The Writings of Carl Schurz/Civil Service Reform and Democracy


When I was honored with the request to deliver this annual address, I accepted the charge with very serious misgivings. For I remembered that many successive years, on occasions like this, you have been wont to listen to a voice the exquisite charm of which still lingers in our ears and will never cease to echo in our hearts. No man can succeed George William Curtis here without being oppressed by the consciousness of inability to fill his place. It would be a vain attempt to rival his annual addresses in their abundance of knowledge and illustration, their ripeness of thought, their strength of reasoning, their delicacy of humor and their literary grace. They were so complete an arsenal of facts and arguments that it is almost impossible to speak on the same subject without repeating him, and the repetition will always fall short of the original. And no one succeeding him at the head of this National League can hope to be so naturally, so spontaneously accepted as the ideal leader of an organized endeavor for purity, justice and honor in politics. It may be said without in the least straining the sense of words that George William Curtis and the cause of Civil Service Reform were made for one another. All that the Reform aspires to was illustrated and exemplified in his personality.

Who can speak of him in other than terms of eulogy? It is a consoling satisfaction to the soul of a friend to do so. We, members of the League, who have worked with him so long, are fond of recalling the many titles he held to leadership among us; his sincerity, unselfish devotion and singleness of purpose; his profound understanding of the subject and large experience; his fearlessness in the defense and in the application of his principles; his keen discernment of opportunity; his absolute freedom from small jealousies; his cheerful and generous recognition of the merits and services of others; his gentleness in meeting adverse opinions; his sense of justice and his fine tact in composing differences; the inspiration flowing from his very being in the common endeavor for high aims. All these things gave him without question the first place in our councils. The leadership, therefore, fell to him by a general consent, the absolute unanimity of which, never broken, proved that we all felt it to be due to our cause and due to him. Thus the death of Mr. Curtis is to us, in the truest meaning of the word, an irreparable loss. He could not bequeath to us his genius nor his virtues. He could leave us only his teachings to remember, the inspiration of his zeal to quicken our own and his noble example to follow as best we can.

But if he were now here to dictate my speech, he would call it away from himself and direct it to the cause which he cherished so much, and which was in so large a sense his own. Indeed, the ultimate victory of this cause will be the fittest monument of this great citizen whom we who knew him well so warmly loved, and whose memory the American people can never too highly honor.

It is a comfort to his surviving friends to know that, although he did not witness the full consummation of his endeavors, he lived at least long enough to see his cause rise from small beginnings to a measure of success promising complete triumph at no very distant day. The question is only what President and what political party will carry off the greatest honors of the achievement.

I speak of this with so much assurance because civil service reform has grown and flourished in spite of the bitter hostility of an overwhelming majority of the professional politicians in both parties. They have exultingly proclaimed its death and burial a hundred times. It has survived an endless number of obituaries. They have derided it, and reviled it, and plotted for its destruction a hundred ways. Without knowing it, by their very enmity they have advanced its progress. Men have begun to respect and to love it for the enemies it has made. We have not far to seek for the reason. What is civil service reform? It is the application of common-sense and common honesty to the public service. And the American people are in the main a sensible and an honest people. It is the restoration to full power of honorable and patriotic motives in our political life. And the Americans are, in the main, an honorable and patriotic people. Therefore they will insist upon the general application and enforcement of civil service reform principles in the same measure as they recognize how sensible and honest and patriotic those principles are. In the acquisition of this knowledge they are at times powerfully aided by striking object-lessons. Recently they had one of them.

The Fourth of March last a new Administration went into power. Untold thousands of men poured into the National capital clamoring for office; not for offices that were vacant, but to be vacated in order to make room for the clamorers. No matter whether he was ever so good a public servant, the man who was in was to be kicked out to let him in who was out, no matter whether he would be not half so good a public servant. The office-hunting throng swept into the White House and into the Departments like a cloud of locusts. The President, sturdy as he is, could hardly stand up before the impetuous onset. The Cabinet Ministers, all new men in their places, who felt the urgent need of studying somewhat their Departmental duties, were hunted down so that they had hardly time to eat and sleep, much less to study. When their cry for pity availed nothing, they at last barricaded their doors with strict regulations. They went into hiding in order to save some hours for the business of the Government. The Post-Office Department was not only overrun by the crowd, but snowed under with written applications and recommendations for office which in huge heaps covered the floors of the rooms, and the whole force of the Department had to work after business hours merely to open and assort them. Senators and members of the House of Representatives ran wildly about like whipped errand boys to press the claims of greedy constituents or mercenary henchmen. It was what Mr. Cleveland calls the madness for spoils in finest efflorescence.

And what are these claims for office that are so vehemently urged? I know them well from long and varied experience. Special fitness for the duties of the office is the one thing which even the most daring claimant but seldom dares to claim. He does, indeed, claim that he can do one thing as well as another if he is only permitted to try; like the Yankee who, when asked whether he could play the violin, answered, he guessed so, but he had never tried. So the officeseeker is ready to try his hand at administration. In most cases the claim to office is based upon party service, the payment or collection of money for the campaign chest, the making of speeches or other political work deserving reward. And this claim is fortified with all sorts of reasons appealing to sympathy. Here is a patriot who has a large family to support and needs a post-office to help him along. There is another who wants a consulship abroad because he himself or his wife is in bad health and a change of climate would do good, or his daughter has a fine talent for music which should be developed in Europe. There is still another who wants the prestige of official recognition in the shape of a collectorship or a marshalship to enable him to exercise still higher political authority over the minds of his fellow-citizens. A man in Kansas, so the papers report, recently urged the appointment of his daughter to some place in the postal service in connection with the World's Exhibition at Chicago, on the ground that she would be the largest public servant in the country, weighing four hundred and seventy-two pounds. And for aught I know, this qualification is as good as many of those seriously urged.

This spoils carnival has been going on since the 4th of March, and it is not ended yet. In a measure it continues through the larger part of the Presidential term. I affirm and maintain that the American people are heartily disgusted with a spectacle so absurd, so ludicrous and at the same time so barbarous, shameful and revolting—a spectacle exposing the American name to ridicule and reproach. When speaking here of the American people I do, of course, not mean all the people. I do not mean the machine politicians of the two parties, who live on spoils. I do not mean Tammany Hall. I do not mean those poor creatures in Congress and in other high places who know they have not ability enough to sustain themselves as statesmen, and depend upon a following bought with patronage to prop them up. I do not mean the selfish speculators in politics, who find in the corruption underlying the patronage trade a congenial element. Nor do I mean those who like to be fed at the public crib, no matter whether they furnish an equivalent for their salaries. All these classes are the fast friends of the spoils system; but they form only a small minority of the American people. When I speak here of the people, I mean the men and women who earn an honest living by honest industry. I mean the patriotic citizens who have the welfare of the country, the success of free institutions and the honor of the Republic sincerely at heart.

In their earnest endeavor to serve the public interest, these people may be warm partisans. They wish their party to be successful and to win control of the Government. But a large majority of them are in their inward souls disturbed and disgusted when they see, after a party victory, hordes of partisans pounce upon the offices of the Government like a band of greedy mercenaries plundering a captured city. They are ashamed when, after the incoming of a new Administration, they hear of a President wishing to abolish this scandal but not being permitted to do so by the ravenous spoilsmen of the party, and of an official guillotine at work and of so many heads falling every day. This shame and disgust may not, by all who feel it, be loudly expressed in words; but nevertheless it exists, as in times gone by the conscientious abhorrence of slavery existed among the masses of the Northern people long before exciting events loosened their tongues.

But there is one part of the public service which now remains untouched by the tumultuous debauch of the spoils carnival. It is like a quiet, peaceable island, with a civilized, industrious population, surrounded by the howling sea. The President and the chiefs of the Government Departments contemplate this part of the service with calmness and contentment, for it gives them no trouble while the turmoil of the office-hunt rages all around it. The good citizen, anxious for the honor of his country, beholds it with relief and satisfaction, for here he finds nothing to be ashamed of, and much that is worthy of this free and great Nation. This is the “classified service,” covered by the civil service law, the creation of civil service reform. On the portals the words are written: “Nobody enters here who has not proved his fitness for the duties to be performed.” The office-hunting mob reads this and recoils. The public servant within it calmly walks the path of his duty, undisturbed by the thought of the greedy cormorant hungering for his place. He depends upon his merit for his security and advancement, and this consciousness inspires his work. This is the application of common-sense and common honesty to the public service. It is civil service reform.

The present civil service law was enacted under President Arthur. Under the rules established by virtue of it applicants for clerkships and other subordinate places in the Government Departments in Washington and in the greater customhouses and post-offices in the country have to pass appropriate competitive examinations to prove their fitness for the places they seek, and the appointments are made from those rated highest, without any regard to political affiliation or influence. Removals are discretionary with the appointing power; but inasmuch as the element of favoritism is eliminated from appointments, removals are no longer made merely to make room for more favored individuals. The public servant who proves himself faithful and efficient is, therefore, wherever the law is honestly observed, substantially secure, no matter to what party he may belong. And it may be said that under the National Government, the law, as far as it reaches, is honestly observed. That it is universally recognized to be so is due, more than to any other man, to Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, who, as a member of the United States Civil Service Commission, has performed his duties with rare fidelity, energy and fearlessness. All the high officers of the Government whose working force has been under the operation of the civil service law have, without any notable exception, borne emphatic testimony to the fact that the law has relieved them of serious difficulty and trouble, and has given to the country a greatly improved service.

At the close of President Arthur's Administration in 1885 the number of places classified, that is, covered by the civil service law, was about 15,500. At the close of President Cleveland's Administration in 1889 it was about 27,300. At the close of President Harrison's Administration in 1893 it was about 43,400, to which should be added several thousand laboring men in the navy yards placed under similar rules by the voluntary and most laudable act of Secretary Tracy. As the whole number of places under the National Government amounts to about 180,000, we may say that more than one-fourth of the service of the National Government has ceased to be treated as mere spoils of party warfare. In one-fourth the party boss has lost his power. One-fourth is secure from the quadrennial loot. In one-fourth influence and favoritism go for nothing. One-fourth has been rescued from barbarism. One-fourth is worthy of a civilized country. So much civil service reform has accomplished in the time of three Presidential terms. But great and encouraging as its progress has been, civil service reform, having conquered only one-fourth of the service, has done only one-fourth of its work.

There are still the laborers in the Government Departments and the higher grades of the clerical force, such as the chiefs of division, to be brought under the civil service rules. These rules are to be extended to many offices in which they are not yet in operation. The quadrennial slaughter, this relic of American savageness, has to be abolished first with regard to the fourth-class postmasters, of whom there are at present about 65,000, and whose execution en masse has so frequently caused conspicuous scandal. A bill regulating the appointment, and in effect precluding the wholesale removal, of this class of public servants has already been before Congress. This or a similar measure should be pressed until it becomes a law. Meanwhile it is reasonable to ask that the spirit of civil service reform be observed in all executive appointments. Although the President, in making the so-called Presidential appointments by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, cannot under the Constitution be bound by rules restricting his power, yet he may impose rules upon himself for the government of his own conduct in the exercise of the appointing power, so as to strip the offices of the character of party spoil and to treat them as what they are really intended to be: places of trust and duty, to be administered for the benefit, not of a political party, but of the people.

I know patience is one of the most necessary and most useful of virtues, especially in the pursuit of great reforms. But this virtue should not be cultivated to the extent of disregarding and neglecting any really existing possibility. And even the soberest view of the circumstances surrounding us at present persuades that the time is fully ripe for a further and a very essential advance in the reform of the civil service. Since the enactment of the civil service law every President of the United States has done something to extend the area of its operation. As it is said that no rich man in Boston can decently die without leaving a sum of money to Harvard University, so it seems no President can quit office without commending himself, by a tribute to civil service reform, to the merciful judgment of posterity. But President Cleveland has authorized us to expect from him a legacy of extraordinary value.

He is known as a man of genuine convictions, and may be trusted to mean what he says and to act according to his meaning. On no subject of public concern, neither on the tariff, nor on the currency, nor on Constitutional principles, has he expressed himself with deeper earnestness, with more emphatic directness, than on the necessity of civil service reform. Here are some of his words:

I venture to hope that we shall never again be remitted to the system which distributes public positions purely as rewards for partisan service. Doubts may well be entertained whether our Government could survive the strain of a continuance of this system, which upon every change of Administration inspires an immense army of claimants for office to lay siege to the patronage of Government, engrossing the time of public officers with their importunities, spreading abroad the contagion of their disappointment and filling the air with the tumult of their discontent. The allurement of an immense number of offices and places, exhibited to the voters of the land, debauches the suffrage and robs political action of its thoughtful and deliberative character. The evil would increase with the multiplication of offices consequent upon our extension, and the mania for officeholding, growing from its indulgence, would pervade our population so generally that patriotic purpose, the support of principle, the desire for the public good and solicitude for the Nation's welfare would be nearly banished from our party contests and cause them to degenerate into ignoble, selfish and disgraceful struggles for the possession of office and public place.

And in his last inaugural address he said:

One mode of the misappropriation of public funds is avoided when appointments to office, instead of being the rewards of partisan activity, are awarded to those whose efficiency promises a fair return of work for the compensation paid to them. To secure the fitness and competency of appointees to office, and to remove from political action the demoralizing madness for spoils, civil service reform has found a place in our public policy and laws. The benefits already gained through this instrumentality, and the further usefulness it promises, entitle it to the hearty support and encouragement of all who desire to see our public service well performed, and who hope for the elevation of political sentiment and the purification of political methods.

These are patriotic and statesmanlike utterances. The man who pronounced them showed that he well understands the nature of the disease, and he would not permit us to doubt his honest determination to apply the remedy. It is true, his words do not distinctly promise this or that specific measure. But he points out so clearly the evil to be redressed and the end to be reached, that the adoption of efficacious means is obviously implied. If “the system which distributes public positions purely as rewards for partisan service,” which “debauches the suffrage and robs political action of its thoughtful and deliberative character,” the system which makes it doubtful whether the Government will survive its continuance, is to be done away with, if “the demoralizing madness for spoils” is to be stemmed for the sake of the better performance of the public service and “the elevation of political sentiment and the purification of political methods,” then, evidently, public offices must cease to be regarded as political patronage and be treated in the truest sense as public trusts; the civil service rules, recognized as efficacious, must be extended to all the branches of the service to which they are applicable, and the principles of civil service reform, recognized to be correct, applied to all appointments, whether they can formally come under the rules or not. Nothing could be plainer.

We may, therefore, reasonably expect that President Cleveland, who now has the benefit of a larger knowledge of men and things than during his first term, will exert his whole power to do what the Administration which preceded him promised but failed to do—extend the civil service rules to all branches of the service to which they are applicable, and cause the spirit and purpose of civil service reform to be observed in all executive appointments. It is especially to be hoped that, as to executive appointments and removals, a beginning may be made with the 65,000 fourth-class postmasters; that the sweeping changes in this branch of the public service formerly customary may yield to civilized methods, and that the savage spectacle of the quadrennial postmasters massacre may forever disappear, to be remembered only as a relic of barbarism which strangely survived among the freest people on earth, down to the last decade of the nineteenth century.

When a President announces his firm determination to stop this savagery without fear or favor, and to be governed only by the public interest in making such changes in any branch of the service as may be necessary, it will probably no longer be difficult to carry through Congress a law regulating the appointment of the minor postmasters upon sound civil service principles. Then the superstition that every branch of the administrative machinery must be manned with adherents to the party in power will be thoroughly exploded, and the back of the spoils system will be broken forever.

I venture to affirm that the President who gives the decisive impulse toward such a consummation will render the Republic a more lasting service, will entitle himself more to the gratitude of posterity and will achieve greater renown for himself by this one act than he could by the most ingenious device of taxation and the most brilliant financial policy. For he will have removed an evil threatening not only our material welfare, but the very vitality of our free institutions. He will have imparted a new moral spirit to our political life rendering infinitely easier the rational solution of the other problems hanging over us.

To doubt that President Cleveland sincerely wishes to accomplish this would be to doubt that he is an honest man. The question may be asked whether his party will not throw discouraging obstacles in his way, such as the Republican party threw in the way of President Grant, and his successors, and whether he can be moved by them from his purpose. But the Democratic party should be the last to do so, if it is to deserve the name it bears; for civil service reform is, in its field, the perfect realization of the true democratic principle.

The truest definition of democratic government is furnished by Abraham Lincoln's famous saying that it is “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people”: of the people, for the people constitute the sovereignty from which it springs; by the people, for the people through their chosen representatives and servants conduct it; for the people, for it is to be conducted solely for the people's benefit. The people are, therefore, evidently entitled to the best service they can get, and no interest, neither that of a political party nor that of any citizen, has a right to stand in the way. Those entrusted with the power of appointing officers are, consequently, in duty bound to regard office solely as a public trust, and to appoint only persons found fittest to give the people the best possible service.

Democratic government rests upon the principle of equal rights. It abhors privilege and favoritism. But it is privilege and favoritism upon which the spoils system rests—the privilege of those in authority or of influential politicians to dispose of the public offices as their patronage, distributing that patronage by way of personal or political favor. It is justly said that the offices belong to the people and must be open to the people. Most certainly. But what does this mean? Does it mean that they must be open only to those who have influence themselves, or who have the influence of powerful politicians behind them? No; according to true democratic principle it means that the offices must be open to all citizens according to their fitness to fill them; that they must be most open to those who are most fit to fill them; that free and equal opportunity must be furnished to all for showing who are the most fit, whether they be rich or poor, politicians or no politicians, backed by influence or not backed. Under the spoils system the offices are open only to the privileged few—those favored by the influence of the powerful. Civil service reform has undertaken to open the offices to all according to their ability to serve the people. The spoils system asks the candidate for office: “Does your Member of Congress recommend you, or does the party boss in your State or your county ask for your appointment? Or are you backed by a man that gives much money to our campaign fund? What men of influence have you behind you? If you have none you can have no place.” Civil service reform asks the candidate: “Are you a man of good character, and what can you show to prove it? What do you know? What can you do? What qualifications have you for serving the people? Have you more than other candidates for the place?” On the one side, under the spoils system, the aristocracy of influence—and a very vulgar aristocracy it is—robbing the man who has only merit unbacked by power, of his rightful chance. On the other hand, civil service reform, inviting all freely to compete, and then giving the best chance to the best man, be that man ever so lowly, and be his competitor ever so great a favorite of wealth or power. On that side the aristocracy of “pull,” on this the democracy of merit.

This is the true democracy, and, as a civil service reformer, I have a right to say, “I am a Democrat,” Senator David B. Hill to the contrary notwithstanding. But what are you, spoilsman? You may be whatever else, but as a Democrat you are an impostor.

The spoils politician is fond of objecting that civil service examinations do not always point out the fittest man for the place. Perhaps not always. The best marksman does not hit the bull's-eye every time, but he misses it rarely. The civil service examinations may have a small record of failures. But what the system fairly conducted always does is to snatch public office from the undemocratic control of influence and favoritism. And there is the point which stings the spoils politician. It would trouble him little whether or not the fittest man is put in the proper field of action. That is not what he cares for. But that the reformed system so effectively repels the demoralizing touch of political favor, that it so thoroughly takes away from the office the character of spoil, that it does not tolerate public place to be a means of bribery and an article of barter—this the spoils politician will never forgive us, for it destroys his trade. The very democracy of civil service reform makes the spoilsman's heart sore with sorrow, and in the bitterness of his soul he wildly denounces it as an aristocratic notion imported from England, and as a thoroughly un-American contrivance.

There is no better illustration of the democratic character of civil service reform than its history in England. Our opponents might read with profit, although they would read with dismay, the excellent work of our friend Mr. Dorman B. Eaton on the civil service in Great Britain. They would find that England, too, had its spoils system once, with all the characteristic attributes of tyranny, corruption and demoralization. They would find that the struggle against the spoils system there was a struggle against the abuse of the royal prerogative and the predominance of the aristocracy. They would find that England had its movement for civil service reform, and that it was a movement for honesty and economy in government, and for the rights of the citizen. They would find that the growth of civil service reform, in England went hand in hand with the decline of aristocratic influence, and with the growth of the democratic idea in government. They would find that the progress of the democratic idea there in the shape of civil service reform has banished from the service the power of influence and favoritism; that it has truly opened the public offices to the people; that it has given the poorest child of the people the right freely to compete with the son of the richest peer to show his fitness for official employment within the civil service rules, and to obtain it according to the showing; that it has vindicated the right of the best man to the best chance. They would find themselves forced to the conclusion that the spoils system, as it has grown up in this Republic in the last sixty years, is only a relapse into the corrupt and demoralizing patronage system of monarchical and aristocratic England when it was at its worst, and that civil service reform is the embodiment of the truly democratic principle there as well as here.

That it is so here as there, does that make it un-American? What fool is there to pretend this? It is just as little un-American as Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights, just as little as the common law, trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus; just as little as constitutional government, free press and free speech; just as little as common honesty and common-sense. In fact, the principles of civil service reform are none other than those which governed the original Democracy of America. Thomas Jefferson is called the father of the Democratic party. The sons would do well to learn and inwardly digest and keep living in their souls the lessons taught by the sire. What are those lessons? Jefferson was elected to the Presidency after one of the hottest party contests this country has ever witnessed. He went into power in 1801. There was a heavy pressure for place from members of his party, the offices being almost all in the hands of the defeated Federalists. What did Jefferson do? Let us see. On March 24, 1801, he wrote to Dr. Rush:

With regard to appointments, I have so much confidence in the justice and good sense of the Federalists [the defeated party] that I have no doubt they will concur in the fairness of the position that after they have been in the exclusive possession of all the offices from the very first origin of party among us to the 3d of March, at nine o clock in the night, no Republican [Democrat] ever admitted, and this doctrine newly avowed, it is now perfectly just that the Republicans should come in for the vacancies that may fall in, until something like an equilibrium be restored. But the great stumbling-block will be removals, which, though made on those just principles only on which my predecessor ought to have removed the same persons, will nevertheless be ascribed to removal on party principles.

He then designates some persons that should be displaced, and proceeds:

Of the thousands of officers, therefore, in the United States, a very few individuals only, probably not twenty, will be removed, and those only for doing what they ought not to have done. I know that in stopping thus short in the career of removals I shall give great offence to many of my friends. That torrent has been pressing me heavily and will require all my force to bear up against; but my maxim is fiat justitia, ruat cœlum.

And in his letter of July 12, 1801, to the merchants of New Haven, he said:

It would have been a circumstance of great relief had I found a moderate participation of office in the hands of the majority. I would gladly have left to time and accident to raise them to their just share. But their total exclusion calls for prompter corrections. I shall correct the procedure, but that done shall return with joy to that state of things when the only question concerning a candidate shall be, Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?

I invite the modern Democrat to contemplate in a spirit of candor and soberness, and perhaps with some reverence, the example set by the father of the Democratic party. The Federalists, the first party in possession of the Government, had filled almost all the offices during three Presidential terms. When after a furious contest the Democrats came into power, the provocation for sweeping changes was as great as it has ever been since. What did Jefferson do? He was a warm partisan himself, and a keen politician too. But did he permit himself to be swept off his feet by the greedy clamor of his adherents? Did he resolve upon a clean sweep and, in the sanguinary parlance of to-day, “set up the guillotine” to make the heads of Federal placemen promiscuously fly into the basket? Did he proceed upon the idea that under a Democratic Administration all Government officers must be Democrats? Not he. He deplored that the Federalists should have found it necessary to fill almost all the offices with Federalists. He denounced this as an injustice; but he did not propose to retaliate by being as unjust as they had been. He simply declared his purpose to equalize the possession of the offices between the parties by making a small number of removals, but only for cause, and then by filling vacancies as they might otherwise arise in the ordinary course of things with a just proportion of Democrats. This done, then Jefferson would joyfully return to the regular practice of making appointments on the sole ground of fitness without regard to party.

It was thus clearly Jefferson's professed object, not to make the Government service a partisan service, but on the contrary to take from it the character of a partisan service which it had borne before; and then to start it anew on a distinctly non-partisan basis.

How did he carry out this plan? He did, indeed, make some removals, perhaps a few more than he had originally intended, and more than his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, wished him to make, but in the eight years of his two Presidential terms he made after all only thirty-nine; and, as he often solemnly affirmed, not one of them solely for party reasons. There being at that time no law limiting the tenure of offices to four years, and officeholders being not in haste to die and unwilling to resign, the process bringing about the equilibrium was necessarily trying to patience. But Jefferson saw no danger to his country nor to his party in the circumstance that a large number of the offices still remained in Federalist hands; for, being a sensible man, he knew that a postmaster had to receive and distribute not Democratic or Federalist letters, but simply letters; that a collector of revenue had to handle not Democratic or Federalist money; that the officers of the United States courts had to secure and enforce not Democratic or Federalist justice, but simply justice; that Indian agents had to take care of not Democratic or Federalist Indians, but simply Indians; and so on. This was Jeffersonian Democracy—the Democracy which Thomas Jefferson not only preached but practised.

He stood not alone. With him James Madison and Albert Gallatin formed the famous triumvirate which initiated the Democratic epoch and has ever since remained the most brilliant constellation of the Democratic firmament. Of these James Madison was the greatest Constitutional authority. He had been one of the makers of the Constitution and he has always been respected as one of its weightiest contemporary expounders. He expressed it as his opinion that under the Constitution the power of removal from offices filled by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate rested in the President alone. But did he think that the President had the lawful power to remove meritorious officers merely to put party friends in their places? Let us hear him: “The President who does that,” said Madison, “will be impeachable by the House before the Senate for such an act of maladministration, for I contend that the wanton removal of meritorious officers would subject him to impeachment and removal from his own high trust.” Nor were these idle words. These principles were well kept in mind by the Democratic Presidents of that period; for we find it recorded that Madison, during the eight years when he was President, made only five removals; Monroe, during his eight years, only nine; and John Quincy Adams, during his four years, only two.

Nor was Gallatin, the great financier and administrator of the triumvirate, of a different mind. In a circular to the collectors of revenue he emphatically expressed his desire “that the door of office be no longer shut against any man merely on account of his political opinions, but that, whether he shall differ or not from those avowed either by you or by myself, integrity and capacity suitable to the station be the only qualification that shall direct our choice.” And then he went on to say that officeholders should not use their official standing and opportunities as a means of partisan influence.

Such was the Democracy of Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin, the greatest apostles of the Democratic church in America. And it may not be presumptuous to suggest that Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin are as Democratic authorities preferable to Hill, Murphy and Croker, and even to Senators Gorman of Maryland, Voorhees of Indiana and Vance of North Carolina, to whom civil service reform is an abomination and the distribution of offices as spoils a necessity of political life.

It may be profitable to consider what an Administration conducted on the principles of Jeffersonian Democracy would do under existing conditions. It would, of course, scorn the idea of making “a clean sweep,” turning out all public servants belonging to the opposite party to put in its own. It would not make a removal except for good cause connected with official conduct, and it would utterly reject the notion that such a cause is furnished by the circumstance that a man has been in place four years—a notion, by the way, from a business point of view, so strikingly preposterous that it is amazing how it could ever be seriously considered among sensible people. Imagine a merchant discharging his salesmen and bookkeepers, a manufacturer discharging his foremen and artisans, a railroad corporation discharging its engineers and switchmen, a bank discharging its cashiers and tellers every four years on the ground that they have been in their places long enough and somebody else ought to have them now—would you trust a bank conducted upon such principles with your deposits, and would you like to travel on such a railroad?

The Jeffersonian Administration would, therefore, as a matter of common-sense, never think of applying to the far more important Government business a rule which would be scouted as criminally absurd when applied to the business of a railroad or a bank. It would go further, and consider as an improper removal the non-reappointment of a meritorious officer to whose place the existing four-year-term law applies, and it would do all in its power to bring about the repeal of that mischievous law. It would remember that this law was in its very inception a fraud practised upon the people. Crawford, the Secretary of the Treasury under Monroe, instigated its enactment under the pretence that it would give him better control over officers handling the public money, a pretence the futility of which became soon apparent. His real purpose was to strengthen his hold upon the officeholders and to make them further, as a political machine, his chances for the Presidency. The bill was passed without debate and Monroe signed it in a hurry without consideration. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter of November 29, 1820, addressed to James Madison, called it “the mischievous law vacating every four years nearly all the executive offices of the Government.” And thus he described, with admirable foresight, its effects:

It saps the Constitutional and salutary functions of the President, and introduces a principle of intrigue and corruption which will soon leaven the mass, not only of Senators but of citizens. . . . It will keep in constant excitement all the hungry cormorants for office, render them, as well as those in place, sycophants to their Senators; engage these in eternal intrigue to turn out one and put in another, in cabals to swap work; and make of them what all executive directories be come, mere sinks of corruption and faction.

Madison replied: “The law terminating appointments at periods of four years is pregnant with mischiefs such as you describe.” And in a letter to Monroe he raised serious questions as to its Constitutionality. Its repeal was urged by the foremost statesmen in our history, Clay, Webster, Calhoun and others, but in vain.

An Administration conducted on Jeffersonian principles would not permit so iniquitous a law to survive; for if the law was mischievous then, it is, in consequence of the multiplication of the offices to which it applies and the greater “madness for spoils,” infinitely more mischievous now. A Jeffersonian Administration would certainly never think of still increasing the mischief by applying a four-year rule to offices to which the four-year law does not apply—such as the minor post-offices. And I am glad to learn that the rumor which ascribed to the Post-Office Department the intention of adopting such a rule is unfounded.

A Jeffersonian Administration would recognize that the mere practice of permitting officers belonging to the opposite party to serve out their four-year terms, then to be all supplanted by men of the ruling party, would not be a reform of real value. It might be an improvement upon more brutal practices formerly prevailing, but it will in the course of four years result in a general partisan change. It will be a clean sweep slowly and bashfully executed, a clean sweep ashamed of itself, but a clean sweep for all that, to be followed by another clean sweep when the other party comes into power; a substantial continuation of the old demoralizing abuse. It will have only one merit, the merit of carrying the proof of its own inconsistency on its face. Look at it. A Democratic executive permits Republican officeholders to continue in place, one, two or three years until their terms expire. The Democratic executive thereby recognizes two things: firstly, that these Republican officers are good officers—for if they were not, they would have been removed for cause; and secondly, that Republican officers may continue to serve under a Democratic Administration without detriment to the public interest. In other words, the Democratic executive practically recognizes that the public interest does not demand the displacement of these Republican officers; and yet, taking advantage of the mischievous four-year-term law, the executive displaces them—displaces them confessedly without valid reason.

The Jeffersonian Administration will not do things so irrational; but, casting aside all inconsistencies and subterfuges, it will simply follow the precept given by Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin, remove only such officers as are, upon fair ascertainment, shown to have become obnoxious to the public interest; fill vacancies in such a way as to give the service an unpartisan character, and ask about candidates only: “Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?”—employing, in order to secure to such questions reliable answers, the most trustworthy methods and instrumentalities. This is Democracy according to Jeffersonian teaching. It is the destruction of the spoils system. It is civil service reform. And he is no Jeffersonian Democrat—he is no true Democrat at all—who will obstruct, or rather, who fails actively to support the President in any endeavor to bring about a practical return to these sound Democratic principles.

Is such a consummation beyond reasonable hope? Why should it be? I do not underrate the difficulty of uprooting abuses which seem to have become imbedded in popular habits and ways of thinking. But no brave man will recoil before an error because it appears popular; and frequently he will find it in reality far less popular than it appeared before he resolutely attacked it. Those of us who witnessed the first beginning of the civil service reform movement might well have been discouraged by the seeming hopelessness of the undertaking. The politicians despised it as an idle dream of visionaries, and waved it aside with a sneer. The people seemed to ignore it with stolid indifference. The first practical attempt resulted in dismal failure. That public sentiment was in any degree prepared for it when the work was begun, few of us would have been sanguine enough to affirm. But that public sentiment became rapidly prepared for it as the work went on, nobody will now deny. The present danger is, not that those who have the matter practically in hand rush ahead of public sentiment, but that they lag behind it.

One by one the old fictions by which the spoils politician sought to discredit civil service reform are vanishing into thin air. Of the demagogic pretence that it is an outlandish notion imported from England, and an un-American contrivance, I have already spoken. We still hear sometimes the silly story that it will build up an officeholding aristocracy. That people should fear the growing up among us of an aristocracy of millionaires—that I can conceive. But think of an aristocracy of revenue collectors, customhouse appraisers, district attorneys and United States marshals! Imagine a nobility composed of postmasters, Indian agents and Department clerks! If there be anything like a feudal aristocracy in politics, it is that born of the spoils system—the party bosses, the machine leaders, the dealers-out of patronage—such as King Croker, Duke Murphy, Marquis Sheehan, Earl Gilroy and the sturdy barons holding fiefs and wielding power as Tammany district leaders here—a somewhat rough nobility to be sure, but quite as enterprising as any that levied tax on unprotected merchants' wagons and upon the unwary traveller's purse in the Middle Ages. It is for the Jeffersonian Democracy to deal with this precious chivalry.

There is the other curious conceit that the spoils of office are necessary to hold political parties together, to create an interest in public affairs among the people and to give life and spirit to our political contests. Is this possible? Look at England, where, after the overthrow of one party and the coming into power of another, scarcely more than sixty offices change hands. Look at Germany, where the victory of one and the defeat of another party involve no change in the administrative machinery at all. There are no spoils there, but are there no parties? Are there no party contests stirring the popular mind to its very depth? And now, in the freest of all countries, where the people in the largest sense are called to govern themselves, where the people owe so much to their democratic institutions and are said to be so proud of them, here there should not be patriotism and public spirit enough, here it should require the sordid allurement of spoils and plunder to inspire the citizens with an active interest in their own affairs? Shame upon the slanderers who revile and blacken the American name with so infamous a charge! For it is a slander, wanton, foul and abominable. There was as much interest and ardor in our political contests as there ever has been anywhere in the world before the spoils of office were an element in American politics. There was more interest, more patriotic fervor, more self-sacrificing devotion, than anywhere and at any time in history, in the greatest political contest this country has ever seen—in the struggle for the salvation of the Union—in which hundreds of thousands freely offered their lives without any thought of spoil. And now should it be necessary to stimulate the patriotism of the American people with plunder? In the name of the National honor I repel the calumny.

If there has been anything calculated to chill patriotic zeal in public affairs, and to drive high-minded public spirit out of active political work, it was the intrusion of the spoils system that did it. It has injected the virus of mercenary motive into political endeavor. It has attracted to political organizations bands of greedy camp-followers, and enabled them to crowd out men of self-respect with their disgusting predominance. It has put the political boss, the leader of organized selfishness, in the place of the statesman. It has tended to make the political parties mere machines in the service of sordid greed. Instead of imparting healthy life and spirit to our political contests, it has sought to degrade them to the level of scrambles for plunder. Take out that spoils element and there will still be parties, but they will not become mutual assurance companies of speculators and self-seekers. These parties will not be smaller, but they will be better. There will still be political workers, but they will be workers for public measures and policies, no longer the mercenary crowd working for loot. There will be leaders, but statesmanlike leaders of thought and endeavor—no longer leaders of hireling bands. There will be party contests, but contests of opinion fired with the enthusiasm for great principles—no longer miserable cat-fights for post-offices and collectorships. It is true the political trickster whose whole statesmanship consists in the art of political barter, and the patriot whose whole public spirit springs from a desire to be fed at the public crib—they will be sadly discouraged and chilled; they may perhaps sullenly retire from the trade. But the real patriotism and statesmanship of the country, inspired with new zeal and hope, will move untold thousands to more than fill the gaps.

We hear it said that the “heelers” and the men of dirty work are necessary for party organization. Remove the spoils system, and you will see how superfluous they are. Their places will be taken by men who attend to organization with no less zeal and far more honorable purpose. This city groans under Tammany dominion, and Tammany asserts that its methods are necessary to hold an effective party organization together. Take away the spoils, put all the non-elective places, from the department commissioner to the street-sweeper, under sound and strict civil service rules, and there will be the end of Tammany. But the city will have other organizations for government, and then a government of public spirit, a government in which the best men will be proud to take part; and it will at once appear how little the political ardor and activity of the Tammany kind was required to make New Yorkers happy. We hear it said that the possession and the use of the spoils of office are needed to render a political party strong and successful. It is refreshing to see what the American people have of late come to think of the virtue imparted to a political party by the possession of the plunder. In 1884 the Republicans had all the offices, and they were defeated; in 1888 the Democrats had all the offices, and they were defeated; in 1892 the Republicans had all the offices, and they were defeated. And if in 1896 the Democrats should have all the offices again, that possession would certainly not save them from defeat.

As an element of party strength the possession of the offices has clearly proved a failure. The wise politician will seriously consider, in the light of recent history, whether it is not really an element of party weakness. How much stronger than a party gorged with spoil would that party be in the respect and confidence of the people that could truthfully say: “I was in control of the Government, and I have not selfishly abused my power. I have removed no meritorious public servant, although many of them were politically opposed to me. For every appointment I had to make, I have carefully selected the fittest man regardless of party. The interest of the people was my supreme consideration. I have faithfully treated the public offices as public trusts.” Would not a party able to say this win for every discontented officeseeker ten recruits among our good citizens?

I say, therefore, that civil service reform is not only right, not only democratic, but also “good politics.” It is good politics in a larger sense now than it has ever been before. The rapid repetition since 1884 of sweeping changes in the public service, with the scandals of absurdity and brutality inseparable from them, has stirred up a moral sensitiveness among good citizens all over the land, which is constantly increasing. The ravages committed by Mr. Clarkson in the postal service during Mr. Harrison's Administration called forth much severer criticism than anything done by Mr. Stevenson before him; and fifty removals made by Mr. Maxwell now, whatever explanations may be given, cause a far more painful sensation than five hundred removals made by Mr. Clarkson did four years ago. The national pride begins to be stung by a feeling of shame at the thought that abuses so glaring have been permitted to live so long in this mighty Republic of ours; and this feeling will be especially keen at this period of the World's Exposition—it might be called the world's meeting—upon our soil, when merchants, manufacturers, workingmen, artists, men of science, men of letters, statesmen, publicists, thinkers of all nations visit this Republic. They will study not only our natural resources, our material development and the productions of our industries, but the working of our political institutions, our morals, our customs, our manners, our ways of thinking, all the fruits of our civilization. The patriotic American, mindful of the honor of his country, asks himself with anxious interest how the spectacle of the passage of our National Government from the control of one party to that of another will strike these keen observers, and how their experiences, communicated to the world, will affect the standing of this Republic in the opinion of civilized mankind.

Imagine such men to go to Washington in order to look into the machinery of what may without exaggeration in some respects be called the greatest, and certainly the freest Government on earth—the one which ought to be the model Government of the world. Imagine them to find the National capital occupied by eager crowds clamoring for the public offices as the hireling soldiery of past centuries may have clamored for the booty of a town taken by assault. Imagine them to find the President of the United States, the greatest elected officer in the world, literally besieged by the throng of office-hunters demanding his instant attention. Imagine them to see the President, as well as the Secretary of the Treasury, at a moment when the financial interests of this people of sixty-five millions are drifting into the perils of a great crisis, obliged to confess that the place-hunting invasion does not leave the highest officers of the Government time quietly to study the pressing dangers of the situation and the means to avert them. Imagine the observers to inquire into the “claims” of the impetuous office-hunters, and to find in an overwhelming majority of cases mere party service urged as their only title to public employment, coupled with an impatient demand that all officers of different politics be instantly ousted to make room for the victors. Imagine them to see Senators and Representatives, the lawmakers of the Republic, vehemently pressing such action. Imagine them to take up their daily papers and to find in one of them a despatch announcing that yesterday 150 new postmasters were appointed, among them fifty in the place of persons removed, mostly because they have been in office four years; just long enough to make them experienced and useful postmasters; in another paper a jubilant outcry that the “headsman” in Washington is vigorously swinging his axe and making the heads fly; and in still another a threatening growl at the slowness with which the executioner is doing his work, and which is chilling the enthusiasm of the party. Imagine these bedlam scenes to be the pictures these observers would carry home with them of American practical sense, of the American development of democratic institutions, of the fruits of American civilization, of the character of this great Republic of ours, which we proudly think should be in all things an elevating example, a guiding star to all nations on earth!

The shame of the fact that the spoils system, of which all this is but the natural outgrowth, has prevailed among us for more than half a century, we cannot hide from the searching eyes of mankind—just as in times gone by we could not hide the hideous blot of slavery. Nor is the existing evil of less moment than that which we have overcome. We find it recorded that a few days after the fall of Richmond, Abraham Lincoln pointed out to a friend the crowd of offtceseekers besieging his door, and mournfully said: “Look at this. Now we have conquered the rebellion; but here you see something that may become more dangerous to this Republic than the rebellion itself.” But as we overcame slavery and the rebellion, so the American people can again furnish the proof that, however strongly an evil may be entrenched in power and in habit, they are, in the exercise of their democratic government, wise enough, patriotic enough and vigorous enough to deal with it. And nothing would redound more to the glory of this Republic than such a demonstration now, when, more than ever, it is the observed of all observers.

When thinking of the means to abolish the spoils system, our eyes turn not unnaturally to the man whom the people recently put at the head of the National Government. He has the power to strike a decisive blow; he has the opportunity, and it would be an offense to doubt that he has the will. He knows, as we know, that the people put him where he is because he was trusted to be opposed to the vicious methods which so long have poisoned our political life. He was believed to be able and willing to secure to the people not merely a smaller measure, but the opposite of the tyrannous and demoralizing spoils politics, of which they are tired. He owes his elevation to the hope that his Administration would be different from most of those which preceded it, not merely in degree, but in kind. We, who are an organization of devoted volunteers in the struggle for this cause, may without presumption speak to him and say: “You are beset by politicians great and small who, for their own advantage, seek to drive you from your noblest purposes. Tell them once for all that the President of the United States, as you understand his duty, has in the use of his power only one interest to serve, and that is the common welfare. You have told us that it is very doubtful whether our Government could survive the strain of a continuance of the spoils system. Tell the spoils-seekers that it is the sacred duty of the President of the United States to guard the Government against this perilous strain, that he has no right to continue it and that, therefore, the distribution of offices as party spoils must cease altogether. You have told us that the use of offices as rewards for partisan activity involves ‘a misappropriation of the public funds.’ Tell them that the President of the United States has no right to misappropriate the public funds, no right to increase the cost of the Government and the burdens of the people, by displacing efficient public servants because they belong to the opposite party, and by filling the places by inexperienced and therefore expensive men of his own. Tell them this with decision and firmness, and soon the wild scramble will cease which harasses you and your aids beyond endurance, almost blocking the wheels of the Government and exposing us to the scoffs of civilized men. Let all concerned well understand that only the public interest will be served and no spoils are to be had while you are President, and you will find Congress more willing than it ever has been to regulate the service permanently by rational legislation. It may be said that by doing this you will offend many politicians. So you will. You will offend the same men whom you have offended many times before, and whose hostility has been your glory and your strength. And they will be equally offended if you do only half of it. But by doing the whole you will win the support and the lasting gratitude of a patriotic people. No living man has more reason than you to know that the people can be trusted, that as to all questions of political morals they are far in advance of the professional politicians, and that they are capable of enforcing their will. If they were not, then you would not be where you are. We read of able and brave men in history whose achievements remained crude and commonplace, while a little more of bold decision at the moment of great opportunity would have made them heroes and placed them among the immortals. Yours is the opportunity of a generation. It is an enviable opportunity, worthy of the noblest, the most patriotic ambition. As Abraham Lincoln stands in our annals as the liberator of the slave, you may stand there, if you will, as the regenerator of our political life.”

Members of the League, we look forward to the year before us with high hopes. May we be permitted, when we meet again, to rejoice over accomplished results.

  1. Address delivered before the thirteenth annual meeting of the National Civil Service Reform League in New York City, Apr. 25, 1893.