Key Facts & Summary
- Lincoln Steffens was an American investigative journalist and one of the leading reform-minded journalists of the Progressive Era in the United States, which lasted from 1890 to 1920.
- The reform-minded journalists of the Progressive Era were nicknamed the muckrakers by the president of the time Theodore Roosevelt.
- Steffens launched a series of articles in the magazine McClure’s, called the “Tweed Days in St. Louis”, that would later be published together in his book entitled The Shame of the Cities.
- He is remembered for investigating and shedding light on the corruption of municipal governments in the American cities and leftist values.
In 1890, many corrupt politicians had taken control over city governments and ruled over the cities. They took bribes from businesses. They obtained money through force or threats, and practiced nepotism among other things, which implied giving a friend of a family member a job usually not based upon their abilities, but only because they were acquainted.
Steffens aimed to expose these corruptions, and in October 1902, he published “Tweed Days in St. Louis” in the McClure’s magazine. In this articles Steffens exposed the many political issues with St. Louis and went on to write similar articles, exposing other corrupt cities such as: Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1904, Steffens articles were published into a book entitled “The Shame of the Cities.” Steffens articles slowly made the government take action to stop these corruptions.
Born in San Francisco, California, Steffens was the only son and the eldest of the four children of Elizabeth Louisa Steffens and Joseph Steffens. He mostly grew up in Sacramento, the state capital.
The family mansion was a Victorian house bought in 1887 that would later become the California Governor’s Mansion in 1903, which was the official residence of the Governor of California.
The son of a wealthy businessman, he went at a military academy where he began showing signs of the rebelliousness that would eventually lead him to political radicalism. After graduating, he went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he became convinced that the answers to the great questions of life and politics lay in the study of philosophy. Upon graduating in 1889, he continued his pursuit of “culture” in Europe, studying at universities in Germany and France. He traveled from Berlin to Heidelberg, Leipzig, Paris and London before moving to New York City.
In 1892 Steffens officially became a reporter on the New York Evening Post. This gave him the means and the confidence to fight against corruption. In 1902 McClure’s Magazine, began to specialize in what became known as muckraking journalism.
Steffens was already an active and known muckraking journalist. On the advice of Norman Hapgood the editor of Collier’s Weekly, the owner of McClure’s magazine, Samuel McClure, recruited Steffens as editor of the magazine. Among Steffens, other writers who worked for this magazine in that period include: Jack London, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather, Ray Stannard Baker and Burton J. Hendrick.
In 1902 Steffens wrote about St. Louis stating that although visitors are told about the wealth of the residents, the financial strength of the banks, and the growing importance of the industries the landscape portrays a different reality. The streets are poorly paved, the alleys dusty or mud-covered, the City Hospital is almost in ruins emanating a foul odor and the City Hall is half covered with pine planks to hide the unfinished interior.
Steffens later stated that during this period he was so popular that “I couldn’t travel in a train without seeing someone reading one of my articles.” He recruited Ida Tarbell as a staff writer. Tarbell would go on and write a 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln, this doubled the magazine’s circulation. Steffens was thus motivated even more in using McClure’s Magazine to campaign against corruption in politics and businesses. This style became known as muckraking, a term coined by President Roosevelt.
The term was used pejoratively by Roosevelt, he condemned the writers for their seemingly singular focus on covering the negative aspects of society. His co-worker Tarbell, would go on to write articles about J.D. Rockefeller, specifically writing about how he achieved to create a monopoly in refining, transporting and marketing oil. The New York Times commented that “Miss Tarbell’s fine analytical powers and gift for popular interpretation stood her in good stead.”
The Shame of the Cities
In 1904, Steffens’s articles were published into a book entitled “The Shame of the Cities.” This was followed by an investigation into state politicians “The Struggle for Self-Government” in 1906.
He also praised politicians whom he considered to be worthy such as Robert La Follette, stating that: “La Follette from the beginning has asked, not the bosses, but the people for what he wanted, and after 1894 he simply broadened his field and redoubled his efforts.”
Steffens also approved of Seth Low: “The mayor of New York, Seth Low, was a business man and the son of a business man, rich, educated, honest, and trained to his political job. Seth Low and his party in power and his backers were not radicals in any sense. Mr. Low himself was hardly a liberal; he was what would be called in England a conservative. He accepted the system; he took over the government as generations of corrupters had made it, and he was trying, without any fundamental change, and made it an efficient, orderly business-like organization for the protection and the furtherance of all business, private and public.”
Bertram D. Wolfe, a committed pacifist pointed out that:
“Lincoln Steffens was attracted to younger men and greatly enjoyed the influence he could exercise over them. As a topflight journalist, he was always being made an editor of some magazine or daily, yet he hated a desk and four walls and – was no editor at all – except for his uncanny ability to think up assignments for himself and his love of scouting for young writers. He had gone to Harvard to ask Copeland for the names of some promising young men.” Charles Townsend Copeland gave him the names of his two brightest students: John Reed and Walter Lippmann. Reed later wrote: “There are two men who gave me confidence in myself – Copeland and Steffens.”
Los Angeles Times Bombing
In 1906 Steffens and Ida Tarbell joined with other investigative journalists such as Ray Stannard Baker and William A. White to establish the radical American Magazine. Steffens’s biographer, Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974) has argued:
“That summer he and his partners celebrated their freedom from McClure’s house of bondage, as they now saw it. There was a spirit of picnic and honeymoon about the enterprise; affections, loyalties, professional comradeship had never seemed quite so strong before and never would again. They dealt with each other as equals.” Steffens later commented: “We were all to edit a writers’ magazine.”
Steffens continued to write about corruption until 1910 when he went with John Reed to Mexico to report on Pancho Villa and his army. He became a strong supporter of the rebels and during this period developed the view that revolution, rather than reform, was the way to change capitalism in Mexico. The bombing of the Los Angeles Times by J.J. McNamara and J.B. McNamara prompted Steffens to go and talk to them.
Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974) has pointed out that Steffen’s intervention proved to be a disaster, and to the end of his own life he worked to secure a pardon of parole for the McNamaras brothers and by extension for himself. Lincoln Steffens was interested in the trial, stepped in as a way to test his ideas about Christianity as well as improving labor relations – that if the prosecution and the judge let the McNamaras go free, it would be an example of Christian mercy, as well as setting up a favorable environment for improvement between labor and business.
Furthermore, if the McNamara case were dragged out, it would only increase the tension between business and labor. Steffens told his sister: “What I am really up to is to make people think. I am challenging the modern ideals… The McNamara incident was simply a very successful stroke in this policy. It was like a dynamite explosion. It hurt.” Steffens idea of the Golden Rule – a faith in the fundamental goodness of people, was much attacked by the radicals.
Olav Tveitoe, the militant union leader commented: “I will show him (Steffens) there is no Golden Rule, but there is a Rule of Gold”.
Max Eastman, editor of The Masses suggested that Steffens should have been transmitting his “kindly and disastrous sentiments” about practical Christianity to a Sunday-school class instead of to the courts. Steffen was mocked and reviled, attacked by both his friends and enemies. Ella Winter, the wife of Steffens, wrote in her autobiography “And Not to Yield (1963)” the following: “Stef had described to me the trunkful’s of denunciations that reached him; from then on, no magazine would publish him. I had the impression that he never ceased to feel a certain self-reproach, and he had worked tirelessly for the men’s release.”
The Russian Revolution
Steffens was coming to associate the economic system of capitalism with the cause of social corruption; the apparent success of the Bolshevik Revolution seemed to bear him out.
Permission was granted by the Secretary of State Robert Lansing on 18th February. Steffens and Bullitt had a meeting with Lenin in Petrograd on 14th March. Lenin later commented that Bullitt was a young man of great heart, integrity, and courage”. It was agreed that the Red Army would leave “Siberia, the Urals, the Caucasus, the Archangel and Murmansk regions, Finland, the Baltic states, and most of the Ukraine” as long as an agreement was signed.
However, the idea was rejected by President Woodrow Wilson and David L. George. After the terms of the Versailles Peace Conference were published, Bullitt resigned in protest. He considered a betrayal of the men who had died during the First World War. Bullitt appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and his testimony helped cause the treaty to be defeated in the Senate and the resignation of Robert Lansing.
In 1921, returning from the trip from the Soviet Union, he uttered his famous words, “I have seen the future, and it works.” He promoted his view of the Soviet Revolution and in the course of campaigning for U.S. food aid for Russia.
While reporting on the Versailles Peace Conference, Steffens met Ella Winter, a socialist writer and his future wife. They married and moved to Italy in 1924, where their son Peter was born. Two years later they relocated in Carmel, California. The decline of muckraking journalism in 1910 coincided with Steffens’s growing doubts as to its effectiveness. He increasingly doubted the effectiveness of reform politics, which seemed to seek to eradicate the symptoms of corruption rather than its causes. By this stage of his career Steffens had great difficulty finding magazines willing to publish his work. His unorthodoxy lost him his American audience during the 1920s.
He believed it was because he had campaigned against the imprisonment of James McNamara and Joseph McNamara, convicted of the Los Angeles Times Bombing. Steffens complained: “Editors are afraid of me since I took the McNamaras’ part ten years ago. I was condemned by everybody.” Although they did not want his articles several publishers had offered him contracts to write his autobiography. He began to work on it ever since he first arrived in Italy. He supported many communist activities but refused identification with any party or doctrine.
The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens hit the United States at just the right time. Published in 1931, after 2 years of the Great Depression, it chronicled Steffens’s mental journey from oversophisticated intellectual to reformer to revolutionary in a way that struck a deep chord among many people who felt that they should travel the same route. Although he never joined the Communist party, Steffens clearly indicated his thought that only something like a Communist revolution could save the United States. In 1935 Steffens gave his name in support of the American Writers’ Congress to be held in New York City. Its main objective was to give support to those fighting Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe. He died at his home in Carmel, California on the 9th of August 1936.
Steffens articles slowly made the government take action to stop the corruptions that he put into evidence in his “The Shame of the Cities”. The government passed new laws and legislations such as:
- The creation of primary voting, which allowed voters to select their candidates instead of the party leaders.
- Voters were allowed to propose bills to legislatures, instead of having only members of state legislators to introduce bills.
- Voters could now remove elected officials from office. Before, only the courts or the legislature could remove corrupt officials.
- The Tillman act was passed, which prohibited monetary contribution to national political campaigns by corporations.
- The 17th amendment allowed for direct election of US senators before they were elected by state legislatures.
Steffens’ contributions to journalism remain relevant even today, decades after his death. His name, philosophy and journalistic approach are invoked regularly by writers who take issue with those who govern. In a 2004, New York Times editorial titled, “‘The Shame’ That Lincoln Steffens Found Has Not Left Our Country,” legal writer Adam Cohen aptly summarizes Steffens’ work, and draws parallels between the United States at the turn of the 20th century and in 2004.
Cohen poignantly states, “‘The Shame of the Cities,’ one of the great works of American muckraking, turns 100 this spring, but it speaks uncannily to our times. In this age of Enron and Halliburton, of huge campaign contributions and reckless deregulation, its arguments about the corrosive effect of business on government feel up to the minute. Every bit as timely is its call to arms.” However, in 2011 Kevin Baker also of The New York Times, wrote that “Lincoln Steffens isn’t much remembered today”.
[1.] Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1958)
[2.] The Letters of Lincoln Steffens, edited by Ella Winter and Granville Hicks, 2 vols. (1938)
[3.] Christopher Lasch, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution (NY: Columbia University Press, 1962)
[4.] Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1974)
[5.] Stanley K. Schultz, “The Morality of Politics: The Muckrakers’ Vision of Democracy,” The Journal of American History, vol. 52, no. 3. (December 1965), 527–547,
[6.] Peter Hartshorn, I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens (Counterpoint, 2011)
[7.] Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
[8.] Joseph Lincoln Steffens”. Journalist, Muckraker. Find a Grave. January 1, 2001.
[9.] Palermo, Patrick F., Lincoln Steffens, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.