- Historic Sites
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
If Alderman John Powers of Chicago’s teeming nineteenth waul had been prescient, he might have foreseen trouble when two young ladies not long out of the female seminary in Rockford, Illinois, moved into a dilapidated old house on HaIsted Street, in September, iSSg, and announced themselves “at home” to the neighbors. The ladies, however, were not very noisy about it, and it is doubtful if Powers was aware of their existence. The nineteenth ward was well supplied with people already—growing numbers of Italians, Poles, Russians, Irish, and other immigrants—and two more would hardly be noticed.
Johnny Powers was the prototype of the ward boss who was coming to be an increasingly decisive figure on the American political scene. In the first place, he was Irish. In the second, he was, in the parlance of the time, a “boodler”: his vote and influence in the Chicago Common Council were far from being beyond price. As chairman of the council’s finance committee and boss of the Cook County Democratic party he occupied a strategic position. Those who understood the inner workings of Chicago politics thought that Powers had some hnnd in nearly every corrupt ordinance passed by the council during his years in ollice. In a single year, 1895, he was help to sell six important city franchises. When the mayor vetoed Powers’ measures, a silent but significant two-thirds vote appeared to override the veto.
Ray Stannard Baker, who chanted to observe Powers in the late nineties, recorded that he was shrewd and silent, letting other men make the speeches and bring upon their heads the abuse of the public. Powers was a short, stocky man, Baker said, “with a llaring gray pompadour, a smooth-shaven face [ sic ], rather heavy features, and a restless eye.” One observer remarked that “the shadow of sympathetic gloom is always about him. He never jokes; he has forgotten how to smile …” Starting life as a grocery clerk, Powers had run for the city council in 1888 and joined the boodle ring headed by Alderman Billy Whalen. When Whalen died in an accident two years later, Powers moved swiftly to establish himself as successor. A few weeks before his death Whalen had collected some thirty thousand dollars—derived from the sale of a city franchise—to be divided among the party faithful. Powers alone knew that the money was in a safe in Whalen’s saloon, so he promptly offered a high price for the furnishings of the saloon, retrieved the money, and divided it among the gang—at one stroke establishing himself as a shrewd operator and as one who would play the racket fairly.
From this point on lie was the acknowledged head of the gang. Charles Ycrkes, the Chicago traction tycoon, l’ound in Powers an ideal tool for the purchase of city franchises. On his aldermanic salary of three dollars a week, Powers managed to acquire two large saloons of his own, a gambling establishment, a fine house, and a conspicuous collection of diamonds. When he was indicted along with two other corrupt aldermen for running a slot machine and keeping a “common gambling house,” Powers was unperturbed. The three appeared before a police judge, paid each other’s bonds, and that was the end of that. Proof of their guilt was positive, but convictions were never obtained.
On the same day the Municipal Voters League published a report for die voters on the records of the members of the city council. John Powers was described as “recognized leader of the worst element in the council … [who] has voted uniformly for bad ordinances.” The League report went on to say that he had always opposed securing any return to the city for valuable franchises, and proceeded to document the charge in detail.
To his constituents in the nineteenth ward, most of whom were getting their first initiation into American politics, Powers turned a different face. To them, he was first and last a friend. When there were celebrations, he always showed up; if the celebration happened to be a baxaar, he bought freely, murmuring piously that it would all go to the poor. In times of tragedy he was literally Johnny on the spot. If the family was too poor to provide the necessary carriage for a respectable funeral, it appeared at the doorstep —courtesy of Johnny Powers and charged to his standing account with the local undertaker. If the need was not so drastic, Powers made his presence felt with an imposing bouquet or wreath. “He has,” said the Chicago Times-Herald , “bowed with aldermaiiic grief at thousands of biers.”
Christinas meant literally tons of turkeys, gccse, and ducks—cadi one handed out personally by a member of the Powers family, with good wishes and no yuestions asked. Johnny provided more fundamental aid, too, when a breadwinner was out of work. At one time he is said to have boasted that 2,600 men from his ward (about one-third of the registered voters) were working in one way or another for the city of Chicago. This did not take into account those for whom the grateful holders of traction franchises had found a place. When election day rolled around, the returns reflected the appreciation of job-holders and their relatives.
The two young ladies on Halstcd Street, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr, were prototypes too, but of a very dilfcrcnt kind of figure: they were the pioneers of the social settlement, the original “social workers.” They opjjosed everything Johnny Powers stood for.
Jane Addams’ own background could hardly have been mure different from that ol John Powers. The treasured daughter of a well-to-do small-town businessman from Illinois, she had been raised in an atmosphere of sturdy Christian principles.
From an early age she had been an introspective child concerned with justifying lier existence. Once in a childhood nightmare she had dreamed of being the only remaining person in a world desolated by some disaster, facing the responsibility for rediscovering the principle of the wheel! At Rockford she shared with some ol her classmates a determination to live to “high purpose,” and decided that she would become a doctor in order to “help the poor.”
After graduation she went to the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia, but her health failed and she embarked on the grand tour of Europe customary among the wealthy. During a subsequent trip to Europe in 1888, in the unlikely setting of a Spanish bull ring, an idea that had long been glowing in her mind suddenly crystallixed: she would rent a house “in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs arc found, in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study, might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn something of life from life itself …” So the American settlement-house idea was born. She and Ellen Starr, a former classmate at the Rockford seminary who had been with her in Europe, went back to Chicago to find a house among the victims of lhe nineteenth century’s fast-growing industrial society.
The young women—Jane was twenty-nine and Ellen thirty in 1889—had no blueprint to guide them when they deeided to take up residence in Mr. Hull’s decayed mansion and begin helping “the neighbors” to help themselves. No school of social work had trained them for this enterprise: Latin and Greek, art, music, and “moral philosophy” at the seminary constituted their academic preparation. Toynbee Hall in England —the world’s first settlement house, founded in 1884 by Samuel A. Barnett—had inspired them. Having found the Hull house at the corner of Polk and Halsted—in what was by common consent one of Chicago’s worst wards—they leased it, moved in, and began doing what came naturally.
Miss Starr, who had taught in an exclusive girls’ preparatory school, inaugurated a reading party for young Italian women with George Eliot’s Romola as the first book. Miss Addams, becoming aware of the desperate problem ol working mothers, began at once to organize a kindergarten. They tried Russian parties for the Russian neighbors, organized boys’ clubs for the gangs on the street, and offered to bathe all babies. The neighbors were baffled, but impressed. Very soon children and grownups of all sorts and conditions were finding their way to Hull-House—to read Shakespeare or to ask for a volunteer midwife; to learn sewing or discuss socialism; to study art or to fill an empty stomach. There were few formalities and no red tape, and the young ladies found themselves every day called upon to deal with some of the multitude of personal tragedies against which the conditions of life in the nineteenth ward offered so thin a cushion.
Before long, other young people feeling twinges of social conscience and seeking a tangible way to make their convictions count in the world of the iSgo’s came to live at Hull-House. These “residents,” as they were called, became increasingly interested in the personal histories ol the endless stream of neighbors who came to the House each week. They began to find out about the little children sewing all day long in the “sweated” garment trade, and about others who worked long hours in a candy factory. They began to ask why there were three thousand more children in the ward than there were seats in its schoolrooms, and why the deatl) rate was higher there than in almost any other part ol Chicago. They worried about youngsters whose only playground was a garbage-spattered alley that threatened the whole population with disease. (Once they traced a typhoid epidemic to its source and found the sewer line merging with the water line.) In the early days Hull-House offered bathtubs and showers, which proved so popular a form of hospitality that the residents became relentless lobbyists for municipal baths.
Hull-House was not the only American settlement house—indeed, Jane Addanis liked to emphasize the validity of the idea by pointing out that it had developed simultaneously in several different places. But Hull-House set the pace, and in an astonishingly short time its founder began to acquire a national reputation. As early as 1893 Jane Addams wrote to a friend: “I find I am considered the grandmother of social settlements.” She was being asked to speak to gatherings of learned gentlemen, sociologists and philosophers, on such subjects as “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.” When the Columbian Exposition attractcd thousands of visitors to Chicago in 1893 ( see “The Great White City,” in the October, 1960, AMERICAN HERETAGE ), Hull-House became—along with the lake front and the stockyards—one of the things a guest was advised not to miss. By the mid-nineties, distinguished Europeans were turning up regularly to visit the House and examine its workings. W. T. Stead, editor of the English Review of Reviews , spent much time there while he gathered material for his sensational book, If Christ Came to Chicago . By that time two thousand people a week were coming to HullHouse to participate in some of its multifarious activities, which ranged from philosophy classes to the Nineteenth Ward Improvement Association.
Neither her growing reputation nor the increasing demand for speeches and articles, however, distracted Jane Addams from what was to be for forty years the main focus of a many-sided life: Hull-House and the nineteenth ward. Much of her early writing was an attempt to portray the real inner lives ol America’s proliferating immigrants, and much of her early activity, an effort to give them a voice to speak out against injustice.
The Hull-House residents were becoming pioneers in many ways, not least in the techniques of social research. In the Hull-House Maps and Papers , published in 1895, they prepared some of the first careful studies of life in an urban slum, examining the details of the “homework” system of garment making and describing tumble-down houses, overtaxed schools, rising crime rates, and other sociological problems. The book remains today an indispensable source for the social historian of Chicago in the nineties.
Jane Addams’ own interest in these matters was far from academic. Her concern for the uncollectecl garbage led her to apply lor—and receive—an appointment as garbage inspector. She rose at six every morning and in a horse-drawn buggy followed the infuriated garbage contractor on his appointed rounds, making sure that every receptacle was emptied. Such badgering incensed Alderman Powers, in whose hierarchy of values cleanliness, though next to godliness, was a good bit below patronage—and he looked upon garbage inspection as a job for one of his henchmen. By now John Powers was becoming aware of his new neighbors; they were increasingly inquisitive about things close to Johnny Powers’ source of power. By implication they were raising a troublesome question: Was Johnny Powers really “taking care of the poor”?
For a while, as one resident noted, the inhabitants of the House were “passive though interested observers of their representative, declining his otters of help and co-operation, refusing politely to distribute his Christmas turkeys, but feeling too keenly the smallness of their numbers to work against him.” They were learning, though, and the time for passivity would end.
In company with many other American cities, Chicago after 1895 was taking a critical look at its political life and at the close connections that had grown up between politics and big business during the explosive era of industrial expansion following the Civil War. “The sovereign people may govern Chicago in theory,” Stead wrote; “as a matter of fact King Boodle is monarch of all he surveys. His domination is practically undisputed.”
The Municipal Voters League, a reform organization that included many of Jane Addams’ close friends, was founded in 1896 in an effort to clean up the Common Council, of whose sixty-eight aldermen fifty-eight were estimated to be corrupt. The League aimed to replace as many of the fifty-eight as possible with honest men. But it was not easy: in 1896, as part of this campaign, a member of the Hull-House Men’s Club ran for the second aldermanic position in the ward and against all expectations was elected. Too late, his idealistic backers found that their hero had his price: Johnny Powers promptly bought him out.
Jane Addams was chagrined but undiscouraged. By the time Powers came up for re-election in 1898, she had had time to observe him more closely and plan her attack. Her opening gun was a speech—delivered, improbably enough, to the Society for Ethical Culture —with the ponderous and apparently harmless title, “Some Ethical Survivals in Municipal Corruption.” But appearances were deceptive: once under way, she took the hide off Powers and was scarcely easier on his opponents among the so-called “better elements.”
She began by pointing out that for the immigrants, who were getting their first initiation in self-government, ethics was largely a matter of example: the officeholder was apt to set the standard and exercise a permanent influence upon their views. An engaging politician whose standards were low and “impressed by the cynical stamp of the corporations” could debauch the political ideals of ignorant men and women, with consequences that might, she felt, take years to erase.
Ethical issues were further complicated, she said, by habits of thought brought to the New World from the Old. Many Italians and Germans had left their respective fatherlands to escape military service; the Polish and Russian Jews, to escape government persecution. In all these cases, the government had been cast in the role of oppressor. The Irish, in particular, had been conditioned by years of resentment over English rule to regard any successful effort to feed at the public crib as entirely legitimate, because it represented getting the better of their bitterest enemies.
On the other hand, Miss Addams continued, there was nothing the immigrants admired more than simple goodness. They were accustomed to helping each other out in times of trouble, sharing from their own meager store with neighbors who were even more destitute. When Alderman Powers performed on a large scale the same good deeds which they themselves were able to do only on a small scale, was it any wonder that they admired him?
Given this admiration, and their Old World resentments toward government, the immigrants’ developing standards of political morality suffered when Powers made it clear that he could “fix” courts or find jobs for his friends on the city payroll. It cheapened their image of American politics when they began to suspect that the source of their benefactor’s largess might be a corrupt bargain with a traction tycoon, or with others who wanted something from the city of Chicago and were willing to pay for it.
Hull-House residents, Miss Addams said, very early found evidence of the influence of the boss’s standards. When the news spread around the neighborhood that the House was a source of help in time of trouble, more and more neighbors came to appeal for aid when a boy was sent to jail or reform school, and it was impossible to explain to them why Hull-House, so ready to help in other ways, was not willing to get around the law as the Alderman did.
Removing Alderman Powers from office, Jane Addams told the sober gentlemen of the Society for Ethical Culture, would be no simple task. It would require a fundamental change in the ethical standards of the community, as well as the development of a deeper insight on the part of the reformers. These latter, she pointed out, with all their zeal for well-ordered, honest politics, were not eager to undertake the responsibilities of self-government 365 days a year. They were quite willing to come into the nineteenth ward at election time to exhort the citizenry, but were they willing to make a real effort to achieve personal relationships of the kind that stood Johnny Powers in such good stead?
On this last point, HullHouse itself had some experience. As Florence KeIley—a Hull-House resident who was to become a pioneer in the Illinois social reform movement—subsequently wrote: The question is often asked whether all that the House undertakes could not be accomplished without the wear and tear of living on the spot. The answer, that it could not, grows more assured as time goes on. You must suffer from the dirty streets, the universal ugliness, the lack of oxygen in the air you daily breathe, the endless struggle with soot and dust and insufficient water supply, the hanging from a strap of the overcrowded street car at the end of your day’s work; you must send your children to the nearest wretchedly crowded school, and see them suffer the consequences, if you are to speak as one having authority and not as the scribes …
By 1898, after nine years of working with their neighbors, the Hull-House residents were ready to pit their influence against that of Powers. Jane Addams’ philosophical address to the Ethical Culture society was followed by others in which she explained more concretely the relationships between Yerkes, Chicago’s traction czar, and the city council, relationships in which Johnny Powers played a key role. With several important deals in the making, 1898 would be a bad year for Yerkes to lose his key man in the seats of power.
The election was scheduled for April. The reformers —led by Hull-House and supported by independent Democrats, the Cook County Republicans, and the Municipal Voters League—put up a candidate of their own, Simeon Armstrong, to oppose Powers, and undertook to organize and underwrite Armstrong’s campaign. By the end of January, the usually imperturbable Powers suddenly began paying attention to his political fences. The newspapers noted with some surprise that it was the first time he had felt it necessary to lift a finger more than two weeks in advance of election day.
His first move was an attack on Amanda Johnson, a Hull-House resident who had succeeded Miss Addams as garbage inspector. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and described by the papers as blond, blueeyed, and beautiful, she had taken the civil service examination and duly qualified for the position. Alderman Powers announced to the world that Miss Johnson, shielded by her civil service status, was telling his constituents not to vote for him. The Chicago Record dropped a crocodile tear at the sad picture of the martyred alderman: General sympathy should go out to Mr. Powers in this, his latest affliction. Heretofore he has been persecuted often by people opposed to bad franchise ordinances. He has been hounded by the upholders of civil service reform. He has suffered the shafts of criticism directed at his career by disinterested citizens. A grand jury has been cruel to him. Invidious comments have been made in his hearing as to the ethical impropriety of gambling institutions. … It is even believed that Miss Johnson in her relentless cruelty may go so far as to insinuate that Mr. Powers’ electioneering methods are no better than those attributed to her—that, indeed, when he has votes to win, the distinctions of the civil service law do not deter him from going after those votes in many ways.
Powers’ next move was to attempt a redistricting that would cut off the eastern, or Italian, end of his ward, which he took to be most seriously under HullHouse influence. It was reported that he also felt this area had been a “large source of expense to him through the necessity of assisting the poor that are crowded into that district.” “These people,” the Chicago Record reported, “formerly tied to him by his charities are said to be turning toward Hull-House and will vote solidly against him next spring.”
Neither of Powers’ first efforts was notably successful. A few days after his attack on Miss Johnson the Tribune reported: Trouble sizzled and boiled for Alderman John Powers in his own bailiwick last night. The Nineteenth Ward Independent club raked over the Alderman’s sins … and … much indignation was occasioned by Alderman Powers’ opposition to Miss Amanda Johnson. One Irish speaker says Johnny is a disgrace to the Irish race now that he has descended to fighting “poor working girls.”
Meantime, Powers’ colleagues on the council redistricting committee had no intention of saving his skin at the expense of their own, and stood solidly against his gerrymandering effort. Now the shaken boss began to show signs of losing his temper. He told reporters that if Miss Addams didn’t like the nineteenth ward she should move out. Later, still more infuriated, he announced that Hull-House should be driven out. “A year from now there will be no such institution,” he said flatly, adding that the women at Hull-House were obviously jealous of his charities. The Record published a cartoon showing Powers pushing vainly against the wall of a very substantial house.
The news of the campaign soon spread beyond the bounds of Chicago. The New York Tribune commented that Powers wouldn’t mind Miss Addams saying all those things about him if he didn’t begin to fear that she may succeed in making some of his well-meaning but misled constituents believe them. She is a very practical person, and has behind her a large volunteer staff of other practical persons who do not confine their efforts to “gassin’ in the parlors,” but are going about to prove to the plain people of the nineteenth ward that a corrupt and dishonest man does not necessarily become a saint by giving a moiety of his ill-gotten gains to the poor.
By March the campaign was waxing warm, and Powers resorted to an attempt to stir up the Catholic clergy against Miss Addams and the reform candidate. One of the Hull-House residents, a deputy factory inspector and a Catholic herself, went directly to the priests to find out why they were supporting Powers. When she reported, Jane Addams wrote to a friend: As nearly as I can make out, the opposition comes from the Jesuits, headed by Father Lambert, and the parish priests are not in it, and do not like it. Mary talked for a long time to Father Lambert and is sure it is jealousy of Hull-House and money obligations to Powers, that he does not believe the charges himself. She cried when she came back.
In another letter written about the same time, Miss Addams said that Powers had given a thousand dollars to the Jesuit “temperance cadets,” who had returned the favor with a fine procession supporting Powers’ candidacy. “There was a picture of your humble servant on a transparency and others such as ‘No petticoat government for us …’ We all went out on the corner to see it, Mr. Hinsdale carefully shielding me from the public view.”
By now the battle between Hull-House and Johnny Powers was sharing headlines in Chicago newspapers with the blowing up of the Maine in Havana’s harbor and the approach of the war with Spain. “Throughout the nineteenth ward,” said the Tribune , “the one absorbing topic of conversation wherever men are gathered is the fight being made against Alderman Powers.” It was rumored that Powers had offered a year’s free rent to one of the opposition leaders if he would move out of the ward before election day, and the HullHouse group let it be known that the Alderman was spending money freely in the ward, giving his lieutenants far more cash to spread around than was his custom. “Where does the money come from?” Jane Addams asked, and answered her own question: “From Mr. Yerkes.” Powers was stung, and challenged her to prove that he had ever received one dollar from any corporation.
“Driven to desperation,” said the Tribune , “Ald. Powers has at last called to his aid the wives and daughters of his political allies.” Determined to fight fire with fire, he dropped his opposition to “petticoat politicians” and gave his blessing to a Ladies Auxiliary which was instructed to counteract the work of the women of Hull-House. An enterprising reporter discovered that few of the ladies had ever seen Miss Addams or been to Hull-House, but all were obediently repeating the charge that she had “blackened and maligned the whole ward” by saying that its people were ignorant, criminal, and poor.
As the campaign became more intense, Jane Addams received numbers of violent letters, nearly all of them anonymous, from Powers’ partisans, as well as various communications from lodginghouse keepers quoting prices for votes they were ready to deliver! When the Hull-House residents discovered evidence of ties between banking, ecclesiastical, and journalistic interests, with Powers at the center, they proceeded to publicize all they knew. This brought upon their heads a violent attack by the Chicago Chronicle , the organ of the Democratic ring.
Suddenly a number of nineteenth-ward businessmen who had signed petitions for the reform candidate came out for Powers. They were poor and in debt; Powers gave the word to a landlord here, a coal dealer there, and they were beaten. The small peddlers and fruit dealers were subjected to similar pressure, for each needed a license to ply his trade, and the mere hint of a revocation was enough to create another Powers man.
When Alderman John M. Harlan, one of the stalwarts of the Municipal Voters League, came into the ward to speak, Powers supplied a few toughs to stir up a riot. Fortunately Harlan was a sturdy character, and offered so forcefully to take on all comers in fisticuffs that no volunteers appeared. Allowed to proceed, he posed some embarrassing questions: Why did nineteenth-ward residents have to pay ten-cent trolley fares when most of the city paid five? Why, when Powers was head of the city council’s free-spending committee on street paving, were the streets of the ward in execrable condition? Why were the public schools so crowded, and why had Powers suppressed a petition, circulated by Hull-House, to build more of them?
Freely admitting Powers’ reputation for charity, Harlan made the interesting suggestion that the councilman’s motives be put to the test: Would he be so generous as a private citizen? “Let us retire him to private life and see.”
Powers was pictured by the papers as being nearly apoplectic at this attack from Miss Addams’ friend. He announced that he would not be responsible for Harlan’s safety if he returned to the nineteenth ward. (Since no one had asked him to assume any such responsibility, this was presumed to be an open threat.) Harlan returned at once, telling a crowd well-laced with Powers supporters that he would “rather die in my tracks than acknowledge the right of John Powers to say who should and who should not talk in this ward.” Summoning up the memory of Garibaldi, he urged the Italians to live up to their tradition of freedom and not allow their votes to be “delivered.”
In a quieter vein, Miss Addams too spoke at a public meeting of Italians, where, it was reported, she received profound and respectful attention. “Show that you do not intend to be governed by a boss,” she told them. “It is important not only for yourselves but for your children. These things must be made plain to them.”
As the campaign progressed, the reformers began to feel they had a real chance of defeating Powers. Jane Addams was persuaded to go in search of funds with which to carry out the grand finale. “I sallied forth today and got $100,” she wrote, and “will have to keep it up all week; charming prospect, isn’t it?” But on about the twentieth of March she began to have serious hopes, too, and redoubled her efforts.
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.”
The regulation of child labor, for example, was one political issue in which Hull-House residents became involved because of their knowledge of the lives of the neighbors. The first juvenile court in Chicago was set up as a result of their efforts; it was a direct response to the anxious mothers who could not understand why Hull-House would not help get their boys out of jail. The first factory inspection law in Illinois was also credited to Hull-House, and Florence Kelley became the first inspector. Another Hull-House resident—Dr. Alice Hamilton—pioneered in the field of industrial medicine. Because of their intimate acquaintance with the human cost of industrialization, settlement workers became vigorous advocates of promoting social justice through law.
It was a long jump but not an illogical one from the campaign against Powers to the stage of the Chicago Coliseum in August, 1912, when Jane Addams arose to second the nomination of Teddy Roosevelt by the Progressive party on a platform of social welfare. More remarkable than the ovation—larger than that given to any other seconder—was the fact that the huge audience seemed to listen carefully to what she had to say.
Some newspapers grandly estimated her value to T.R. at a million votes. “Like the report of Mark Twain’s death,” she commented, “the report is greatly exaggerated.” But she campaigned vigorously, in the face of criticism that this was not a proper role for a woman, and when the Bull Moose cause failed, she did not believe it had been a waste of time. It had brought about, she wrote Roosevelt, more discussion of social reform than she had dared to hope for in her lifetime. Alderman Powers was still in office—as were many like him—but the sources of his power were being attacked at the roots.
When the 1916 campaign came around, Democrats and Republicans alike made bids for Jane Addams’ support. The outbreak of war in Europe had turned her attention, however, in a different direction. As early as 1907, in a book called Newer Ideals of Peace , she had begun to elaborate William James’s notion of a “moral equivalent of war,” and had suggested that the experience of polyglot immigrant populations in learning to live together might be laying the foundations for a true international order. Like her ideals of social justice, those that she conceived on international peace had their beginning in the nineteenth ward.
To her, as to so many idealistic progressives, world war came as a profound shock. Her response was a vigorous effort to bring together American women and women from all the European countries to urge upon their governments a negotiated peace. In Europe, where she went in 1915 for a meeting of the Women’s International Peace Conference, she visited prime ministers; at the end of that year she planned to sail on Henry Ford’s peace ship ( AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1958), but illness forced her to withdraw at the last moment. At home she appealed to President Wilson. Unshaken in her pacifism, she stood firmly against the war, even after the United States entered it.
Her popularity seemed to melt overnight. Many women’s clubs and social workers, who owed so much to her vision, deserted her. An Illinois judge who thought it dangerous for her to speak in wartime was widely supported in the press. For most of 1917 and 1918 she was isolated as never before or again. But she did not waver.
When the war ended she began at once to work for means to prevent another. Through the twenties she was constantly active in searching for ways in which women could cut across national lines in their work for peace. In 1931, in her seventy-first year, she received the Nobel Peace Prize—the second American to be so recognized. She died, full of honors, in 1935.
As for Johnny Powers, he had lived to a ripe old age and died in 1930, remaining alderman almost to the end, still fighting reform mayors, still protesting that he and Miss Addams were really friends, after all. From whichever department of the hereafter he ended up in, he must have looked down—or up—in amazement at the final achievements of his old enemy, who had been so little troubled by his insistence that there should be “no petticoats in politics.”