, in general, has no greater authority than any of his associates, although he is, in a sense, the general manager. The men first chosen in Galveston to administer this new system were thoroughly competent and upright men. They not only redeemed Galveston from its disaster, but set the city upon a plane which it had never reached before. The result has been that this system of city government has been widely adopted not only in Texas, but in other states of the Union. Massachusetts and Idaho, by special charter, have granted this form of government to certain of their cities, and the states of Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Mississippi have passed laws enabling their cities, if they choose, to have charters embodying the general features of this plan. In cities of a moderate size the plan has worked sufficiently well, where it has been tried, to encourage its adoption by a continually increasing number of cities. The Report of the Secretary of the National Municipal League, made at the annual meeting of the League in 1909, calls attention to the fact that, within the previous two years, 138 cities in the Union have been seriously considering the question of charter making and charter revision. This statement shows how keenly alive the people of the United States are to the importance of having for cities charters which give promise of efficiency. But the fact is noteworthy that the largest cities have chosen to seek administrative responsibility by centring the power to appoint and remove administrative officials in the hands of the mayor, while it is only the cities of moderate size, say, of 100,000 or fewer, inhabitants, that have chosen the Galveston type. Galveston itself has about 37,000 inhabitants. The power of political machinery increases with the size of the population. The largest cities have chosen to concentrate power in the hands of the mayor, because, in such cities, the leader of the dominant political party, usually called a “boss,” becomes so strong as often to dominate even the mayor of the city, who may belong to his party. The “boss,” as such, exerts power without responsibility; and the only way to dislodge him from control of the city, through the machinery of an election, is to give to the mayor, by law, the power which the “boss” exercises without legal authority, so that by dislodging a mayor who is subservient to a “boss,” the people can take the city government, on its administrative side, out of the hands of the “boss.” This system was first tried in the city of Brooklyn, New York, which was then an independent city, in 1882. Brooklyn is now a borough of the city of New York, and the Brooklyn system, in this respect, has been accepted by the larger city. It has been substantially adopted by Philadelphia; and, again, by the city of Boston, in the newest charter granted to any of the large cities of the country.
This discussion raises the question, how it is, that, in the United States, anyone not legally related to the government of a city can acquire such power as is exercised in all the large American cities by the so-called “boss” of the dominant party. The answer to this question is partly historical and partly philosophical. It is historical in the sense that the American people are strong partisans, and vote with their party, ordinarily, on local issues, no less than on national issues. In the state of New York, as early as 1815, when the local officials, including the mayor of New York, were appointed by a state Board of Appointment, so important a man as DeWitt Clinton, a man who had been senator of the United States, and who, later, as governor of the state of New York, constructed the Erie Canal, was removed from the office of mayor of New York by a state Board of Appointment that differed from him on national politics, in the execution of a party programme. This illustrates the pregnant fact that, even at that early day, when neither manhood suffrage nor immigration entered into the problem at all, the habit existed, in New York State at any rate, on the part of those controlling the national parties, of using the cities as pawns in the game of national politics. It is important to notice that this habit was not created by the extension of the suffrage, nor by the growth of immigration. On the contrary, the curious and interesting fact is that the habit has survived the extension of the suffrage. The same attitude of mind on the part of the national political parties towards the cities continues largely unchecked to the present day. It is the strong partisanship of the American people which has made this possible; and it is only within the last thirty years, since the consciousness of the city problem, as a problem by itself, has been pressed home on the American mind and conscience, that any pause has been given to this sort of thing. Now, the demand for home rule by the cities is so intelligent and so insistent that the political parties find it good judgment, very often, to recognize this sentiment. The habit persists, nevertheless, with the great majority of Americans, of voting with their national party, even in local elections. This is the historical condition which creates the “boss.”
The philosophical explanation of the “boss” is to be found in the fact, that, where the voting population is large, it requires efficient organization to get out the vote. In the city of New York, for example, more than 600,000 people voted in the election of 1909. Simply to send one letter to all of the voters would cost more than $12,000. To acquaint the voters with the issues of the campaign, to interest them to go to the polls, and to see that their vote is cast, involves organization of a high order, and this is costly; and, in order to be efficient, the organization must also be manned by men thoroughly competent. This means that the organization needed for the service of a party not infrequently becomes so strong as to dominate the party; so that the organization, instead of being the servant of the party, becomes its master. The organization itself, to be most efficient, must be under permanent and capable control. The result is, first, the development of the professional politican who lives by politics; and, second, in cities, the leadership of this band by some one man who often becomes in the end its autocratic ruler.
This tendency is felt everywhere throughout the United States, and for the same reasons. It is probably true, that, in every state organization, the political machinery is subject to the same tendencies as have revealed themselves in cities. But the political “boss” of the city is more frequently an arbitrary potentate than the political “boss” of a state; because, in a state, the population is not so much concentrated, and there is a wider range of interests to be considered. Proportionately, moreover, the city budget is much greater than the state budget. The budget of the city of New York, for example, in 1908, was $143,000,000. The budget of the state of New York in the same year was $34,000,000. In addition to the budget, the city of New York issued, for municipal purposes, in the year 1908, $82,000,000 of bonds; the state of New York $15,000,000 of bonds. It is apparent, therefore, that the pecuniary motive for desiring to control city expenditure, which appeals to the professional politician, operates more strongly in cities than in the states. All of these considerations tend to make the political organization of the dominant party, in a city, more and more of a machine; so that the problem in cities, where the political majority is one-sided, is how to get good government despite the machine of the dominant party, rather than how to get it through that party. The same tendencies, of course, work in the minority party as well as in the majority party; but the habit of Americans of voting on local questions on the lines of national party makes the majority party, for the most part, the one to be dreaded. The danger from the minority party machine, in a city, comes when its leaders make terms with the leaders of the majority party for mutual advantage. The idea of “a community of interest” is not confined to the railroads of the United States, but finds its place in politics as well, and especially in municipal politics, for the reasons that have been given.
Of course this difficulty has been recognized ever since Americans began to have experience with large cities; and the effort has been constant to minimize it. There has grown up in the cities of the country a very considerable body of voters who will not vote any longer on local issues simply on national lines. They vote gladly with their national party, if they think that their national party is right on the local question at issue; but this body of independents does not hesitate to vote against the nominee of their party if they think the other party better deserves their support. This spirit of local independence in voting is the spirit which ultimately will secure good government for the American cities. The changes of charter which have been advocated have their principal value in the encouragement which they give to this spirit of independent voting, by making success at an election more fruitful of good results. It is evidently idle to set up machinery that is well calculated to give home rule, if the people of the city itself are determined to follow the old habit of permitting the city to be used as a pawn in the game of national politics. Deep-seated as this habit is in the American people, it has yielded and will yield to an effective opportunity, once gained, by the people of a city to control their own local affairs.
In the last ten years, in many of the smaller cities of the country, the effort has been made to weaken the power of the municipal machine by the system of direct primaries, and to increase the power of the people of the city over their own affairs by the adoption of “the initiative,” “the referendum,” and “the recall.” The system of “direct primaries,” so called, has been applied in a number of states, not only in cities, but as of universal application to all nominations made in the state. Ordinarily, in American communities, nominations are made by party conventions, and the delegates who form these conventions are chosen from political divisions of various kinds. It is believed by many Americans that political leaders get their abnormal power by the control of this party machinery, as a result of which they can generally control party nominations. The direct primary plan is an effort to compel such leaders to get the popular endorsement of the voters of their party before nominations can be known as party nominations. Under the direct primary system the people of the same party vote at the primaries directly for the persons to be chosen as the candidates of the party, the primary thus becoming a sort of preliminary election. It is too soon to say positively whether this system, in its general application, will lead to a betterment of conditions at large; but there is some reason to hope that it may do so in small districts. The difficulty is that the system of direct nominations itself involves a great deal of machinery; and it is not at all clear that the professional political element will not learn how to dominate this machinery as well as that which now exists. Possibly, in cities, nomination by petition may take the place of both the convention and the direct primary systems. It is indicative of popular opinion, at the moment, that the question was submitted to the people of Boston in November 1909, whether nominations for mayor and other local officers should be made by the convention system or by petition. By a majority of 3,000, out of a vote of 74,000, the people of Boston voted in favour of nomination of local officers by petition, without the use of any party machinery whatever. It will be exceedingly interesting to observe the outcome of this experiment in a city like Boston; for it is not only one of the larger cities of the country, but it is also an old city. If the plan succeeds in Boston, it is likely to be adopted widely in other cities. If it should not work well there, it is likely to put a check to further developments in this direction on the part of the large cities of the country. The writer is inclined to think, that, in order to work well, the plan of nominating in cities by petition must be supplemented by two other provisions: first, a majority vote must be required for election; and, second, in the event of a second ballot being necessary, the candidates to be voted for the second time should be the two who receive the highest and the next to the highest number of votes at the first voting. When an election is possible by a plurality vote, it is too easy for the machine to divide its enemies to their destruction.
In the smaller cities there appears to be no reason why the direct primary system should not work well. The difficulties of the system appear when the vote to be got out becomes so large that extensive machinery is required to get the vote out for the primary election, precisely as such machinery is required to get the vote out for the official election. On the other hand, it is certainly true, that, owing to the habit of the American people of voting with their national party, the nomination by the dominant party in probably nine-tenths of the constituencies of the United States, whether you speak of a state, or of a city, or of a district within any state or city, is equivalent to an election. There appears to be every reason, therefore, why the people should be permitted to make their wishes effectually known at the time when the nomination is made. The practical question is, whether the method of direct nomination will do this any more effectively than the method of nomination by convention. It will not be surprising if the line comes to be drawn, between the two methods, somewhat by the size of the vote to be cast.
In some cities of California, the largest of which to adopt the plan is Los Angeles, with a population of over 300,000, the system of “recall” has been adopted; which signifies, ordinarily, that upon the filing of a petition, asking for the recall of any official before the expiration of his term, a special election shall be held to determine whether or not the official shall be permitted to serve out his term. At such special election the official concerned may be a candidate for reelection or not, at his pleasure. The most important instance in which a recall has been resorted to was in the city of Los Angeles, where a mayor whose administration was unsatisfactory, was subjected to the “recall.” The mayor declined to appeal to the verdict of the people; and accordingly another man was elected to serve out the remainder of his term. A modification of this system is embodied in the new charter of Boston. The mayor is elected for four years; but at the regular stated election during his second year, the question is submitted to the voters of the city, “Shall there be an election for mayor at the next municipal election?” If a majority of the voters vote in the affirmative, a new election ensues. On the other hand, a mayor has the right, if he wishes, to withdraw from the office, at his own pleasure, at the end of the second year. All of these movements are interesting, because they show how steadily the people of the cities of the United States are striving, first, to acquire the necessary power for complete local self-government; and, next, to make that local government completely responsive to the popular will.
The “initiative” and the “referendum,” in their relation to the cities of the United States, are not different in substance from the “initiative” and the “referendum” as practised in Switzerland. It has been claimed that, in the matter of franchises, for example, the “referendum” would be a great protection against the abuse of power to grant franchises. In many places it doubtless is; but there is at least one case upon record, according to Judge Lindsey, of Denver, Colorado, in which the submission of a franchise to the vote of the people of Denver resulted in debauching the electorate of a whole city on a scale never known before. Private persons who were interested in securing the franchise were entirely ready to pay money to get it, even in such a way as that. On the other hand, Kansas City, through the “referendum,” has recently defeated a franchise which was recommended by its Common Council.
This leads to the consideration of the control of franchises in the public interest, and of their relation to city governments. Only so recently as when this chapter was revised, in 1906, the tendency to adopt both municipal ownership and operation of franchises, as a cure for the unregulated granting of franchises to private corporations, seemed likely to be very widely adopted. The tendency towards municipal ownership has happily strengthened in the interval; but the indications today are that the tendency towards municipal operation of franchises is less strong now than then. This is largely due to the effect of the Report upon Municipal Ownership and Operation, prepared in 1907, under the auspices of the National Civic Federation. The commission which prepared this report was thoroughly representative, not only of those who believed in municipal ownership and operation, but also of those who were opposed to this plan. It was equally representative, both of capitalists and of organized labour. The tendency of organized labour to favour municipal operation as well as municipal ownership, has been greatly weakened by that report. Many of the leaders of organized labour in the United States feel that they can obtain better terms from private corporations operating such franchises than they can from the government. The American does not enjoy government service, per se, as much as he enjoys the independence of a private occupation; and organized labour recognizes that the conditions affecting governmental action are less friendly to its ambitions than those which apply to private corporations. The salaries of government employees, for example, are fixed by law, and only so much money is available for the payment of salaries. Many of the leaders of organized labour feel that, in the long run, labour can get a larger share of the earnings, under private control, than under governmental control. This is one of the reasons affecting the change in public sentiment; but, whether this explanation of the fact be complete or not, the change in sentiment is very real. In the meanwhile, in the state of New York, a method has been instituted for controlling the operations of public service corporations which thus far has worked exceedingly well. Two public service commissioners have been created by the legislature, with large powers, one for New York City, and one for the rest of the state. Such corporations are brought under official supervision in ways that protect the public interests very much more completely than the public interests were ever protected before in the state of New York. This development, also, has weakened the tendency towards municipal operation of public franchises, because it decreases the abuses under which the public used to suffer through private administration of public franchises. The feeling is becoming very general throughout the cities of the United States that local franchises should not be given in perpetuity; and that the public, as well as the grantees, should profit from the grant. By constitutional restrictions upon the right to grant franchises, by such methods as have been described as prevailing in the state of New York, and by the referendum, the cities of the country are endeavouring to secure a larger share of the benefit than formerly accrued to the community from the operation of franchises in rapidly growing centres. It is not too much to say that the old era in this respect is at an end. Some improper grants may yet be made here and there; but the conviction is widespread that franchises are a public asset, and the public is determined to secure its share of the profits accruing from their use.
In the last revision of this chapter, it was said that the only organic problem in connection with the charters of cities which apparently remains as far from solution as ever, is that which concerns the legislative branch of the city government. That statement is not quite so true today as it was then. The difficulty never has been in devising a local legislature that theoretically would be satisfactory. The difficulty always has been to secure the election of suitable persons to the city legislature. The cities which have chosen the Galveston or commission plan of goverment claim to have made great advances in this particular by reducing the number of persons to be elected to a small body elected from the city at large, and by giving to them executive as well as legislative powers, such as are enjoyed by a board of directors in a business corporation. This, it is claimed, has enabled them to secure a better type of men in the city government. As was pointed out in this chapter, when last revised, the only large city in the United States which has importantly improved the character of its aldermen as a whole is the city of Chicago. This fact remains true to the present time. Mr. Horace E. Deming, in his valuable book on “The Government of American Cities,” published in 1909, to which the writer is indebted for many of the details which have enabled him to bring his information down to date, makes the interesting suggestion, that the reason why Chicago has succeeded in doing this, when no other large city in the country has done it, is because, in the case of Chicago, the people had to do it, in order to get anything done at all. Mr. Deming points out that a constitutional amendment had deprived the legislature of Illinois of all power of legislating for the city of Chicago. The people of Chicago, therefore, realized, that, in order to get things done in the city of Chicago, they must get them done by their local legislature. Mr. Deming’s claim is, that, when the people of the city of Chicago found that they had no other alternative, they devoted themselves intelligently and successfully to the problem of improving the personnel of their local legislature. He claims that the same result would follow in any American city under corresponding conditions. There is much to be said for this point of view.
The movement in favour of requiring uniform accounting from cities, alluded to in the last edition, continues to make progress. Three years ago, Ohio was the only state which had adopted this requirement. Since then, the states of Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, West Virginia, Colorado, and Wyoming have moved in this direction, wholly or in part, and at least three other states have it under consideration.
This outline sufficiently emphasizes present marked tendencies in municipal government, which show their effect in legislation. It may truthfully be said that the general standard of local administration is higher today, in most cities, than it was twenty years ago. This is undoubtedly so in the city of New York; and, so far as the observation of one man can go, it is generally true elsewhere. But there has been, within the last twenty years, a change in the form which municipal corruption has taken that amounts almost to a revolution. In the earlier days, officials who were dishonest stole openly from the public treasury; but, beginning with the overthrow of Tweed in the city of New York in 1871, that was seen to be a method so hazardous as to have fewer and fewer followers. The more modern method was never more succinctly stated than by a leader of Tammany Hall in the heyday of his power in the city of New York, when he publicly avowed before a legislative committee, that “he was in politics for his own pocket all the time.” By this he meant that, indirectly, he made his political power a source of personal advantage to himself all the time. Those who wanted franchises, for example, must make their peace with “the boss” before they could have them. Those who wanted contracts must do the same thing. Those who wanted appointments or nominations must do likewise. The system of “graft,” as it is now popularly called, has permeated the whole political organism. Only recently, a book has been written about another prominent member of Tammany Hall, in which that member argues openly, that there is such a thing as “honest graft”; that is to say, that it is entirely legitimate for men, having political power, to use it for their personal advantage, provided they do it in such a way as not to expose themselves to the criminal law. This seems to have been the idea of not a few men until recently connected with the large life insurance companies of the United States; and it is hard to say whether it has spread from such bodies as Tammany Hall into private business, or the reverse. The writer inclines to the former view; for it is manifestly impossible for a city to sustain, year after year, an organization like Tammany Hall, which avows such principles, without degrading the moral sense of the citizens in all walks of life. In both cases, it is caused in part, without doubt, by the unexampled prosperity through which the country has been passing during the last few years. No demoralizing influence which unchecked prosperity can exert was lacking in the United States from 1898 until 1907. The encouraging fact is, that when this sort of dishonesty is compelled to face the light of day, whether in public or in private life, it is openly and unhesitatingly condemned by the public conscience. Tammany Hall has been defeated twice, not to say three times, within the last fifteen years; a fate that befell it substantially only once in the previous sixty years.
In a country so large as the United States, it is impossible to generalize as to all the cities in the country; and yet it is doubtless true, that, in the city of New York, tendencies that exist everywhere are to be found in their most extreme development. It may happily be said today, as was said when this chapter was first written, that those who are students of the problems of city government in the United States are by no means discouraged. They find, indeed, in the interval under review, much more ground for encouragement than for loss of courage. It is true today, as it was true then, that the cities of the United States are the least successful parts of American administration; but it is still truer today than it was twenty years ago, that, under conditions of unexampled difficulty, such as are outlined in this chapter, they have not only made important progress, but they have also shown a capacity constantly to improve.
The shortcomings of the American city have been admitted, and the effort has been made to show the peculiar difficulties with which such a city has to deal. It is much to be able to say that, despite all of these difficulties, the average American city is not going from bad to worse. Life and property are more secure in almost all of them than they used to be. Certainly there has been no decrease of security such as might reasonably have been expected to result from increased size, and from an increasing diversity of population. Forty years ago it was impossible to have a fair election in New York or Brooklyn. Today, under the present system of registry laws, every election is held with substantial fairness, though the most recent election has shown the necessity for a change in the form of the ballot. The health of our cities does not deteriorate, but on the average improves. So that in large and fundamental matters, the progress, if slow, is steady in the direction of better things. It is not strange that a people at first almost wholly rural, conducting an experiment in city government for which there is absolutely no precedent, under conditions of exceptional difficulty, should have to stumble towards correct and successful methods through experiences that are both costly and distressing. There is no other road towards improvement in the coming time. But it is probable that in another decade Americans will look back on some of the scandals of the present epoch in city government, with as much surprise as they now regard the effort to control fires by the volunteer fire department, which was insisted upon, even in the city of New York, until within fifty years. As American cities grow in stability and provide themselves with the necessary working plant, they approximate more and more in physical conditions to those which prevail in most European cities.
It may justly be said, therefore, that the American city, if open to serious blame, is also deserving of much praise. Everyone understands that universal suffrage has its drawbacks, and in cities these defects become especially evident. It would be uncandid to deny that many of the problems of American cities spring from this factor, especially because the voting population is continually swollen by foreign immigrants whom time alone can educate into an intelligent harmony with the American system. In this Americanizing of the large immigration into the United States, the American cities, through their public-school systems, are doing their full share and are doing it rapidly and well. Zangwill likens the United States to a melting pot. But because there is scum upon the surface of a boiling liquid, it does not follow that the material, nor the process to which it is subjected, is itself bad. Universal suffrage, as it exists in the United States, is not only a great element of safety in the present day and generation, but is perhaps the mightiest educational force to which the masses of men ever have been exposed. In a country where wealth has no hereditary sense of obligation to its neighbours, it is hard to conceive what would be the condition of society if universal suffrage did not compel everyone having property to consider, to some extent at least, the well-being of the whole community.
It is probable that no other system of government would have been able to cope any more successfully, on the whole, with the actual conditions that American cities have been compelled to face. It may be claimed for American institutions even in cities, that they lend themselves with wonderfully little friction to growth and development and to the peaceful assimilation of new and strange populations. Whatever defects have marked the progress of such cities, no one acquainted with their history will deny that since their problem assumed its present aspect, progress has been made, and substantial progress, from decade to decade. The problem will never be anything but a most difficult one, but with all its difficulties there is every reason to be hopeful.
Note to Chapter 3
ON CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS
Questions relating to the powers of a constitutional convention have several times come before the courts, so that there exists a small body of law as well as a large body of custom and practice regarding the rights and powers of such assemblies. Into this law and practice I do not propose to enter. But it is worth while to indicate certain advantages which have been found to attach to the method of entrusting the preparation of a fundamental instrument of government to a body of men specially chosen for the purpose instead of to the ordinary legislature. The topic suggests interesting comparisons with the experience of France and other European countries in which constitutions have been drafted and enacted by the legislative, which has been sometimes also practically the executive, authority. Nor is it wholly without bearing on problems which have recently arisen in England, where Parliament has found itself, and may find itself again, invited to enact what would be in substance a new constitution for a part of the United Kingdom.
When the convention meets, it is not, like a legislature, a body strictly organized by party. A sense of individual independence and freedom may prevail unknown in legislatures. Proposals have therefore a chance of being considered on their merits. A scheme does not necessarily command the support of one set of men nor encounter the hostility of another set because it proceeds from a particular leader or group. And as the ordinary party questions do not come up for decision while its deliberations are going on, men are not thrown back on their usual party affiliations, nor are their passions roused by exciting political issues.
Having no work but constitution-making to consider, a convention is free to bend its whole mind to that work. Debate has less tendency to stray off to irrelevant matters. Business advances because there are no such interruptions as a legislature charged with the ordinary business of government must expect.
The fact that the constitution when drafted has to be submitted to the people, by whose authority it will (if accepted) be enacted, gives to the convention a somewhat larger freedom for proposing what they think best than a legislature, courting or fearing its constituents, commonly allows itself. As the convention vanishes altogether when its work is accomplished, the ordinary motives for popularity hunting are less potent. As it does not legislate but merely proposes, it need not fear to ask the people to enact what may offend certain persons or classes, for the odium, if any, of harassing these classes will rest with the people. And as the people must accept or reject the draft en bloc (unless in the rare case where provision is made for voting on particular points separately), more care is taken in preparing the draft, in seeing that it is free from errors and repugnances, than a legislature capable of repealing or altering in its next session what it now provides, is likely to bestow on the details of its measures.
Those who are familiar with European parliaments may conceive that as a set-off to these advantages there will be a difficulty in getting a number of men not organized by parties to work promptly and efficiently, that a convention will be, so to speak, an amorphous body, that if it has no leaders nor party allegiance it will divide one way today and another way tomorrow, that the abundance of able men will mean an abundance of doctrinaire proposals and a reluctance to subordinate individual prepossessions to practical success. Admitting that such difficulties do sometimes arise, it may be observed that in America men quickly organize themselves for any and every purpose, and that doctrinairism is there so uncommon a fault as to be almost a merit. When a complete new constitution is to be prepared, the balance of convenience is decidedly in favour of giving the work to a convention, for although conventions are sometimes unwise, they are usually composed of far abler men than those who fill the legislatures, and discharge their function with more wisdom as well as with more virtue. But where it is not desired to revise the whole frame of government, the simpler and better plan is to proceed by submitting to the people specific amendments, limited to particular provisions of the existing constitution. This has been latterly the method most generally employed in improving state constitutions. Recently, however, a prescribed number of the citizens have been in six Western states empowered by their constitutions to propose by means of the initiative amendments of the constitution, which are thereupon submitted to popular vote without the intervention either of the legislature or of a convention. (See page 652, Extracts from the Constitution  of Oklahoma.)
The above remarks are of course chiefly based on the history of state conventions, because no national constitutional convention has sat since 1787. But they apply in principle to any constitution-making body.