Features: Who Really Runs This Town?: Burying Lincoln Steffens

Philadelphia has been run the same way for 100 years. Why can’t we change that?

In the spring of 1903, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens checked into the St. James Hotel, located at 13th and Walnut streets. At the time, Steffens was writing a series of pieces for McClure’s magazine detailing big-city graft and political corruption throughout the United States. He had just come from Pittsburgh; what he found in this city, however, would make his prior sojourns pale in comparison. His piece about Philadelphia would ultimately be published in July, and its title instantly caused a stir, here and throughout the nation. It’s a headline that has been cited time and again in the past year and a half as the federal corruption probe of City Hall unfolded. In “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented,” which would run in his 1904 collection of articles The Shame of the Cities, Steffens wrote: “Philadelphia is proud. Good people there defend corruption and boast of their machine.”

It’s a century later, and Steffens is long dead and buried. But with every indictment of a public official, with every story of low-level graft or voting shenanigans or just plain public chutzpah, Steffens’s “corrupt and contented” indictment gets trotted out. When you really dig into his story of Philadelphia a century ago, Steffens’s analysis still holds. If he arrived on the scene today, he’d nod: Not much has changed.   

As Steffens would recount in his 1931 autobiography, the St. James’s proprietor, J.C. Reynolds, introduced him to the culture of Philadelphia civic life. Reynolds told him — almost boastingly — of how apparatchiks of the local Republican machine had used thugs and gangsters to offset legitimate votes in the last election; not only were sham votes cast for candidates handpicked by shadowy political bosses, but the “ring” (or machine) pols registered these “gangster” voters under such names as Ben Franklin and George Washington — just for the ironic kick. Steffens detected something different in this city, something about the nonchalant way such chicanery was viewed. “The novelty was the attitude of this hotel man and of other good citizens of Philadelphia toward their notorious, insulting, cynical political and business crooks,” he wrote. “He and his kind did nothing about it. ‘There is nothing to be done,’ the hotel man said. ‘We have tried reforms over and over again; we have striven to beat this game; and we never got anywhere.’ The reformers I saw took much the same view.”

Our would-be reformers and earnest pundits, such as they are, now laudably talk of ethics legislation amid calls for heightened civic leadership. That is as it should be. But this is also true: No reform or new era of leadership can take place in Philadelphia without a change in the culture of our public life, without a conscious shift in attitude. Ironically, the way we change the culture is to do the one thing no reformer or pundit wants to do: Instead of wallowing in a 100-year-old indictment, we need to finally bury, once and for all, Lincoln Steffens.