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13 Mayors of Chicago
What a show. What a cast.


July 17, 1987

The Reader’s subtitle for this review-essay read, “Political biography is the ostensible focus of this book, but its true themes are ethnicity, race, factionalism, and vice as both issue and administrative style.” Close enough.


Reviewed: The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987


High political office sometimes brings out the best in people; sometimes people bring out the best in a political office. The mayoralty of Chicago often seems to have done neither. That, anyway, is one of the lessons of The Mayors, a new collection of 13 essays, each profiling a man or woman who has occupied—if not always entirely filled—the mayor's office on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Unhappily, public ignorance of the city's history is one of the enduring aspects of its political tradition. So even though The Mayors does not offer a comprehensive roster of Chicago's first and finest, many of the careers summarized will be unfamiliar to the general reader. One such career is that of Joseph Medill, arguably Chicago's first modern mayor. It also includes the Carter Harrisons, father and son, who managed to rule Chicago for 35 years without a machine; Fred Busse, who presided over the last hurrah of the liberal Republicans in 1907 after a campaign in which he gave not a single speech; Big Bill Thompson, who not only couldn't have been elected dogcatcher in any other city but probably would have been rounded up by one; Anton Cermak, who organized his new Democratic machine like any other profit-making enterprise; Edward J. Kelly, who turned that machine into a monopoly (and almost ruined it in the process) in part by spurring the transformation of Chicago's black voters from Republicans to Democrats; and of course Da Mayor and his recent successors.

The Mayors teeters unsteadily in style between biographical sketch and formal academic analysis. Arranged chronologically, the essays recount the change in city politics from intraparty factionalism based on personality early in the century (what one contributor here calls urban feudalism) to the creation of a multiethnic coalition, which evolved into the Democratic political machine that thrived from the Roosevelt and Truman years until its recent demise from something like Alzheimer's disease. The focus of The Mayors is political biography, but certain key topics—ethnicity and race, partisan factionalism, vice as both issue and administrative style—recur so insistently that they, and not the men who held the office, become the central if tacit theme of this book.

The possibility that mayors are often captives of these underlying forces, that their careers float on historical tides that bear them toward uncharted landings, runs counter to Chicago's politics of personality. It is the nature of a mayor like the late Richard Daley to create the impression that he is a man who makes events rather than one who is made by them, just as it is in the nature of voters to want to believe him; politics, after all, may be described as a lie that a majority believes in. Historians (whose art may be described as a lie that a minority believes in) should know better. Daley was smart, but he was also lucky, his success owed substantially to expanded federal aid, general prosperity, and an acquiescent state legislature.

Whether Chicago's preoccupation with personality explains, or is explained by, the city's appetite for political theater is not taken up directly in The Mayors. Political vaudeville is hardly unique to Chicago, of course (at least as long as Ed Koch is around). But where such shenanigans are decried in other cities as a corruption of or a diversion from serious politics, in Chicago they are serious politics. Melvin Holli goes so far here as to describe street theater as "that powerful impulse that Chicago politics is at its heart."

That is a descriptive phrase but not a very informative one. A certain portion of bunkum has always been mixed in with American politics. Democracies reward a lowest-common-denominator style of campaigning, and the commercial media have come to insist on it. Chicago, however, is a veritable Mount Olympus of hooey. Its Zeus surely must be Republican William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, who once amused himself between terms in the 1920s by debating a pair of caged rats. In 1927 Thompson beat William Dever, a reform-minded judge with brains and a reputation for honesty. The rest of the country (in the words of contributor John Schmidt) saw Dever's defeat as "just what could be expected from Chicago." Schmidt adds that Dever lacked several of the skills of the successful political executive (he had refused, against advice, to don tanner's overalls to court the union vote), including "showmanship and a sense of nastiness." That would be considered a compliment anywhere else.

The perception of the candidate as clown has become ingrained. The "old style of personality politics" may have heard its last hurrah in 1927 (as Schmidt says) but it was not replaced by a new style of politics, just new styles of personality. When Holli says of Jane Byrne that she put on a good show, he clearly intends it as a compliment. The risk is that by judging its mayors by the standards of the nightclub comic Chicago's government will continue to be a joke.

* * *


Until the Progressive Era, the purpose of city government was assumed to be the accommodation of business. Indeed, in the days of Chicago's headlong expansion, ribbon cutting was a full-time job performed by figurehead mayors who usually were businessmen themselves. (Medill, for instance, worked as publisher of the Tribune during his term; full-time professional politicians are a relatively recent innovation.)


Businessmen as a class later quit politics but they did not give up government. Arnold Hirsch recalls that the urban renewal plan of the Martin Kennelly administrations was basically written by Chicago Title & Trust and Marshall Field & Company; Holli reminds us that it was outsider Jane Byrne's need to reassure nervous big banks that led to her approval of the appointment to key council posts of old-guard hacks.

Political behavior is complicated by ethnicity, race, and religion, indeed is often confounded by them. Ethnic politics began to reshape the city more than a century ago when new immigrants—Irish, Germans, Swedes—struggled for political representation against Anglo-Saxon early arrivals. It is an open question whether Chicago mayors accommodated the city's ethnic populations or merely exploited them. Other cities have had ethnic populations as diverse, and, overall, as large. But Chicago may have been unique in that so many of its ethnic communities were large enough to constitute culturally and politically (if not always physically) distinct entities.

Chicago politics gets much of its peculiar flavor from this ethnic stew. (Gustatory metaphors are irresistible when discussing ethnic politics, perhaps because of the influence of the major media, which sometimes seem to consider what goes into a candidate's mouth much more interesting than what comes out of it.) For one thing, coalition politics demands candidates who are inoffensive to the largest number of groups. Usually, what makes for inoffensive politics makes for ineffectual leadership. There are exceptions, of course. Cermak, the Protestant Bohemian, was one, as was the younger Harrison described by Edward Kantowicz: "A Protestant by birth, educated in Germany, at Irish-Catholic St. Ignatius, and at Waspy Yale, he was nearly a balanced ticket all by himself." And ethnic politics doesn't just exploit insularity and cultural (including racial) antagonisms, it risks perpetuating them by making ethnicity the basis of reward.

Our authors necessarily focus less on ethnic politics per se than on its effects, at some cost in understanding. Slightly more rigorous attention is paid to that other recurring motif, reform. Maureen Flanagan, writing about Fred Busse, warns that "reform" and "machine" are slippery categories into which to cram the mayors of the early 20th century. Her advice is still valid. It is the rare mayor who does not promise some kind of reform going into office, or who cannot boast of having achieved some kind of reform as he leaves it.

Much news copy has been chewed into cud by commentators trying to decide if Harold Washington is a reformer. Their confusion results mainly from their failure to ask, "Which kind?" Kantowicz explores the point in his profile of Carter Harrison II. (That "II" after his name, by the way, fit Harrison better than it would have fit any of his successors; he spoke French and wrote poetry.) Kantowicz notes that three distinct types of reform figure in city politics: moral, political, and civic. Moral reformers typically battled the evils of drink and vice; political reformers sought the sunny slopes where civil service and governmental efficiency bloom; civic reformers campaigned for the public regulation if not the outright public ownership of urban services. Chicago mayors' reform ambitions thus varied according to their constituencies.

Chicago's enduring reform constituency is small, consisting of (the phrase is Kantowicz's) "the press, the Protestant pulpit, and the evangelical middle class." That constituency used to be exclusively WASP, but no longer. At a party not long ago, a newcomer to the city described to an Irish Catholic native her visit to Washington's second inauguration. The newcomer had been impressed by how polite and attentive the mostly black audience had been through a long speech. "They weren't drunk," the native explained. "It was a Protestant crowd."

* * *


In an era when the urban population is substantially black, civil reform and civil rights coalesce. Chicago's largest racial minority also comprises its largest single Protestant "ethnic" group, and arguably its most potent reform constituency. In the July Illinois Issues magazine, Christopher Reed, who teaches black history at the U. of I. at Chicago, describes the Washington movement as a good-government civic federation rather than a political machine.

William Grimshaw notes in his Mayors essay on Harold Washington that the dependence of poor blacks on the Machine for jobs, aid, and other benefits is an inevitable expedient, given their status in a white world. But it also is an uncomfortable one. The Machine's endemic racism reinforced the longstanding cultural antipathy in the black community toward machine politics that had its roots in the church and the civil rights movement. (Before Washington's election, the presence of Machine-backed black aldermen, so often seen by outsiders as proof of democratic progress, was in fact evidence of its failure, since aldermen typically represented the Machine, not blacks.) Since the 1970s the black middle class has had a more comprehensive agenda. "The issues were not merely favors and jobs," Grimshaw writes, "but racial equality, representation, and power."

The result was the abandonment of the Machine by the politically sophisticated black middle class. This is where Washington's own political roots lie. Indeed, the ambivalence of the black community toward the Machine was reflected in the mayor's own personal ambivalence; his father, and hero, was a Machine man who was also a minister. Grimshaw asserts that Washington's election enabled the divergent strains of black politics to merge in allegiance to one man, realizing in one candidacy both a spiritual and a political brotherhood.

Grimshaw's explanation of Washington's victories is not the only one entered to date, of course, nor should it be. One of the values of history over journalism, after all, is its assumption that no such question is ever settled. Historians are not immune to journalism's baser impulses, alas. The Mayors concludes with the results of a 1985 poll of 40 local experts, taken to determine the "best" Chicago mayor. The question is silly, the answers useless; they appear at the tail end of the book, exactly where they ought to be.

The Mayors is useful less for the answers it provides about the pre-Daley mayors than for reminding us that there are questions about them still worth asking. The fact that so many of these lesser-known careers seem familiar is cause for both comfort and despair. No battle is ever permanently lost in Chicago, but no victory stays won for very long either. Recurrence is the theme here laid out for the novice student of politics; the lesson for the practitioner is patience. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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