The History of the New York City Legislature

By Frederick Shaw | Go to book overview

1. A DISCREDITED LEGISLATURE, 1851-1901

The name "alderman" has become such a byword that it ought to be blotted from the municipal dictionary.1


OLD NEW YORK AND BROOKLYN

THE CLOSING DECADES of the nineteenth century witnessed a Dark Age in American municipal history. "With very few exceptions," wrote the first President of Cornell University in 1890, "the city governments of the United States are the worst in Christendom--the most expensive, the most inefficient, and the most corrupt." Rapid industrial expansion was accompanied by a mushroom growth of cities. Hitherto predominantly rural, American communities were unprepared for the complex problems of city life. An unprecedented need for new municipal services and public utilities placed many a city government under an unbearable strain.2

No branch of municipal government declined more dramatically than the city legislature. None offered more convincing proof of Lord Bryce's celebrated observation that city government was the "one conspicuous failure of the United States." ProfessorJohn R. Commons characterized the typical municipal law-making body of 1893 as a "sickening failure." "The name alderman is now a synonym for boodler and embezzler," he wrote. The New York Board of Aldermen achieved greater notoriety

____________________
1
New York Daily Tribune, April 8, 1890.
2
Andrew D. White, "The Government of American Cities," Forum, X ( 1890), 357: Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, "The City in American History," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XXVII ( 1940), 59; Clifford W. Patton, The Battle for Municipal Reform ( Washington, 1940), p. 7.

-3-

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