top of page

Bad Government Is a Cultural Defect

The sociology of the Illinois Way

Illinois Times

April 1, 1976

An ambitious pre-Prejudices essay that attempts to explain why Illinois . . . well, why Illinois is Illinois. Nothing of what I’ve seen in the intervening 40 years suggests that the basic thesis offered here is not sound, although this version of it could have been refined.

The Willis J. Spaulding mentioned here is described more fully in this piece.


"Each meeting of the city council resolve[s] itself into a side show for the public, the sessions being invariably marked by prolonged and acrimonious debate, discord and unbusinesslike proceedings . . . . "


So ran a common gripe about Springfield's city government—in 1910. The city then was divided into seven wards; two aldermen were elected from each of these wards and sat on a fourteen-member council which, with a separately elected mayor, tended to the people's business. The system prevailed from shortly after the city's founding until 1911, when mounting dissatisfaction led to the abandonment of the aldermanic form of government and its replacement by a new five-man commission.


Lately, pressure has been building to change the form of Springfield city government for the second time this century. In the March 12 Illinois Times, for example, Phyllis Murphy, a member of the Springfield/Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, echoed the views of many disgruntled citizens when she characterized the present commission government as remote, inefficient, unprofessional, and dominated by political hacks. Murphy favors the adoption of some variant of the aldermanic form of government, a system which she believes would help keep city government "out of the hands of ambitious politicians and business people who are motivated by greed," make it possible to establish "a truer merit system for civil servants," replace the politicians now heading the city departments with professional administrators, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, reduce "the remoteness of people from government."


Considering the claims being made for it, it might be instructive to examine the city's experience with the aldermanic form of government prior to the commission reform of 1911. For example: operating on a plan similar to that proposed by adherents of aldermanic governments, city departments (including such offices as city engineer, street and water superintendents, and city attorney) were filled by non-politicians appointed by the mayor and approved by a majority vote of the city council.


How businesslike the system was is debatable. The historical evidence suggests that the old government proved itself efficient only at the padding of public payrolls. The practice was so common, and the tax hikes it caused so steep, that C. J. Giblin, president of the Springfield Business Men's Association, took the unprecedented step of resigning in 1909 as a public protest. Giblin's criticism was shared by backers of the referendum authorizing the switch to the commission form, who damned the aldermanic system for being "unbusinesslike."


The city had a civil service system of sorts, but most city employees were left unprotected from political pressures. Hired by the council majority and responsible to that body, they were frequently held political hostage in fratricidal wars between mayor and council or between factions within the council. Council approval of even the lowliest city job had a price—some new paving work in an alderman's ward perhaps, in return for his vote approving a new street superintendent. A few of the city's seven wards sent capable men to the council, among them Joe Farris and Frank Bode. But the good-government element in the council never had the votes to do more than talk against gang rule.


Even when the council lost a battle to the reformers it usually was able to muster the votes to win the war. Such was the case when John S. Schnepp, riding a reformist tide into the mayor's office in 1909, was able to ram through his appointment of fellow reformer Willis J. Spaulding as water superintendent, only to see his man harassed by an unsympathetic council over hiring, budgets, and contracts. Blocked by a stubborn council, Spaulding was unable to make any progress toward the modernization of the city's outmoded water system until his election as the city's first public property commissioner after adoption of the commission form of government in 1911.


Neither was the aldermanic government immune from pressure from "business people who are motivated by greed." Local businessmen looked to the council for favorable zoning rulings, franchise grants, tax breaks, etc. Many aldermen were happy to oblige them for a price—sometimes a discount or a job for a relative—that most businessmen were only too willing to pay. In fact, the trade in profitable city franchises was so brisk that, as the Illinois State Register once noted, "there was a time in our city when the citizens found it necessary to appear at the city hall with a greased rope" in order to prevent their being given away.


All this is not necessarily an argument in favor of the commission form of government or an argument against the aldermanic; each has advantages. Neither is it a denial of the legitimacy of the complaints of Murphy and those who share her unhappiness with the current system of rule. It is an argument against the assumption that the quality of city government in Springfield is solely—even principally—a function of its structure. Springfield city government under both the aldermanic and the commission forms has been hack-ridden, inefficient, frequently corrupt, a source of revenue and influence for a few of its citizens and a source of embarrassment to the rest.


Bad government is a cultural defect, not a structural one. Since shortly after its founding, Springfield's political life has been dominated by representatives of what sociologist Daniel Elazar has dubbed the "individualistic" political culture, a culture in which politics is seen as more a business than a calling, in which the control of governmental office is an end rather than a means, in which one's obligations are more to party than to ideology, more to people than to causes, more to neighborhood or ethnic group than to the city as a whole. First introduced in this area by nineteenth century emigrés from eastern states like New York and Pennsylvania, this view of the relationship between politics, government, and the public has been reinforced by new waves of immigrants—some from Europe, some from other parts of the U.S. —in which the individualistic political culture predominates. So, in spite of the best efforts of a century by middle class reformers to reduce its influence, the individualistic political culture still dominates the Springfield political scene.


The truth of Pope's couplet—"For forms of government let Fools contest/What e'er is best administer'd is best"—has rarely been better illustrated than by the Springfield example. The notion that changing the form of Springfield city government will change its substance is naive and betrays a view of the city and its people at odds with history. ●




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.

bottom of page