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The World’s Famous Orations.
America: III. (1861–1905). 1906.

John Peter Altgeld

On Municipal and Governmental Ownership

ASIDE from the money question, the most serious problem that confronts the people of America to-day is that of rescuing their cities, their States and the federal government, including the federal judiciary, from absolute control of corporate monopoly. How to restore the voice of the citizen in the government of his country; and how to put an end to those proceedings in some of the higher courts which are farce and mockery on one side, and a criminal usurpation and oppression on the other.

Corporations that were to be servants and begged the privilege of supplying cities with conveniences, or of serving the country at large, have become masters.

We have had thirty years of colorless politics in which both of the political parties were simply conveniences for organized greed. There was nothing to arouse the deep, slumbering patriotism of the masses and a race of politicians came to the front, most of whom had no convictions and many of whom straddled every proposition and then waited to be seduced. They were men who made every promise to the laborer, and then betrayed him. These men became the instruments through which the corporations worked.

Having learned what vast sums can be extorted from the American people, the monopolies used a part of the wealth they got from this source to corrupt the people’s representatives, and thus obtained unlimited privileges of plunder, until almost every great city in this country is tied and gagged, and can not even enter a protest while being robbed. All of this falls with crushing force on the laborer, for his hands must earn the taxes the landlord pays—he is forced to depend on the public conveniences, and always suffers under bad government. An individual rarely has interest enough or money enough, to bribe a city council or buy a legislature. But the corporations have both, and, as the money all comes off the public, they offer temptations that are too strong for the average man to resist.

In as much as no government can endure in which corrupt greed not only makes the laws, but decides who shall construe them, many of our best citizens are beginning to despair of the republic. Others urge that we should remove the bribe-givers—that is, destroy this overwhelming temptation by having the government take all these monopolies itself and furnish the service which they now furnish, and thus not only save our institutions, but have the great profits which now go into the pockets of private corporations turned into the public treasury.

But the corruptionists, the monopolists, and all men who are fattening on the existing rottenness and injustice, cry angrily, “Why, that would be socialism, rank socialism, and we are opposed to it!” Some of these men know the meaning of socialism and some do not, but they control all those men who cling to the skirts of wealth.

Socialism has been as a system of government in which the competitive system is entirely abolished and the principle of associated effort is applied to everything. According to the standard authorities, socialism is an ideal state founded on justice, and in which the benefits of modern invention and of monopoly shall be shared by all the people instead of being controlled by the few and used by these few to make themselves the absolute masters of the many. The word “socialism” is used as a term of derision only by the ignorant or the servile.

During the former administration of Lord Salisbury as premier of England it was once charged that the tendency of the government was socialistic; that there was a tendency for the government to do those things which always had been left, and should be left, to the individual; that most of the great cities of the Empire had not only assumed the functions of supplying their inhabitants with water, gas, electric light and street railway service, but that they were going a great deal farther and were even building and renting houses and doing a host of other things that were not within the province of government.

He was reported as saying in answer to this criticism, that it was not a question of socialism at all, but simply a question of business; a question whether a given community can secure certain advantages or in a more satisfactory manner when acting collectively, than by leaving everything to individual effort; that a collective body has the same right to pursue the best business methods, and do all things necessary to its welfare, or the welfare of its members, that an individual has; that the best interest of the community must be the criterion by which to decide each case; that there was a time when private individuals carried mails and charged what they pleased, there being no government postoffice; but as the world advanced, every government took the postal business into its own hands, and no intelligent man would have turned it over to a private corporation.

Let us see what civilized man is doing elsewhere. Take the cities of Great Britain first, for they have the same power of self-government that American cities have. In all that pertains to the comfort and enterprise of the individual we are far in the lead; but in the government of cities we are far behind. Glasgow has to-day nearly one million inhabitants and is one of the great manufacturing and commercial cities of the world. Thirty years ago there was scarcely a city that was in a worse condition. Private corporations furnished it a poor quality of water, taken from the Clyde River, and they charged high rates for it. The city drained into the Clyde, and it became horribly filthy. Private corporations furnished a poor quality of gas, at a high price; and private companies operated the street railroads. Private companies had the same grip on the people there that they have in most American cities. Owing to the development of great shipbuilding and other industries in the valley of the Clyde, the laboring population of Glasgow became very dense and the means of housing the people were miserable. Poorly lighted, poorly ventilated, filthy houses brought high rents. In many cases two families lived in one room. Cleanliness was impossible; the sanitary conditions were frightful and the death rate was high. As for educational facilities, there were none worth mentioning for these people. The condition of the laboring classes was one of degradation and misery; children were growing up mentally, morally and physically diseased; a generation was coming which threatened to be an expense and a menace to the country. It was a great slum city.

But patriotic and public-spirited men came to the front and gave the city the benefit of their services free. In fact, none of the highest city officials in Great Britain received any pay other than the well being of humanity and the good opinions of their country. The city rid itself of the private companies by buying them and then brought fresh water from the highlands, a distance of sixty miles. It doubled the quantity of water furnished the inhabitants, and reduced the cost to consumers by one-half. And yet the department now yields over $200,000 a year net income over all fixed charges.

The municipality, after much difficulty, bought the private gas plants and gradually reduced the price of gas from $1.14 to 58 cents, and it now illuminates not only the streets and public places, but all passageways and stairways in flat buildings, experience having shown that a good lamp is almost as useful as a policeman. The total debt of the city for plants, extensions, etc., to perfectly illumine all the city had reached nearly five and a half millions of dollars. Notwithstanding the low price at which gas is sold, this sum has gradually been reduced to less than two and a half millions of dollars out of the earnings of the system, and it will soon be wiped out and the entire revenue go into the city treasury.

The street railways were owned by the city, but, until 1894, they were leased out under an arrangement which paid the city full cost of construction, with interest, besides a yearly income of $750 per street mile. In 1894 the city began to operate the lines itself. The fares were reduced 33 per cent., besides special tickets to laborers, so that the average is under two cents, and over one-third of all fares are one cent each.

The private company had worked its men twelve and fourteen hours a day and paid irregular and unsatisfactory wages. The city at once reduced the number of hours to ten, and fixed a satisfactory scale of wages. And, compared with what it formerly was, the service has been greatly improved. In spite of all these acts for the benefit of the public, the roads which had cost the city nothing, now net over all charges for improvements, etc., one-fourth of a million annually. In 1892 the city bought out a private electric light company, and now has the monopoly of furnishing electric light and power. This promises to be a source of enormous revenue for the city.

For sanitary reasons, the city built a number of public wash-houses, with all modern conveniences, so that a woman living in a small apartment can take a basketful of clothes to a public wash-house and for four cents an hour can have a stall and use all the machinery for washing and drying, and at the end of an hour take her basket of clothes home, washed and dried. For the same reasons, public baths and parks or pleasure grounds were established; and the city condemned a large amount of poor tenement property and tore the houses down and built whole rows of apartments, airy and well lighted, which it now rents to laborers, and which, in time, will pay for themselves and will then be a great source of revenue.

The city had become filled with cheap lodging houses which were overcrowded and were filthy and prolific of both disease and crime. On sanitary and police grounds combined, the municipality built a number of airy and well-lighted lodging houses, some for men and some for women, where, for from six to nine cents, a person can get a bed in a small, separate room, with the use of a large sitting room and the privilege of cooking his own food at the kitchen range.

The city has acquired all the docks and dock privileges and furnishes all the labor in managing them. It also has the exclusive ownership of all the markets and slaughter-houses and derives a large income from them.

Instead of draining into the Clyde, large works have been established, in which the solid matter is all taken out of the sewage and is pressed into cakes and loaded automatically on cars and then taken to the country, where it is used as manure on a farm belonging to the city, and where all the food for the city’s horses is raised, while the liquid sewage is run through filtering beds and made clear and odorless.

Manchester has within its narrow limits only a little over half a million people, but within a radius of twenty miles from her city hall there are over three million inhabitants. These have to be considered in discussing Manchester, which is essentially a manufacturing and commercial city. Its history is in many respects a parallel of that of Glasgow. It seemed to be a great city of slums, degradation and misery, and was in the grip of private monopolies.

To-day the city furnishes all the service that is furnished here by private corporations, and does it at about one-half cost. It furnishes gas at fifty-six cents a thousand, and after deducting all that is used to perfectly illuminate the streets and after applying $200,000 a year on the original cost of plants, etc., it still turns $300,000 a year into the public treasury, altho the aim in nearly all English cities is not to make money, but to serve the public.

The city constructed an aqueduct ninety miles to secure pure water and furnishes this for a little more than half what the private company had charged for a poor quality of water. It owns the street railways, and besides giving greatly reduced rates and giving half-fare tickets to workingmen, the city derives a large revenue from this source. Like Glasgow and Birmingham, the city owns large cemeteries in which there are separate sections for the different religious denominations, and prices are so arranged that while those who desire to do so can get lots costing from ten to thirty dollars, yet “a decent burial with inscription on stone over a grave can be had at about four dollars for adults and three dollars for children. This charge includes all cemetery fees and expenses.”

The city owns the markets and slaughter-houses. It has provided parks and swimming baths and, like Birmingham and Glasgow, it maintains large technical schools in which thousands of young men are instructed in the industrial arts and sciences, so as to be able to maintain Manchester’s greatness.

Birmingham has over half a million of people, and its experience resembles that of Glasgow and Manchester. Formerly private corporations controlled almost everything and charged very high rates for very poor service, and the sanitary conditions were frightful. But here again municipal statesmen came to the front, the most prominent among whom was the Honorable Joseph Chamberlain, who has since been in the British government. He gave his time free and was three times elected mayor. Under his guidance the gas works were purchased of the private companies for $10,000,000. There are about two thousand men employed in connection with the gas works; they work only eight hours a day; the price of gas has been reduced to fifty-eight cents; the streets have been better lighted than ever before; and the net amount now annually turned into the city treasury, after deducting all fixed charges, is over $300,000.

The water-works were purchased of the private companies for $6,750,000. The system was greatly extended, the supply doubled and the cost to consumers very much reduced.

This city has condemned the worst section of the slums and thus acquired the ground at a cost of about $8,000,000, and upon this ground it has built modern houses which it rents, and the death rate in the section has been reduced from an average of eighty to the thousand persons down to an average of twenty, and it has now been demonstrated that in the end this property will pay for itself and thereafter go far toward defraying the annual expenses of the city.

Not going further into detail, let me say there are at present in the United Kingdom 185 municipalities that supply their inhabitants with water, with gas and electric light, and one-third of the street railway mileage of Great Britain is owned by the municipalities. Leaving out London, it amounts to two-thirds. And in most instances in which they do not own the street railways, they have compelled the companies to grant low fares and divide profits.

While these things are taking place in Europe the private corporations in America are bribing legislatures and city councils, reducing wages, charging higher rates, and collecting dividends on millions and millions of watered stock. According to legislative investigation, the stock in the Boston Street Railroad is over half water; in New York, in Brooklyn and in Philadelphia the ratio is 4 to 1.

Every business reason applicable to the municipalities and governments of Europe is applicable here. We want as pure water, as good drainage, as cheap service as they have, and we want the same privilege of supplying ourselves as they exercise; and when it is apparent that, by acting collectively, we can do business more successfully, can serve ourselves better in every way, and can secure for the public treasury these millions which now go into the pockets of grasping individuals, have we not a right to do it? If we find that, in this manner, we can give steadiness to labor, and can elevate its standard and improve the conditions of all our people, dare we not do it? Every one of the reforms carried out in England and on the continent met with fierce opposition from the same classes that oppose them here, but the business sense and patriotic impulse of the people prevailed, and I believe, will prevail here.