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Saint Jane And The Ward Boss
When Jane Addams opened Hull House for Chicago’s immigrants, she began asking questions a local politician preferred not to answer
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
As election day, April 6, approached, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Record covered the campaign daily, freely predicting a victory for the reformers. Alas for all predictions. When election day came, Powers’ assets, which Jane Addams had so cogently analyzed in that faraway speech to the Society for Ethical Culture, paid off handsomely. It was a rough day in the nineteenth ward, with ten saloons open, one man arrested for drawing a gun, and everything, as Miss Addams wrote despondently when the count began to come in, “as bad as bad can be.” Too many election judges were under Powers’ thumb. The reform candidate was roundly defeated. Hull-House went to court to challenge the conduct of the election, but in the halls of justice Powers also had friends. It was no use.
Even in victory, however, Powers was a bit shaken. Hull-House had forced him, for the first time, to put out a great effort for re-election. It was obviously not going to move out of the nineteenth ward; indeed, if the past was any portent, its influence with his constituents would increase.
Powers decided to follow an ancient maxim, “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” Early in the 1900 aldermanic campaign, several Chicago papers carried a straight news story to the effect that Hull-House and Johnny Powers had signed a truce, and quoted various paternally benevolent statements on the Alderman’s part. In the Chronicle , for example, he was reported to have said: “I am not an Indian when it comes to hate … let bygones be bygones.” A day or two later another rash of stories detailed a number of favors the Alderman was supposed to have done for Hull-House.
Jane Addams was furious, and after considerable deliberation she decided to reply. It was one of the few times in her long public career when she bothered to answer anything the newspapers said about her. She knew that with his eye on the campaign, the master politician was trying to give the appearance of having taken his most vigorous enemy into camp. She had been observing him too long not to realize what he was up to, and she could not possibly let him get away with it.
On February 20, 1900, a vigorous letter from Miss Addams appeared in nearly all the Chicago papers, reaffirming the attitude of Hull-House toward Mr. Powers. “It is needless to state,” she concluded, “that the protest of Hull-House against a man who continually disregards the most fundamental rights of his constituents must be permanent.”
Permanent protest, yes, but as a practical matter there was no use waging another opposition campaign. Powers held too many of the cards. When all was said and done, he had proved too tough a nut to crack, though Hull-House could—and did—continue to harass him. An observer of the Municipal Voters League, celebrating its success in the Outlook in June, 1902, described the vast improvement in the Common Council, but was forced to admit that a few wards were “well-nigh hopeless.” He cited three: those of “Blind Billy” Kent, “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, and Johnny Powers.
From a larger standpoint, however, the battle between “Saint Jane” (as the neighbors called Jane Addams when she was not around) and the Ward Boss was not without significance. It was one of numerous similar battles that would characterize the progressive era the country over, and many of them the reformers would win. Because of her firsthand experience, because she lived with the immigrants instead of coming into their neighborhood occasionally to tell them what to do, Jane Addams was perhaps the first of the urban reformers to grasp the real pattern of bossism, its logic, the functions it performed, and the reason it was so hard to dislodge. Years later political scientists, beginning to analyze the pattern, would add almost nothing to her speech of 1898. If copies of The Last Hurrah have reached the Elysian fields, Jane Addams has spent an amused evening seeing her ideas developed so well in fictional form.
The campaign of 1898 throws considerable light on Jane Addams’ intensely practical approach to politics, and upon a little-known aspect of the settlement-house movement. If anyone had told her and Ellen Starr in 1889 that the logic of what they were trying to do would inevitably force them into politics, they would have hooted. But in due time politics, in many forms, became central to Hull-House activity. For Jane Addams herself, the campaign against Powers was the first in a long series of political forays, all essentially based on the same desire—to see that government met the needs of the “other half.”