Investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) isn’t much remembered today, according to Kevin Baker of The New York Times, despite the 2021 reissuing of the author’s classic, The Shame of the Cities, and the Philosophy of Corruption and Reform, by Cambridge Scholars Publishing last year.
The Cambridge Scholars edition of Steffens’s work is edited, annotated and introduced by Professor H.G. Callaway, a Philadelphian who splits his time between the United States and Germany. Callaway’s books on American philosophy and intellectual history have earned him some international renown.
Why Lincoln Steffens?
Callaway states in his Introduction that the volume is an “attempt to better understand the social and political phenomenon of corruption generally.” Municipal corruption, after all, is not limited to Steffens’ time but can be viewed as an all persuasive force existing in every era that seeks to “change the form of government from one that is representative of the people to an oligarchy.” (Steffens’ words)
Steffens was born in San Francisco but grew up in Sacramento, California. As the eldest of four children, he often clashed with the founder and headmaster of the Episcopal Day School that he attended as a boy. As a journalist, he was known as a muckraker who took on corruption and institutional dysfunction. America, he wrote, was the place of a Great Swindle, where corrupt money changers ruin all of its institutions.
Steffens covered the Mexican Revolution as a reporter and was enamored of the Soviet Communist Revolution.
He was well liked, even by people who vehemently opposed his views. Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Lenin, and Mussolini were among his journalistic contacts.
“The tragedy of Lincoln Steffens,” Lawrence W. Reed wrote in FEE, the Foundation for Economic Freedom, is that “He could see the harm of concentrated power but, the typical ‘progressive’ that he was, he naively believed that more of it was the antidote. This is a recurring blind spot shared by intellectuals of the Left. Even if big government is the problem, the solution to them is almost always an even bigger government. It’s like drinking a gallon of Clorox to wash down the quart of Clorox you just swallowed.”
Steffens advised fellow journalists to “Sit around the bars and drink, and pose, and pretend, all you want to, but in reality, deep down underneath, care like hell.”
One of his most famous sayings, “I have seen the future, and it works,” was a catch-all phrase he used multiple times for various issues.
H. G. Callaway’s Introduction is a smoother read than Steffens’ work itself, which tends to an antidotal and a patchwork journalistic style that often makes for an awkward reading experience.
The Shame of the Cities was compiled from a series of articles Steffens wrote for McClure’s magazine. The cities Steffens covers are St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Although most of the corrupt municipalities he writes about are Republican, Steffens lets his readers know that corruption affects both political parties.
In writing about St. Louis, for instance, Steffens comments, “There was little difference between the two parties in the city; but the rascals that were in had been getting the greater share of the spoils, and the ‘outs’ wanted more than was given to them.”
Steffens calls Philadelphia the most hopeless city in the nation. “But it was not till I got to Philadelphia that the possibilities of popular corruption were worked out to the limit of humiliating confession,” he writes.
He equates Philadelphia with general civic corruption and an all powerful city machine that controls the mind of the average voter. Sadly, this was true when Philadelphia was Republican, and it’s certainly true today when the city is unlikely to ever elect a Republican mayor barring a miracle of biblical proportions.
“I cut twenty thousand words out of the Philadelphia article and yet I had not written half my facts,” Steffens states, adding, “I know a man who is making a history of the corrupt construction of the Philadelphia City Hall, in three volumes.”
In a follow up sentence he then fairly concludes that no writer can put all the incidents of corruption of an American city into one book.
In concluding his two investigative pieces on Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for McClure’s, Steffens writes that “Pittsburgh may pull itself out of its disgrace,” but that other Pennsylvania city, Philadelphia, “is contented and seems hopeless.”
Steffens keeps harping on the corruption in Philadelphia when he writes about other cities.
In his October 1902 article entitled “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” Steffens concludes that “[St. Louis] isn’t our worst governed city; Philadelphia is that.”
While Pittsburgh could not be said to be Pennsylvania’s most beautiful city in 1912 (when industry darkened its skies), the argument can be made that it is certainly the state’s most beautiful city in 2021.
With its mountains, three rivers and multi-colored bridges forming a kind of OZ canopy around The Golden Triangle, Pittsburgh’s dazzling skyline rarely fails to impress.
In Steffens’ chapter on Pittsburgh, he cites the corruption surrounding the building of the city’s many beautiful bridges yet avoids going into specifics. Steffens seems to have a soft spot for Pennsylvania’s western city although that does not prevent him from lashing out at it severely.
“Pittsburgh has been described physically as ‘Hell with the lid off,’ politically it is hell with the lid on.’ I am not going to lift the lid,” he writes.
Steffens traces Pittsburgh’s corruption to the railroads while reminding the reader that the corruption rings in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia form a direct link up to the corruption rings in Harrisburg.
The corrupt party bosses and politicians that Steffens mentions in The Shame of the Cities are far too numerous to mention, but in every case he traces general municipal corruption back to big business and “the businessman.”
Ironically, Steffens ends his article on Pittsburgh by saying that the city itself is “a spectacle for American self-respect, and its sturdiness a promise for poor old Pennsylvania.”
The writer, surprisingly, had an occasional soft spot for Philadelphia, such as when he writes,
“Philadelphia has long enjoyed great and widely distributed prosperity; it is a city of homes; there is a dwelling house for every five persons, men, women, and children, of the population; and the people give one a sense of more leisure and repose than any community I ever dwelt in.”
Philadelphia, he adds, is surer that it has a ‘real aristocracy’ than any other place in the world, but its aristocrats, with few exceptions, are in the ring, with it, or of no political use.”
Steffens, on a roll, tells the reader that Philadelphians do not vote but are “disenfranchised.”
“The honest citizens of Philadelphia have no more rights at the polls than the Negroes down South. Nor do they fight very hard for this basic privilege. “
Sounding weirdly contemporary, Steffens goes on record as saying that dead people vote in Philadelphia.
“But many Philadelphians do not try to vote,” he adds. “They leave everything to the machine, and the machine casts their ballots for them.”
This is why Philadelphia is unlikely to have a Republican mayor in the near or distant future.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.