American Pharaoh Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As working journalists in Chicago, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor became fascinated with the historical legacy of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and this impressive book reflects their efforts to understand how the mayor’s political career shaped the city in the decades beyond his death in 1976. Based on archives, interviews, and the rich historical literature on Chicago, the biography looks at the roots of Daley’s power and his influence on Chicago’s troubled racial past. It is possibly the best one-volume life of a major player in modern American politics.

During the 1960’s, Mayor Daley became a national figure because of his political clout, opposition to the racial integration of his city, and the violent conduct of his police force during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Although there have been a number of biographies of Daley, this new study is the most thorough and ambitious. Cohen and Taylor assert that Daley “was the most powerful local politician America has ever produced” who built modern Chicago on a “commitment to racial segregation.” He was “an American pharaoh” because for two decades he wielded absolute power over his city.

Richard J. Daley was born in 1902 in the Bridgeport slums near the Chicago stockyards. As an Irish Catholic at a time of nativist tensions, he experienced the discrimination that his ethnic group faced. Ambitious and intelligent, Daley entered politics through the city’s Democratic machine, and he performed the routine tasks on which successful urban politics rested during the early decades of the twentieth century. Cohen and Taylor date the emergence of the machine to Mayor Anton Cermak in the 1920’s, but the roots of the Democratic organization went back into the late nineteenth century at the time of Mayor Carter Harrison and the reign of Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin. By the time that Daley entered ward politics, however, Cermak had built his own organization that tapped the loyalties of white ethnic Chicagoans.

The authors try to get inside the mind of Richard Daley, but the task is a difficult one. A man of few words, Daley also did not commit his innermost thoughts to paper, and his personal papers were not available. He remains throughout the book a man who is defined by what other people have said about his motives and actions. He had no emotional life outside politics and his immediate family. The public Daley and the private Daley seem to have been one and the same. A man with some progressive impulses in his youth, Daley was also arrogant and, in the end, corrupted by the system he served so well. The devotion and adulation he came to expect as mayor grew out of the emotionally starved upbringing he went through on his way to absolute political power.

A running theme of the book is the impact of the “Great Migration” of African Americans to Chicago at the time of World War I. These newcomers, fleeing the segregation and brutality of the South, found both economic opportunity and racial prejudice as they settled into the slums of Chicago. As Daley came to political maturity, tensions flared as blacks expanded their presence in Chicago and impinged on white neighborhoods. The Democratic machine dealt with the problem by creating a “submachine” of black party leaders who accepted the racial restrictions of the city in return for political power of their own. Although legal segregation was not imposed with the fervor that permeated the South, Chicago was for all of Daley’s career a city that mirrored the racial divides of the United States.

Housing was the issue through which racial matters most influenced Chicago in the Daley era. Much of the book is given over to a detailed and well-researched recounting of how the machine used its influence over construction of homes and neighborhood patterns to maintain white dominance and confine blacks to their ghetto. The interplay between sporadic efforts to break down racial lines and the unyielding resistance of Daley and the machine to such changes takes up much of the core of the book. It is a complex and somewhat dry story in the retelling, but Cohen and Taylor tell it thoroughly and well.

The ways in which the machine maneuvered to block integrated housing were varied and ingenious. Highways were located along boundaries between white and black neighborhoods. Public housing was constructed in impersonal high-rises that undermined any sense of community and cohesion. The work of Elizabeth Wood of the Chicago Housing Authority to achieve some measure of justice for the city’s black population brought her into...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)