It describes the work of corrupt political machines in several major cities in the United States, as well as some efforts to combat them. It is considered one of several early major publications of muckraking journalism, although Steffens later argued that this work made him “the first muckraker”.


The Shame of Cities is a book by American author Lincoln Steffens. Published in 1904, it is a collection of articles written by Steffens for McClure’s magazine. Although Steffens’ topic was municipal corruption, he did not present his work as an unveiling of corruption; on the contrary, he wanted to draw attention to public complicity in allowing corruption to continue.

Steffens tried to put forward a theory of urban corruption: crime, he said, was the result of “big businessmen” who corrupted the city government for their own purposes, and a “typical businessman”, an average American who ignored politics and let such corruption continue. He formulated his work as an attempt to “sound the voice of civic pride,” making the public aware of its responsibility to preserve municipal corruption.

Steffens’ account of Joseph W. Folk helped him climb to political heights in Missouri. Two articles are written in St. Louis, and another subsequent article by Steffens in April 1904, helped mobilize support for Folk and elect him governor of Missouri at the end of that year.

Even though Steffens’ reports gave examples of corruption in some major American cities, in his book “The Shame of Cities” Steffens points out that exposing corruption was not his goal. In the introduction to the book, he writes that for him the most important new information in his work was not evidence of corruption but evidence of public complicity in it.