Title Reviewed:
A House for all Peoples: Ethnic Politics in Chicago, 1890-1936

Author Reviewed:
John M. Allswang

Dennis S. Nordin


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 67, Issue 4, pp 370-372

Article Type:
Book Review

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A House for all Peoples: Ethnic Politics in Chicago, 1890-1936. By John M. Allswang. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1971. Pp. x, 253. Notes, tables, charts, appendix, bibliographical essay, index. $8.95.)

Chicago, with its diverse population and its solid political structure, has been of interest to careful and casual observers for decades. Horace R. Cayton and St. Clair Drake, writing generally of the city's Negroes in Black Metropolis (1945; revised, 1970); Allan H. Spear, looking at the minority group historically in Black Chicago (1967); and Harold F. Gosnell, examining the race's political activities in Negro Politicians (1935) have covered the plight of Chicago's most conspicuous minority. Correspondingly, understanding of the city's political machines and its various ethnic blocs has come from a bevy of articles, monographs, and biographies.

Nevertheless, despite an obviously exhaustive bibliography, Chicago continues to be a favorite city for inquiry by Clio's devotees. John M. Allswang has found enough questions left unanswered about the shifting political allegiances of the city's ethnic groups to apply quantitative methods in search of trends. The result of Allswang's imaginative use of statistical data has been most revealing. He has uncovered many reasons for the development of a solid Democratic vote from the city's ethnics.

Emerging as the most salient conclusion is the importance given the 1928 presidential election and its effect upon Chicago's ethnic politics. Employing a variety of quantitative and qualitative measures, Allswang concludes that the nomination of Alfred E. Smith for President by the Democrats in 1928 was significantly pivotal to shift partisan loyalties among the city's different peoples. In fact the author calls the 1928 election "certainly the most critical of the period" (p. 207). A combination of Smith's "urbanness, Wetness, Roman Catholicism, or apparent social familiarity" (p. 209) were forces appealing especially to a majority of Chicago's ethnic voters. Of course, for Scandinavian and German Protestants, Smith's attributes were not necessarily assets.

Locally, the fall of Mayor William Hale Thompson's star and the cise of Anton J. Cerman's were parallel developments. The vilification of "Tony Baloney" by Big Bill in 1931 proved disastrous because hyphenated Americans interpreted it as evidence confirming their suspicions that Thompson was antiimmigrant. The consequences were fatal for Thompson; he could not win without ethnic support.

Unfortunately, however, this book has many shortcomings, and they are the result of Allswang's enamorment with his method. The author's failure is the failure of quantitative historians generally. His assemblage of statistics is impressive, but the satisfaction of measuring numerically has blinded him to the reality that "traditional" research still is of value for scholars seeking knowledge. Greater employment by Allswang of newspapers, interviews, and manuscripts would have filled out the skeleton provided by his quantitative data. At stake is the fact that Allswang's "central question" has not fully been answered. One still does not know altogether "what was the role of ethnic groups in Chicago's politics, and to what extent was the changing political balance of power attributable to their political behavior?" (p. 3).

Unfolding simultaneously are other problems–minor and major. Allswang does not run down completely what his title promises. Instead of carrying his investigation of Chicago elections through 1936, the author stops with the Cermak victory of 1931. Therefore, the reader is left wondering about the long term effect of the Great Depression upon minority voting patterns, and no insight is given for the switch of Chicago blacks to the Democratic party. For example, no mention is made of Arthur W. Mitchell's defeat of Oscar DePriest in 1934. The election of a Negro Democrat to Congress is too important for it to be ignored by an author examining ethnic and racial voting in Chicago for the period in which the change occurred. Moreover, had Allswang investigated electoral results in Negro wards after 1931, he would have found blacks remaining more loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln than he speculated. William L. Dawson, for instance, had not, as Allswang alleges, become a Democrat by 1936.

Also apparent to anyone familiar with Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods is another error. Assuming as Allswang has that Chicago was broken down neatly by precincts along national lines is oversimplification. On a given block in almost any part of the city, except black sections, a Schmidt would live by an Olson and a Goldberg by an O'Rourke. Given the nature and extent of mixture, one can legitimately question the validity of Allswang's whole framework of explaining the ethnic vote by percentages.

Bryant College, Providence, R. I. Dennis S. Nordin

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.