Dilworth, Clark & Reform in Philadelphia

Member Group : G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young

By John McLarnon and G. Terry Madonna

Philadelphia has not always been governed by rapacious career politicians. Between the Revolution and eve of the Civil War, city government was largely the preserve of the local aristocracy – men of substance and learning for whom public office was not a job, but a civic responsibility as well as a birthright. In the 1830s these gentlemen politicians began to retreat from public life. Many left the city altogether, moving to the northern or western counties. At the same time, the Quaker City underwent a significant social, demographic and economic transformation. By 1861, the transformation was largely complete. The "merchant had given way to the industrialist; the artisan to the immigrant factory worker and the amateur statesman to the career politician." In addition, the secession of the Southern states virtually destroyed the Democratic Party in Philadelphia. After electing five Democratic mayors during the ante-bellum era, only two Democrats would serve as mayor between 1858 and 1951.

The Republicans who wielded power from mid-century on had no family fortunes or respected family businesses to sustain them. They had little use for classical liberal education or governmental theory. Politics was their livelihood, a means through which they could amass their own fortunes at the expense of their fellow citizens. They possessed exceptional organizational skills, unusual degrees of self-discipline and personal charisma, and a capacity to act with ruthless cunning and calculation. They used their innate skills, the power of their personalities and the promise of financial gain to dominate the political life of the city.

The two most successful 19th century Republican bosses were "King" James McManes and "Sweet" William Stokley who used, respectively, the Philadelphia Gas Trust and the Public Buildings Commission to rule the city. By the turn of the century, they had been supplanted by Iz Durham, "Sunny Jim" McNichol and the Vare brothers. There was a brief time following Bill Vare’s death when reform seemed possible, but ultimately the reformers of the 1930s lost their bid for control of city hall.

Unlike many other large cities, Philadelphia had not gone Democratic during the New Deal years. By 1947, Philadelphia had been suffering under Republican gang rule for nearly a century. That was the year that Richardson Dilworth and Joseph Sill Clark Jr. splashed onto the political scene. Both were gentlemen of impeccable lineage. Both attended New England prep schools and Ivy League universities and graduated from Ivy League law schools. Both were New Deal liberals, possessed of an old fashioned sense of noblesse oblige. Both also served honorably in the armed forces. Clark was an air force staff officer, Dilworth a twice-decorated marine infantryman. They were, in many ways, throwbacks to the gentlemen politicians of the ante-bellum era.

Neither was particularly well liked within the ranks of the regular Democratic Party. Both were labeled "silver spoon liberals" but only Clark behaved like one. Clark did not need to work for a living but his conscience would not allow him to spend his time, as he put it, in "self-indulgent pursuits." He felt a responsibility to help the less fortunate, but he had not the slightest desire to have any personal interaction with the underclass whose lot he felt obligated to improve. Dilworth was far more personable and appeared not nearly as impressed with his family background or his Ivy League pedigree. According to his assistant Natalie Saxe, he was "a perfectly hideous snob." It just never showed through the way it did with Clark because "Dick essentially liked and understood other human beings while Joe did not."

Dilworth also benefited from a well-developed sense of humor although it could sometimes get quite caustic. He once characterized Arlen Specter as "a sort of Jewish Tom Dewey [governor or New York, 1943-1954] – tremendously efficient but unlovable." On another occasion he wondered aloud if Frank Rizzo knew that Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts had ever been president.

With no one else willing to be the sacrificial lamb, Dilworth accepted the 1947 Democratic nomination for mayor. Few in the city expected what followed. Dilworth campaigned as no Democrat had done in the 20th century. Clark, one of his mangers, did the same. Both were out virtually every night, making speeches on the radio and on street corners, attacking the total lack of vision, gross mismanagement, massive waste and ubiquitous corruption in city government. The disrepair at the harbor and the airport showed an attitude of "apathy and indifference;" the failure of the machine to address the chronic housing shortage in the city was even more scandalous. Worse still was the politicization of the police department and the large-scale corruption that resulted. Officers from inspectors and captains to beat cops were paid to turn a blind eye to machine-sanctioned gambling, protection, and prostitution. Neither man spent a large amount of time attacking the incumbent mayor, Barney Samuel. Instead, they focused their accusations on Samuel’s bosses – the triumvirate who ran Republican machine: Sheriff William Meehan, chairman of the Tax Revision Board William Meade, and 13th Ward boss Mort Witkin – according to Clark the "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" of the GOP.

Despite Dilworth’s and Clark’s efforts, voters gave Samuel the largest majority in a city election since 1931. Republicans also won all 22 council seats and all the row office contests. Yet Dilworth polled 321,319 votes – the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in a Philadelphia mayoral election. Thus the results augured well for Clark and Dilworth.

Two years later, Clark ran for city controller. Dilworth was not a candidate for office but he scheduled 50 street-corner rallies to stump for Clark. Those plans changed the night Dilworth debated Sheriff Meehan at the Academy of Music. He had challenged Meehan to a debate during the 1947 campaign but Meehan had declined at the urging of his advisors, who feared the sheriff would be made to look like a buffoon in the hands of an experienced trial lawyer like Dilworth.

In 1949, however, Meehan ignored all advice. Meehan spoke first, using 30 minutes to attack Dilworth’s character and drag his and his wife’s names through the mud. He called Dilworth "a chronic dishonest liar," a "faking hypocrite," and an "adulterer" who "ran off to Cuba" less than 24 hours after obtaining a Reno divorce from his first wife.

The street-corner Dilworth might have responded with the formidable vitriol and venom he was capable of mustering. But having been forewarned of Meehan’s strategy, Dilworth presented a detailed, dispassionate response that destroyed whatever credibility the sheriff had left. Near the end he pointed to the family dog. "I thought Prudence should be here to speak for herself," he mocked, "in case the sheriff attacked her." He finished by announcing that he was a candidate for city treasurer – news that surprised Republicans and stunned Democrats.

The stage was now set for November 1949 elections – Clark for controller and Dilworth for treasurer and a series of events augured well for their success. For many life-long, honest Republicans, Meehan’s shabby performance had been the last straw. They were already nauseated by the series of city hall scandals that led to five suicides and the revelation that $40 million in city funds were missing. These Republicans, led by Arthur Binns, formed the "Independent Republicans for the 1949 Democratic Ticket." That revolt, combined with: (1) the scandals themselves; (2) the enthusiastic support of the Americans for Democratic Action for Clark and Dilworth; (3) the collapse of Democratic organ, the Philadelphia Record, which opened the door for the Philadelphia Inquirer to support Democrats for the first time in its history; (4) the inclusion on the 1949 ballot of a non-binding referendum on the question of awarding bonuses to World War II veterans; and (5) the campaign organized by Clark and Dilworth and run by six remarkably politically savvy women resulted in a stunning Democratic victory. Almost 80 percent of the city’s registered voters came out to the polls; the total number of votes cast was the third highest in the city’s history as virtually the entire GOP slate was defeated. Clark won by 109,000 of the 831,000 votes cast. Dilworth’s plurality was 111,000. Democrats won the other two row offices being contested, both city council seats and the only superior court race.

The 1951 mayoral election would be the real test of the staying power of the reform movement. Once again Dilworth and Clark presented a united front to the public. But the lead up to the campaign was not without internal friction. Party elders had told Dilworth that he would be the better choice for the mayoral slot since he had run such a good campaign four years earlier, and besides, they were not convinced Clark would be a cooperative party man should he be elected. Dilworth was non-committal; he had made no public statements about his place on the 1951 ticket. Late in the summer, the party leaders met at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel to determine the slate. Before any decisions could be formalized, Clark preempted all of them by announcing that he had just released a press statement of his "irrevocable intention to run for mayor." Dilworth remained silent throughout the meeting and at the end agreed to accept the district attorney nomination. But Clark’s virtual seizure of the nomination left a smoldering resentment among Dilworth’s senior staffers and began to change the nature of the relationship between the two reformers.

Clark and Dilworth both won in 1951. Philadelphia had its first Democratic mayor in nearly 80 years.[1] That victory marked the beginning of 10 years of honest city government as well as the long Republican descent into near inconsequence in Philadelphia. But it also marked the beginning of an equally long battle within the Democratic ranks. A new charter – something both Clark and Dilworth had advocated for years – went into effect the same day Clark was inaugurated. The charter was meant to prevent the rot of the corruption that had pervaded city hall during the Republican years but, ironically, it also became a source of friction between the mayor, the Democratic City Committee, and the district attorney. The charter placed many patronage jobs under the purview of civil service laws. This meant that thousands of city employees – loyal Republicans who owed their jobs to Clark’s predecessors – could not be fired and replaced with Democrats as reward for their work in the ’51 campaign. The new charter also prohibited city employees from engaging in political activities. While that prohibition would prevent those Republicans from working for the party now out of power, it also prevented many new employees from working in the interests of the Democrats who hired them.

Clark insisted on strict adherence to the new charter, a position that put him at odds with the leaders of his own party. Dilworth disagreed with Clark’s dogmatic opposition to patronage – a time-honored political tradition. Dilworth agreed that patronage had run amuck under the Republicans but he also understood that he could not, he reminded supporters, simply turn his back on "party leaders without whose exertions we would not be here today." But Clark refused to budge. To make the situation worse, of the senior administrators appointed by Clark – everyone a mayoral appointment – not a single one was a man recommended by the Democratic City Committee.

Despite the Democratic in-fighting, however, the improvement in city governance was significant. Police corruption was largely eliminated. Competent administrators replaced party hacks in one city agency after another. The housing situation improved, the Penn Center project initiated the renaissance of the downtown area and the waterfront was transformed from a seamy, run-down dock area into a regentrified Society Hill.

Clark did not run for reelection in 1955, preferring to leave office and prepare for the 1956 senatorial campaign. He was replaced by Dilworth who would serve until 1962 when, by terms of the charter he and Clark had supported, he was forced to resign the mayoralty in order to run for governor. Clark was elected to the Senate and served in that capacity for two terms. Dilworth lost the 1962 governor’s race – the second time he failed to gain the office he had aspired to since 1950. He never again held elective office.

By the time Dilworth left office, the Democrats were solidly in charge. No Republican has been elected mayor since Barney Samuel in 1947. But Democratic hegemony did not mean a continuation of the reform spirit of the early 1950s. According to Clark, that disappeared with Dilworth’s resignation. And, while corruption on the scale permitted by the Republicans never reappeared, Democratic mayors from James Tate to John Street have had to deal with charges of corruption and the city has not necessarily benefited by the return to single-party rule.

As Clark and Dilworth sought political office beyond the city limits, their relationship grew more distant. In the public mind they remained the face of municipal. But their personal relationship was virtually non-existent. Even when the two were on business in Philadelphia, they typically ate at the same restaurant, but never at the same table. In part this was due to Clark’s absolute adherence to the 1951 charter that Dilworth believed had cost him the governorship. Part could certainly be attributed to Anne Dilworth’s conviction that Clark had used her husband to advance his career – a conviction Dilworth eventually came to share. And part was simply a reflection of the fact that the two men, personality-wise, could not have been more different. Their personal differences, however, had little effect on the impact they made on the Quaker City.

Clark’s defeat in the 1968 senatorial election marked the end of his career in elective office. Shortly after his defeat, Clark sent a remarkably personal note to his old ally that succinctly summed up two decades of a remarkable public partnership: "We’ve had some times together, you and I which I shall always treasure in my memory. And I think we can both say, without the arrogance with which I am charged, that the community is the better for the efforts we put into it these last twenty years… my best to Anne and thanks again."

McLarnon is associate professor of history at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.


[1] Rudolph Blankenberg, an independent Republican, was elected in 1911 on the Keystone-Democratic ticket.