Civic Federation Celebrates 130th Birthday, Launches Historical Timeline, Remembers Laurence Msall

Civic Federation Celebrating 130 Years of Service

February 02, 2024

The Civic Federation is pleased to be celebrating its 130th birthday on Saturday, Feb. 3, and with it, the launch of a new historical timeline feature on the Federation’s website tracing the organization’s history back to its founding in the wake of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Sunday, Feb. 4 also marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of the Federation’s extraordinary, longtime president Laurence Msall; the Federation is remembering Laurence and celebrating his integral role in the organization’s history.

Founded in 1894 by prominent Chicagoans Lyman J. Gage, Bertha Palmer and Jane Addams, the Civic Federation sought to address deeply held concerns regarding Chicago’s economic, political and moral climate at the end of the 19th century. Gage had served as board president of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was president of First National Bank and would become the first president of the Civic Federation. Upon its launch, the Federation established five committees with the following focus areas:

  • Revenue laws, town and county relations and special assessments
  • City charter, administration, etc.
  • Ballot law, primary election, and corrupt practices act
  • The merit system in civil service
  • Sanitation, charities and educational matters

By the 1940s the Civic Federation had shifted its focus completely to research and advocacy pertaining to tax policy. In 1944, the Federation’s executive secretary and historian, Douglas Sutherland, published Fifty Years on the Civic Front, a detailed reporting on the organization’s achievements in its first 50 years. Promotional materials for the Federation produced in the 1950s state that its members at that point had two common ties: “They want taxes held to the minimum necessary for effective government, and they want their tax dollars spent prudently.”

In the 1990s the mission of the organization broadened once more, as stated in a welcome letter from then-board chair John F. Ward, Jr. to attendees of the Federation’s 1995 Centennial Gala. Ward wrote, “Now, as the Civic Federation begins a new century of service, its mission is becoming broader than just fiscal policy, although work on such issues continues to be its backbone. Regional and economic development issues are forging into the focus of its research, and greater emphasis is being placed on preparing recommendations that will help local systems of governance to become more efficient, accountable and effective.” 

Ward’s description of the Civic Federation’s expanding mission in 1995 is an apt one for much of the organization’s work to this day. But the Federation has also continued to take on additional areas of research, including its focus on transparency and its branching into criminal justice research over the past decade. In addition, since 2009 the Federation has published short-form analyses and recommendations on its blog spanning a wide range of government topics and issues.

“The Civic Federation’s 130 years of research, information and action have left an indelible mark on our region and state,” said Civic Federation Vice President and Research Director Sarah Wetmore, who’s been with the organization since 2006. “Looking back at the extraordinary work done by generations of Civic Federation members and staff is incredibly humbling and energizing.”

Immediately following the arrival of the Federation’s 130th anniversary on Saturday, Feb. 3 is the arrival of the one-year anniversary of the passing of Civic Federation President Laurence Msall on Sunday, Feb. 4. Laurence expanded and transformed the Federation in innumerable ways during his 21-year tenure, spanning 2002 to 2023. View a tribute video honoring Laurence here.

“Until recently, Laurence, who I knew as a professional acquaintance and with whom I spoke periodically as we led organizations with paralleling and aligned missions, is someone I spoke of in the past tense,” said new Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson. “That has shifted since joining the staff in January. His spirit, ethos, dedication, inspiration and incisive analytical insights permeate the organization and the political, policy and civic spheres that looked to his knowledge, leadership and voice for over a generation. His legacy is a living one in both tangible and intangible ways. He is present.”

As the organization reflects on 130 years, it also looks ahead to the future. Under Ferguson’s leadership the Civic Federation is embracing an evolving strategic vision that will remain anchored in its core strength of promoting responsible, sustainable fiscal and budgetary policies and practices, effective government services, and improved government transparency for the Chicago region and State of Illinois. 

“The celebration of the 130th anniversary of the Civic Federation is a reminder that past is prologue,” Ferguson said. “The challenges that prompted the founding of the Federation in 1894 are very much the challenges of today. So in this special anniversary year, we elevate our history and the lessons it offers for the pressing work we must all join in together as we strive for a better future.”