Phillip J. Ethington, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900, 1994

In recent years, Jürgen Habermas’ work on the public sphere provided historians with new ways of conceptualizing America’s social and political history. Mary P. Ryan and others have explored the various ways actors appropriated or located space within the public sphere in order to articulate their broader interests. The public sphere served as a both a tool for publicity and democratic activity. Philip J. Ethington’s The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco similarly attempts to reevaluate the Progressive movement in California’s “City by the Bay”.

Rejecting numerous historical schools of thought regarding the meaning of Progressivism, Ethington suggests it did not represent the rise of organic group solidarities, the formation of a uniformally middle class reformist strata, or that Progressives emerged in response solely to the economic/social/political crisis of the day. Instead, Ethington’s work argues that the public sphere served as a site of persuasion and contestation. Political entrepreneurs (using John Mollenkopf’s term coined in his work Contested Cities – this could be problematic since Ethington uses it in the nineteenth century context even though Mollenkopf’s work discussed urban renewal of the twentieth) utilized the public sphere to organize overlapping group identities which in turn institutionalized these identities through municipal public policy (“By making credible policy demands in the 1880s and 1890s, these institutionalizing group leaders reinforced group identity by forcing political contestation further to revolve around interest provoking legislation … By the beginning of the 1890s the process of political mobilization had created the interest group lobbies considered to be such a natural feature of modern American political culture.” (299)). In San Francisco, the broader working class (through the FTC), Irish Catholics, and women suffragists helped to mobilize groups/group identities in the 1880s-90s, forming a constituency that did not resemble the Protestant middle class standard that so many historians have offered.

Beginning with the Vigilante government of the 1850s, Ethington focuses his attentions on the attendant meanings and discourses put forth into the public sphere that created a “republican liberalism” that “was a language of the public sphere (its home institution) that legitimated both political and market ethics” (55). Ethington views this as keenly important noting the variability of social class and its dependence on “the discourse or language within which individuals understand their position in society.” (55) The public sphere acted as the institution through which political actors organized support, mobilizing various groups. Not that the public sphere remained open to all, “The urban public sphere of the 1850s was a closed, unitary arena for the pursuit of organization, power, authority and policy … The white male dominated political community of privileged citizens guarded access to a public sphere against invasion from women and people of color. That public sphere, in turn, was the arena in which party activists had to pursue their goal of organizing.” (84). Dueling and violence furthered the gendered nature of the public sphere since women were seen as incapable of either. Moreover, if past historians have presented the Vigilantes as a class based reaction to the problems of a burgeoning metropolis, Ethington conveys the idea that class identities failed to play a crucial role. Rather the public executions undertaken by them reflected public fears (which may have been more about perception of crime than actual crime rates) concerning the spread of crime, “the executions by the Vigilantes were an exercise in political communication within a political culture that was still intensely public. Reformers who sought to put execution indoors were indeed attempting to privatize one of the central functions of the state (the monopoly over the right to kill). Opponents of indoor executions, however, pointed out that privacy was inconsistent with republicanism.” (104). [note- a side note on gender Ethington identifies those executed and others expelled as single men without families introducing the importance of women in a city with a pronounced gender imbalance in its early years i.e. in some ways women served as markers of what was private and what was public) Finally, Ethington’s view of the Vigilante government alters its nativist position by suggesting that the local Know Nothings downplayed anti-irish rhetoric, recognizing that this burgeoning population could be an electoral threat, though few Irish Catholics joined its ranks, preferring to remain loyal to Democrats. Vigilantes preferred to focus on the evils of “professional” politicians who dripped with “corruption”. Though they limited political participation greatly such that many residents found themselves excluded, they adopted “the latent elements of republican political understanding – antipartyism, mutualism, the indivisible public good – into a working and ruling ideological formation that legmitated the rule of the a self avowed apolitical party run by a secret executive committee on business principles … Vigilante mutualism taught that prosperity depended upon low municipal expenditures, low taxation, and the prevention of progression politicians (i.e. national political parties) form gaining a foothold in municipal affairs.” (129). [ important b/c he uses the business efficiency argument later to disprove the idea that Progressives were the first to harness this argument … in ways this is like Einhorn’s Property Rules where she makes a similar claim regarding Chicago’s segmented system]. Of course, Vigilante mutualism (which had been appropriated by the People’s Party which ruled the city before and during the Civil War) meant the city’s merchant elite “defined the public good” and the voters approved it, though as already noted many were excluded from voting such that Irish Catholics viewed mutualism with wariness that led to their own political ascension in the post Civil War city. However, as Ethington notes, “During the ten years from 1856 through 1866, San Francisco politics were driven by the local dimension of the political community, that small core of political participants whose occupational skills, property ownership, and geographic stability enabled them to set the agenda for the municipal polity while the great national parties were held at bay.” (169).

National events intervened to undermine the political construction of the city. The issue of slavery and race entered discourse providing a small but legitimate space in the public sphere for the city’s black population. [race complicated Republican arguments “the language of race entangled itself at the intersections between political virtue and economic independence so vital to republican political ethos … The most destructive source of contradictions was between the racial hierarchy of dependence central to republicanism and the commitment to equal rights central to liberalism. Both Republican and Democratic party leaders were racist, but only the Republicans were willing to commit themselves and their political fortunes to equal civil rights among racial groups.” (185] Political mobilization for the war (both in support of and opposition to) led public leaders to invent the elements “of a social conception of political action by forcing partisan differences to hinge on social identities rather than on invisible and indivisible markers, such as character, virtue, and honor.” (170). Among other effects the Civil War and Reconstruction “converted race from an uncontested exclusive boundary into a contested boundary requiring constant vigilance among the privileged.” (233) Thus, “the emerging politics of group interests” revealed that official electoral politics found class interests among white males as the most significant “political cleavage”. (234). What this meant for politicians and other political figures was that though the city’s electorate favored “upper occupational groups, “the bulwark of political participation was the middling burgher stratum: the skilled workers.” (236). With that said the “swing voters” were the transient blue collar workers (many found themselves excluded from voting by residency requirements which made it difficult for many to participate electorally since they often moved around for employment), “This is the dual urban political universe. Low blue collar voters were available for mobilization from time to time, especially on the basis of symbolic issues of race, class, or national party loyalties, which did not require a local vested interest and could be carried out from city to city.” (236) The “logic of political mobilization and party programs” determined which occupational group blue collar voters allied with.

Newspapers long provided voices in the public sphere, however, by the late 1800s they now served an organizational/mobilizing purpose. San Francisco’s numerous papers helped to create class identities through their competition for readers. This process accelerated when in the last decades of the century the more sensationalistic, commercial press (most visibly represented by Hearst) transformed readers into consumers. Thus, the papers constructed themselves in an attempt to market themselves to various groupings, contributing to the formation of group and class identities, “The postwar press began fragmenting that community into the urban communities of class, race, and ethnicity.” (241) Moreover, suffragists occupied the public sphere through demonstrations and their own newspapers to the extent that “women simultaneously altered the boundaries of the “private” and weakened republicanism by strengthening the natural rights tradition of liberalism … The dual urban political universe … reveals that active citizenry to have been highly malleable and uneven in its social composition … Politicians and the new media entrepreneurs … worked frenetically within this altered public sphere to sharpen the identities of class and race in San Francisco.” (241)

[note- forgot to mention the Workingman’s Party role in this as it articulated a non class based view of workingman as synonymous with virtue and referred to bad leaders as “shoddy aristocrats” thus not negating the possibility of good ones, meaning class remained a malleable issue … though this process also criminalized radicalism since anyone in opposition to “workingman interests” must be corrupt … the WPC’s own leadership consisted of mixed classes i.e. workers and petty proprietors b/c they were attempting to appeal to numerous classes the WPC used the virtue of republicanism in what he identifies as the “the language of politics” combining with the “politics of class” … thus both politicians and the media used terms like capital and labor to draw voters/consumers constructing identities along the way].
[note – Ethington disputes Bridges in terms of political affiliations “There is no justification to assert … as Amy Bridges does, that “to be an independent voter in the nineteenth century was unthinkable, considered as absurd as the idea of a third sex.” If Bridges were right, it would be impossible to account for the myriad independent parties that gained voter support throughout the nineteenth century.” ]

For Ethington, no monolithic Progressivism exists. Rather the term operates in a more discursive fashion, differing in its reality from city to city. Moreover, he argues that Progressivism reorganized the public sphere such that “enabled the pursuit of interests by groups and their leaders.” (288). [already quoted earlier but just a reminder… (“By making credible policy demands in the 1880s and 1890s, these institutionalizing group leaders reinforced group identity by forcing political contestation further to revolve around interest provoking legislation … By the beginning of the 1890s the process of political mobilization had created the interest group lobbies considered to be such a natural feature of modern American political culture.” (299) in terms of his argument the FTC lobbying represents both an example of this and also a refutation of previous historical arguments that suggest the labor movement lobbied in response to industry’s own lobbying actions but here Ethington illustrates in part the reverse] Class, race, ethnicity, and gender became the “concrete elements of the political sphere.” (319). Again, using Mollenkopf’s “political entrepreneur”, Ethington suggests that Progressives “infiltrated” organizational parties, transforming the political structures. This view pushes back against such actors as representatives of groups interests, “Political entrepreneurship is thus an activity relatively autonomous from social group formation.” (338). For Ethington, social groups identities remained plastic, the arguments put forth in the public sphere helped to solidify them. For example, the approval of the 1898 charter occurred only after Mayor Phelan persuaded and contested various groups through the public sphere. Irish Catholic support, hostility to the role of women in the political sphere, and the role of the working class combined to approve the charter while rejecting women’s suffrage in California, illustrating another push back by Ethington in which women did not enjoy the support of male progressives. Finally, as already noted many aspects of the Progressive agenda credited to their work including business efficiency government and the like actually emerged much earlier under Vigilante/People’s Party/WPC regimes.


– What about SF’s notorious vice … there is very little mention of this aspect which is curious considering the central role it played … along similar lines leisure here gets no attention despite its importance in terms of the public sphere – to be fair this period may predate such a focus and Ethington seems deliberately attentive to political spheres more than others

- His point about the mobilization of blue collar workers seems to contradict his point … he goes to great lengths to explain the uniqueness of San Francisco and other localities … the presence of a large Chinese population made relational racial identities more common yet he seems to suggest blue collar voters could be uniformly mobilized according to symbolic issues .. the problem here is that it’s not clear whether he means only in SF or that this was a common national variant … thus, wouldn’t such appeals in SF be rather unique compared to other cities of the day?

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