Joseph Lincoln Steffens, the most notable of the early twentieth century muckrakers and one of the most important journalists of his time, was born in San Francisco on April 6, 1866. The son of Joseph Steffens, a prominent businessman, and his wife, English-born Elizabeth Symes, he grew up in Sacramento, where the family moved in 1870. Childhood explorations took precedence over schooling and discipline until his parents seized the initiative and enrolled him in a military academy. After an additional year with a private tutor, Steffens entered the University of California at Berkeley and earned his degree in 1889. Declining his father’s offer to join his business, he decided to pursue a general interest in philosophy and began graduate study in Germany. There, his interests broadened to include ethics and psychology. When Steffens finally returned to New York City in 1892, his father discontinued financial support and forced him to seek work.
Steffens’s first job was covering Wall Street as a reporter for the New York Evening Post. He quickly became disillusioned with big business. Steffens also worked as a police reporter. He soon discovered that police, criminals, politicians, and businessmen often worked together for mutual benefit–with the public usually the loser. He was beginning to piece together an understanding of interdependence among various social elements that he would later describe as a “System.”
After a brief stint as a city editor, Steffens moved to McClure’s magazine in 1901. There he gave his fascination with civic corruption a national scope. His “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” which appeared in the October, 1902, McClure’s, gave him the distinction of being the first “muckraker” and made him an influential figure in the emerging Progressive movement. Steffens continued his systematic research into the causes of municipal corruption and broadened his study to include other municipalities. He found a cycle of corruption that was pervasive and consistent. His articles, collected in The Shame of the Cities, confirmed his earlier suspicion that politics and business were inseparable. Yet Steffens was optimistic, hoping that an informed public would become righteously indignant, abandon its moral apathy, and work to make government more democratic.
As Progressivism moved from the city to the state level, Steffens followed. He soon published The Struggle for Self-Government, a series of investigative articles on state politics. Certain that corruption had become institutionalized and that a “System” did in fact exist, Steffens believed that civic awareness in itself would be insufficient to bring about meaningful reform unless coupled with strong progressive leadership. As his interest in the role of leadership in the cause of national reform grew, he completed Upbuilders. The book presented chapters on five individuals who had successfully applied the Golden Rule as a means of solving social and political problems. Steffens hoped to illustrate the potential of applied Christianity as an ethical basis for human relationships, but the Golden Rule appeared to be unobtainable for society as a whole. Middle-class hypocrisy prevented it.
Steffens became increasingly disillusioned. He suggested that perhaps the greatest evil in society was “privilege” –special legislation, “pull,” and “protection.” He analyzed this point in a series of articles he wrote in 1910 and 1911 entitled “It: An Exposition of the Sovereign Political Power of Organized Business.” His knowledge of the workings of the political economy was increasing, but so too was his belief that changes far more drastic than those sought by most Progressives were necessary. Steffens’s pessimism increased after the death of his wife in 1911. Seeking rejuvenation, he moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and joined the circle of writers, artists, and socialists gathered by Mabel Dodge (1879-1962). The Mexican and Russian revolutions provided him with opportunities to observe violent social upheavals, and he began to flirt with the idea of historical determinism. In Russia, Steffens thought he had truly witnessed the future. Finally, the “System” had been destroyed. As a defender of the goals of the Russian Revolution and as an admirer of Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924), Steffens wrote Moses in Red. In comparing modern revolutions with the story of Moses in the Old Testament, Steffens hoped to show that revolution was a scientifically determinable phenomenon. If humankind chose to ignore the laws of nature and maintain outdated forms of economy (capitalism), then revolution was inevitable.
In the mid-1920’s, Steffens began writing his autobiography. He thought that he could use his life as an instructive example of a process of “unlearning” the ingrained political and social processes of his society. He wanted to share his wisdom with a younger generation, in which he placed hope for the future. His last book, Lincoln Steffens Speaking, published after his death in 1936, was a collection of newspaper articles in which he attempted to explain the collapse of the economic system during the Great Depression.
Steffens’s importance rests with his talent as a journalist and social thinker. His muckraking books provide insights into business, politics, and human nature that embody the liberal prescription for a truly democratic society. His autobiography is a classic recounting of a lifetime spent in search of a democratic-humanistic ideal. Steffens has been criticized for being superficial and for lacking an ideological center. The charges are somewhat unfair. He offered a fundamental critique of capitalism and the profit motive. He challenged the legitimacy of corporate and political elites and helped to generate a mass reaction to injustice. He appeared to wander intellectually because he never stopped asking questions; political analysis always seemed to take precedence over political commitment.