Joseph Medill

Twenty-First Mayor of the City of Chicago (1871-73)
Union Fire-Proof Ticket

The Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 left the city in shambles. The people needed a mayor who would face problems head on and lead them through the crisis - to fill this role they chose Joseph Medill.

Medill had been an attorney and a newspaper editor and publisher, but it was politics that would bring him to the forefront. He has been credited with leading the movement to create an anti-slavery party that was also favorable to business, which he called the Republican Party.1

Medill moved to Chicago in the 1850s, working as editor and part-time owner of the Chicago Tribune. Once in the City, he convinced his newly formed Party to back Abraham Lincoln for president. Medill himself was an advisor and confidant to Lincoln up until his death.

In 1869, Medill was a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention, and two years later served as a member of the first U.S. Civil Service Commission. Then came a fire. The need for real leadership was ripe, and a coalition led by future mayor Carter Harrison I rallied for Medill for the post of Mayor. Medill actually initially declined the nomination, seeing the position as little more than a figurehead.2 He would later agree to it on the condition that the state legislature enact a new city charter giving the Mayor greatly increased powers. They did just that and Medill went on to beat 10th Ward alderman Charles C.P. Holden by a vote of 16,125 to 5,988.3

At the time, Chicago was the fourth largest city in the US and the fastest growing one. The newly expanded powers of the Mayor allowed Medill to use the office to deal with urban problems, namely rebuilding the city. To this end, he successfully lobbied both the state legislature and federal government for monetary aid. Alongside this, Chicago received over five million dollars in gifts and loans from people and cities around the globe.4

One of the first pieces he worked through the council was a new building code, banning wooden frame buildings in city limits. Following this, he had a new fireproof City Hall built, along with a new Chamber of Commerce building.

The most difficult of his many roles was his continual attempts at mediation between patrician and immigrant classes.5 Luckily for him, the crisis of the fire was an easy rallying point to bring people together - at least at first. It was the same for his relationship with the city council. Immediately after taking office, the council backed his efforts, but as the crisis subsided, they found themselves at odds more and more.

In August 1873, Medill went to Europe on vacation, and told the council to appoint an acting mayor. They put Lester Bond into office, and he ends up finishing out Medill’s term.6 With the term expired, Medill returned to Chicago in 1874 and proceeded to buy a controlling interest in the Chicago Tribune, making it a leading Republican journal. As a prime rebuilder of the city, he was a member of the World’s Fair planning committee in 1893. Afterwards he would leave Chicago, and died in San Antonio, TX at the age of 75.7

  1. Protess, David L. “Joseph Medill: Chicago’s First Modern Mayor.” The Mayors - The Chicago Political Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. Paul M. Green, Melvin G. Holli. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pg. 2
  2. Protess, 2.
  3. Protess, 3
  4. Protess, 5
  5. Protess, 10
  6. Protess, 7
  7. Protess, 14
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