Lynette Boney Wrenn. Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998. xxiii + 231 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87049-997-5.
Reviewed by Marius M. Carriere (Department of History and Political Science, Christian Brothers University)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2001)
Lynette Boney Wrenn is an independent historian and this book, her second, is essentially her 1985 doctoral dissertation. A municipal history of Memphis between the years 1879 and 1893, the author has utilized an impressive number of both primary and secondary sources in demonstrating how yellow fever and municipal debt allowed Memphis elites to centralize and dominate city government. Her thesis is that the Memphis commission form of government did allow the city to recover from fiscal crises and endemic disease, but "as a long-term political arrangement," it suffered from a number of shortcomings (p. 150).
Concentrating on the economics, politics, and social factors of Memphis immediately prior to centralization of the city government, the author offers that Memphis was typical of American cities of the late nineteenth-century. A weak mayor and ward politicians, who better represented their ward constituents, proved unable to provide the services that a growing city needed or to extricate Memphis from a growing debt.
Memphis's fiscal crisis was not unlike that of other late nineteenth-century cities either, but it was the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 that helped launch a reform of Memphis's government. Also, the city's elite began to become more interested in politics when before they seemed content with their business pursuits. Convinced that their business would suffer if Memphis continued to be perceived as fiscally irresponsible and unhealthy, Wrenn writes how the Memphis elite began a campaign to control the city's affairs.
Crucial to Wrenn's thesis is the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. During that epidemic, the city's population declined by almost 8,000; many died, of course, but others fled the city never to return. The Memphis Daily Appeal, reflecting the growing sentiment of the upper class wrote, "We must have relief from ignorance and incompetence in government." (p. 27).
Wrenn describes in some detail the process by which Memphis gave up its charter and became officially known as the Taxing District of Shelby County. The Tennessee legislature passed two bills in January 1879 creating the Taxing District, and the governor signed them into law on January 31. For twelve years, Memphis would not officially exist. Proponents hoped this would end waste and corruption and solve the city's financial crisis, as well as its continuing health problems with endemic diseases. Opponents, however, called the new government, with appointed and at-large elected officials, undemocratic. As Wrenn notes throughout the book, the large number of African American residents and newly arrived rural immigrants were the major losers in the new governmental arrangement. A three-member Board of Fire and Police exercised real executive and legislative power in the city, and the president of the board also exercised judicial functions. The winners, as Wrenn writes in her chapter "The Oligarchy," were "upper-class Memphians who controlled the nominations of winning candidates for a decade" (p. 41).
While the new commission form of government sacrificed democracy, Wrenn makes it clear that the new centralized government achieved success in cleaning up the city. Memphis had a reputation of an unhealthy city and changing this view of the city was a top goal of the new government. While health reasons certainly influenced the city fathers, Wrenn points out that it was primarily a business consideration to clean up Memphis. If the health of the city did not improve, businessmen's investments would decline. The panacea for a clean city were sewers, but before centralization, there was little money. The Taxing District still struggled with adequate revenue, but a more efficient government did move more quickly and it adopted an untested and controversial, small pipe sewer system that helped to improve Memphis's sanitary situation. Wrenn then discusses how the Taxing District undertook settlement of the city's debt. According to Wrenn, few of the city's elite thought about defaulting on the debt; instead, they hoped to scale it down and reduce the tax burden while they undertook the needed sanitary improvements.
Once the Taxing District settled its debt, however, municipal services were allocated in a way that reflected the self-interest of the city's elite. Just as government was undemocratic, so was the providing of municipal services. The central business district and the more affluent residential areas of the city received most of the municipal services. Sewers, for example, did not extend to the neighborhoods of African Americans or new immigrants, streets in these same neighborhoods were left unpaved, police and fire protection was concentrated in the business district, and public education received little support. All of this was accomplished by design since the goal of the ruling elite was low taxes.
Finally, the author writes how even in the area of regulating public service companies, the goals of the taxing district were the same as in other areas. Those goals were to improve the image of Memphis as healthy and to economize. Here, too, as Wrenn notes, everything accomplished in the regulation of streetcars, gas, electric, and water companies benefited primarily the well to do.
Opposition to the new centralized government existed from the beginning, but it wasn't until the late 1880s and early 1890s that challenges achieved any success. Some of the opposition was from those who wanted all parts of the city represented more equally, but some was from those who wanted to open government to wider white participation at the expense of African Americans. Wrenn also corrects a long-standing misconception that when the legislature approved the home rule act in 1893, the old city charter was not restored and the elite still controlled. Actually, the "only substantial change made in the form of government was restoration of a 'limited power of taxation'" (p. 134).
In her last chapter, "The Memphis Plan of Structural Reform," Wrenn offers three reasons why government consolidation occurred in Memphis, as well as in other cities of the late nineteenth-century. A distrust of the masses, a desire of the business elite to assert greater influence, and fiscal crises all came together to allow the centralization of Memphis's government in 1879. It was not, Wrenn alludes, as Richard Hofstadter argues for the later progressives, to regain lost status that motivated the economic elite of Memphis, but to protect their property, to keep taxes low, and to effect efficiency. What opposition that did exist to centralization lost all of its force with the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.
Wrenn also suggests why Galveston, Texas' 1901 commission government and not Memphis's earlier experience did provide the model for commission government in the United States in the early twentieth-century. Making sanitary improvements its priority, Memphis delayed its debt settlement for several years, thus, hurting its fiscal reputation. In the late 1880s, Memphis's opponents to the administration in power also made corruption an issue in two successive elections; therefore, the commission government's claim to having city corruption in check seemed facile. And finally, Wrenn claims Memphis's bad luck for providing a model for future commission government was simply bad timing. Municipal reform was in its infancy at this time and when municipal improvement became the focus of city reformers, the model that prevailed was a strong mayor with administrative responsibilities and a council limited to only legislative and policy duties.
Memphis's experiment had mixed results, as Wrenn proves throughout this straightforward and well-written book, but in the final analysis, Wrenn concludes, "government economy and efficiency were advanced at the expense of representative democracy" (p. 151). In Memphis and in other southern cities, this shortcoming was not addressed until the last decades of the twentieth-century.
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Marius M. Carriere. Review of Wrenn, Lynette Boney, Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City.
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