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Cities And Citizenship
By James Holston
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Intellectuals, Cities, and Citizenship in the United States: The 1890s and 1990s
Through most of the twentieth century, the nation has been the domain of citizenship, and social politics has been associated with the national welfare state. But such was not always the case. A century ago in the United States, the city provided a vital platform for men and women to think themselves into politics, to make themselves into citizens, to initiate a social politics. In the decade of the 1890s, reformers, journalists, and academic intellectuals (a cluster not so differentiated then as now) thought urban democracy possible, even necessary. They were able to imagine the city, in the words of Frederick C. Howe (1905), a leader of the movement, as "the hope of democracy."
Though my intention is to recall that moment and movement, I do not want to associate myself with those who speak loosely about the dissolution of the nation-state in the contemporary world. It would be a mistake to underestimate the continuing capacity of the national state to sustain citizenship and to nurture social welfare. Yet there has been a realignment of the relations and powers of cities and nations, and that circumstance invites a reconsideration of the city as a site for a politics that addresses the social consequences of the present phase of global capitalism, manifestations of social change dramatically inscribed in the physical form and daily life of cities. How might the city, then, be a site that opens up political possibilities and empowers men and women as citizens?
A century ago such inquiry was the work of the fledgling social science disciplines, particularly political science. Today, political science and the social sciences generally are less attentive to the particularity of time and place or, to be more specific, to the city. Looking backward, however, we discover a generation of academic intellectuals who were engaged with urban questions. That engagement proved fruitful to their professional agenda of disciplinary development, infusing a formal and abstract discipline with both vitality and realism, while it sustained a sense of civic participation that enriched the political culture of the city and extended urban democracy. I am not proposing that the city is permanently available for such political work; my point is simply that a certain mobility of such political sites exists and that historical circumstances may in any given instance favor cities. Such was the case in the 1890s in the United States, and in the 1990s cities may again have a special role in defining a social politics.
After some account of the relation of academic social science, particularly political science, to late-nineteenth-century social reform, I turn to the specific history of the reform movement for urban "home rule," which was a campaign to win political as well as administrative powers for the city. That quest forged an alliance between political scientists and urban reformers. I try to specify the circumstances and chronology of this moment in American political history, ending with some observations on the relevance of that history to our own historical moment.
The emerging social sciences provided a new language for reform, one stressing social connection and interdependence. After experiencing new levels of interdependence during the Civil War and in growing cities, Americans found in the language of the social, on which the new social sciences were being built, a better way to describe and explain the world around them. The idea of social causation weakened the hold of those notions of individual agency that were articles of faith for Americans in the middle third of the nineteenth century. In Europe and America, the social sciences developed in a dialectical relationship to the massive social transformations driven by industrial capitalism: social explanation was both a product of new experience and a way of understanding that new experience. Indeed, to explain and manage that society was the raison d'etre of these new disciplines.
Although one can speak of the social sciences as a single movement of thought in the nineteenth century, there were important distinctions among them, and they approached the task of explanation and management in different ways, with different dialects. Economics was the first of these new social sciences to professionalize in the United States, and in the 1880s economists supplied a method of historical economics that enabled reformers to enter the troubling question of the political economy of labor and capital in a new way. By playing down ideology and shifting the ground from the formal and deductive approach favored by theorists of laissez-faire, the historical economists, relying on empirical and historicist claims, intervened with significant effect, arguing for historically specific and strategic interventions in the economy.
Gradually, however, the focus and language of reform changed. The new society increasingly became identified with the city rather than with the conflict between labor and capital, which generally did not have a geographical referent. Sociologists claimed the city, a novel "social aggregation," as their subject. Sociology and social reform were nearly assimilated the one to the other, especially at Chicago, where Albion Small created the first sociology department in the United States. But with their focus on civil society and voluntary action, the sociologists in the end offered little access to politics, a matter of significance because the social concerns of the era were increasingly being understood in terms of a politics, a new social politics.
During the 1890s and 1900s, in the first years of the intellectual and political movement that assumed the name Progressivim, political scientists, following the lead of Columbia's Frank Goodnow, achieved primacy for the language of politics as a means of addressing the social implications of industrial capitalism as they revealed themselves in the city. In the phrasing of Goodnow ( 1910: 21), "the city must be studied not merely from the sociological point of view, but also from the political point of view: the city is not merely an urban community, a social fact; it is also a political organization."
The challenge for a generation of ambitious political scientists was to bring the city into a general theory of democratic politics. To Frederick C. Howe, "The city [had] grown more rapidly than social science," and it "is what it is because political thought has not kept pace with changing conditions" (1915: 6). The problems of industrial society—standard of living, equality of opportunity, uplifting life—not only presented themselves in the city, but were, according to Howe (1905: 302), "almost all municipal matters." By 1933, as we shall see, these problems would be understood as national problems. This mobility of political perception is part of my subject here, but first we must establish the movement from the nation to the city at the turn of the century.
"While our attention has been fixed upon the national state," observed Delos F. Wilcox, "the theory and practice of local government have been partially neglected" (1897: 3). Wilcox, a recent Ph.D. in political science, urged younger students to follow him into the study of cities. "The student who aspires to be a scholar can devote himself to no richer or inspiring field than the modern city, its government, its institutions, and its tendencies" (ibid.: vii). At this period in American history, he assured his readers, no other area of specialization was of so great importance, for "it is here that the reconstruction of political practice and of social institutions goes on most rapidly" (ibid.: 235). A writer in The Nation had recognized this shift in attention two years earlier: "Perhaps there never was time when a deeper interest was felt in the government of cities."
At the heart of a new, activist political science was an aspiration to revitalize a democratic public that had been diminished, especially in cities, by monopoly and privilege. Such a public, reformers believed, would detach power from wealth and empower the people. Cities and the essential character of city life seemed to constitute a challenge to the premises of the laissez-faire market celebrated by the regnant political economy of the Gilded Age. Cities were collective in spirit and in experience. Thus they might be the staging ground for mounting a collectivist challenge to excessiveindividualism. The "formless" capitalist development of the city, argues Daniel Rodgers, encouraged the development of a countervailing urban political consciousness. The practical work of municipal administration in fact had an ideological dimension. When cities assumed the tasks of providing the modern array of municipal services, it represented a "recognition of the de facto collectivity of city life." The municipalization of transportation or utilities, for example, meant a diminution of the exclusive domain of the market, replacing private supply with public provision.
It was a commonplace among reformers that "if socialism ever comes, it will come byway of the city" (Wilcox 1897:238). Charles Beard (1912a: 28-29) in the first college-level textbook on urban politics, argued that "collec-tivist" responses to the implications of the industrial revolution were being developed first and mainly in the cities. In cities, he pointed out, one could observe a cross-class confluence of political interests pointing to collec-tivist approaches: working-class organization was taking form in trade unions while there was mounting bourgeois support for municipal services. In The Modern City, Frederick C. Howe (1915:367) claimed that in the city Americans were overcoming "the laissez faire and are acquiring a belief in democracy." The city, he insisted, reveals this "new point of view even more markedly than does the nation."
This new generation of political scientists challenged the philosophic idealism and formalism of the discipline's founding generation. In the city these political scientists and other social scientists found a locale of engagement where theory and practice would be brought closer together in new ways. The city provided a means of rethinking the political in a nonfor-malist, more pragmatic way, moving from the formal and abstract concept of the state to political experience. Both the language of the state and the language of class were partially displaced by a language of place or, more precisely, relations in space. It was in the particularity of place that the various interests of society converged, and the task of modern political life was to imagine and construct a cooperative relation among these interests.
However, this strategy for reform and professional development posed for political scientists a particular and quite difficult theoretical problem. The object of inquiry that defined the discipline was the state, the supreme political entity, not the city. There was no category of urban politics in American political theory nor, consequently, any concept of urban citizenship. Law was no more helpful. The city has no constitutional standing in the American state. The word city does not appear in the Constitution, and American municipal law in the late nineteenth century was controlled by the authoritative Dillon Rule, enunciated by Justice John F. Dillon of the Iowa Supreme Court in City of Clinton v. The Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad (1868). His long-standing and universally endorsed interpretation insisted that the city was not a political entity. Rather it was merely an administrative agency with stricdy enumerated powers. The timing of this formulation and of the general embrace of it by legal and political elites is explained by a profound fear of urban political mobilization. Under the Dillon Rule, cities, which had always been objects of suspicion in the American political tradition, were to be denied political standing, even disenfranchised. But the target in fact was more specific: it was the specter of the voting power of the urban masses. Political and economic elites, having witnessed the depredations of the Tweed ring, blurred the mob and the increasingly organized working classes of cities. They feared that these irresponsible classes might initiate a regime of excessive sending and redistributive taxation of the rich. By denying the political character of the city, the Dillon Rule delegitimated urban political movements and limited the power of cities to do damage—and good.
Thus the first order of business for political scientists was to redefine the status of the city, giving it a political character. They did this by associating themselves with a contemporary urban political movement for "home rule," a demand that state legislatures stop passing special legislation interfering with the cities and that state constitutions give cities the powers necessary to make policy in those areas that are distinctively local and characteristic of such concentrated settlement. There is, therefore, an interesting confluence of the theoretical, the professional, and the political, all pointing toward an expansion of the possibilities of urban citizenship. For political scientists and for urban activists, some of whom were the same individuals, achieving home rule created a domain of the political that was essential both for their own work and to make city dwellers into citizens. Intellectuals and cities thus needed each other at this moment.
American historiography has been too complacent about the question of citizenship. Historians have assumed that the state-by-state enactment of white male suffrage in the 1820s settled the question of citizenship and set the terms for future American politics. Alan Dawley (1976) goes so far as to lament that the ballot box was the coffin for American socialism. But, as David Quigley (1997) has recently demonstrated, the issue of suffrage and citizenship, even for white males, remained highly contested in northern cities in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, especially in New York City.
At midcentury, before the crisis of union, as Mary Ryan (1997:128) has so ably demonstrated, there was an inclusive and robust democracy in the cities. Not only was participation widespread and active, Ryan's point, but urban leaders were also developing a strong sense of the capacity of government to undertake projects of urban development and social improvement, the most notable being the Croton Water System and Central Park in New York City. In fact, it was this confidence in positive government among urban elites that had initially helped define the ambitious program of postwar Reconstruction in the South.
The Civil War and the postwar issue of suffrage for freedmen opened a wide-ranging public debate on suffrage and citizenship. Other exclusions were noted, most importantly women. The former slaves were granted the vote, but almost immediately the North weakened in its resolve to provide national support for these rights newly won by the freedmen. Within a dozen years their suffrage and thus citizenship were severely compromised. This retreat from Reconstruction in the South had a complex relation to a fear of political mobilization in northern cities. Developments in the North, by producing fear of a state that might empower the lower classes, contributed to the federal abandonment of the freedmen with the ending of Reconstruction in 1877. The controversy over the political rights of the former slaves in the South in turn contributed to the worries about urban democracy in the north.
As early as 1868, however, these urban elites were becoming uneasy about positive government Conflict in the South over suffrage and work for the freedmen as well as political controversy in the North, including working-class agitation for the eight-hour day, the demands by women for the vote, and the activities of the Tweed ring in New York, made the metropolitan gentry increasingly uncomfortable about an expansive urban democracy. Many agreed with Francis Parkman (1878), the great historian, who wrote in theNorth American Review that universal suffrage had been a failure. Samuel Bowles (1878), editor of the Springfield Republican and perhaps the nation's most influential newspaper editor among the educated elite, openly worried that the Civil War and the growth of cities had seriously weakened the power of the state governments. That development was worrisome for Bowles and his readers because state, as opposed to city governments, were understood to be supportive of the Victorian values and political agenda of the middle classes. He proposed limiting suffrage in cities to those with a "responsible interest," by which he meant taxpayers. In addition, he strongly supported the creation of state commissions, such as had been developed in New York at the end of the war, to establish state control of certain municipal functions, including police and health.
Excerpted from Cities And Citizenship by James Holston. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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