Encouragements and Warnings

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Encouragements and Warnings
by Carl Schurz
From a National Civil Service Reform League pamphlet of the same name.


ENCOURAGEMENTS AND WARNINGS.


An Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the National Civil Service Reform League at Philadelphia, Pa., December 10, 1896.

By Hon. Carl Schurz.



THE year which has elapsed since our last annual meeting has been, in various ways, one of extraordinary prosperity to the cause of civil service reform. The recent election campaign has served to exhibit in a singularly clear light some of the remarkable and beneficial changes which the merit system has wrought in our political life, and to expose in their whole futility many of the fallacies, deceptions and superstitions, which the reform movement has had, and, in some measure, still has to overcome.

There are many among us who remember the time when the heads of our larger custom houses, post offices, navy yards, internal revenue offices, and so on, were looked upon as great party potentates responsible not merely for the business conduct of their respective offices, but for the political conduct of the districts over which they held sway — nay, whose political duties were not seldom regarded as paramount to their strictly official functions. I have frequently heard it said that the collector of customs for the port of New York, was second in political importance only to the President of the United States inasmuch as he had to control the politics of the great Empire State, whose vote was usually decisive in presidential elections. It was owing to the political importance of this office that the country had to witness the grotesque spectacle of a United States Senator resigning his place because his advice was slighted in an appointment to the collectorship. The collector of the port of Boston was regarded as the political representative of the national administration not only for Massachusetts, but for New England, and it was therefore, not deemed requisite, that, although officiating in Boston, he should be a Massachusetts man. Similar offices in Pennsylvania, and in other states were held in similar consideration as partisan satrapies.

The heads of such offices commanded in their subordinate and satellites large and well drilled forces of party workers most of whom owed their official positions and salaries only to their influence or efficiency as political menials. The approach of an election set these forces into feverish activity. At the command of the chiefs they tumbled over each other in their zeal to pack primaries, to secure the election of reliable delegates to conventions, to serve as drummers or shouters in such bodies, and during the campaign to get up meetings, to arrange demonstrations, and to manufacture enthusiasm. While all this was going on, the public business was a matter of secondary consideration. It may be doubted whether it was a matter of first consideration at any time. The election over, the great chiefs presided over the distribution of the spoil — a business requiring much attention, work, and ingenuity. In the meantime the preparations began for the next campaign in the way of setting up pins and laying wires. So it was from the beginning of the office term to the end — politics with official business by way of incidental interruption — and frequently a very unwelcome and irksome interruption, too.

Does not this sound like a reminiscence of days long, long past? There are probably in the city of New York, many otherwise well informed citizens, taking a lively interest in public affairs, who do not to-day even know the name of the collector of the port — not as if that gentleman were not an excellent officer, but because he is an excellent officer, devoted solely to his official duties, and not meddling with public affairs beyond those duties. He not only does not consider it to be a part of those duties to send out the employees of the Custom House to look after the primaries, or caucuses, or conventions, or to run campaigns, but he would be more apt to reprove such things as "pernicious political activity" and punish it, especially if it in any manner interfered with the official business of the employees in question. It is even quite probable, if not absolutely certain, that about the political associations of many of his men he knows nothing and cares nothing, but that he is interested only in the weighers weighing, the gaugers gauging, the inspectors inspecting, the accountants accounting, and so on, and in their conducting themselves before and after office hours as respectable persons and good citizens.

Far from being an exceptional case, this has so much become the rule that the re-appearance of the old practice anywhere would be a public scandal. I do not mean to say that the service in this respect is in an ideal condition, and that there are not sporadic cases of officers or employees of the national government still too much given to partisan activity. But these expose themselves not only to unfavorable criticism on the part of the public, but also to the danger of being severely disciplined by their superiors. Surely our custom houses, post offices, revenue offices, navy yards, and so on, have thoroughly ceased to be mere barracks for the housing and feeding of the janissaries of the ruling political party, who are to be let loose on the community as the exigencies of party interest might require. This we owe altogether the introduction of the merit system. In making those offices what they now are — business establishments in the conduct of which business principles are the ruling motive power — it has not only given the people a more honest and more efficient service, but it has also made a vigorous beginning of that moral reformation of our political life, which is its ultimate and its most important object.

How persistently have the adherents of the spoils system been telling us that the reform of the civil service we proposed, was incompatible with democratic institutions, because without the organization of regular party troops on the spoils basis, and without the incentive of the spoils of office in prospect it would be impossible to keep alive the popular interest in public affairs! And how completely and conclusively has since the introduction of the merit system each successive presidential election refuted that slander upon the character of the American people! In no instance, however, has this refutation been more striking than it was in the election just behind us. A campaign more earnest we have never had. The number of citizens with whose earnestness the possession of office or the hope of spoil had anything to do, was no doubt unprecedentedly small. But I shall hardly be contradicted when I say that the party most earnest in its work and most active and enthusiastic in its efforts, was the one which fought without any prospect of a partisan victory and into whose hopes the winning of office or other selfish advantage did not enter in the slightest degree.

I mean the sound money Democrats, for whom the struggle had no victory but the victory of the cause which they believed to be the cause of the national honor and welfare. Truly, the slanderers who asserted that it requires the promise of reward in the shape of official spoil to inspire Americans with an earnest interest in the affairs of their country and to stimulate them to patriotic exertion have never more impressively been put to shame, and their disgraceful pretence ought not to be heard of again. It is a significant fact that those whose zeal in the late campaign was most conspicuously unselfish put forth the most emphatic pronouncement in favor of civil service reform, while the party whose cause was condemned by the verdict of the American people, was the only one which sought to inspirit the efforts of its adherents by opening to them the prospect of unlimited official plunder.

I am, of course, very far from asserting that civil service reform played an important part in the late campaign as a political issue. The popular mind was absorbed with other things. But I do say that spoils politics suffered a double defeat in the election: The party to whose cause and to whose prospects the spoils idea was most foreign proved itself in political action the most enthusiastic and efficient, while the party which invoked the spoils spirit to its aid, found the promise of spoils utterly impotent to avert its discomfiture.

This moral triumph, however, is by no means the only auspicious event upon which we may congratulate ourselves. The hope expressed a year ago that President Cleveland would, as to the extension of the classified service so far as it could be effected by executive action alone, leave to his successors but little to do, has been fully justified. The executive order promulgated by him on May 6th, 1896, marks one of the greatest and most important onward strides in the history of the reform movement. This order added to the classified service and subjected to the merit system at one stroke of the pen more than 40,000 places, so that the number of positions in the national service placed under the civil service rules, which was 15,000 under President Arthur twelve years ago, has now risen to nearly 90,000, while the number of excepted places in the branches of the service covered is reduced to less than 800. That order provided for promotion examinations in all the departments. It put an end to the old controversies as to whether such positions as those of chiefs of division in the government departments, and of deputies of various sorts, could or should be entirely withdrawn from the reach of party politics, and it dispersed the charm by which certain places of a very ordinary sort were sought to be consecrated to the spoils idea by simply calling them "confidential." That order condensed the large and somewhat confused aggregation of civil of civil service rules which in the course of time had accumulated, into a simple, clear and practical code. And — more than all this — that order established the general principle that it is the natural and normal status of persons serving under the executive departments of the national government to be under the civil service rules — in other words, that it shall not require a special edict to put them there, but that they shall be considered and treated as being there unless exempted by special edict.

What this is worth only those will fully appreciate who, during these long weary years of struggle, have witnessed the ingenuity displayed by the spoils politicians in conjuring up difficulties to every extension of the merit system, and the tricks and stratagems employed in changing the names and in mixing up the duties of various offices, and in other disreputable ways, to steal places already classified, from the realm of the merit system for the benefit of the spoilsmen. All this is now over in the national service; the merit system is unequivocally recognized as the general rule, and, I am sure, I am speaking the sentiment of every member of this League and of every sincere friend of good government in the country when I say that, had he never done anything else to advance it, the name of President Cleveland would for this order of May 6th alone for ever stand pre-eminent in the annals of the civil service reform movement.

Nor should we fail gratefully to remember the valuable services rendered by the National Civil Service Commission, which has proved itself conspicuously faithful, judicious, and efficient, and the loyal enforcement of the law in the several Government departments, especially that of the Post Office, which has resolutely sought to rescue the country Postmaster from the reach of spoils politics, and that of Agriculture, which has carried the domain of the competitive rule to the very top of its organization.

It is not only in the national service that we find evidence of gratifying progress. The establishment and maintenance of the merit system in the various State and municipal governments is next in importance. The complete expulsion of the spoils spirit from the national service can hardly be expected so long as that spirit is kept alive and fostered in the services of our states and municipalities. As you are aware the constitution of the State of New York contains a clause making the introduction of the competitive merit system in the service of the State and municipalities obligatory. That the genius of the spoils politicians in New York — for there are such in that community — should at once have applied itself to the task of circumventing that constitutional provision, you will readily believe without the production of affidavits. But there are judges in Israel, and the Court of Appeals, the highest tribunal in the State of New York has construed the civil service section of the constitution according to its meaning and intent, holding that the constitutional provision is self-executing and that while the existing civil service statutes may be used so far as they go in enforcing it, the courts would be obliged even in the absence of such statutes to pronounce all appointments made without competitive examinations to positions for which competitive examinations are practicable, to be illegal. This decision has been practically enforced by the competent authorities refusing pay to persons who had, according to the Court of Appeals, been illegally appointed. The spoilsmen, finding this to be serious business, for their favorites for whom they attempted to steal places dislike as much to serve for nothing as their patrons are loath to pay salaries out of their own pockets, have now conceived a new plan of campaign, of which I shall speak later.

In the mean time Mr. Morton, the Governor of New York, mindful of his constitutional obligations, and having learned from practical experience the value of the merit system, instructed the State Civil Service Commission to prepare for his consideration a revision of the classification and of the rules that would carry into full effect the constitutional mandate as construed by the Courts. The new classification and the revised rules have recently been promulgated by the Governor who by this act entitled himself to that honor which a public duty well performed deserves. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the completest embodiment of the civil service reform idea so far attempted in any State.

In the city of New York, too, the Mayor, Mr. William L. Strong, has greatly extended the operation of the civil service rules, excepting only 75 positions in a total number of about 15,000, and confining the exceptions to deputies, private secretaries, and a few professional places.

Also in the cities of Buffalo and Rochester there has been decided progress, while in the city of Brooklyn whose Mayor belongs to that class of reformers who approve of the merit system in theory, but would rather not be bothered with it in practice, the Courts have had to be invoked to secure proper respect to the constitutional mandate. A test case is now pending.

Especially gratifying is the triumph recently won by the sturdy mayor of Baltimore, Mr. Hooper, over the Republican spoils politicians of that city who had sought to turn into a carnival of plunder last year's victory of the reform movement, overthrowing the Democratic machine. The reformers have, indeed, failed to carry a general civil service law through the Maryland Legislature, but a constitutional provision, similar to that of New York, is to be voted upon by the people next year.

In my last annual address I had to deplore the fact that in Massachusetts a vicious blow had been struck at the merit system by the passage of a bill, over the governor's veto, providing that veterans should be appointed without any examination whatever to any vacant place for which they might apply — a bill no less obnoxious to the self-respect of the veterans than to the public interest. But the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, basing its decision upon the old Bill of Rights which discountenances class privileges. Thereupon the legislature has passed another veteran bill continuing the provision of the previously existing law, which merely permits the appointing officers to appoint veterans without examination if they deem such appointments proper. This act the Supreme Court has held to be constitutional.

In Pennsylvania, too, the adoption of a civil service law is in prospect. A committee of the Civil Service Reform Association has drafted a bill, and that bill has been substantially endorsed by the Republican State Committee as well as the State Convention of the same party. Let us hope that it will pass unscathed the snares and pitfalls of legislative action and place this old commonwealth in the front rank of reform States. Civil service bills are also likely to be introduced this winter in the legislatures of Minnesota, where a bill presented by Senator Ozmun passed at least one House at the last session, and in Colorado where the civil service reform cause has the advantage of strong and active sympathy among the women voters.

Nothing could be more encouraging than the fact that in several States the people of individual cities, without waiting for general acts of legislation, have secured civil service reform by means of amendments to their charters. In Louisiana the city of New Orleans has obtained a charter embodying provisions for the application of strict civil service rules to every municipal department. In Seattle and Tacoma, the principal cities of the State of Washington, in the extreme Northwest of the country, similar rules have been placed in the charter by popular vote. Evanston in Illinois has also adopted the merit system by a vote of the people under the provision of the Illinois State act, thus following the example of Chicago. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, in Wheeling, West Virginia, in Galveston, Texas, in Denver, Colorado, and in St. Louis, Missouri, steps have been taken toward the same end.

Thus North and South and East and West, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Rio Grande to the Northern frontier, the seed of the reform sentiment which so long seemed to have been sown in vain, is vigorously pushing and promising a harvest which not a few years ago was beyond the most sanguine flights of expectation.

But let us not indulge in the delusion that what has been gained can be preserved intact and that more can be won without a continuation of incessant watchfulness and militant effort. The tactics of the spoils-politicians have indeed changed from the direct to the indirect attack. The theoretical argument against civil service reform has in a great measure ceased to be resorted to. The merit system has so conspicuously commended itself by its practical results to the enlightened opinion of the country, as to make the old objections to it appear simply foolish or spiteful. When we are now told that our competitive examinations may indeed exhibit the scholastic acquirements of a candidate for place, but not his practical business capacity, his industry, or his aptitude as a worker, the overwhelming answer is found in the established fact, that wherever the competitive system has been properly carried out, it has immeasurably improved the service in its practical efficiency. When we are told that our competitive examinations can, in any event, not prove the moral qualifications of the candidate, his truthfulness, his honesty, we can point to the unquestionable fact, that many thousands of places have for many years been filled under the merit system, and that in the places so filled the number of cases of dishonest conduct has been infinitesimally small. When the threadbare objection is repeated that our competitive examinations will give an undue advantage to college-bred men and exclude the humbler classes of the people, the statistical showing presents itself that since the competitive system was introduced in the national service, only a little more than twelve per cent. of the men appointed under it were college-bred men, and outside of the places demanding scientific acquirements hardly more than six per cent. — that in fact the service is more open than ever to persons of the so-called humbler classes. And so we might go through the whole list of the hackneyed criticism, and at every step the theoretical objector would find himself utterly discomfitted by the evidence of practical experience.

The argumentative fight against civil service reform has, therefore, very largely ceased. It is true that this year for the first time since the enactment of the national civil service law, a national convention of one of the great political parties, that held at Chicago, made in its platform an attack upon the merit system. But nobody will maintain that this attack bore any vestige of a reasoned motive. The pretence of that platform, and of Mr. Bryan as its expounder, that there is "a life tenure being built up at Washington which excludes from participation in the benefits the humbler members of society," simply flies in the face of well-known fact. And the demand for "fixed terms of office," which meant nothing else than that, not only the places heretofore usually changed with a change of party in power, but the classified service, too, should be thrown open to a general spoils debauch every four years — this demand was in fact like a mere war whoop of Goths and Vandals preparing for the assault of a town and eager for the loot. It is according to the eternal fitness of things that of national conventions, this should have been in our days the only one to characterize itself by such an utterance. The barbarous foray has happily been averted, and a repetition is not likely ever to occur.

The dangers threatening civil service reform come no longer from open assault upon the merit system, but from insidious attempts to destroy its substance, while preserving its forms. You may hear many a politician who all his life has trained with the old spoils guard, now deliver himself in this wise: "Civil service reform? Certainly. An excellent thing. But it should be practical civil service reform. Examinations? Certainly. But they should be sensible, practical examinations. The trouble is, these professional civil service reformers do not know how to manage this business. They are mere theorists, one-sided, unpractical, unreasonable fanatics. In one word, whether they call themselves Republicans or Democrats, they are Mugwumps. They ought to be reformed themselves. And we can do it. We are the men to give the country the reform it wants. Let us have an opportunity to try our hands at it." And with this preface various schemes are proposed that may appear plausible to the unwary. But when the Greeks come bearing gifts, it behooves us to keep our eyes open.

In order clearly to gauge and to appreciate the character of such designs, it is expedient that we should at all times keep before our eyes the essential principles, without the observance of which no true reform of the civil service is possible. There are certain things which cannot be repeated too often. The object of civil service reform is twofold: to improve the character and efficiency of the public service, and, by the abolition of the spoils system, to elevate the intellectual and moral character of our political life. To attain either part of this object, the very first and absolutely imperative requirement is that office cease to be an article of patronage, a thing to be bestowed by way of arbitrary personal or political favor and, therefore, that appointments to office be made exclusively upon the ground of impartially ascertained fitness for the discharge of official duty.

The exclusion of favoritism evidently requires that in making selections for appointment personal or political influence count for nothing; and this can be accomplished only if such selections are made according to the degree of fitness respectively shown by the different candidates. This again requires two things — first, that whatever tests for the ascertainment of that fitness be established, they be, as a rule, accessible to all persons possessing certain qualifications as to good repute, and, perhaps, as to age and physical condition; and, secondly, that those tests be competitive; that is to say, that the candidates showing themselves best qualified shall have the best claim for appointment. The competitive feature of these tests is, therefore, not to be looked upon as something merely desirable for this or that practical reason; but it must be regarded as the most essential prerequisite, as the absolute sirne qua non of the merit system. Without it there will be no exclusion of favoritism from appointments; and without this there will be no true and lasting civil service reform — at least not in a country in which the spoils system has prevailed and formed part of the political habits of the people.

There is here and there in the popular mind — even among those who on the whole favor the merit system — a lack of appreciation of just this point. We still hear reasoning like, this: "You wish the public service to be conducted on business principles. Now, would not any practical business man be better satisfied with some less restrictive method of ascertaining the qualifications of those he has to employ? Will he not be the best judge of those qualifications? Will he limit the freedom of his choice by any competitive system?" The answer is simple. Yes, we do wish the public service to be conducted on sound business principles. But we have to recognize the fact that in one respect the situation of a public officer wielding the appointing power is essentially different from that of a private business man. The public officer is exposed to a peculiar pressure of political influences and importunities of which the private business man knows nothing. Of this pressure only those have a just conception who have actually experienced it.

It is a remarkable fact that many men in politics who are otherwise always mindful of the public interest, seem to lose all sense of responsibility whenever the patronage comes into question. I do not speak here of the professional spoils monger who makes the providing of places for his henchmen or the building up of a party machine his principal business in public life. But I speak of men ordinarily conscientious in their conduct who will, perhaps moved only by the generous desire to help or please, or sometimes only to get rid of importunity themselves, not merely perfunctorily recommend and even earnestly and persistently urge the appointment of — pardon the vulgarism — the veriest "deadbeats" to positions requiring not only superior ability but a nice sense of honor. From my own official experience I might quote instances which would make you stare. There seems to be something in the pursuit of office, either for oneself or for others, that benumbs all moral feeling as to means and ends, and tempts men to do things which they would in private life be ashamed of, and to make common cause with persons whom they would not socially recognize as fit to associate with. There are, of course, some public men who will never propose anybody for office of whose worthiness they are not personally convinced. But, alas, they are in the minority. On the whole, I feel myself warranted in saying that recommendations for office generally are among the most untrustworthy, aye, the most treacherous of human utterances, even if signed or spoken by men otherwise ever so respectable.

From this incessant, imperious, and deceptive pressure which forces itself mercilessly upon the appointing officer, the private business man is wholly exempt. In selecting his employees he is permitted to act upon his best judgment, while the appointing officer in the public service is not. Resistance to the constraining forces bearing down upon him requires a firmness of purpose and a fearlessness of consequences which but few public characters have proved themselves possessed of. His freedom to make his selections for appointment according to his sense of duty and his knowledge of the requirements of the service, of which we hear so much, is therefore a myth. In a large majority of cases, if apparently left free, he himself does not make those selections at all, but they are made for him and forced upon him by political influences with the impelling motives of which the public interest has ordinarily nothing to do. And you may be assured that most of those who clamor to have the appointing officer entirely free in his choice, do so only because they wish to make him their slavish tool. What they are struggling for is their own freedom to impose their choice upon him. Against these incessant efforts to enslave him to influences foreign to the public interest the appointing officer needs protection; and that protection he can find only in a law, or in a rule having the force of law, which restricts the choice to a limited number of candidates found most fit for the performance of official duty by impartial test.

Will this protection be given — in other words, will favoritism be excluded, by non-competitive, mere pass examinations, in which a minimum of requirements is established and the choice is from all the candidates whose proficiency is above that minimum? This question is answered by long and varied experience. There were such examinations in the government departments in Washington many years before the enactment of the civil service law, without in any appreciable degree affecting the evils of the spoils system. Why was this the result? In the first place, those examinations were not open to all qualified persons. Only candidates designated for that purpose were admitted. Who designated such candidates? In name the appointing officer; in fact the politicians of influence who wanted places for their favorites. Thus favoritism entered into, nay, controlled the proceeding before the examination began. If several candidates for the same place passed above the minimum requirement, who received the appointment? Not the man who had passed highest but he who was selected — in name by the appointing officer, in fact by the politician who had the largest influence. Thus favoritism controlled the consummation of the proceeding. I will not say that it absolutely always happened so; but it was the rule, and exceptions were rare. Is it a wonder that the spoils system with all its scandals flourished under this system without substantial restraint?

I am well aware that under certain conditions such pass-examinations may be made to do good service. Given a small number of places to be filled, one at a time — places requiring certain specific qualifications of a superior order — and then given an appointing officer of moral courage and firmness in resisting pressure, and even this scheme may work well. It has, for instance, brought forth some good fruit with regard to the consular service under the present administration. This is gratefully acknowledged. But have we any assurance that it will steadily continue to bear good fruit? We should not forget that rules to govern appointments to consular places very similar to those at present in force, had been introduced before and had fallen into abeyance. They were revived again and, again, but have heretofore always, after a short period of observance, become useless by the failure of the appointing power to resist the political pressure hostile to them. Is it not to be feared that what has happened before, may happen again — that, while these rules may work beneficially under the present administration and under the next, the time will come again when, with a less vigorous willpower in the Presidential chair, the wave of influence will wash down the feeble breakwater of the pass-examination once more? Secretary Olney was therefore entirely right when he characterized the present rules covering the consular service as only a "step in the right direction," which, as we hope, will before long be followed by a measure of reform bottomed upon the competitive principle and thus offering greater guarantees of consistency and endurance.

But even if the system of pass examinations could be maintained in successful working when applied only to a small number of conspicuous positions, it would under our conditions inevitably and speedily become worthless, a mere cloak for arbitrary favoritism and spoils politics, when applied to the thousands upon thousands of places in the national service which are less in the public eye, and even with the smaller number under our state and municipal governments. Actual experience in this respect is so general and uniform as to extinguish all doubt. There is no teaching of history and no process of reasoning that will not unfailingly lead us to the conclusion that the element of favoritism and of spoils politics can be excluded from the public service at large only by the establishment and maintenance of competitive tests to which every qualified person has free access, and which secure to the best merit properly demonstrated the best title to appointment.

The competitive principle, I repeat, is the very soul of civil service reform. Without it there can be no true merit system on a large scale. Without it every reformatory attempt of a general nature will eventually become a sham and result in failure. I am sure I am not going too far in saying that whenever you find a man who presents himself as a friend of civil service reform, but who stops short of the competitive principle as a general rule admitting but few exceptions, you have before you one who is either ignorant of the fundamental principle, or a pretender with evil designs. And whenever political parties or politicians speak of reforming the civil service and offer to that end a general measure of legislation not containing the competitive rule, you may set them down as either deceiving themselves or as seeking to deceive the people.

There is another essential point which must never be lost sight of. The conduct of the competitive examinations should present every possible guarantee of impartiality and should therefore be independent of the appointing officers, that is to say, out of the reach of the pressure of political influence to which the appointing officers are exposed. In other words, while the President of the United States, or the Governor of a State, or the Mayor of a city may exercise the power of determining the rules under which the competitive examinations are to be conducted, and of appointing the persons who are to conduct them, those persons, when so appointed, should, in conducting, those examinations, not be subject to be directed or influenced by the officers by whom, or for whose departments of the service, the appointments are to be made. For, if they were, the impartiality of their action would in many cases be gravely endangered; and in many more cases be generally suspected.

To illustrate this point you will pardon me for relating what is at present said to be going on in New York. I have mentioned the fact that the Constitution of that State makes the introduction of the competitive merit system in all branches of the service obligatory; that the Court of Appeals has given the broadest construction to that constitutional mandate, that public employees appointed in contravention of that mandate are deprived of what their hearts most yearn for, their pay, and that therefore the soul of the spoils politician is seriously disturbed. He has to deal with the fact that the competitive examination cannot be gotten out of the way. But he does not despair. His inventive genius is equal to the emergency. To him the problem is simple. What does the spoils politician care whether the competitive system controls the appointments if he can get control of the competitive examinations? The party machine hopes to coerce Governors and Mayors into putting machine men at the head of the different departments of the service — places not subject to competitive examination. It has succeeded with this coercion so often that it may hope to succeed again. Why not, then, transfer the conduct of the competitive examinations from the general State Commission appointed by the Governor, and from the city commissions appointed by the Mayors, who took the competitive business more or less seriously, to the different departments of the service, at the head of many of which the party machine hopes to have its tools? The constitutional mandate will then, in point of form at least, be complied with. There will be competitive examinations. The courts will have nothing more to say. But what a roaring farce these competitive examinations would become under the control of examiners chosen, for instance, by the present State Superintendent of Public Works in New York, who has made it one of his favorite studies, how to "beat" the civil service law, or by that member of the Charities Board in New York City, who loudly advocates the transfer of the examinations because under the present system he "cannot get the men we want!"

The ostensible reason for such a transfer will undoubtedly be that the heads of departments know best what qualifications are required for the positions under them, and that they are therefore best fitted to adapt the examinations to those requirements. This is plausible but futile under our circumstances. It is a matter of universal experience that the heads of departments are most severely subjected to pressure for changes in their force immediately after their accession to office, that is to say, when in an overwhelming majority of cases they are least acquainted with their own duties and least fitted to form a clear judgment of the qualifications their subordinates should have. I speak here from my own experience, for I have gone through it all. Another one of my personal observations may be of equal interest. I have known several heads of public departments who were indifferent, or even hostile, to civil service reform when they went into office but became thorough converts to it before they had been there long. Some of them frankly confessed to me that, had they had their way at the beginning of their respective administrations, they would have freely used their power of appointment to take care of their supporters, to oblige their friends, and to look out for their party; that they would have yielded to the pressure for place, sometimes willingly, sometimes because they could not resist it; that they chafed at the civil service rules restraining them; that, had they been permitted, they would gladly have disregarded them; but that as they gained better knowledge of their duties and of the requirements of the service under them, they became aware how discreditable to themselves and how hurtful to the public interest would have been the things they had at first wished to do, and that they could never be too grateful to the civil service rules for having saved them from ignorantly or improvidently falling into errors, the consequences of which would have plagued them throughout their whole administration.

Here I speak, of course, only of public officers to whom, their early misconceptions notwithstanding, the public interest was the supreme consideration. But what will happen if men who persist in regarding public place as the mere spoil of party warfare, and their official power as a legitimate means for serving the "machine," are put at the head of public departments and entrusted with the management of civil service examinations? Can there be the slightest doubt that they would eagerly embrace every opportunity to disembowel the merit system, to make sport of the examinations, to give the freest possible play to spoils politics, behind the empty forms of the competitive rule, and to make the constitutional mandate a laughing stock for the "boys"? If anybody doubts, let him consider what has already happened. Last year the majority of the Fire Commission of New York city was composed of men of the spoils persuasion. Owing to the watchfulness of the City Civil Service Board they failed, in spite of their efforts to circumvent the civil service rules, in "getting the men they wanted." They forthwith engineered through the Legislature a bill turning over the management of the civil service examinations for the Fire Department to the Fire Commission itself. What they aimed at was no secret. The bill failed to become law in consequence of some peculiar provisions of the State Constitution concerning bills relating to cities. Meanwhile, the majority of the Fire Commission has fallen into the hands of men who are not given to spoils politics, but are true to the public interest. These men are perfectly satisfied with the control of the examinations by the City Civil Service Board, and protest emphatically against the transfer of that control to the department on the very ground, that, in the long run, it would mean a return to the spoils system. The same opinion is expressed by other heads of departments for the same reason. Here is the object lesson.

Will it be said that men may be put at the head of the departments who will be as conscientious in the management of the examinations as the independent Civil Service Boards? The answer is that if the examinations are put under the control of the departments the chances for spoil are increased and the spoils politicians will make redoubled efforts to secure the chief places for men who will do their bidding. On the other hand, the more the departments are stripped of the chance for spoils the more they will lose in interest to the spoils politicians, and the easier will it be to put them under the control of men who look only to the public interest.

I am, therefore, not going too far when I say that this scheme of transferring, in whole or in part, the management of the examinations from the independent Civil Service Boards to the departments means a deliberate attempt to destroy the substance of the merit system while preserving some of its forms, and that it has no other purpose than to return to the old spoils practices. No Legislature can pass a bill embodying such a scheme or anything akin to it, and no Governor can sign such a bill, without becoming responsible parties to this plot. I call upon all friends of good government in the country to watch with keen attention the developments which are likely to take place this winter in the State of New York. If they hear of the introduction in the Legislature of such a bill as I have described they will understand what it means. It is the duty of this League to see to it that, if such an attempt is made, the responsibilities which it involves shall not escape the judgment of the American people.

Neither should the friends of good government in those States in which civil service laws are in preparation permit themselves for a moment to overlook or to underestimate the universal experience that, unless bottomed on the competitive principle, no civil service reform will be lastingly effective, and that unless made independent of the control of the appointing officers, no system of competitive examinations can maintain its integrity. Our duty to our cause demands that we should be careful not to let anything pass as true civil service reform that does not answer its essential requisites.

The rapid progress of our cause during the last few years has not only gladdened its friends, but also exasperated its enemies. Until a recent period the spoils politicians have looked upon the civil service reform movement as a mere whimsey of theorists which would have its day and then pass by. They have at last become aware that it is a substantial force seriously threatening to annihilate their trade, unless effectively checked. They will be incessantly busy, if they cannot hope to overthrow it by open assault, to destroy it by a warfare of underground sapping and mining. And this warfare will not cease until the victory of civil service reform is complete — that is to say, until the whole public service, national, State and municipal, excepting only the few distinctly political offices, has been taken out of politics by being brought under the merit system, and until this general rule of the merit system has become so fully identified with the political habits and ways of thinking of the American people as to exclude altogether the old idea of public office as the spoil of party victory from our party contests.

True, this is a large programme. But why should not that which has been actually accomplished elsewhere be possible here? As a remnant of feudalism, as a monarchical and aristocratic institution, the distribution of public offices as mere patronage, the spoils system, flourished in England as much as here. Owing to the progress of the democratic idea in government in England the patronage abuse has been completely supplanted there by the democratic merit system, as it is gradually being supplanted here. In consequence of this, the idea of public office being a matter of patronage or spoil — aye, almost the very memory of that idea — has completely disappeared from politics in England, while party struggles are there as vigorous as ever. Thus, the consummation has actually been reached there, proving that it can be done. Let us measure the distance which still separates us from the goal.

Of the public servants under the national government who should still be put under civil service rules the minor postmasters are the most important class. Of these there are about 67,000. Nothing has done so much to keep the spoils idea alive in the popular mind as the change of the village postmaster with every change of party in power. Nothing will do more to disinfect the popular mind of the spoils idea than the taking of the village post office out of politics. Nothing has brought more torment and trouble, socially and politically, often amounting to political ruin, to members of Congress than the use of the village post office as their personal patronage. And there is nothing, it seems, for which the ordinary member of Congress is more determined to fight, even with complete disregard of the public interest, than for the privilege of appointing the village postmaster. Of this the defeat in Congress of Postmaster-General Wilson's reform proposition, which I mentioned in my last annual address, furnished a striking illustration.

The plan adopted by Postmaster-General Wilson, pursuant to an executive order amending the postal regulations, contemplates the consolidation of smaller and contiguous post offices with the free delivery offices in such manner that, when such a consolidation has been effected, the smaller office becomes a mere station and its postmaster a superintendent or clerk, as the case may be, and he is, together with his subordinates, if he has any, brought within the classified service. Under this plan the Postmaster-General during the year 1895, actually effected about a hundred consolidations, which resulted not only in a very considerable simplification and improvement of the service, but also in an annual saving of $43,000. But to enable him to extend this reform the Postmaster-General needed the transfer of funds from the appropriation for postmaster's salaries, to that for clerk hire. This required Congressional action. The Postmaster-General applied for it. He explained the scheme in an elaborate letter to Mr. Loud, the chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads of the House of Representatives He indicated that during his administration of the post department the consolidation of a few thousand post offices might be effected. He did not ask for more money; he asked for less. He recommended that two millions of dollars be taken from the appropriation for the salaries of postmasters, and that in place of this an increase of only one and one-half million be added to the appropriation for clerk hire — a clear saving of $500,000.

Well, what happened? Of course, Congress jumped at the chance of saving this sum — a sum certainly not to be despised in this time of harrassing deficits, when every dollar counts? Of course, Congress made haste to encourage the Postmaster-General in such a measure of economy, which, at the same time, was shown to be of great benefit to the efficiency of the service? Oh no, Congress did not jump at the chance. The plan was received with chilling aversion. In vain was the Postmaster-General's plea that the extensive realization of the plan would strengthen and improve the postal organization by introducing competent local supervision, responsibility and control; that it would insure a prompter and more intelligent accounting for public funds with less bookkeeping, less correspondence, fewer requisitions for supplies, and less call for inspection from the department; that it would increase and improve the postal facilities of the people, and thereby augment the postal revenues; that it would lessen, by a large amount, the necessary expenditure for the postal service, with the certainty that this saving would swell into millions of dollars annually — all of which nobody has denied, and nobody can to-day. All in vain. The House turned a deaf ear to the appeal. The transfer of appropriations asked for was not granted. And when the matter turned up in the Senate, that body, led by the well-known statesman Mr. Gorman of Maryland, not only did not further the reformatory and economizing work of the Postmaster-General, but expressly curtailed his power by resolving to prohibit the consolidation of post offices beyond five miles from the corporate limits of any city, and providing that even within those limits no consolidation should affect a post office located at any county seat. This is the law now.

Look at this spectacle. The representatives of the people in Congress, charged with the duty and entrusted with the power of taking care of the people's convenience and of the people's money, deliberately put aside a proposition submitted to them by a faithful officer of the Government to promote the people's convenience and to save the people's money — nay, they tell that officer that he shall not go on promoting the people's convenience, improving the people's service and saving the people's money. Is it too much to say that this means robbing the people of that money which might be saved and is now unnecessarily expended, and of the accumulating millions henceforth to be unnecessarily expended? And why all this? The reason is notorious. This was done because the consolidated post offices would pass under the civil service rules and members of Congress would have fewer postmasterships to distribute among their hangers-on. The plan was arrested, because it was good.

This is spoils politics in characteristic efflorescence. But how long will the people tolerate such nefarious sport with their interests? Are they not civilized enough to want the best facilities for the transmission of intelligence offered to them? Are they so reckless as to permit, with eyes open, the squandering of their money at the rate of millions a year merely that their Congressmen may have more post office plunder at their disposal? Is it not time that good citizens should unite to tell the politicians in language vigorous enough to be heeded that this outrageous trifling with the people's service and the people's money must stop? Indeed I trust that the day is not far when the enlightened public opinion of the country will compel what several Postmasters-General have already suggested and what common sense as well as the public interest urgently demand — the complete taking out of politics of the whole postal service, including every position belonging to it. And in your name I express the hope that legislation enabling the Postmaster-General to carry out the admirable consolidation plan to the greatest possible extent, and to bring the smaller post offices which cannot be so consolidated, under effective civil service rules, will be pushed with the utmost energy, and will not cease to be pushed until the post office is what it was intended to be and always should have been: merely an efficient servant of public convenience, and no longer the booty of party warfare and a source of political demoralization.

We have on occasions like this so frequently reiterated our demand for the repeal of the pernicious four year's term law, and supported that demand with elaborate argument that I might abstain from anything more than a passing notice of that subject had not the principle involved in the four year's term law been recently recognized by the enemies of civil service reform in the Chicago Convention as the surest means to destroy the merit system. With the natural instinct of the spirit of mischief they hit upon the poison which, if injected into the body of the public service at large, would mot unfailingly kill every reform that has been accomplished in it. The general introduction of "fixed terms of office" which the Chicago platform calls for, and which, as already mentioned, means nothing else than a general change in public places, large and small, in the departments at Washington, as well as in the country, with every change of administration, would result in a quadrennial spoils debauch so monstrous — more and more monstrous as the government machinery grows — it would bring forth a demoralization in the service and among the people so far-reaching and rank, and it would injure the public interest so disastrously, that the imagination fairly recoils from the picture. Happily the defeat of the plotters removed the danger of its realization. But the fact of the fixed term principle having again been proposed as the surest anti-reform poison most forcibly recalls the attention of all friends of good government to the actual existence of a law embodying this very principle of evil — a law which, although fortunately applying only to a comparatively small number of offices, has done more than any other act of legislation to develop the evils of the spoils system and to demoralize the service, and has for this reason been emphatically condemned by almost all the great statesmen of the past, from Jefferson and Madison to Webster and Clay. Having been thus impressively reminded again of the utter viciousness of the principle embodied in that law, may we not hope that a new effort may succeed in bringing about its annulment?

The party which was victorious in the late national election stands upon this platform: "The Civil Service law was placed upon the statute books by the Republican party which has always sustained it, and we renew our repeated declaration that it shall be thoroughly and honestly enforced and extended wherever practicable." The Republican candidate, Mr. McKinley, in his letter of acceptance spoke thus: "The pledge of the Republican National Convention that our civil service laws shall be sustained and thoroughly and honestly enforced, and extended wherever practicable, is in keeping with the position of the party for the last twenty-four years, and will be faithfully observed. Our opponents decry these reforms. They appear willing to abandon all the advantages gained after so many years of agitation and effort. They encourage a return to methods of party favoritism which both parties have often denounced, which experience has condemned, and which the people have repeatedly disapproved. The Republican party earnestly opposes this reactionary and entirely unjustifiable policy. It will take no backward step upon this question. It will seek to improve, but never degrade the public service."

Nor is this clear and emphatic declaration a mere perfunctory endorsement of the party platform. It expresses Mr. McKinley's own honest sentiments, for, to his honor be it said, he has never failed as a member of Congress to give the civil service law a hearty and effective support. It was he who, in 1890, when some members of his own party sought to overthrow it, indignantly exclaimed on the floor of the House of Representatives: "If the Republican party of this country is pledged to any one thing more than another, it is the maintenance of the civil service law and its efficient execution — not only that, but to its enlargement and its further application to the public service. The merit system is here and it is here to stay." And nobody who knows him doubts that Mr. McKinley meant what he said and that he is honestly determined to act, as President, according to that meaning.

Thus the party in power and the new President have both solemnly promised, not merely to maintain the merit system as now embodied in the civil service law, but to extend it. How are they to extend it? As to the strictly ministerial part of the national service President Cleveland has left them little to do. It is true, the excepted list may still be somewhat reduced by classifying the assistant postmasters, the deputy collectors, and so on. Also the employees of the District of Columbia may, and should, be brought under civil service rules. Likewise would the two Houses of Congress do themselves, and by way of reducing expenses also to the people, a valuable service by putting their own employees, excepting perhaps the private secretaries, under the merit system; nor would the judicial branch be injured in dignity or in comfort, by having its employees classified too.

But these are comparatively small matters compared with what his been done, and with what is still to be done. Every administration since the enactment of the civil service law, has signalized itself by some conspicuous advance of the merit system. If the incoming administration wishes to follow this rule its ambition cannot permit itself to be satisfied with merely adding to the competitive schedule a few more hundreds, or thousands of clerks. It will have to aim much higher. It will have at least to accomplish the solution of the postmaster problem, which is the next in order. Indeed, supported by a strong public opinion in favor of thorough administrative reform, it will have the power, and it may consider it its duty, to complete the work of eliminating the spoils virus from the whole of the national service altogether. Only then will it fully equal the precedents set by its predecessors who, one after another, advanced the merit system in constantly increasing progression. And when the national service stands there purged of the spoils blemish, a living proof of the beneficent effects of civil service reform, we may expect its example presently to become irresistible to those of the State and municipal governments that are now lagging behind the onward march.

What I said of the dangers still besetting our cause may have shown you that I underestimate neither the strength nor the cunning of our opponents. But I am nevertheless convinced that their striving will be in vain. They may fight skillfully and stubbornly, but already their cause is morally lost. The question is only, if they fight on, how many dead and wounded they will leave on the field, and how many captives in our lines. Civil service reform has carried position after position, at first against apparently overwhelming odds, and with each advance its force has grown stronger and the resistance weaker. But yesterday we were only a handful, ridiculed and neglected. To-day we count well nigh the whole intelligence and moral sense of the nation as an earnest ally of our cause. I do not say that the contest is already ended, but I do say that it is no longer doubtful. There were nearly two years between Gettysburg and Appomattox. But after Gettysburg, Appomattox was sure to come. Thanks to the executive order of the 6th of May, 1896, our cause won its Gettysburg under the leadership of President Cleveland. We have reason to hope that it will win its Appomattox under the leadership of President McKinley. If the opponents of civil service reform, instead of saving time and trouble by a speedy surrender, continue their hostile efforts, it may mean to its friends a longer struggle but none the less a certain victory.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).