“Spasms of reform” had “accomplished very little … but the spark of ambitions would not be quenched,” claimed William Bennett Munro. Finally, with a new City Charter in hand, Philadelphia had tools to make “heroic efforts” and live down its rightfully earned “corrupt and contented” reputation. With the help of this so-called “epoch-marking piece of legislation” adopted late in 1919, Philadelphia was “well on the way to become one of the best-governed cities in the world.”
“Philadelphia Stirreth,” as one snarky reformer put it. But first things had to hit rock bottom.
In 1907, after Philadelphians engaged in Harrisburg’s Capitol building scandal dragged faith in government lower than was ever thought possible, novelist Owen Wister, who generally made a career escaping politics, cut loose. In “The Keystone Crime: Pennsylvania Graft-Cankered Capitol,” Wister blamed the Commonwealth, but pointed the finger back at the corrupt cultures of the Quaker City.
”The government of Pennsylvania has been since the Civil War a monopoly, an enormous trust almost without competition—like Standard Oil, but greatly inferior, because Standard Oil gives good oil, while the Pennsylvania machine gives bad government. It shield and fosters child labor; we have seen how it steals; it had given Philadelphia sewage to drink, smoke to breathe, extravagant gas, a vile street car system, and a police well-nigh contemptible. . . Well-to-do, at ease with no wish but to be left undisturbed, the traditional Philadelphians shrinks from revolt. …he may rouse for a while, but it is grudgingly in his heart of hearts…to…retreat back into the ranks of acquiescence.”
Even so, Wister did sense a whiff of possibility for change. Philadelphia’s “spark of liberty is not quite trampled out,” he wrote and held out hope that the city “may some day cease to be the dirtiest smear on the map of the United States.”
Meanwhile, everyone was asking the same question: “What is the matter with Philadelphia?”
Everything, according to reformer John B. Roberts. “The cause of Philadelphia’s ills is the success of its political rulers in collecting bribes, carrying elections, and controlling the occupants of legislative, executive and judicial positions. The public knows that bribes are accepted by the political captains who rule over us. It knows that elections are carried by stuffed ballot boxes, bogus voters coming from policemen’s houses, repeaters travelling from one voting booth to another, and the subservience of judges. It sees that members of Council and of the Legislature, the Mayor, the City Treasurer, the Collector of Taxes, the Recorder, the Register of Wills, the District Attorney, the Judges and other officials are nominated and elected by these same active political leaders.”
“What more is needed, asked Roberts, “to prove that the corrupt and expensive government of this town is due to the men who control affairs in City Hall?” He believed “the blame for our shameful civic condition is due less to the boss, who sells franchises and special privileges, than to the Boards of Directors who buy them. … Let us “seek out, exhibit, prosecute, and put in jail the bribe givers; and it will not be long before we shall have representative councilmen and honest political leaders.”
That would take a deep-set commitment to reform. And it would take a new City Charter, which institutionalized many long-needed changes.
The charter of 1919 “gave the city a trimmer and more representative one-house City Council of twenty-one members,” writes Lloyd M. Abernethy. Abolished were the two cumbersome Select and Common Councils, a whopping 145 members in all—the largest municipal body of its kind. For the first time ever, council members would be salaried as they served their four year terms. Most importantly, no councilperson could hold another political office.
The charter did more: It required the city “to do its own street cleaning, paving and repairing, as well as garbage and refuse collecting,” a “direct attempt to eliminate the political manipulation of public service contracts…” Civil Service would (theoretically) blunt patronage. Police and firefighters were forbidden to engage in political activity or even to make political contributions. The charter of 1919 “offered the possibilities of eliminating some of the worst features of municipal government as practiced in the past.”
But would it be anything like “epoch-marking” legislation?
That depended on how serious Philadelphians actually were about stirring from their sleep and returning from “the ranks of acquiescence.”