The Writings of Carl Schurz/To President McKinley, December 24th, 1897


New York, Dec. 24, 1897.

If the proceedings of the annual meeting of the National Civil Service Reform League [at Cincinnati, Dec. 16th and 17th] have come to your notice, you will have observed that your resistance to the urgency of the office-hunters and their patrons, as well as your Executive order of July 27, 1897, received hearty praise, and that your Administration was spoken of throughout in a tone of commendation, with the confident hope that the things which are still causing anxiety will be adjusted in entire consonance with the principles of the merit system.

I am also glad to say that we found in Ohio much more active sympathy than we had expected. Before long there will be an organized civil service reform movement in Ohio, which will afford you energetic support, and give General Grosvenor and his associates something to think of.

Pardon me now for making a few suggestions which spring from the sincerest desire to continue that auspicious state of feeling. There are reports in the newspapers which represent you as considering the policy of forestalling the coming debate in Congress by making further exemptions of “confidential” or “fiduciary” positions from the competitive rule. About this, permit me a few observations.

There are many positions so designated—and if further exceptions are made, a great many more will be so designated—that do not in any essential respect differ from other ordinary clerkships. There is, besides, no reason in the world why the occupants of certain positions, filled upon competitive examinations, should not be held to give bonds. The two things go perfectly well together. There is no well regulated service in any civilized state in which executive officers such as collectors or postmasters are permitted to appoint any of their subordinates at their discretion. The higher places under them are simply filled by promotion from lower grades, as they always can be quite satisfactorily. And nothing is more certain than that, if in our service such discretion is permitted, the appointments will be dictated to the executive officers by political or personal influence. This so-called “discretion” is a mere fiction. The service, therefore, gains nothing by allowing them such discretion. On the contrary, it loses in point of efficiency as well as of morals, because political influence usually cares little about the true interest of the service.

Another newspaper report has it that you are considering the abrogation of the one year limit for the reinstatement of persons who have been removed without sufficient cause. This matter was discussed during Mr. Cleveland's last term, when it was moved for the benefit of the railway mail clerks who had been dismissed just before the extension of the rules over the railway mail service went into effect at the beginning of General Harrison's Administration. There seemed then to be peculiar reasons for the abrogation of the one year rule, but the Civil Service Reform League opposed it most earnestly because the example of numerous reinstatements once set would serve as a precedent, and throw the service into no end of confusion. We are as earnestly opposed to the abrogation of that rule now for the same reasons.

I would submit to you also that if you make any of these concessions, each of which would be construed as a backward step, the end of appeasing the opponents of the present civil service system would not be reached. According to universal experience your regular spoils “hunter” or patronage monger would not be satisfied by any partial concession. He will continue his clamor until he gets all he wants; and if you give him anything he will construe this only as a sign of a yielding disposition on your part and become all the more urgent and unmanageable.

The only thing that will make him stop his importunity is the conviction that there is for him no hope of getting any concession at all. I beg leave to repeat, therefore, what I wrote you some time ago: If your Secretaries boldly and positively say now what, after the experience they have had, they doubtless think, that without the merit system they cannot manage their Departments as efficiently and honestly as they wish to manage them, and that there ought to be no further exceptions at all—the battle will be won by that simple declaration; the pressure will cease, and the clamorers in Congress will not dare to pass any adverse legislation because the public opinion of the country would be overwhelmingly against them.

Your Secretaries thus have it entirely in their power to relieve you, as well as themselves, of all trouble by speaking out frankly and resolutely against further changes. Every appearance of indecision would encourage further attacks.

I am sorry to find in the newspapers as well as in my correspondence, increasing complaint about violations of your removal order, accompanied with very disagreeable reflections on the good faith of the order, which are based upon the supposition that these violations are permitted to go on with impunity. There are probably many cases of groundless or exaggerated complaints; but some, I fear, are not at all groundless, and I believe there is nothing so much calculated to endanger popular confidence in the honesty of the merit system as such violations of orders if they actually do pass with impunity. I do not like to advise harsh measures. But it really does seem as if these violations of your orders could be stopped, and that the shaken confidence could be restored, only by making conspicuous examples of some of the offenders, according to the rule which demands their dismissal from office. Their disloyalty to you, with which they bring discredit upon your Administration, certainly deserves it.

Will you permit me a remark upon a subject which belongs to another chapter? The Republican party in this city and State is dividing into two hostile camps. If things continue to go on as they do now, it will be doomed to certain defeat. The boss rule of Mr. Platt is the dividing element. That boss rule will cease as soon as it appears that Mr. Platt does no longer control any of the Federal patronage. As soon as it ceases, the party can unite again upon a new basis for a strong and hopeful fight. So long as Mr. Platt keeps the influence which the Federal patronage gives him, disturbance will continue and surely bring on disaster. I say this as one who is interested in the Republican party, seeing in it a bulwark against Bryanism.

Pardon this long letter. I need not assure you that the suggestions I make are those of a sincere friend who wishes for you all that is good.—Faithfully yours.