The Political Arena

Charles E. Merriam, aldermanic campaign brochure, 1913
Charles E. Merriam, aldermanic campaign brochure, 1913
After losing the mayoral race in 1911, Merriam won a second term as alderman, promising to continue his fight against vice and "spoils politics."

Expertise and Reform

Most of the University's early presidents, including William R. Harper and Harry P. Judson, supported faculty participation in social service organizations, reform groups, and civic boards. Partisan politics were greeted less favorably. The corruption and spoilage of Chicago politics, some University officials feared, would taint the spirit of liberal education. For faculty members Charles Merriam, Paul Douglas, and T. V. Smith, however, electoral politics offered the most direct route to good government. As reformist politicians, they joined the progressive call for "good government," advocating the creation of public agencies that would be administered not by political hacks but by trained experts. They believed that social policy based on research like that conducted in the University's social science departments could rationalize the democratic process and put an end to the waste and corruption of party patronage.

Charles Merriam came to the University in 1900 to teach political science. Merriam's first entree to Chicago politics came in 1905 when he was asked by the reform-oriented City Club of Chicago to conduct a study of municipal revenues. The study was financed by Helen Culver, a progressive philanthropist who had recently donated money for the University's Hull Biological Laboratories. Culver saw Merriam's involvement as a way to align the University community with the efforts of progressive reformers. Merriam's study led to his appointment to the Chicago Harbor Commission, where he familiarized himself with issues of urban planning.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm from President Judson, who was also head of Merriam's academic department, the young political scientist decided to run for alderman on the Republican ticket. In 1909, Merriam won his first termrepresenting Hyde Park in what was then the 7th Ward. Once on the city council, he immediately called for, and headed, a City Commission on Expenditures.

There he discovered such widespread graft and other corruption, much of it linked to aldermanic and ward machines, that the council shut off the commission's funding and tried to repress its findings.

Julius Rosenwald, a generous benefactor of the University and progressive causes, financed the continuation of the commission's work and urged Merriam to run for mayor of Chicago in 1911. The ensuing campaign, managed by Harold Ickes (AB 1897, JD 1907), pitted Merriam as a reform Republican against party regulars in Chicago's first direct mayoral primary. Merriam won the nomination, but lost to Carter H. Harrison II in the general election. After a second term in the city council, Merriam ran unsuccessfully in the 1919 Republican mayoral primary on an internationalist platform against isolationist William Hale Thompson. 

Later Merriam turned his attention to national politics. In 1931, he helped found the Public Administration Clearing House through which he continued to advocate the role of technical expertise in public service. From 1933 to 1943, Merriam commuted between Chicago and Washington after Harold Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior, enlisted him in the New Deal. With an appointment to the Advisory Committee of the National Planning Board, Merriam helped shape the federal government's first peacetime experiment in national planning.

T. V. Smith, state senate campaign brochure, 1934
T. V. Smith, state senate campaign brochure, 1934

Smith pledged to support the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to fight Nazism and religious bigotry.

Paul H. Douglas aldermanic campaign platform broadside, 1939, 1934
Paul H. Douglas aldermanic campaign platform broadside, 1939, 1934

In his platform, Douglas called for efficient city administration, relief for the poor, and a city board of mediation and arbitration to reduce labor disputes.

Thomas Vernor Smith joined the philosophy faculty immediately after receiving his PhD from the University in 1922. He was a founder and a favorite guest of the University of Chicago "Round Table" radio program. Smith spoke frequently about the promise of democracy and advanced his ideas in popular books, articles, and media appearances. Smith's eloquence appealed to voters, who elected him in 1934 to the state senate as a Democrat from the fifth district, which surrounded the University. While in the Illinois Senate, he advocated reforms of the legislative process and founded the Illinois Legislative Council, an association through which legislators could exchange views on legislative and administrative reforms.

In 1939 Smith was elected to the U.S. Congress as an at-large representative from Illinois, overcoming vigorous opposition from the Kelly-Nash Democratic political machine in Chicago. In Congress, Smith refused an appointment to the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, saying "I know nothing about foreign affairs." He accused other representatives of "out-talking their information," and pledged to be a "noiseless congressman." Smith chose to sit on the low-profile Civil Service Committee, where he urged that government agencies be run by trained experts familiar with quantitative methods. In his call for a corps of dedicated and efficient public servants, Smith the Democrat echoed many of the long-held positions of his Republican colleague Merriam.

An Independent Tradition

Political figures with University associations have shared a common commitment to honest and effective government. They have also frequently maintained independent postures within one of the two major political parties and received support from nonpartisan citizens' groups.

One of the most important of these independent-minded politicians was Paul Douglas, professor of economics at the University, who like Charles Merriam began his political career as a Hyde Park alderman. Douglas's studies of wages, particularly his book, Real Wages in the United States (1930), had given him some renown as an economist. Most Chicagoans, however, came to know him in 1929 when Douglas headed an investigation of Samuel Insull, Chicago's powerful utilities boss, which resulted in Insult's indictment over improper bond financing schemes. Throughout the 1930s, Douglas served on a variety of local, state, and federal commissions which related more directly to his academic work on wages. More importantly, Douglas helped draft the national Social Security Act of 1935.

Douglas began his aldermanic career in 1939 as the candidate of Mayor Ed Kelly's Democratic machine. But he, like Merriam, soon alienated party regulars by exposing graft and conflicts of interest in the city council. With the support of state progressives, Douglas launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1942, which he lost to the machine candidate.

After the campaign, Douglas, at age fifty, enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He was wounded in Okinawa and spent a year in military hospitals before returning to the University. In 1948, he ran for the U.S. Senate again and won. Douglas served for three terms as a highly respected and independent liberal Democrat.

He was defeated in 1966 by Republican Charles Percy (AB 1941), a University of Chicago trustee who also became known for the independent position he occupied within his political party. Hyde Park's tradition of political independence, starting with Charles Merriam's terms in the city council, has regularly drawn strength from within the University community. Most elected officials from Hyde Park since 1950 have had both University connections and independent political convictions. They include State Representatives Robert E. Mann (MBA 1953, JD 1956) and Barbara Flynn Currie (AB 1968, AM 1973), State Senator Richard Newhouse (JD 1961), Congresswoman Emily Tart Douglas (wife of Paul Douglas and daughter of Lorado Tart, AB 1919), and Aldermen Robert Merriam (son of Charles, AM 1940), Abner Mikva (later congressman, JD 1951), Leon Despres (PhB 1927, JD 1929), Lawrence Bloom (AB 1965, JD 1968), and Toni Preckwinkle (AB 1969, MAT 1977).

Chicago's good-government organizations, especially the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI), have long found support from within the University community for their challenges to Chicago's machine politics. The Fifth Ward Committee, an IVI affiliate in the 1950s, was headed by a board of forty-three directors, twenty-one of whom were associated in some way with the University. From the election of Robert Merriam in 1947 and Leon Despres in 1955 to the present, nonmachine candidates have achieved repeated success in Hyde Park and helped sustain the distinctive political culture of the University and its community.

Robert E. Merriam, aldermanic campaign leaflet, 1947

Following in his father's footsteps, Merriam served two terms as alderman for Hyde Park, then lost a close race for mayor in 1955 to Richard J. Daley.