Mayor Harvey Doolittle Colvin Inaugural Address, 1873

Harvey Doolittle Colvin Biography

Inauguration date: December 1, 1873

This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.

Editor’s note: Mayor Colvin gave a short introductory speech, then asked the City Clerk to read his formal inaugural address. Both speeches are given below.

Inaugural Speech

Gentlemen of the Council: In assuming the duties of the office of Mayor of the City of Chicago, I do so with great diffidence as to my ability, and shall claim from you all the indulgence that you will have the patience to give me. Under the Mayors’ bill it becomes my duty, as Mayor, to present to you at this time my inaugural, which I propose to do; but before doing so, I propose saying a few words to this Council in regard to the situation as we find it; and I hope those who were elected on the other ticket will not regard what I am about to say as out of place on this occasion. I must allude to the past. I must allude to the recent election, which placed me, and many of the gentlemen who are associated with me, where we are to-night.

There was a party known in the last canvass as the People’s party, and another one known as the Citizens’ party. I felt bound to identify myself with the former, and many of you gentlemen were with me. We went into the canvass and contested it, as we supposed and believed, on principle. We promised the people, if elected, that we would do the best in our power to give them a good and economical government. This pledge, so far as I am concerned, gentlemen, I intend to redeem; and I shall call upon every one who was elected with me, and ask him to do the same. For, gentlemen, it is in your hands, and in mine to a considerable extent, to say what burdens the people of Chicago shall bear. You may, perhaps, see fit to pass an ordinance, but remember the prerogative of the Mayor—the power to veto. I hope it will never become necessary to exercise it so long as I hold the office.

I desire to be on good terms with the Council, not only with those Aldermen who were elected with me, but with all who compose this body. I desire to consult with them, and wish them to consult with me if they think it necessary to do so, in order that we may arrive at such conclusions as shall be beneficial to the people of our city.

It is not necessary for me to say anything in regard to the policy of the new Administration, for the reason that the inaugural address sets it forth quite fully.

With these remarks, gentlemen, I will ask the Clerk, with your permission, to read the address.

The Inaugural Address

Gentlemen of the Common Council:

A sharp and bitter, but decisive, contest has placed the administration, of which I have the honor to be the head, in possession of the city government.

During that contest those opposed to us resorted to every possible means, not only to misrepresent our political views, but to slander private character.

The animosities and jealousies of religion, nationality, and race were seized upon with avidity for the purpose of weaning from us popular support.

This mode of conducting a political campaign tended to prejudice the minds of many persons, both at home and abroad, against the movement which has placed us in our present position.

Not only so, but it tended to create the impression that the advent of this administration to power would bring not only the good name, but the financial integrity of the city, into disrepute.

In view of these facts, every member of the new government has, in addition to motives of patriotism, those of personal pride to impel him to the task set before him. He must help not only to disprove the charges which have been so recklessly heaped upon us in the past, but to rescue the city from their possible evil effects in the future. Only by such action can we disarm those who have misrepresented us. Such a course of conduct alone will inspire confidence that this administration is not a representative of a party as distinct from the community at large.

Gentlemen of the Council, I look to you to unite with me in every lawful means to this end. With you lies the initiative of every measure of expenditure. The strong desire of each Alderman to urge works for the benefit of his ward is the main provocative to useless or excessive expenditures. It is also the inciting cause of the creation of “rings,” which are the parents, not only of wasteful appropriations, but of corrupt and fraudulent schemes.

In every instance of expenditure each member of the Council should have an eye as much to the general financial status of the city as the particular interest of his section. Only by keeping this principle of action steadily in view can we preserve a healthy condition of our finances.

We cannot honestly shift the responsibility of the legislation upon any board or officer, as has often heretofore been attempted. You vote the appropriations. The business of the boards and officers is to see that they are faithfully and honestly expended.

I am urgent upon this point of economy for two potent reasons. The first is the depressed condition of the general finance and trade of the country; the second is the fact that we have assumed the administration of a city whose finances are by no means in a prosperous, or even healthy, condition. It will require, not only the utmost economy of expenditure, but the most prudent and skillful financial management, not merely to carry on the government, but to protect the credit of the city.

In a word, gentlemen, our predecessors leave us an empty treasury, with liabilities to a large amount maturing in the near future.


Every good business man periodically takes an account of stock. Let us, then, look into the assets which will be turned over to us and the liabilities which we will have to meet. Here is the balance sheet:

Immediate Resources

Tax certificates of sale now held on property forfeited to the city in 1873, in round numbers $600,000.00

  • Tax certificates of sale of 1872, also so held: 54,707.36
  • Balance of canal redemption fund due by State to city: 100,000.00
  • Total: $754,707.36

Immediate Liabilities

  • Floating debt: $1,333,954.03
  • Bonds due Jan. 1, 1874: 60,000.00
  • Interest due Jan. 1, 1874: 467,750.00
  • Total: $1,861,704.03

Nearly the entire amount of the floating debt matures prior to the 1st of April next; a large portion of it in January and February. So that to meet nearly $2,000,000 of liabilities, the city has the small sum of $100,000 due by the State, and whatever amounts can be realized from the above $600,000 of tax certificates and from the probably very small amount of taxes which can be collected to April 1, 1874. In addition, funds must be provided with which to meet the general expenses of the government.

The constitutional limit of the bonded debt of the city is 5 per cent. of the last assessment for State and county purposes. According to the equalization of State taxes this year, which the vast majority of the citizens of Cook county consider unjust, the valuation would be:

  • North Division: $23,979,154
  • South Division: 123,115,762
  • West Division: 84,741,022
  • Total: $229,835,938

Five percent of this amount is $11,492,796. But our present bonded debt is $13,544,000, and is thus still $2,051,204 in excess of the constitutional limit. So that we cannot raise any further amounts upon bonds, in order to meet the floating debt falling due between now and the 1st of April, the interest due on the 1st of January, and the current expenses of the government.

In face of the present monetary stringency, it is hopeless to expect to realize upon any large portion of the $600,000 of unpaid tax certificates. Not less than $900,000 of such, running back to 1865, have periodically been used to swell the assets in the Comptroller’s reports. This, I fear, is the only benefit the city will derive from this latter amount. In fact, the warrants upon which these certificates are founded, with the exception of those for 1871, have been destroyed in the great fire.

It is true that there is $1,100,000 in round numbers in the treasury. But this sum is deposited to the credit of special funds. Thus $700,000 is to meet the cost of the water tunnel and for water purposes generally; $100,000 belongs to the public building; while the remainder is set apart for the school and different sinking funds. There is thus no considerable amount of money in the treasury to the credit of the general expense fund, and thus available to meet the above liabilities.

The local appropriations for the year ending April 1, 1874, are $6,063,837.29. These are to be met by the taxes, licenses, and fines to be collected during the ensuing year. But when you consider that fully one-third of the above amount will be consumed in the liquidation of matured indebtedness, you should be most seriously impressed with the necessity of rigid and searching economy.

I am also informed that the tax for 1873, not yet levied, will not probably be less than 20 mills on the dollar. This is 5 mills more than that of 1872. And the latter was felt by our citizens to be a very onerous levy.

The valuation of real and personal property for 1873 is a little over $311,000,000. It is a serious question for you, gentlemen, whether, in these hard times, with such an extremely stringent money market, and in face of the unjust tax which the State Board of Equalization has saddled upon this county, our citizens can meet this very onerous levy of 2 per cent. For my part I do not believe they can. If with a levy of only 15 mills last year, the city finds unpaid tax certificates to the amount of $600,000 on its hands, what amount of such certificates may we not expect to find unpaid at the close of 1874, under a levy of 20 mills?

The tax levy of 1871 was cut down from fifteen to ten mills. Ought not the levy of 1873 be cut down at least to the figures of last year? With this object in view I recommend that all the appropriations, except the objects of absolute necessity, be dispensed with. For sanitary considerations our sewerage, including the sewer with which to flush the North branch, must be extended. So must our water mains. It may be necessary to construct a few temporary school and engine houses. But I earnestly submit that all appropriations other than for objects of actual necessity be dispensed with, so that the tax levy of 1873 may, if possible, be cut down to figures which will not be so onerously oppressive as to almost absolutely endanger its collection.

We find the taxpayer of to-day heavily and unwontedly oppressed by three distinctly operative causes: 1. The business of the country is seriously depressed. 2. The purchasing power of its currency is largely enhanced. 3. The burden of our city and county taxation is enormously increased.

The obstacles in the way of not merely meeting its current expenses, but of protecting the credit of the city are made still more formidable by the difficulty of obtaining loans. I learn that applications lately made at the East have been rejected. Thus we have imposed upon us the task of not only liquidating the debts contracted by our predecessors in office, but of re-establishing our city’s credit.

Let us, then, resolutely and conscientiously set ourselves to the work before us. Let us depend upon our own exertions rather than upon the prospects of external aid. You or I may hold views for or against Congressional aid, as regards the easement of the present monetary stringency. Still let us not be led away by any hopes of relief which may or may not accrue from a more favorable general financial or business status. Rather let us at once initiate a strictly economical movement in every branch of the government. Let us, in these hard times, act upon the “pay as you go” principle. By so acting we will not only the more effectually help ourselves in our present strait, but the more palpably demonstrate to others our appreciation of and ability to cope with the situation.

The following statement, exhibiting the bonded and floating debt of the city from April, 1869, to April, 1873, will show by how much, within a brief period of four years, we have been increasing our debt:

On April 1, 1869, the bonded debt of the city was $7,882,500; the floating debts, $306,871.50&,dash;a total of $8,189,371.50. The resources for the two years to April 1, 1871, were $6,978,866.31.

On April 1, 1871, the bonded debt was nominally $14,103,000, but in fact, $13,544,000. Bonds to the amount of $559,000 had been bought in for, and held by, the city, the city being its own creditor to that amount. The floating debt at that date was $314,421.45. Thus the total bonded and floating debt on April 1, 1871, was $13,858,421.45—being $5,669,049.95 more than on April 1, 1869.

On April 1, 1873, the bonded debt was $13,544,000, being the same as that of April 1, 1871 (the bonds in the sinking fund having been burned and canceled). The floating debt was $1,849,332.04—a total of $15,393,332.04, or and increase of $544,910.59. In addition, $2,096,612.43, repaid by the State to the city on account of the canal improvement, was received up to April 1, 1873—making a total of $3,631,523.02 of resources over and above the receipts from taxes and miscellaneous sources.

It will be seen by this that in four years, during which our population increased from probably 265,000 to 350,000, or 32 per cent., the indebtedness of the city (bonded and floating) had increased from $8,189,371.50 to $15,393,332.04, or 88 per cent. In addition an amount of over $2,000,000 of assets (being the money received from the State) had been added to the current receipts.

Sunday Law

During the last municipal administration the attention of our community has, to a great extent, been diverted from all questions referring to an economical management of the city finances, or even to the protection of life and property, by efforts as fruitless as they were frantic, to enforce certain ordinances in regard to the observation of the first day of the week. It is a well-known fact that those ordinances, how much soever they may have been in consonance with the public opinion of a comparatively small and homogeneous population at the time of their enactment, have ceased to be so, since Chicago has, by the harmonious co-operation of citizens belonging to different nationalities, grown from a village to the rank of one of the greatest cities of the world. For a series of years it has been the practice of our municipal administration to treat these ordinances as “obsolete,” and to refrain from enforcing them. It is not intended to denounce that practice, but merely to state that within the last year it has become distasteful to a large portion of the community. In our late election the issue has been fairly and squarely made whether the existing ordinances shall be retained and enforced, or, upon the other hand, either repealed or so modified as to be in consonance with the present state of public opinion in our community. A majority of our people, so overwhelming that it would be preposterous to designate their decision as a snap judgment, or to cavil at its meaning, has decided the question in favor of the latter alternative. It behooves all good citizens who believe in the principle of our republican form of government to accept that popular decision, to which, following the advice of my predecessor in office, they have appealed. There is no reason to fear that those who conscientiously believe the existing ordinances upon the subject to be dictated by a spirit of religious intolerance incompatible with the spirit of our age, will, on their own part, defy the spirit of mutual toleration. If the Common Council, in its wisdom, and having undoubtedly full power upon the subject, should determine either to repeal or modify the Sunday prohibitions and Sunday clauses in the license law, or to fully secure the religious exercises of a portion of our citizens from all disturbance, without interfering with the harmless enjoyments of other citizens, it will do no more than its duty toward the majority of the people of this city.

The administration of the public schools, police, fire, water, sewerage, and public grounds, departments of the city will call for careful and prudent legislation.


Our public schools should be made the means of imparting knowledge of the most useful character. Those acquirements essential to ordinary business avocations should have precedence. It is sufficient to expect the city to furnish the rising generation with such instruction as will provide the basis rather than the superstructure of a thorough education. The total amount to the credit of the school fund, with the school agent, is $15,186.67.


Our police system should be conducted upon the principle of prevention rather than the punishment of crime. Nor should the city seek to obtain revenue by means of any of the prevalent forms of vice. When it does, it becomes particeps criminis in the iniquity it professes to punish or suppress. My nature revolts against this barbarous and brutal practice, not pursued for the purpose of extirpating vice, but with the object of adding a few paltry dollars to the public revenue. It shall never receive my sanction. All that can usefully be accomplished in this direction is the mitigation of the more glaring and demoralizing effects of that which in all ages and among all races has existed as an evil that may be mitigated, or, perhaps, regulated, but which has never yet been exterminated.

Police officers should be made to understand and feel that laws are enacted as much to protect the unfortunate as to punish the wicked. In no case should a person be inhumanely treated simply because he has been arrested for some petty offense or misdemeanor.

I am decidedly opposed to the practice of police officers receiving money, in the shape of rewards for services rendered, from any corporation or individual. Let them look to the city alone for remuneration. Such practice will, sooner or later, end in the force becoming merely the instruments of great corporations of wealthy individuals.


To maintain our Fire Department in the highest state of efficiency should be one of your chief cares. The objective point in the contest against our most threatening and dangerous fires is the southwestern district of the city. Every possible means should be used to procure a plentiful supply of water for this district. The tunnel now being constructed in that direction may be made available for an independent water supply for fire purposes.

Water Mains

The embarrassed condition of the finances will interfere with a liberal extension of our water mains. I suggest, however, that in instances of the erection of large manufactories in the outskirts of the city requiring water, the main should, if possible, be extended to their neighborhoods. Such an extension will create revenue in the form of increased taxes.


The outlying wards will also, for the same cause, suffer for lack of sewerage. This is to be regretted. Heretofore the inlying wards have been comparatively too highly favored in this respect. For some time to come the situation should, if possible, be reversed.

Court House

I am opposed to the construction at the present time of the proposed city and county buildings for court and municipal purposes. The financial condition of the country generally, and of the city treasury particularly, puts such construction out of the possibilities. In these views I am confident that I am sustained by an overwhelming majority of our citizens. In this connection I may add that $600,000 of the fund appropriated to the city by the State for this purpose has been diverted to other objects by the preceding, and must of course be replaced by this or the succeeding administration at some future period.


It will be a question for you to consider whether some of the boards of Commissioners of Parks should not be abolished. The control of all these public grounds might be transferred either to the Board of Public Works or centralized in one Board of Park Commissioners. A change of this character would save a large amount of expenditure, and not interfere with a judicious management of this branch of our city government.


Large numbers of persons will, doubtless, be thrown out of employment the coming winter. Work for such might be provided to a considerable extent in clearing away the unsightly debris now cumbering the Court House square, or at some other necessary labor. It will be found more profitable to employ such persons than to be compelled to support them without employment.

Special Committee on Legislation

I recommend for consideration the appointment of a special committee on State legislation for Cook county. Our tax law needs a thorough revision. The present law provides for the assessment of real and personal property in the possession of parties on the 1st of May each year. Instead of such, an average valuation for the whole year should be taken. By the present mode a large amount of property, consisting of vessels, coal, firewood, furs, and other articles of merchandise, escapes taxation. A large number of persons also remove from their habitations or stores on the 1st of May, and thus escape assessment. It is probable that by an average yearly valuation at least $50,000,000 could be added to the assessment of taxable property.

Railway Viaducts

But two viaducts have been constructed across the many railway tracks in the city. The companies are legally and morally bound to construct such viaducts. The courts have so decided. And seeing that they possess miles of track frontage, it is unquestionably proper that they should be compelled to comply with the requirements of the law, at least in the more populous portions of the city.


The cost of lighting the city amounts to the enormous sum of $400,000 per annum. The number of street lamps is 7,344, at an expense of over $55 per annum each. To this must be added the cost of lighting the various public offices. The contracts made previous to the present with the gas companies were for ten years, from 1859 to 1869. These were renewed in 1869 and made to extend to 1879. It is a question whether such contracts are binding. I am informed that the Supreme Court of this and other States have decided that no municipal corporation has the right to contract to pay sums greater than the amounts yearly appropriated for specific purposes. An effort should be made to save the city a portion of this enormous outlay.

In conclusion, gentlemen, I would add that, in view of the prostrated condition of our city treasury, our fellow-citizens loudly call upon you for economical legislation. At the same time, they look to me for a prompt interposition of my veto to any measure of wasteful, excessive, or corrupt expenditure. I hope and trust that neither will fail in the duties of our respective provinces. In the event that we do not, we shall acquit ourselves to our own and the public satisfaction, and receive the regard due to good and faithful servants.


  • Chicago Common Council. Journal of the Proceedings, December 1, 1873, p. 2–5.
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