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Harvard Address on Civil Service Reform

Address of Hon. Carl Schurz, at Memorial Hall, Harvard.




WHAT I am going to say to you is not new, but it cannot be repeated too often, especially before the young men of America. There is a widespread impression that it is the only aim of civil service reform to provide the government with a more efficient class of public servants. This is only one of its aims. But another one, and a higher one, is gradually to eliminate from our political life, the demoralizing element of patronage and spoil which appeals merely to the selfish impulses of human nature, and thus to open a larger and freer field again to the higher ambition of purely patriotic purpose.

The pest of politics in a democracy is the man who attaches himself to a political party merely for the sake of what he can make out of it in the way of material benefit. I do not mean to say that it is wrong or disgraceful to aspire to public office. On the contrary, it is right and laudable whenever the aspirant is able and desirous to return for the emolument received a full equivalent in service, and willing to stand upon his own merit. Nor do I mean to say that every one who enters the service in any other way, must necessarily be or become a drone or a knave; for I know that many of them have acted upon an honorable sense of responsibility and done good work.

What I mean to say is that the bestowal of office as patronage or party spoil is, as a general rule, bestowal of office by political or personal favor; that this favor is usually earned, and again to be earned, by personal or party service; that the beneficiary of that favor depends upon the continuance of that favor for his continuance in office; that thus his allegiance is divided between the public interest and his powerful patron; and that this relationship is apt to have a demoralizing effect upon the public service as well as upon the character of the office holder as a citizen — for he who depends upon arbitrary favor instead of standing upon his own merit is no longer in the true sense a freeman.

I mean to say further that, as we know from long experience, under the patronage or spoils system, many men rise to great political influence and power without distinguishing themselves by ability or character or public usefulness — men who simply know how to speculate upon other people's selfishness, who are only skillful in organizing a personal following among those who want to be fed at the public crib, and in building up a party machine mainly officered by placeholders and composed of men eager to become such; and who thus become commanders of bands of political mercenaries more or less ready to do whatever political work their leaders may impose upon them without much or any regard to the public interest.

I mean to say further that in this way party leadership is apt to degenerate, and in some cases has actually degenerated, from leadership of opinion into mere leadership of organization — that is, from a leadership the aim of which is to command to the popular mind certain principles and policies to the end of having them made effective by legislation and executive action, to a leadership which aims mainly, or even exclusively, at party victory and the winning of the spoil, caring for principles and policies not because of their true merits, but principally because of their use as vote-catching contrivances.

From these conditions has been evolved as a characteristic excrescence the party boss as we know him. The party boss in his highest development is the absolute dictator of the party organization within his city or his State, as the case may be. He controls the distribution, even in detail, of the patronage, the party spoil. He disposes of the party funds levied by assessments upon office holders, or upon corporations or other business interests that may be benefited or injured by party action. He awards the money for campaign expenses for candidates for office. He directs the subsidizing of the needy element of the party press. He rules, through his obedient henchmen, the party caucuses and conventions. He dictates the platforms to be adopted and the composition of the party committees. He selects the persons to be nominated as candidates for office — for Congress, for the Legislature, for Governor, for Mayor, for Judge, and so on. He exacts from them implicit subserviency to his behests. In short, he absorbs in himself well-nigh all the functions of the political party.

I speak here of the boss in his highest development. This is no fancy picture. We have had party bosses, Democrats as well as Republicans, who answered this description in every touch. You may find them in New York and Pennsylvania. In other States the development has not been so complete. It is true, the bosses were sometimes baffled by revolts of public sentiment, and occasionally by a spirited President, who showed them his teeth in repelling their dictatorial demand for the absolute control of the federal patronage, or by some dutiful governor, who had a sense of higher obligation and a will of his own.

But you may safely take it that wherever a party machine exists, mainly held together by what has picturesquely been called “the cohesive power of public plunder”, it will, by a natural process, tend to evolve that bossdom I have described — here a little more rapidly, there a little more slowly, as local conditions may be more or less favorable to it.

Wherever it exists, even in comparatively small beginnings, it will tend to grow in extent and rapacity of power; and in the same measure, as it grows, it will tend more and more to bring our public life under the control of the political huckster, to degrade our politics to the level of a game of small intrigues for selfish advantage in various shapes, and to exclude from official position and activity that high-minded ambition which would serve the general good according to the dictates of conscience and the inspirations of an enlightened patriotism — I say it will tend to exclude that high-minded ambition, unless it can corrupt and subjugate it to its selfish ends.

Now I do not assert that the element of patronage and office-spoil is the only agency that has fostered the tendency of demoralizing and degrading selfishness in our political life. But every attentive observer knows that the spoils system has been the principal and most effective agency in furnishing that evil tendency with an organized and well-drilled force of spoils politicians, or mercenaries — a force always standing ready for action in season and out of season, with untiring energy and sleepless perseverance, whenever anything is to be done to keep our political life down to the level of a scramble for the loaves and fishes and to protect it against the invasion of the higher aspirations of a truly patriotic citizenship.

It is there that civil service reform steps in to do its most important task. I am certainly not sanguine enough to pretend that civil service reform will be a panacea for all the ills that beset our political life. Nor do I indulge myself in the expectation that the full fruits of civil service reform will be reaped before the merit system covers all the non-political places and fully supplants the spoils system in the political habits of the country. Until then there will be arduous and incessant struggle. But surely, with every office rescued from spoils-politics, the political huckster will have so much less of merchandise to trade in, the boss and the machine will have so much less of bribe to offer with every branch of the public service brought under the merit system — which makes proved fitness instead of political favor the test of eligibility for office — the public plunder which holds together the bands of political mercenaries will be so much curtailed and the field for the independent and legitimate ambition of the truly meritorious will be so much enlarged. And with every advance made by the cause of civil service reform in the favor of the public opinion of the country, that demoralizing and debasing agency in our political life which appeals to, and stimulates, mean selfishness, and, by the tyranny of organization, seeks to subjugate conscience, will be so much weakened, and the men of ability, high character, a fine sense of honor and the highest aspirations of true patriotism will so much more be encouraged to devote themselves to the service of the republic.

And this is the feature of civil service reform which I would commend for the especially earnest consideration to our young men. They must look forward to the day when their duties as citizens will call them to the field of public activity. It must be their desire, as it certainly is their interest, that they should enter that field under conditions encouraging a pure and high-minded devotion to the public good; conditions permitting them to rise without imposing any tax upon their self-respect; conditions giving everybody a fair chance to rely upon his ability, character and usefulness for his place; conditions under which they may be servants of the people and at the same time true freemen, with a conscience and principles of their own, and with the true pride of manhood intact; conditions inviting and encouraging the fullest development and exertions of their best abilities inspired by the noblest aspirations of American citizenship. Such conditions the elimination of spoils politics from our public life will powerfully help to secure; and we may all say, therefore, that civil service reform is prominently the cause of the young American who hopes to serve the republic with honor to himself and profit to the country.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).