Mayor James Curtiss Inaugural Address, 1850

James Curtiss Biography

Inauguration date: March 12, 1850

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:

Assuming, for a second time, the duties of Chief Magistrate of the city, I improve the occasion to express my profound appreciation of this renewed evidence of the confidence and partiality of my fellow citizens. To have been selected by them, without the influence of party feeling, and with so great a degree of unanimity, for this important station, will ever constitute a just source of pride and gratification which is not lessened by the high personal character, ability, and experience competing with me for their favor. If any thing were needed to increase this gratification, it might be found in the character and standing of those who have been selected to represent them in the Council, and with whom I am to be associated in the city government.

We cannot, gentlemen, feel too deeply the importance of our peculiar position. Numbering, already, some twenty-five thousand inhabitants, the course of our city is still onward with a rapid and unfaltering step. What shall it be in the future depends greatly upon the wisdom and prudence of the measures and plans which shall be adopted now. In the discharge of our duties we shall be met on all sides with the most urgent demands upon our time and attention, to organize a sound and efficient system of finance—to open and develope the natural resources which surround us; to provide for the erection of school houses, markets and other public buildings; to prosecute improvements in the harbor, in the streets and alleys, and in the public grounds of the city; to guard against the increase of vice and immorality in our midst; and to provide generally for the health and security of our fellow citizens and their property. Is it not true, that your action at this time, and upon these important matters must seriously affect the future character and welfare of the city?

Among the subjects which will claim your earliest attention, and which is the most important from the influence which it must exert over all others, is the state of the city treasury. A sound and healthy financial condition is essential to the judicious and economical prosecution of any and all measures for the public benefit. The recent Council report upon this subject furnishes all the information which is readily accessible. From this report we learn, that the debt of the city has been increased from $20,338 38, which was its amount two years since, to $50,613 60. It is proper to say, however, that a considerable portion, perhaps $10,000 of the expenditures of the last year, was of an extraordinary character, and rendered absolutely imperative, to repair the destruction caused by the spring floods; and to meet the demands growing out of the pestilence, with which for purposes of Divine Wisdom we were permitted to be visited and filled with mourning and sadness.

The amount of the city debt, if it were in a desirable condition, is not such as to effect to any important extent, the finances of the city. But, unfortunately, a large portion of the amount is now past due, and the city is indebted entirely to the forbearance of those who hold in their hands its forfeited securities—and the evidences of its violated faith—that those securities are not sacrificed for the satisfaction of their just claims. A sacrifice which might be followed by other legal proceedings, and which in any event would be alike prejudicial to the interest of the city and destructive to its financial character. Such a condition is alike degrading to the position of the city, and injurious to all its interests. Measures adequate to effect an entire change in this respect ought to be promptly adopted by the Council.

Although the expenditures of the city, have in the main, been conducted with commendable prudence and economy, yet its financial affairs have, from the commencement, exhibited neither ability nor system in their management. Comparatively free from debt, our warrants are ordinarily depreciated, and there has been scarcely a time for the last thirteen years, since the organization of the city government, when its treasury was not bankrupt, and unable to meet its immediate liabilities. Every effort to obtain a loan from abroad has failed, and temporary loans from our capitalists are only yielded with extreme reluctance and under the pressure of urgent necessity. Other causes may have contributed to this state of things but the one principal cause, which would have produced the same result in the absence of all others, is the [Approx. 7 words, illegible in the original, omitted] ly pledged for the re-payment of temporary loans. Such loans are made with the understanding that they are to be repaid out of specific accruing revenues.

Before those revenues are collected, they are again anticipated, and finally reach the treasury in the form of dishonored warrants or city orders. Temporary expedients are again resorted to, for the purpose of saving the faith of the city, and if these fail, as they mostly have done, the city credit is left to hobble along and take care of itself as it best may. Gentlemen, the faith of the city, the credit of the city, are practically worthless, unless they be redeemed. We cannot borrow money unless we pay when we agree, and as we agree. We cannot continue to anticipate the same revenues twice, once by borrowing of a capitalist, and again by the issue of our own orders, in sufficient amounts to exclude the use of any other currency in the payment of its dues, without we also continue to do business with a bankrupt treasury, and solicit loans upon a broken faith and a ruined credit. It is true that we have a limited revenue, and have been, and shall be incessantly called upon for large expenditures—markets, school houses, engine houses, the streets, and the harbor, are all clamorous for money. It is true, that we have annual demands for improvements, which, in the ordinary progress of cities, are extended through long periods of time. But we cannot be justly censured for not expending money, which we cannot obtain, by legal and honorable means. The use of the credit of the city, to obtain money for these, or any other purposes, without the adoption of measures which will secure its prompt repayment, is not honorable and will result, as it has hitherto done, in injury to that credit, and to all other interests connected with it.

It is difficult to believe, that, under a judicious system, arrangements cannot be made, which will enable the city to command loans, to any desirable extent, and at low rates of interest. But this can only be done, by removing from the minds of capitalists, all doubt as to the compliance of the city with all the terms of such loan, as it regards the prompt payment of interest and principal. An amendment to the charter making it the duty of the Council, whenever a loan shall be contracted, to levy a special tax, collected in gold and silver only, sufficient in amount to pay the interest on such loan, and form a sinking fund, which would extinguish the principal, when the same became payable, would, apparently, secure this object. It would seem to remove every liability to failure, and, in case it did occur to furnish the lender with a prompt and effectual remedy. Loans, however, ought never to be made by the city, except for purposes of permanent improvement, the contemplated benefit of which, will fall to those upon whose shoulders is thrown the burthen of payment. Temporary loans, of small sums, for short time, will doubtless be occasionally required, in anticipation of receipts, or to meet special emergencies. But the idea of saving the credit of the city, by making temporary loans, in anticipation of specific revenues, while city orders are floating about as a depreciated currency, must ever prove utterly fallacious, and end in destroying that credit which it was intended to save. The very first step in any sound and practicable system of finance, must be to utterly exclude the paper of the city from circulation, by keeping the treasury at all times in a condition to pay it upon presentation. If this cannot be effected in any other way, it would be better, and more honorable to the city, to curtail its expenditures until it is accomplished: or until the Council shall obtain authority to raise a revenue by taxation, adequate to its necessities; or effect loans, which will be safe for the capitalist, and prudent for the city.

In connection with this subject it may be proper to refer to the financial reports which have been from year to year published by the Council. These reports, have not, it is believed, for many years been entirely satisfactory to the public. The results at which they arrive are doubtless sufficient for all general practical purposes, but errors have in some cases been committed by forcing balances which could not be obtained without labor, and in most if not all cases, there has been an apparent desire on the part of each Council, to furnish through the finance report evidence of its own prudence and economy. Whether a revision of these reports, and of the accounts of the city for several years past would be sufficient practical benefit to justify the labor and expense, is submitted to your consideration. The committees of the Council in preparing these reports, are necessarily almost entirely dependent upon the account books of the clerk. The mode in which these accounts are kept is of the first importance in every point of view. They ought to be kept upon a system, at once simple and free from liability to error, exhibiting to the satisfaction of any mind of ordinary capacity, the precise state of each and all the accounts, and limiting the labor of the committee to a comparison of the warrants issued, and the transfer of the accounts, more or less condensed, into the form of a report. If the accounts are not in a satisfactory state the evil cannot be too promptly remedied.

A different system of conducting the expenditures of the city must, at no distant day, be adopted. While there was but a few thousand of inhabitants and but a limited expenditure, but little evil was experienced, from the presentation of all bills to the Council for examination and allowance. But with our present population, and an expenditure exceeding $100,000 per annum, such a system is burthensome, occupying a large portion of their time, with very little, if any practical benefit. Various modes of avoiding this burthen, will readily suggest themselves to your consideration, if you should be of opinion that any change in this respect is desirable.

Two years have elapsed since it was announced by the Mayor that all matters in regard to the ‘public landings on the Chicago river, had been so far arranged, as to reconcile all conflicting claims, between the individual occupants thereof and the city.’ It appears, however, by the late finance report, that over one third, in amount, of those contracts, have not yet been executed. It is quite time that this matter between the city and individuals was brought to a close. If they do not comply with the terms of the settlement, the negotiation so far as they are concerned should be treated as ended, and the Council should adopt such a course in the premises, as may be required by the public interests, and be within the limit of its powers.

A large amount of labor has been expended during the past year in excavating the north bank of the river; and the work is still in an unfinished condition, to the great damage of persons owning property in its neighborhood. The time to consider the principle upon which such works should be excavated has gone by. The excavations are in such a state of progression as to make it the duty of the council to press them to completion with all the means at its disposal. It is most grossly unjust to owners to commence improvements in front of their property, destroying in effect all use thereof, and protracting their completion through long periods of time. Before improvements causing such great inconvenience and injury to individuals are commenced, contracts ought to be executed for their completion at the earliest possible time, and under sufficient bonds to indemnify property owners for any damages which may arise from delay.

A negotiation, with a view to the erection of public buildings in concert with the county authorities, was in progress and nearly completed some years since. A similar negotiation is also understood to have been near completion more recently, and to have again failed. It is to be regretted that these negotiations with the county did not terminate in a more satisfactory result. The public buildings of the county are not only whole inadequate to the public wants, but are notoriously such as would disgrace the smallest and poorest county in the State. Safety, humanity, and decency ought not to be named in connexion with the provision for the confinement of prisoners. The public records are being destroyed by the dampness of their depositories. And the buildings upon the public square would be considered a disgrace to any private square in the city. It is not pertinent to present purposes to inquire what parties, if any, are censurable for this long continuance of such a state of things; what parties, if any, (although the city has contributed its mite) are censurable for the addition of one building after another to the incumbrances upon the public square—buildings which are scarcely worthy any, even the most contemptible private uses, much less the public uses of the most populous and most wealthy county in the State. It is sufficient that the city, composing a large proportion of the population of the county, and contributing a still larger proportion to its revenues, is, in common with the county, deeply interested in, and deeply disgraced by, the state of things in question. Surely there can be no difference of opinion as to the propriety, of the Council making every reasonable exertion, and every reasonable sacrifice, to remedy this abominable and long continued offence.

At the time of the erection of the State street Market there was an understanding, which it is presumed still prevails, that three additional markets should be erected as soon as they were required by the public convenience and as the state of the city finances would permit. A large central market in Market street, one in the North, and one in the West Divisions. The public convenience would unquestionably be essentially promoted by the erection of one or more during the present year. But the present state of the finances indicate no possibility of affecting either of these desirable improvements during the present year.

The high character of our Public Schools is believed to have been in the main fully sustained during the past year. Some complaint has been made that there was not a sufficient number of houses or teachers for the number of scholars, and that more attention has been paid to the higher studies than was consistent with a proper regard for the progress of those engaged in the more elementary branches. If any cause of complaint in the latter respect exists it should be promptly remedied. These schools are primary schools, and their great purpose, which should not be lost sight of, is a thorough course of instruction in the elementary branches of an English education. The character of these schools, to a great extent, depends upon the Board of School Inspectors, and too much care and deliberation cannot be used in the selection of persons to compose this Board as well as in the selection of suitable persons for Trustees in the different districts. A new and improved school house has been erected in the South Division during the past year, and an urgent necessity exists for two more; one in the North Division and one in the West. It will be for you to consider whether it be possible to erect one or both during the present year. If arrangements can be made for the accomplishment of these ends, they should be at an early day, that what is undertaken may be completed before the filling up of the schools incident to the close of the labors of summer.

The expenditure of the city on account of the Fire [Approx. 7 words, illegible in the original, omitted] comparison with the whole expenditure and revenue of the city. This expenditure, however has been mostly for the purchase of the new Engines and the erection of suitable houses for the accommodation of the different companies and the protection of their implements. A large expenditure was perhaps essential in its incipiency to that efficiency which has thus far characterized the department. But when a sufficient number of suitable engines and other implements shall have been once provided, and suitable houses for their care and protection shall have been erected, the urgent necessity for such large expenditures will have in a measure ceased. Two substantial brick houses have been erected during the present year, and the erection of similar buildings ought to be continued so fast as a due regard to the other interests of the city and the state of its finances will permit, until ample provision is made for the comforts of the members of the department and the safety and security of their implements. Additional engines will still be required, and the public interests will perhaps be promoted by disposing of those which are least effective.

Considerable dissatisfaction has existed among the members of this department, in consequence of the decision of our courts, that they are not exempt from Jury duty. But little difficulty, however, can arise from this source, as there is a disposition on the part of the officers and the courts, to avoid calling upon them to perform such duty; and the evil will doubtless be remedied at the next session of the Legislature.

During the past year, the attention of the Council and of the people has to some extent been directed to the consideration of a system for the construction of drains, sewers and aqueducts. The situation of our city, in reference to a system of drainage and a supply of water for the extinguishment of fires, is, in many respects, peculiar; and any system for the accomplishment of these objects, must be adapted to the almost uniform level of the city, and its low position relatively to the lake, and relatively to the river which passes through it. Improvements of this character, involving a large expenditure, ought not to be undertaken without a most careful consideration of the modes which may be proposed for accomplishing the objects proposed, and the means which are possessed for carrying them into effect. This consideration of the subject should be had before operations are commenced, that we may not exhibit the folly and imbecility of altering plans for important purposes when half completed—of seeking to accomplish the same ends, in the same locality, by different and even opposite plans—or of commencing to build without being able to finish.

The objects to be accomplished in this connexion ,are, a speedy discharge of the surface water, drainage of the ground so as to keep the soil free from wet, and admit of the construction of cellars; and an abundant and convenient supply of water for the extinguishment of fires. Economy would be consulted by combining these objects in one system, and accomplishing them by one excavation. The offer of a sufficient premium for the best plan would doubtless command the competition of men of intelligence and ability, and result in developing a plan which would accomplish all the objects desired, in a satisfactory manner, and at the lowest possible expense.

In reference to the means of entering upon the construction of any such works, the late Council seems to have been of the opinion that they could be provided by special assessments, as in the case of some other improvements. A special assessment for such a purpose, in the mode contemplated, can not, it is believed, be legally made. (See Act of 1847, Sec.12.) If any improvements of this description are made during the present year, their cost must be paid out of the general fund of the city. Aside from the impolicy of commencing such improvements at the expense of the general fund, no benefit which would result therefrom, would justify such a course in the present state of the finances.

The opening of Rail Roads and Plank Roads, leading from the city, into the fertile country with which we are surrounded, presents questions entitled to your serious consideration. Without going into any discussion, as to the advantages or disadvantages of rail roads, to large cities, it must be obvious that the road, already commenced, is constructed far enough to do our business all the injury which can result from the construction of such works, and not far enough to confer upon us many of the benefits which are claimed for them. Our interests plainly require that the work should now be extended, to stimulate, by the greater facilities which it affords for getting to market, greater production, in more distant sections; furnishing a more extensive outlet to the productions of our manufactories; and compensating for the reduction of our retail trade, by extending the business of wholesale dealers. Plank roads, whether longer or shorter, are equally beneficial to the country through which they pass and the cities at which they terminate. To the stocks of the former, and of the latter, when needed, as liberal subscriptions ought to be made by the city, as is consistent with a due regard to its finances, should those finances be placed in a position to justify any subscription for such purposes. Such subscriptions, if made, would of course be effected by a loan, and might reasonably be expected to pay a large portion, not the whole, of the interest and principal. And the city would find more than compensation for any deficiency, in the impulse which they would impart to business, and the increased value which they would give to property.

The attention of the Council has been heretofore invited to the adoption of efficient measures to procure public grounds for the use of the city. Public squares, properly laid out and planted, furnish an inexhaustible fund of pure and refined gratification. They beautify and adorn the city; they promote the public health, by inducing open air exercise and recreation, and by acting as ventilators in the midst of human hives. Yet there is scarcely in this whole city anything deserving the name of a public square, and the difficulty of removing the evil is every day increasing. It cannot be doubted, however, that exertions, proportioned to the importance of the object, would, even yet, secure to each division of the city at least one large public square, upon terms consistent with a proper regard for our finances.

The grounds appropriated to cemetery purposes, ought to be improved at the earliest period, by the construction of walks, and the planting of shade and ornamental trees and shrubbery. Nothing furnishes stronger evidence of social refinement, than beautifying with shade and flower, the last resting place of departed friends. The attention which these grounds have hitherto received, furnishes no measure, of the feelings, the character, or the taste of our fellow citizens. The sale of the lots ought to furnish a fund sufficient to accomplish all that is desirable in this respect; if it will not, the price of the lots ought to be increased.

The Police expenses the last year have been comparatively large, equalling those of the city of Buffalo but a few years since. Whether the expenditures can be judiciously reduced, and whether the efforts of the police have had in all respects a proper direction will furnish proper subjects for inquiry. It has been suggested, by the officers, that all their legal fees, especially as witnesses, should go into the city Treasury, making them dependent upon that, solely, for their compensation. This would take away any ground for the imputation of being governed by improper motives, in their actions or their testimony.

The late mayor has very recently called the attention of the Council to the necessity of providing at an early day for the erection of a bridewell or house of correction. The necessity of such a building to the efficiency of the efforts of the police, for the preservation of good order and the enforcement of the city ordinances, must be obvious; and the recommendation, will doubtless receive at your hands that consideration which its importance demands.

A court for the prompt disposition of police cases, seems to be of vital importance to the existence of a useful and efficient police. It is greatly to be desired that the mayor should possess more adequate powers and means to dispose of petty offences. Such powers would essentially lessen the expenses of the county by at once disposing of a class of cases which now take up much of the time of the courts and jurors, and are sometimes not disposed of until after months of confinement. More specific powers are also desirable, for the restraint of the idle and vicious boys, who are prowling about our streets day and night, committing petty offences, disturbing public meetings, and apparently destitute of all parental care. A work house and a work house school, are essential requisites for success, in any efforts for their moral or social improvement. Whether the necessary powers can be bestowed consistently with the present constitution of the State may, perhaps, be questioned.

During the past year a large number of children, have made a practice of visiting the different portions of the city for the purpose of soliciting charity. Considerable sums are thus extracted from our citizens, the recipients of which are in many cases wholly undeserving. This mode of obtaining a subsistence is a violation of the city ordinances, and unless it be effectually prohibited will continue to increase. If the parties desiring to solicit charity, are proper objects for its exercise, the fact ought to be ascertained, and the required permission from the Mayor given. If they are not proper objects of charity, every citizen should aid in checking an infamous trade and punishing the attempt to prostitute sympathy for suffering, to unworthy ends.

Intimately connected with the police of the city, are questions affecting Grocery Licenses. A large sum has been realized to the city treasury, during the past year, by the issue of such licenses, but, if money could compensate for the evils which grow out of their establishment, a much larger sum would be wholly inadequate to that end. It is not to be denied that the intemperate use of intoxicating liquors, is always preceded by its temperate use, nor that it is a most prolific source of private and public disorder, vice, and crime. Whatever may be the views of individuals, the council, it is believed, have not the power to prohibit such establishments. Whether it would be wise to use the power, if it were possessed, admits of very great question. But the council have the power, to regulate these establishments, and to enforce through the police the regulations which they may establish. A subject so deeply involving the peace and quiet of our city, as well as its moral character, now, and hereafter, is worthy of your early and serious attention. The policy of the city government, for some years past, appears to have been, to render grocery licenses, to the greatest possible extent, a source of revenue. Such a policy is, to say the least, questionable, whether viewed in reference to its expediency, its equity, or its morality. The sum charged for such licenses, has never exercised any perceptible influence over the number taken, which has steadily, and for the past few years, rapidly increased, surrounding the young with temptations to wander from the paths of temperance and usefulness, and affording lamentable evidence of the tendency of populous communities to vicious indulgences.

Amendments to the City Charter will doubtless be desired at the next session of the Legislature, some of which have been alluded to in what has already been said. Perhaps the public interests would be promoted by a general revision and redraft of the whole. At all events the subject ought to be considered at an early day, that if amendments, or a revision is thought desirable, ample time may be taken for their preparation.

Such gentlemen is a hasty glance at some of the more prominent subjects which will press themselves upon your attention. On the one hand, we have an empty treasury, upon which there are already large demands past due,—on the other there are improvements, of every character, urgently impelling us to large expenditures. True wisdom requires that all our expenditures should be governed by a rigid economy, and graduated to the means within our control. And that, at all events, and at every reasonable sacrifice, the faith of the city, solemnly pledged, should be promptly redeemed.

Gentlemen: The character of the members of this board gives me every assurance that the views which gave been presented relative to public measures and policy, so far as they are judicious, will be carried out. So far as they may be deemed otherwise, there will be every disposition on my part to yield to your better judgment. My sincere desire and my constant effort will be, to discharge the duties of my station faithfully and impartially, and so to advance the public interests and welfare. May Infinite Wisdom be our guide, and may our intercourse be distinguished by personal courtesy,—by respect for ourselves and respect for each other.


  • Weekly Chicago Democrat, March 16, 1850.