Liberty made Atlantic City the World’s Famous Playground
By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
(Reprinted from August 18, 2010 Current-Gazette Newspapers of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, http://www.shorenewstoday.com/index….layground.html)
Many of us have read Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire” about Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and other corrupt politicians who ran Atlantic City 70 to 100 years ago. The TV version will be on HBO next month.
Atlantic City enjoyed great wealth and success back then. But before you start thinking that political bosses and “pay to play politics” were good for us then (and might be good for us now), it is important to know the rest of the story.
“Liberty and Prosperity” became New Jersey’s motto in 1776. Liberty meant our government equally protected the right of each citizen to pursue happiness. This included the right to buy and farm land, build a house, mill, ship, or factory, and move goods to wherever they could be bought or sold for the best price.
Everywhere else in the world, people could not do this without permits from the government that were expensive and given just to a privileged few.
This liberty made Americans the wealthiest people in the world. We produced what people wanted, earned more from what we sold, and paid less for what we bought. We paid much less in taxes, yet gave far more to charity.
In the 1780s many French government officials were friends of Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. ambassador to France. Many fled here after their Revolution of 1789 and got government jobs here. But they soon quit when nobody offered them any bribes. Very few Americans needed special favors from government to succeed back then.
This liberty created Atlantic City 78 years later. Jonathan Pitney, Sam Richards and private investors used their own money to buy an empty island of sand by the ocean and build a hotel. In 1854, they ran 56 miles of railroad track to the Camden-Philadelphia ferry.
Over the next 50 years, these original investors freely subdivided and sold their land as thousands of small parcels. Without any government zoning laws, development agencies, planners, or authorities, private citizens built hotels, restaurants, shops, amusements, and theaters. Without eminent domain, they agreed it was in their self-interest to keep the beach by the Boardwalk as a public park.
At that time, the “unalienable right” to pursue happiness meant that gambling, liquor, cocaine, opium, marijuana, and prostitution were all legal. Lots of money was made in those businesses.
By 1904, Atlantic City was the World’s Famous Playground. Everyone was free to share in the prosperity. Many Irish, Italian, German, and Jewish immigrants left big-city sweatshops to run their own businesses here. So did many blacks, including the children and grandchildren of slaves, who were one-fourth of the population. They started as laborers or in kitchens, but moved up by learning skills in business or various trades. Start-up capital often came from renting rooms and serving meals at their homes.
Blacks voted and were an important part of the Republican Party. They named streets in their neighborhood after Republican leaders such as Lincoln, Grant, Blaine and McKinley. Atlantic City was one of the first towns in the world to get electric lights and refrigerators. Foreign diplomats in Washington, D.C. sent their children to Atlantic City High School. Churches, synagogues, charities, libraries and cultural centers thrived.
Meanwhile, leaders of a new “Progressive” movement, including Princeton University Professor Woodrow Wilson, were teaching that America’s Constitution and ideas of liberty that protected the rights and property of each individual were old-fashioned.
Progressives instead wanted a government of “experts” with enormous power to improve society. Individual rights had to give way to the “public good” as they defined it. “Progressive” Woodrow Wilson became governor of New Jersey in 1911.
Wilson’s ?Progressives? began by making liquor, gambling, recreational drugs, and prostitution illegal in New Jersey. Of course, this was very bad for business in Atlantic City. And so we turned to corrupt political leaders like “Nucky” Johnson and Hap Farley and asked them to ignore those “Progessive” laws.
And they did this for a few. They appointed crooked police, judges, and sheriffs who protected bars, gambling halls, and bawdy houses whose owners supported them and who paid the “ice money.” Everyone else was arrested and shut down.
Over the next 80 years, “Progressives” made things worse with dozens of new zoning, environmental, and public transportation laws that made almost every business in Atlantic City in violation of something. Atlantic City changed from a town of liberty and opportunity for all to a place where no major business can succeed without special favors from some politician.
Somers Point attorney Seth Grossman appears live on WVLT-92.1FM, heard throughout South Jersey 8-9 a.m. every Saturday. For information see www.libertyandprosperity.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (609) 927-7333. Breakfast discussions are held 9:30-10:30 a.m. every Saturday at the Shore Diner, Tilton and Fire Roads, Egg Harbor Township.