The Writings of Carl Schurz/To Jacob H. Gallinger, October 1st, 1897


You have chosen to continue our public conversation, and so be it. Your reply to my “open letter” strikingly presents the spectacle of the defendant after conviction making faces at the prosecuting attorney. But that will hardly change the judgment already pronounced by an intelligent public opinion. I might therefore dismiss your cry of distress without another word, did it not convey some valuable lessons.

Being a writer whose genius shines most brilliantly in quotations, you have sought to show that my public course has greatly displeased some politicians, and that they have spoken of it with marked acerbity. This is an old story, and I am only surprised at the meagerness of your display. I could have furnished you an abundance of more amusing material from my own collections. It is true, with others I have helped in defeating aspirants to high place, in baffling political speculators and in holding political parties after election to their preëlection pledges—an “obtrusive” practice which just now seems to be quite troublesome to statesmen like yourself. For this I have had to endure not only the candid criticism of fairminded party-men, which I always respect, but also an unusual measure of that general vilification to which the defeated candidate, the thwarted spoils-monger and the enraged party fanatic resort when ingenuous argument fails. But when you analyze the whole farrago you will find it to consist of endless variations of one theme,—that I have claimed the right, and hold myself in duty bound, to oppose, without regard to mere party interest, any policy or any candidate whose victory would, in my honest opinion, have been injurious to the public welfare.

For this course I had reasons that enable me to bear those revilings with cheerful equanimity. The wrongs which during my long observation of public affairs I have seen done or condoned for the sake of party, and the crushing of individual conviction and the deadening of conscience through the tyranny of party organization that I have witnessed have deeply impressed me with the belief that it is high time the American people should remember and most earnestly take to heart the solemn warning in Washington's Farewell Address against an excessive party spirit as a very serious danger to our free institutions. A symptom of that party spirit we beheld in a feature of last year's election campaign, the appalling significance of which every thinking American should well consider. In the spring of 1896, Democratic conventions in many States most emphatically and unequivocally condemned free-silver coinage as a heresy fraught with incalculable disaster to the country. No sooner had, a few weeks later, the Democratic National Convention espoused that heresy, than the Democratic party organizations in the same States endorsed the very doctrine they had so loudly condemned and men of otherwise respectable character supported this amazing self-stultification, because they would rather risk the ruin of the Republic than forfeit their party regularity. Nor is this submissiveness confined to the Democratic side. This very day we see the Republican party in several States under the despotic control of mutual assurance companies of spoils politicians called machines, and under the tyranny of bosses of most unsavory repute, respected only for their iniquitous power—while the rank and file, and even men of high standing, trembling lest they lose their party regularity, submit to the dictatorship of the most selfish and unscrupulous elements in politics, which they know to be subversive to public morals and hurtful to the public interest. And there is no prospect of improvement—nay, it is certain that the evil will grow and spread so long as Washington's admonition is unheeded and the rank and file of our parties accept the doctrine that the obligation to party is superior to any other. Where will this end?

Under such circumstances I am willing to be decorated with all the vituperation your industry can collect, for maintaining and following the principle that the duty of the citizen to the public weal is absolutely paramount to any duty he may owe to a party organization.

I do not, of course, indulge in any hope of making you appreciate that principle. But it may at least be useful to point out the absurdities in which your doctrine of “party treason” involves you. With characteristic confusion of ideas you accuse me of having “espoused all shades of political opinion.” Do not flatter yourself that I would defend myself against any of your charges. I merely wish to show by this example how completely in a partisan mind like yours fidelity to party organization has taken the place of fidelity to political principles and public ends. I have always been an anti-slavery man; for a sound currency; for civil service reform; against high tariff protection; for honest and economical government; and for a foreign policy honorably pacific and conservative. Has anybody ever heard me say a word for slavery, or for fiat money or free silver, or for a high protective tariff, or in commendation of extravagance or of apology for corruption, or for needless war or wild foreign adventure? Where then is this “espousing of all shades of political opinion”? But you might say that while I have been true to my principles and aims, I have supported now one party and then another. But why? Because, as I honestly believed, fidelity to my principles and aims demanded it. For instance, had I been “faithful” to the Republican party, I should have been “faithless” to my convictions as to the tariff. Had I been “faithful” to the Democratic party, I should have been “faithless” to my convictions as to the currency. (And here let me remark, by the way, that what you say in your letter of the constant high tariff policy of the Republican party betrays gross ignorance. You need only to read the Republican platforms since 1860 to find that the high tariff for protection is a Republican policy of comparatively recent date.)

Evidently we do not think alike. Your highest boast is that you have “never voted any other than the straight party ticket.” To your mind obedience to the party organization in “voting the straight ticket” under all circumstances is a full discharge of the duties of citizen ship and the sum of political virtue. When you have “voted the straight ticket” you feel yourself free to repudiate the party's principles and to dishonor its pledges, just as if a citizen after having paid his taxes to the State may think himself licensed to break its laws. To disobey the party organization by not voting the straight ticket is to you “treason” to be abhorred and branded with ignominy. But if this duty of allegiance to party organization is so sacred on the side of one party, it is equally sacred on the other, for the relation of the individual to the party is the same. Now, Senator, what are you doing, when, as a stump orator or political manager before an election, you seek to draw voters from the other side to yours? What were you aiming at last year when, brimful of enthusiasm for the gold plank in the Republican platform, you made those brilliant speeches of which the historians of the campaign are so strangely silent? The countless Democrats you converted, did you not seduce them from their sacred party allegiance? Did you not persuade them to commit “treason” to their party and thus to do a dishonorable thing? And as to the sound-money Democrats, without whose aid Mr. McKinley's election would have been, if not impossible, at least extremely doubtful, should they not, instead of being welcomed as patriotic auxiliaries, have been repelled with disgust as a lot of ignoble renegades, utterly unmindful of the sacred duty “never to vote any other than the straight ticket of their party,” and disgracefully given to “espousing all shades of political opinions”?

Fortunately for the country there are thoughtful Republicans as well as Democrats in constantly increasing multitude, who perceive not only the glaring absurdity of such doctrines but also the mischief of them; who recognize that political parties, to remain instrumentalities of public usefulness, must be confined to their legitimate functions, and that the enjoyment of the spoils is not the most valuable of the fruits of party victory; who are becoming more and more alarmed at the excessive party spirit so solemnly condemned by Washington, and at the demoralizing tyranny of party organization with its multiplying machines and bosses, as one of the greatest dangers to free institutions; and who see in the spoils system, for the full restoration of which politicians of your kind are so arduously working, one of the most baneful agencies ministering to the growing evil. Your “open letter” may well serve as a warning example of the moral effects of your own teachings upon yourself.

It is pleasant to notice that in three columns of personal diatribe you have at least ten lines about the real subject of our controversy. You are compelled actually to admit that the civil service law is not the creature of a set of “traitors” and “political hermaphrodites,” but that the Republican party claims it as its offspring, and has solemnly pledged itself in its platform to enforce that law “honestly and thoroughly.” To the charge that you are repudiating this long-standing and important part of the Republican creed, and that you are urging the Republican party to break its pledge, you have only this defense:

In regard to civil service reform I will say that as the Republican party gave to the country the civil service law, that party is its best interpreter. . . . At best the interpretation of the present civil service law is not a fundamental political tenet, but simply a question of opinion. If you will read carefully the plank in the last Republican platform you will observe that it demands that “it [the civil service law] shall be thoroughly and honestly enforced.” That is the very issue I have raised. I have contended and still contend that Grover Cleveland did not honestly enforce the law, but prostituted it to partisan ends.

Not a “fundamental political tenet” but a mere “matter of opinion”? Let us see. The Republican platform must be quoted to you again to make you fully appreciate it: “The civil service law was placed on the statute book by the Republican party, which has always sustained it, and we renew our repeated declarations that it shall be thoroughly and honestly enforced and extended wherever practicable.” Have you ever known any platform pledge of greater clearness and force? It is not, as most platform declarations are, a more or less vague expression of sentiment or general intention. It is exceptionally definite, specific and unequivocal, more so than any protective tariff plank ever was. There cannot be the shadow of a doubt as to what the civil service law is; for it stands on the statute book. There can be no question as to what the enforcement of the law means, for the records of two Republican and two Democratic Administrations show it. There can be no doubt as to the significance of the pledge to “extend” the law. That pledge cannot possibly mean anything else than the widening of the operation of the law, “wherever practicable,” beyond the limits within which it operated at the time the pledge was made. And it may be remarked, by the way, that under this pledge President McKinley, as a really faithful Republican, would not only have been bound, had President Cleveland's order of May 6, 1896, never been issued, to make substantially the same extensions provided for by that order, but that he is now bound to go even beyond them, “wherever practicable.”

And in the face of all this you assert that the interpretation of the civil service law and of the Republican pledge concerning it is a mere matter of “opinion” and that the party itself is the best interpreter. Do you mean to say that the party itself may interpret the pledges upon which it asked for the people's votes, just as it may please? Is not this attributing to the political party the doctrine of the divine right of kings—the officers of the government being responsible only to the king, and the king being responsible only to himself or, as he expresses it, to his God? To this point you carry the doctrine of the divine right of party.

How President McKinley, as a faithful Republican and an upright gentleman, interprets the pledge, we all know. But how do you advise the Republican party to “interpret” its pledge? You pretend to great indignation at the wicked Grover Cleveland who, as you say, “did not honestly enforce the law but prostituted it to partisan ends.” Of course, you wish your constituents to understand that you fairly yearn for a really “honest” enforcement of the law and that “partisan ends” are a horror to your patriotic soul. Do you not again presume upon the supposed ignorance of the people of New Hampshire? They need only open the Congressional Record to find that on March 23, 1897, less than nine months after the Republican party reiterated its solemn pledge, you spoke in the Senate thus:

I do not believe that life is long enough for this Senate to investigate the civil service of this Government. There is a shorter and easier way, and that is to get rid of the whole thing. I have voted against it [the civil service law] in the other house of Congress, I have voted against it in the Senate whenever opportunity offered, and what I desire is to cast my vote to blot out that statute. I stand upon the simple proposition that it is an un-American law, and that every citizen of this Republic has an equal right with every other citizen of the Republic to seek employment under the Government of the United States [as if this equality of rights were not infinitely more secure under the system of competitive examinations equally open to all, than under the system of appointment by influence], and whenever I get an opportunity, whatever the proposition may be, to vote to blot this law off the statute books, I shall so vote: and I shall take my chance with the people whom I happen to represent in part in this Chamber without reference to how it may strike the aesthetic tastes of the people of Massachusetts.

Thus it appears that you recognize the pledge of the Republican party to enforce the civil service law “honestly and thoroughly,” and to “extend it wherever practicable”; that you reserve to the Republican party the right to “interpret” this pledge; and that at the same time you urge the Republican party to redeem the pledge binding it to enforce the civil service law honestly and thoroughly, by blotting out the law altogether. It is a somewhat unpleasant question to ask, Senator, but it must be asked: Is this a position to be taken, or a game to be played, by an honest man? And I venture to suggest that it will not be a sufficient answer to this question to cry out that the person asking it is a “traitor” or a “renegade,” or even, if you please, a common felon. Nor will it be sufficient to affirm that you “have never voted any other than the straight party ticket.”

The sad confusion of moral principle betrayed by the stand you thus have taken is put in a still stronger light by the glaringly untruthful statements concerning the administration of the civil service law which you have made to your constituents in your public correspondence with Mr. McAneny. I refer to this because it is characteristic of the utterly unscrupulous methods by which the war against the civil service law is being carried on. Of those statements I will recall only a few specimens to your memory.

You charged that “President Cleveland's last order, which swept into the classified service almost 50,000 employés, bears date of November 2, 1896,” and that “there is every reason to believe that the order dated November 2d was actually not written until after the result of the election of November 3d was known to the country.” By this charge you evidently intended to make your constituents believe that President Cleveland had slyly waited until the Government was certain to pass into Republican hands, and that then he had extended the operation of the civil service law to protect Democratic appointees. The truth is, and so it was shown to you, that the Executive order extending the civil service law was issued by President Cleveland on May 6, 1896, six months before the election and several weeks before either of the great political parties held its National Convention. It was also shown to you that the number of employés brought into the classified service by that order was not 50,000, but 31,372, and that at least 12,000 of these had been already subject to the examination system under separate departmental orders. Neither is it true, as you charge, that the classification of any of these employés by President Cleveland's order protected them against removal. The first order effectually to stop arbitrary removals was issued, not by President Cleveland, but by President McKinley.

To make the civil service law ridiculous to your constituents you told them that applicants for appointments as compositors or pressmen in the Government Printing Office were required to hop on one foot a distance of twelve feet, as part of their examination, and that they had to answer the question whether they were immune to the diseases endemic or epidemic in the Southern States. It was conclusively shown to you that the first test was imposed not on compositors and pressmen in the Printing Office, but only on applicants for places requiring physical strength and endurance, and then in connection with the familiar test of heart action, as it is also used in the Army and Navy; and that an answer to the second question is demanded only of applicants for places in the marine hospital service and a few similar positions at Southern ports.

To make the civil service law seem useless and even harmful to the public interest, you told your constituents that “not one item of proof has been produced to show that the service is better now than it was prior to the enactment of the civil service law, and that on the contrary the proof is all the other way.” You were confronted with the official testimony of two Presidents, one Republican and one Democratic, and of an array of heads of Departments and bureau chiefs, who had actual experience of its working, overwhelmingly proving the exceedingly beneficial effects of the law as to the increased efficiency of the service; and, in addition, with the striking fact, drawn from the records, that since 1883, when the civil service law was enacted, there has been an increase of 37 per cent. in the number, and of 43 per cent. in the salaries of the unclassified places, while in the number of places originally classified there has been an actual decrease, with a corresponding decrease in the appropriations for their support; in other words, that in the branches of the service under the civil service law more work was done by fewer persons and for less money, while in the branches not under the civil service law the old needless multiplication of offices went on, with an increasing wastefulness of expenditure.

These are only a few specimens of your assertions which were shown to be untrue. I might largely extend the list. Now, what did you do, Senator, when you were thus brought face to face with crushing proofs of the untruthfulness of the allegations against the civil service law you had made? Then you remembered that the president of the Civil Service Reform League was a “traitor to the Republican party and its principles,” and that the leading members of that League were generally “renegades” and “political hermaphrodites,” and persons entitled to no credit. And when you had annihilated them to your heart's content you rose to the final averment: “I stand by every declaration heretofore made, the denials to the contrary notwithstanding.” It may not have occurred to you, Senator, that this is a somewhat grave matter, concerning your character as a gentleman. He who makes a false statement in the first instance may be excused on the ground that it was a mere mistake, a slip of the tongue or a lapse of the mind—although it might be expected of a Senator of the United States that before speaking of a public matter so loudly and so repeatedly, he should at least inform himself of easily ascertainable facts. But when, after having been clearly shown the falsity of his allegations, he then deliberately repeats and reaffirms and “stands by” them, the case becomes more serious. Then he exposes himself to the application of a very short word which cannot be offered any one who is not devoid of the instincts of a gentleman, without kindling a blush on his cheeks. If you have any sincere friends they cannot too soon point out to you this danger line. As the matter stands, every unprejudiced person examining the evidence before us will find himself forced to the conclusion that you have deliberately sought to mislead and deceive your constituents by telling them things which had been proved to you, and which you knew to be untrue. And I repeat, against this it will be of no avail to you to cry out about my being a “traitor to the Republican party,” or that you have never bolted a Republican ticket.

I have treated you seriously, Senator, in connection with a serious subject; and here I might leave you, had not this controversy also a feature irresistibly appealing to a humorous fancy. With the grand austerity to which but few great men know how to rise, you address to me in the opening of your “reply” a sentence which is to show me my proper place. It merits repetition. “It were probably better,” you say, “to suffer you [me] to lapse again into that political obscurity where your disloyalty to the Republican party precipitated you, than to gratify your yearning desire for notoriety by keeping you longer in public view, into whose presence [!] you have seized this opportunity of obtruding yourself.” That after having been publicly called a “traitor,” and all that, I should have “obtruded” myself by a word of explanation, may indeed be inexcusable. But, Senator, is it not cruel, on your part, to taunt me with my “obscurity”? Nature and fortune are sparing with their choicest gifts. On you they have lavished a rare combination of genius and success. The great and powerful of this world should at least be generous enough not to scoff at the feeble and insignificant. You are a genuine celebrity. Your noble defiance of President Harrison on account of a consulship, of which your biographers tell us, and your valiant battles for post-offices and revenue places, have carried your fame into the remotest corners of New Hampshire. The fearless statesmanship of your attack on the “hopping test” in the Senate has made your colleagues and many other people prick up their ears with amused curiosity. The stranger in the Senate gallery, directory in hand, easily identifies you on the floor of the Chamber as the occupant of chair No. 7. Having been a member of the Senate myself, I know what such triumphs mean. No wonder you are proud. But do not let the pride of your greatness, however just, harden your heart against ordinary mortals. Everybody loves fame. You have it in abundance. Why do you blame me for coveting a little of it? Do not grudge me that passing gleam of notoriety which comes to me through the reflex of your renown, in having my name mentioned for a few days together with yours, in this public discussion.[2]

  1. An open letter published in the Exeter, N. H., News-Letter of Oct. 1, 1897.
  2. A third letter to Senator Gallinger, dated Nov. 9, 1897, was published in the News-Letter of Nov. 12, 1897.