Municipal Reformers

David Wiles, Eaps 760

The concept of "municipal government" and the faint origins of governmental "reform" began in the 1840's. It was clear in the first fifty years after the Constitution was ratified that the relationship of national politics (e.g., the Federalist a nd the Jeffersonians) was divorced from the general operations of state and local governments. DeTocqueville (Democracy in America, 1836) captured the localized meaning of "political culture," Jackson capitalized on the "populist" spirit of being the political outsider and the meaning of local government operated upon the "spoils" system ("to the victor, go the spoils of the enemy").

New York City established a full time police force in 1844 and paid city firefighters in 1865. In Boston, the Latin Grammar School was operating in the 1850's. This was the beginning of present day "urban municipal government." The idea of hiring personnel to function in vital public services did not imply the "clean government" of impersonal hiring procedures or the neutrality of selecting government workers by demonstrated qualifications and merit.

Creation of public services meant the greater possibility of patronage for city and state political machines. Hiring of school personnel may have been somewhat different. Some authors argue that the image of education being "separate" from politics can be traced to this time. Public education was perceived as a more "sacred" function of public trust because children were being served instead of other forms of public service "clients" and the schools were used to openly promote the Protest ant version of Christanity (i.e., King James Version) against the Catholic orientation of immigrant groups.

The federal government got involved in aspects of municipal government during and immediately after the Civil War. Although certain federal agencies were created prior to the Civil War (e.g., Interior, 1849), the war time organization and draft o r conscription services demanded a new meaning of national government. Fueled by the emergency of the threat to the very existence of the "Union," the national government transformed itself. In the aftermath of the Union victory, the "national" culture created the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and created a massive Reconstruction or regional development plan for the defeated South.

Between 1870 and 1890 the struggles between governmental intent to create a reformed meaning of municipal operation and the political pragmatics of real life became quite open. There was the military organization and specific legislative measure s to create a new meaning of public services (the Pendleton Act of 1883, the Interstate Commerce Commission of 1887). Yet, the reality of the time was a large scale retreat from the intent and structures of reform. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments wer e not enforced and the Reconstruction effort of the South proved unmanageable. Political machines were exposed (the most imfamous being the Tweed machine of New York City) but continued to operate. We might even add the separation of the Catholic school system from the public schools in the 1880's was due to the failure to consider reform of public services seriously.

Woodrow Wilson's 1887 "The Study of Public Administration" is argued as the beginning of the modern municipal reform era that stretches to the present. Certainly he articulated the moral code of public service and idea of a cadre of civil servant s but there is serious question whether his words had real impact at the time they were published. There is even serious question whether Wilson's presentation affected the time we usually associated with the first high water mark of big city and urban mu nicipal reform (turn of 20th century to the Depression). See those that argue the actual Wilson "reform" influence was post World War Two (like Max Weber being translated into English in 1956) under readings below.

In public education, "municipal reform" at the turn of the century can be identified with:
  • reinforcing the "wall of separation" between schooling and the rest of public services;
  • becoming enamoured with European models of organization from business (Taylor, Weber) and civil service (Fayol);
  • separating the "professional" central office of administration from the "citizen" board of education and, most important;
  • extending compulsory schooling to the secondary grades on a "factory" and "Carnegie unit" operation.


  • See Immigrants and Big City link;
  • Louis Brownlow, " Woodrow Wilson and Public Administration" Public Administration Review; (Spring 1956) Daniel Martin, " The Fading Legacy of Woodrow Wilson" Public Administration Review 48, March-April, 1988);
  • James Carroll and Alfred Zuck The 'Study of Administration' Revisited (Association for Public Administration, 1985);

Other Readings & Sources