Daley, Richard J.

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Richard J. Daley

Born May 15, 1902
Chicago, Illinois
Died December 20, 1976
Chicago, Illinois

Mayor of Chicago, 1953–1976

Richard J. Daley became one of the most powerful Democratic Party figures in America during his twenty-three years as mayor of Chicago. Known for his administrative abilities and sharp political instincts, he played a vital role in the city's economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, when many other major cities in the northern United States underwent serious financial declines. But Daley's national reputation suffered permanent damage when Chicago hosted the 1968 Democratic Convention. During that event, Chicago law enforcement units engaged in a shocking "police riot" against antiwar demonstrators. Televised coverage of these clashes convinced many Americans that Democratic Party leaders could not effectively guide the nation in Vietnam or at home.

Early career in politics

Richard J. Daley was born in Chicago in 1902 to Michael Daley, a factory worker who was active in the Democratic Party, and Lillian (Dunne) Daley. As a youth, Richard acquired a solid familiarity with local politics and an early allegiance to the Democratic Party. He attended parochial (Catholic) school before earning his high school diploma from De La Salle Institute in 1918.

Daley worked as a clerk and a Democratic Party official around the neighborhood for the next several years. But he also continued his studies, eventually earning a law degree from Chicago's De Paul University. In 1933 he passed law exams that enabled him to work as an attorney in Illinois, and three years later he formed a law firm with William J. Lynch and Peter Fazio. As time passed, however, Daley turned many of his business duties over to his partners so that he could devote his time and energy to city politics.

Daley's importance as a Democratic Party official increased steadily during the late 1930s and 1940s, when he took a series of positions of increasing prestige within the city and state governments. During that same period, he began to raise a family with Eleanor Guilfoyle, whom he married on June 23, 1936. They eventually had seven children.

By 1948 Daley had risen to the post of revenue director for the state of Illinois, and two years later he took over as Cook County clerk. These important administrative positions provided Daley with important experience in the complex political and financial worlds that governed Chicago and the rest of Cook County. In 1953 Daley was elected to the chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Party Central Committee. This victory made Daley even more powerful in Chicago, for it gave him control over the Democratic political machine that directed affairs throughout the city.

Mayor of Chicago

In 1955 Daley completed his rise to the top of Chicago's political world by winning the city's mayoral election. In addition, he continued to serve as the chairman of the Cook County Central Committee even after taking the mayoral reins. Daley exercised great power and influence over the city in these dual roles.

As mayor, Daley forged effective relationships with industry leaders, labor unions, and federal agencies. As these alliances took shape, the mayor oversaw new business growth and massive construction projects throughout the city. These projects included the world's largest airport and tallest office building, a world-class convention center, a city campus for the University of Illinois, and major improvements in metropolitan highway and subway systems. In addition, Daley introduced popular new programs that improved public services and neighborhoods in various sectors of the city.

As chairman of the central committee, meanwhile, Daley built the Cook County Democrats into a very powerful organization. By 1960 Democrats occupied every important government post in Chicago, as well as most of the city's elective offices. In addition, Daley used the Cook County political machine to further strengthen his own position within the city. In fact, Chicago voters reelected him as mayor in five consecutive elections, in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, and 1975.

Daley's administration was not without critics. Some observers charged that the city's political and economic existence was unduly influenced by organized crime. Others charged that the Daley administration unfairly appointed friends, relatives, and political allies to positions within city government or the mayor's political organization. And as time passed, growing numbers of blacks and other minorities living in Chicago claimed that Daley's administration ignored problems in their neighborhoods and practiced its own brand of racism. But Daley remained hugely popular among the city's business leaders, union members, and white working-class families.

Not surprisingly, Daley's ability to control Chicago politics attracted national attention. In fact, his Chicago-based political machine made him arguably the most powerful mayor in the country. He helped shape the policies and politics of the national Democratic Party and played an important role in Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy's (see entry) narrow victory over Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon (see entry) in the 1960 presidential election. Daley's political machine sparked a heavy Democratic turnout in Chicago that enabled Kennedy to defeat Nixon in Illinois. Even more importantly, news of the Illinois vote reportedly discouraged Nixon supporters from voting in several Western states that Kennedy barely won.

Daley and the Vietnam War

In 1968 Daley prepared to host the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Daley looked forward to the convention because he knew that the event would provide a boost for Chicago's businesses, emphasize his prominent position in the Democratic Party, and shine a spotlight on the city he led. But as the August convention date approached, America's growing divisions over the Vietnam War threatened to cast a shadow over the event.

The Vietnam War was a conflict that pitted the U.S.supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. The Viet Cong were guerrilla fighters who wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite the two countries under one Communist government. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States sent money, weapons, and advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong. In 1965 the United States began using thousands of American combat troops and extensive air bombing missions to crush the Communists. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that claimed the lives of thousands of young American troops. As disillusionment over the war increased, the American public became bitterly divided over how to proceed in Vietnam.

For his part, Daley reportedly harbored private doubts about American involvement in the conflict. But he publicly supported the Vietnam policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry), a fellow Democrat and important political ally. The mayor also criticized the antiwar movement, which he viewed as a group of disrespectful troublemakers. But despite Daley's public expressions of support for the war, none of his four draft-age and eligible sons served on active military duty during the conflict. Instead, they all joined military reserve units to avoid going to Vietnam. One son even used his father's political connections to leapfrog over a waiting list of several thousand applicants and gain special admittance into the reserve.

In the weeks prior to the Chicago convention, Daley expressed great concern that antiwar demonstrators might try to interfere with the convention proceedings. He vowed that he would not tolerate any nonsense on the streets of Chicago during the convention. Antiwar activists took this warning seriously. After all, Daley had reacted strongly to disturbances in the past. In April 1968, for example, riots broke out in some of Chicago's black neighborhoods after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (see entry). Daley responded to the riots by ordering city police to "shoot to kill" arsonists. Later that same month, Chicago police brutally beat dozens of people who participated in a peaceful antiwar march.

Daley's warnings convinced many antiwar demonstrators to stay away from Chicago. But about 5,000 still showed up, including leaders of some of the country's angriest and most militant antiwar groups. Daley, meanwhile, arranged for a massive security presence around the convention center and the rest of downtown Chicago. As David Levy noted in The Debate over Vietnam, the mayor turned the city into an "armed fortress" in preparation for the convention.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention

The 1968 Democratic National Convention opened on August 26. Daley welcomed the party officials and delegates to the event. He also assured them that "as long as I am mayor of this city, there's going to be law and order in Chicago." But clashes between antiwar protestors and police erupted almost immediately and worsened over the course of the four-day convention.

As the violence of the confrontations increased with each passing day, some observers blamed the protestors for the unrest. After all, some members of the antiwar crowd engaged in angry and defiant behavior. They used drugs in public, waved North Vietnam flags, chanted obscene slogans, and engaged in petty vandalism during their time in Chicago. "They monopolized media attention," wrote David Levy in The Debate over Vietnam, "provoking terror and hatred among those Americans who still believed in order, and they were able to quite overwhelm the more respectable, reasoned, and dignified opponents of the war."

But as the convention continued, citizens of Chicago and American television viewers nationwide expressed even greater alarm about the behavior of the Chicago police. In many instances, the police acted like an angry mob. They stalked the city's streets with billy clubs, tear gas, and police dogs, brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators, journalists, and innocent onlookers alike. "By [the second day of the convention] it was irrelevant to the police whether the person they clubbed was young or old, male or female, a protestor or a hapless neighborhood resident who happened to be on his way home from work," wrote Mike Royko in Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. "Clergymen trying to calm the situation were beaten .... Scores of people were beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment, including twenty newsmen. After [the first day's] jolting experience, reporters had mistakenly taken to wearing even bigger press credentials, which only served to attract the police like hungry sharks . . . .To a nation and a world, [Daley's] Chicago was beginning to look like a madhouse, and the famous TV commentators were being blunt about it. By [the last day of the convention], there was more interest in Daley and his policemen than in the expected nomination of [Hubert] Humphrey," the Democrats' candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Many Democratic officials who gathered for the convention were outraged by the behavior of the Chicago police. They angrily demanded a halt to the police violence, which eventually forced an estimated 1,000 people to seek medical assistance. But Daley and his staff dismissed their complaints and furiously defended the performance of the Chicago police. As the convention continued, public shouting matches erupted between the two camps. In the meantime, the convention floor also became the setting for a bitter debate over the party's Vietnam War policies. The delegates eventually voted to support a continuation of Johnson's war policies. But the chaotic debate, which was televised to a national audience, revealed that the party was deeply divided over the issue.

By the time the convention finally ended, nearly everyone agreed that the event had been a nightmarish disaster for both Humphrey and the Democratic Party. Televised images of rampaging police and furious party officials lingered long after the convention closed. The events in Chicago convinced many voters that the Democratic Party was too troubled and confused to lead the U.S. to victory in Vietnam or heal American communities that had become divided over the war, civil rights, and other issues. In fact, many scholars believe that the ugliness of the Chicago convention was an important factor in Humphrey's loss to Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon in the November 1968 presidential election.

Daley continues as mayor

The convention seriously tarnished Daley's national reputation and reduced his influence among national leaders of the Democratic Party. But he remained the most powerful politician in Chicago, winning reelection in both 1971 and 1975. He died on December 20, 1976. Thirteen years later, his oldest son, Richard M. Daley, was elected mayor of Chicago. In 1997 he won election to a third consecutive term as mayor of the city.


Farber, David. Chicago '68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Kahn, Melvin. The Winning Ticket: Daley, the Chicago Machine, and IllinoisPolitics. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Kennedy, Eugene. Himself: The Life and Times of Mayor Richard J. Daley. New York: Viking, 1978.

Royko, Mike. Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. New York: New American Library, 1970.