Abstract: Policing Upheaval: How Employer Responses to the Labor Movement Drove the Development of State Power in Chicago

Sam Mitrani


Like other U.S. cities, Chicago built a powerful police force virtually from scratch in the second half of the nineteenth century. This essay posits that business leaders in Chicago pushed the municipal government to create such a force in reaction to the labor movement, and focuses on the crucial decade of the 1870s. As the city descended into an economic depression after 1873, Chicago seemed more divided along ethnic than class lines. A German-led People's Party ran the municipal government, and the native-born elite scrambled to reassert its power. Businessmen soon created the Citizens' Association to ensure professional control of the police no matter who won elections. When the strike of 1877 reached Chicago, businessmen further united to strengthen the police force, donating enormous sums to put down the strike and buy weapons for the department. They also formed a new, more exclusive organization dedicated to promoting their interests and police power, the Commercial Club of Chicago. This story suggests that business interests, not the threat of crime, drove the development of the police department, and that the police served to reconcile electoral democracy with the extremely unequal and exploitative Gilded Age economy.

BEH On-Line Paper