William H Thompson

Thirty-Fourth Mayor of the City of Chicago (1915-23, 1927-31)

While “Big Bill” Thompson would be remembered for his anti-war views and “America First” movement, he began his career as a backer of the status-quo.

William H. Thompson was born into a wealthy family in Boston on May 14, 1867. His father decided to move the family to Chicago two years later.1 Father Thompson became a Republican in the Illinois legislature, but while he was playing politics, his son was playing cowboy. Big Bill spent as much time as he could out west, only returning to Chicago on the event of his father's death. It was a promise to his mother that would keep him thereafter.2

For the 1915 mayoral election Thompson would be pitted against Democrat Robert Sweitzer, a county clerk. The Democrats at this time were incredibly fragmented, allowing Thompson to win by 148,000 votes.3 His initial focus was on the middle-class, with hostility to unions and a lack of interest for labor. Once in office, Thompson would quickly antagonize many be enforcing the Sunday closing laws beginning the first Sunday in October, 1915.4 Although the laws had been around for quite a time, most simply chose to ignore them.

Thompson soon builds a huge machine power base, inciting protest from good government forces in March 1916. They were more than a bit upset that in the Mayor’s first five months in office, he had made 9,200 temporary civil service appointments. More trouble would follow, with the Democratic State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne indicting several men close to Thompson.5 Although no prosecutions were made, it would damage Thompson’s reputation.

Knowing the impact of immigrants, Big Bill always tried to be very careful with ethnic issues. One of the reasons he had come out against involvement in World War I was that he knew a great number of Chicagoans had ties with the Central Powers and would support them. He also saw his anti-war stance as an issue that could propel him to the U.S. Senate. Indeed, it would be this one issue that would shape the rest of his career.6 In order to blunt some of the criticism being leveled towards him because of this, he would repeated promise to build a greater Chicago.

In 1918 Thompson would pursue his senatorial desires, going up against Congressman Medill McCormick in the Republican Primary - Big Bill promptly lost by some 60,000 votes.7 With this defeat, he began to fulfill the radical image that his opponents had painted of him. Thompson’s 1919 bid for reelection had a decidedly different flavor, trading middle-class politics in favor of working class. The Democrats, once again, could not unite their party and see their candidate, Robert Sweitzer, lose to Thompson for a second time. His margin of victory was some 21,000 votes this time, many coming from the black community.8

With a stressful second term, Thompson decided to sit out the 1923 race. It would be his successor, William Dever, who would bring Big Bill back. Dever had gone beyond enforcement of the Sunday laws, fully embracing prohibition and subsequently alienating many voters. In 1927 Thompson took on Dever, defeating the incumbent by 83,000 votes.9

Now an outspoken ally of labor, Thompson would also link himself with organized crime, namely Al Capone’s organization. Thompson spent a great deal of time promoting the idea of his “America First” movement, attempting to establish a national America First Foundation.10

In 1931 Big Bill sought reelection once more, this time against Democrat Anton Cermak. Thompson’s defeat would begin the Democratic domination of Chicago which still exists today.11

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