Still it is eminently important to the success of the new system that the nature of the commissioner's function as head of one of the city's administrative divisions should be clearly defined and understood. This necessity results from the experience of American cities with the problem of administration. The method, prevalent in every American state, of selecting municipal administrative and technical officials by popular vote, has been a stumbling block in the path of our unfortunate cities. The most vicious legacy which Jacksonian Democracy bequeathed to American politics, profoundly influencing the political ideas and methods of our people during the first half of the last century, was the belief that the selection of administrative officials by appointment and for a permanent tenure meant the growth of a class of office-holding bureaucrats, and that the democratic doctrine of equal opportunity demanded that all should have a turn or a chance of public office. This then novel application of the democratic principle, exemplified in the federal service by the spoils system, led, in the state and local governments, to the popular election for short terms of purely administrative officials. It is a curious fact that the state governments, which imitated the federal system in most respects, have always departed from it in one of its most important features—the centralization of the administrative service in the hands of the chief executive.
In application this principle did not lead to the expected results. Experience proved that to exercise intelligence and discrimination in the selection of numerous officials was beyond the power of the voters; especially was a wise selection of expert administrative officials impracticable in view of the natural inability of the ordinary voter to judge of the technical qualifications of the different candidates for the place. The logical result followed: the voter, in his confusion and helplessness, came to depend upon the party organization, which now assumed the selective function supposed to be exercised by the voters—an excellent illustration of the soundness of the political maxim that a system of government which gives to the voters a power which they are not able to exercise takes from them that power. Popular selection meant party selection in such a case, and party selection was based upon considerations of availability, not of efficiency. The best candidate for the office requiring technical skill and training was, from the point of view of the politicians, not the man whose experience fitted him for the place, but the party worker whose usefulness to the "Organization" might be conveniently recognized and retained by giving him the office. Essentially, the failure of the Jacksonian political builders in thus modifying the earlier political system was a failure to distinguish between political functions and functions of a purely administrative or technical nature: in its willingness to sacrifice efficiency to democracy,