Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872, 1991

Corruption in Chicago politics serves as subject matter for numerous historians. The machine politics that emerged in the 1930s, consolidated by the first Richard Daley in 1955, often symbolize the city’s political history. However, Robin L. Einhorn’s work Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833 – 1872 examines the political and economic history of the metropolis’ experiment with a segmented government system. Unlike the machine politics of latter eras, the segmented system prevented corruption to such an extent that “its government was clean enough to satisfy even the most fastidious of urban reformers.” (xv). Drawing on the “privatism” (“an outright unapologetic rejection of public oriented civic responsibility”) thesis of Sam Bass Warner, Terrance McDonald’s emphasis on a “low tax consensus” (similar to My Blue Heaven’s 20th century blue collar suburbs), and Amy Bridges’ attention to the relevance of city politics in the national context (“that the nineteenth century American city was an integral part of the nineteenth century national political community, truly a “city in the republic.”). Einhorn pushes each of these scholars ideas further, “American cities were “cities in the republic”, not only in Bridges sense of sharing political culture influenced by an enfranchised working class, but also in their uses of government. Urban politics reflected McDonald’s “consensus” on low taxes but in ways that promoted localized rather than low cost government. Cities were very successful in building public works, and they accomplished this by local and privatized strategies long before the triumph of the central coordination that Teafod describes. Finally American cities were, as Warner argued, “private cities.” Yet by nineteenth century standards, this was their strength rather than their pathology.” (xvi)

The segmented system reflected the idea of strict constructionism and Jacksonian ideology by limiting the power of the government, preventing monopoly, and maintaining low taxes. The diversification of the cities expanding economy along with its polyglot population led many to believe that “city wide consensus” were no longer possible. The segmented system prevented any kind of redistribution upwards or downwards, while enabling working, middle, and upper class property owners to expand infrastructure in their communities according to local demands. The segmented system depended on special taxes, fire limits (fire limits rules were used to ensure certain Chicago neighborhoods built homes out of more expensive brick than wood, thus preventing working class peoples from building such homes “The fire limit could have a powerful effect on local land values not only by forbidding cheap construction, but also by determining land use. If in legal theory, modern zoning grew out of nuisance regulation while fire limits developed into building codes, in practice, mid nineteenth century Chicagoans used the fire limit as a tool for land use control.” (129)) and assessments as economic and political tools to control development while maintaining low taxes. Citywide development did not exist because the political culture of the period did not acknowledge modern conceptions of the general “public interest”. Replacing Boosterism, “Segmentation rested on the principle of local control of city building decisions. Only those property owners whose real estate would be affected by a particular decision had a right to participate in making that decision. Only owners whose properties reaped benefits from an improvement paid for that improvement. Notions of the public good all but disappeared from municipal policy debate as Chicagoans turned their attention to the rapid creation of physical infrastructure.” (76). Assessments required local property owners and the appropriate alderman to build a consensus for development. While cities such as San Francisco and Milwaukee also used a segmented system but Chicago’s remained the purest.

Chicago’s boosters did not relinquish their activity in municipal government. Instead, they consolidated power through non-partisan elections while alderman essentially represented real estate interests. Unlike the cosmopolitan elite of New York, Chicago’s boosters remained intricately tied to the city’s growth, thus they shared a common interest. Moreover, again in contrast to New York whose ward map often reflected ethnic neighborhoods, Chicago’s organized real estate interests to facilitate the use of assessments and private development. While Chicago’s segmented system might have been more extreme than other cities, it was based on Eastern examples. The system diminished political conflict by requiring the construction of local consensus, it even enabled working class communities to prevent unwanted development. Special taxes enabled the city to limit taxation for services such as street lamps to neighborhoods that required or demanded them without placing any tax burden on the entire city. However, the segmented system “made the American urban landscape a physical expression of political inequality.” (104). By preventing redistribution, the city’s neighborhoods exhibited this class division as poorer communities often lacked the infrastructure that wealthier homeowners illustrated, “While the wealthy paid for their control of policy making in high special assessment levies, therefore, the poor paid for their low tax costs in voicelessness, in a governmental decision making process based directly on wealth rather than, either directly or indirectly, on the power of number of ballots.” (116)

The segmented system faced difficulties as Chicago grew. As acknowledged, it led to incongruous development, “With no central coordination, it had allowed local groups of property owners to build a huge amount of physical infrastructure without integrating their efforts over space or time.” (169). The creation of the Board of Public Works and the eventual extension of authority granted it, chipped away at segmented system. In addition, national debates over temperance, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Civil War altered the nature of non-partisan elections, that had enabled booster elites to consolidate power within the system. With local politics now “enmeshed in a vigorous national party system. Chicagoans also were adopting a new idea of their local public interest. Like their interest in the Union war effort, this local interest submerged party in the urgency of government action. It also destroyed the segmented system” (188). Civil war recruitment and bounties ended up redistributing taxes downwards, an action segmentation had avoided. Local debates concerning pollution and the environmental effects of packinghouses also helped to slowly shift opinion toward a broader public interest. Within state legal circles, the segmentation faced obstacles. An 1864 Illinois Supreme Court decision “announced that Chicago’s new public interest extended to the street building arrangements at the heart o the segmented system” (215). When street railway companies began to construct transit infrastructure, “a segmented approach was rejected from the start.” (218). The passage of the Ninety Nine Year Act (along with a handful of similar acts) removed all local control from abutters and property owners. Companies held too much power and eliminated the influence of the former booster elites. When alderman challenged such acts, the Supreme Court rejected their complaints siding with street railway companies. Still the Civil War period represented incredible growth for Chicago’s infrastructure, “After more than a decade of segmented localism, Chicagoans used city government to help meet their recruiting quotas, clean a desperately polluted river, and build a transit system.” (224). Thus, citizens reshaped municipal government “to strike a new balance between public and private, keeping privatism for the many along with new public interests for the few.” (225)

A key point in post Civil War’s abandonment of the segmented system lay in the changing elite. Booster elites faded to be replaced by Gilded Age millionaires who “took less active roles in the community”. (225) This new elite class did not compete with each other since they had established themselves in different industries. They viewed municipal government as a nuiscance rather than a partner and resisted all taxation placed upon them. Since boosters had been especially active in real estate infrastructure and development served their interests. The new millionaire class hoped to speak in the language of the “public interest” as too reduce their own tax responsibilities by placing them on the larger populace. Ultimately, the segmented system faded to be replaced by “a system that used government to redistribute wealth in accordance with public policy decisions made through power politics and interest group competition.” (229) The rise of Jacksonian pluralism in this context meant “the completion of interest groups to define public interests” resulted in “few democratic outcomes in the Gilded Age.” (242) If anything, pluralism enabled the new elite to define the public interest . However, Einhorn carefully notes that the machine politics that emerged did not bring democratization either, “Chicago’s first government transition, from boosterism to segmentation, that was decentralizing. It was the second transition, however, that brought bummers and machine politics. Neither of these transitions can be described as democratizing.” (243) Not until the “social reform” movements of the early 20th century (Einhorn argues especially that of the 1930s) did such democratizing effects find expression in municipal government.


— Even though the book talks a lot about working classes, it only gives two examples i.e. clyborn one and 1871 fire limits.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License