Inaugural Address of Mayor John B. Rice
May 3, 1865
This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.
Gentlemen of the Common Council of the city of Chicago, usage and courtesy make it proper that I should, on taking my seat as your president, address you, and give you such information as I am able, and also to state my views of the more important duties that will devolve upon you. The most important of those duties, as I conceive, are to protect the liberty, insure the security, and add to the convenience of every citizen, and that you should do all this with a rigid adherence to economy. In taking the oath of office, we have all engaged to do this. I am fully assured you all appreciate the obligations you are under; therefore there is nothing necessary or proper for me to say, save only to bring before you in a general manner the nature of the more important duties you will be required to perform.
The financial condition of the city is clearly shown to you by the able and satisfactory report of the Comptroller, which report has been accepted and approved by the Financial Committee of the Common Council of this city, and a vote of thanks unanimously passed to that gentleman for the faithful performance of his most important and difficult duties. That report tells you (if I understand it right) that the receipts of this city from April 1, 1864, till April 1, 1865, were two millions thirty-four thousand six hundred and ten dollars; that the expenses of this city for the said time were two millions eight thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine dollars; that the balance in the city treasury, April 1, 1865, was four hundred and sixty-one thousand two hundred and sixty-six dollars and thirty-nine cents. You will now understand that a large amount of money is required for the city’s expenses; that the people are already laboring under a heavy burden, and that you must, by careful examination of all bills of appropriation, be able to distinguish between what must be granted and what may be omitted, and in all cases, where any doubt exists, I hope you will decide against expenditure.
In all franchises granted or contracts entered into by the city with individuals, the utmost care should be observed, and full consideration given, and when finally concluded should in no case be changed. I know that in adopting this course there will be at times great injury and loss, to be borne by one of the parties, but the same condition obtains in all contracts between individuals, and are among the chances of the business of the world, and it may be that any interference on your part with the business bargains of the city may permit a loss to the whole people that should be borne by the individual. Your duty is first, last, and at all times, to protect the city.
Our public schools, as I am informed, are in excellent condition; their management efficient and satisfactory. You will learn from the school agent’s report there has been received for their use for the year ending April 1, 1865, two hundred and three thousand nine hundred and eighty-five dollars; that there has been expended during the same time two hundred and thirty-one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two dollars; that the balance on hand on the first day of April, 1865, was nine thousand nine hundred and sixty-four dollars. You are required to appoint sixteen inspectors forming the Board of Education,--one inspector from each ward. The term of office of said inspectors (within the limit of the law) must be decided by lot in your presence. You all fully comprehend the deep interests involved in the selection of these important assistants to our civilization and advancement.
The report of the board of police will give you much necessary information; large, diversified, and important interests are intrusted to that branch of the city government.
The fire department—which, I desire to say, is now considered by well-informed citizens and strangers to be fully equal in efficiency and discipline to any similar organization in this or any country—will hereafter be under the control of the board of police.
The board of public works, another branch of the city government, will furnish you with their report. We will then know better than we now do what is proposed to be done, and the amount of money necessary to do it. In connection with this I will say (not in the spirit of fault-finding) that many of the streets are in a condition utterly unfit for the large amount of business that must be done on them. They should be improved. I know that material is high and laborers are scare, but property is valuable and productive—these effects being produced by the same causes; and I believe there is no reasonable ground to suppose that a more favorable time for necessary improvement will be presented for many years. The prosperity and comfort of all citizens require the highways to be adequate in safety and convenience for the business that is done on them, but I hope you will confine your action entirely to the opening of new avenues, should they be necessary, and to making those we have better; but never in any case to the closing of any established, improved, and necessary thoroughfare to the free use of every citizen.
Much interest is felt and manifest with regard to the tunneling of the Chicago river. A large number of our most intelligent citizens have given the subject much consideration. It is well worthy of your careful examination. If tunnels will answer the purpose for which they are designed, our city would be greatly benefited by their construction. If they should not answer that purpose, the expense and damage attending their construction would be a serious loss to the city. What I desire to impress upon you is, that the construction of a tunnel is an experiment, and that you are to deal with it as such, and consider whether this is a proper time to try experiments.
There is much in connection with horse railroads that will doubtless be brought before you. You will then discover a great diversity of opinion about what has been done and what you are required to do; and while I can give you no information upon this much agitated subject, I think it proper to state generally my own views. I consider horse railroads a necessity for the convenience and economy of the general public whose interests you are here to watch over and protect; that, in all applications for new franchises or extension of privileges, the wants of the city should be carefully considered. If a railroad is wanted, the franchise or privilege should be granted, with a clear understanding of the terms on which it is granted, and that these terms should never be changed; that the responsible company offering to carry passengers for the lower fare should be preferred; that said company should pay their fair proportion for making or repairing the streets on which their rails are laid; that the city should never receive any direct profit from said roads, but that all the profit offered by the corporators should go the citizens who use them, and that you will never think yourselves justified in granting a charter for more than twenty years.
One word about committees. If I have made mistakes in the appointments that I shall announce to you, in placing gentlemen on one committee that could render better service on another, I shall deeply regret it, and I hope you will all heartily join in helping the city out the difficulty, by doing the very best in the places allotted to you. I have acted solely for the general good and with very limited knowledge.
Gentlemen, the duties of this Council embrace all things appertaining to the liberty, security and comfort of the citizen. Beginning with the power to raise money, for the enforcement of the law, for his protection, and ending with jurisdiction over the cemetery in which he is buried. I have, doubtless, omitted many things that should have been brought to your notice, and have said much more about others than was necessary, but you by wise action can mend all that, as we deal with things, not words. I feel, as I am sure you do, the importance of the duties devolving upon us, and I trust that we will all be careful that our strength shall not beget our weakness. If party is ever to be mentioned here, and I hope this is the only time that I shall refer to it, you will bear in mind that a very large majority of you were elected by one party. You will therefore be able to carry any measure that you may unite upon, and for that reason, above all others, you should be calm, careful and conscientious in the discharge of every duty, lest the strength you possess to do right may betray you into doing wrong.
Gentlemen, the commencement of our official life is shrouded in gloom—the world is appalled, our nation is in mourning; let us all here, as upon an altar, cast aside now and forever all passionate exaggerations, all asperities, all exacerbations, and keep our minds on those cardinal points, devotion to our country, to humanity and justice, with a constant effort for the right, so that when our days are ended, this city’s voice may justly proclaim of each of us—he did his duty.
- Chicago Common Council. Journal of the Proceedings, May 3, 1865.