The Civil Service and the Patronage/Chapter 08

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The Civil Service and the Patronage by Carl Russell Fish
Chapter VIII. Machinery of the Spoils System.


CHAPTER VIII.


MACHINERY OF THE SPOILS SYSTEM.


The civil service had by the middle of the nineteenth century become so extensive that the careful supervision which the earlier presidents exercised became impossible; and, as appointments continued to be made by personal selection, organization and division of labor became more and more necessary. Naturally, this organization was built upon such foundations as existed, and the change was not so much in the system as in the shifting of the balance of work and responsibility from the cabinet to outside forces.

Members of Congress had from the beginning been influential in suggesting names; but as appointments came to have greater political significance, they came to speak with greater authority — that is, if they belonged to the party in power. During the period in question, minor positions in the various congressional districts were practically in the gift of the members, as they are to-day.[1] If some city of more than usual importance was included within the district, the advice of the senators from the state would be sought, or, at least, of the senator particularly interested in the section in question.[2]

It was a natural practice for the various members from one state, belonging to the same party, to get together and talk over the situation; instances have been cited in the Continental Congress, and in the administrations of Washington and Jefferson and of most subsequent presidents. Between 1845 and 1865 the practice hardened into a custom, and the power of the delegation became almost absolute. At the beginning of Pierce's term, the Herald said that Congress showed itself willing to relieve the president of all trouble in regard to the patronage, as it had divided up into committees to portion it out. Lincoln said that he could not overrule the Rhode Island delegation in regard to the Providence post-office; and he probably made very few nominations to important local positions without the previous consent of the delegation, or at least of the senators.[3] The influence of the delegation extended beyond the local offices. Owing to the importance of geographical considerations in this country, each state is quite sure to have a share of the general offices. In 1853 the Herald announced that a state having a cabinet officer would not be given a foreign minister.[4] It became customary to assign an office to a state, and allow the delegation to select the particular recipient who should be chosen for the honor;[5] but this custom was not as firmly fixed as that by which the local patronage was dispensed.

Often no member of Congress from the state belonged to the administration party, or there might be local factions within the party hostile to the congressional delegation; and in such cases other means of information had to be sought. The older method of Washington and Jefferson, who were accustomed to write to some man of family or local standing, had, with the growth and the democratization of the country, come to be less practised; but to some extent the want was supplied by the rise of the boss. Thurlow Weed, for instance, was always ready to advise about New York appointments, and generally advised well.[6] Bosses, however, were as yet rare, and were at this period usually in Congress. The various New York factions sent delegates to Washington, if they had no official prolocutor;[7] and this example was often followed by other localities, even though the prize was less valuable. The governors sometimes proffered, and were sometimes asked for, advice; but the weight attached to it varied greatly with the different presidents. Taylor considered it decisive in case of a struggle at Washington, while Lincoln treated it rather curtly when offered gratuitously, and when he asked for it he made it plain that it was advice and not dictation that he desired.[8]

One really important new tendency is to be noted. In 1841 the ward caucuses of Whigs in New York City assumed the right to dictate minor appointments, and in 1861 it was urged that friction and bitterness would be spared if postmasters were to be elected by vote of the Republicans in their respective districts. Lincoln favored this latter plan in at least one particular instance, and several such elections were held and their returns duly honored by the appointing powers.[9] This scheme illustrates how far the distinction between elective and administrative offices had been lost. The germ of it is to be found as far back as Jefferson's administration, when it was argued that he should carry out the proscription which the people had begun, and should extend it to the offices which they could not directly reach. What the result of such an arrangement would have been may be conjectured from the experience of New York, where it was given extensive application in the constitutions of 1821 and 1846, and where it led, not to the extinction of the spoils system, but to the solidification of party organization.

The president and cabinet could not abdicate all their responsibilities; the decision, the final word, rested with them. Then, as now, the fourth assistant postmaster-general was patronage officer and distributed the numerous local offices in that large department. Even if he did usually follow the advice of others, he was a man of power. When, as so often happened, the delegations were not unanimous,[10] and when the local powers were not satisfied with the selections of congressmen, the administration had to award judgment. Few members of the cabinet, moreover, were content to be absolute nonentities: they were responsible for the conduct of their subordinates, and thought it was but fair that they should have some share in picking them out. Many of them were men of political ambition, and desired to build up in the various states bodies of supporters. In consequence, there was often friction between the head of a department under which an officer was to serve, and the representatives of the state from which he was to be chosen and in which he was to exercise his functions. To govern such cases, President Pierce laid down the general rule, that every nomination must be approved by the secretary of the proper department;[11] but the difficulty was inherent in the system and could not be settled by rule. No minor question vexed Lincoln more than that of the adjustment of these rival claims. Secretary Chase was insistent on his rights, while Seward and Weed argued that they were best acquainted with the needs of the Republican party in New York State, and that, if they agreed with the senators, further consultation was unnecessary. Lincoln adopted the same rule as Pierce; but the disagreement was never adjusted, and finally a contest of this kind was the immediate cause of the withdrawal of Chase from the cabinet.[12]

The president himself had great potentialities of power; he determined the relative influences that each of these forces should be allowed to exercise, and if he was a strong man, like Lincoln, he could lay down the general qualifications for appointment. The number of men actually selected by him was usually small, yet each separate appointee owed to him his position. In the end, the power went to the strong man.

To take our history as a whole, Washington probably controlled appointments more fully than any other president; under Monroe the members of the cabinet possessed their greatest power, and under Pierce the congressional delegations were most dictatorial. It was not until after the close of the period covered by this chapter that senatorial courtesy acquired its preëminence.

That this system tended to bring many politicians into office is obvious. Military service ceased to be so often rewarded with civil position as formerly. Pierce, during his campaign, had laid much emphasis upon his career in the Mexican War, and after his election was deluged with applications from his old companions in arms;[13] but, in general, veterans were fewer than at any other period of our history, and consequently played a smaller part in politics. Among those who had rendered political service, the newspaper men seem to have received fewer rewards than previously. In 1845 the franking privilege was restricted, and minor post-offices were thereby rendered less profitable to local editors; while the men who controlled great national organs could not afford to take office. In fact, after 1861, Horace Greeley was rather a dictator of appointments than a seeker after them; and though Lincoln once offered James Gordon Bennett a foreign mission to keep him in good humor, he knew beforehand that the offer would not be accepted.[14] It was the rise of these great metropolitan journals that caused the discontinuance of the official organ at Washington. No pensioned press at the capital could compete with the Tribune and the Herald, whose able correspondents gave pictures of the daily working of the government, generally as accurate and always more intimate than the National Intelligencer or the Union had ever vouchsafed.

The pay of congressmen continued small until 1856, when it was raised from the eight dollars a day and mileage, that had held for so long, to three thousand dollars per annum, also with mileage. It is not surprising that before 1856 members made many applications for office. The Herald said in 1853: “The Louisiana applicants are in a melancholy way. Their members are so busy, rumor says, in grinding their own axes, that their constituents are little better than orphans.” It was, moreover, quite the customary thing for members defeated for reëlection to receive, sans reproche, some offer of substantial consolation. Thus Lincoln was offered the governorship of Oregon by Taylor.[15]

Men whose only occupation was politics were not, even in this period, very numerous; still a class of professional politicians existed and received many posts. Some of these men were notorious, and their appointments were received with great disapprobation. An amusing example of their claims is found in 1857, when it was proposed to appoint Count Gurowski, master of many languages, as translator to the state department; but strong opposition developed because the place was demanded for a Tammany man who knew several Indian languages.[16] The politician received his office, not only as a reward, but as a retaining fee.

From the beginning of our government there has been complaint of the activity of office-holders; and such complaint will probably never cease, as it is practically impossible to draw a working distinction between the proper interest of the citizen and the obligations of the servant of the government. The Herald (March 16, 1853) said, “The Hard-Shells repudiate with scorn the doctrine that quiet men are entitled to office, for they say this would be a premium for inactivity, desertion, and hypocrisy, which would strike a heavy blow and a sore disappointment at men of principle and action, and they contend, would prove ruinous to the party.” The system of appointment brought into the leading positions men prominent in local politics, and it is not surprising to find them attending national conventions in the interest of the leaders who secured their preferment.

Much more laborious service than this was required, however. Thus the struggle for the New York collectorship was always severe, not only because of the emoluments, but because the post was considered to carry with it the dictatorship of New York City. After Pierce's inauguration the Herald remarked, "Now let the seven or eight hundred Whigs in office here turn their attention to sweets of private life." These men had worked under the direction of the collector for the Whig party, and their successors were expected to work for the Democratic organization. The investigation of Poindexter in New York brought out the fact that these minor officers felt at liberty to leave their duties for several days, without permission, to attend to party work.[17] What was true of the great cities was true, in varying degree, of smaller ones. Lincoln wrote in 1849 that the postmaster at Springfield, Illinois, had served on the Democratic central committee during his entire term, and had identified himself with local politics the more effectively because he enjoyed a not very burdensome office, located at the seat of the state government.[18]

Assessment of official salaries for party purposes appeared in national politics simultaneously with the spoils system. In 1830 the men appointed by Jackson to offices in Boston were asked to contribute, not indeed to a campaign fund, but to pay, for the editor of the Statesman, the debts which the latter had contracted during the campaign. The attempt was not entirely successful, but by 1840 a regular system of assessments existed in some places. In New York, officials in the custom-house were all assessed, just previous to the various elections, for sums differing according to their salaries. No distinct threats seem to have been made; but most men paid, and it was noticed that those who did not generally lost favor. A clumsy witticism of the Boston Courier, March 26, 1845, illustrates the prevalence of the practice: “A strange case of Hypochondria! A disappointed office-seeker of our acquaintance fancies himself a salary of $2000 a year, and has locked himself up in an iron safe, for fear of being used up by assessments for party purposes.” Throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties this unofficial taxation was an accepted rule.[19]

Although corruption may have been widespread, actual instances of it are rarely brought to light. Lincoln bought votes with offices, and Buchanan was accused of doing so; but such bargains are seldom capable of proof. Fiscal dishonesty is more tangible; but here again the thieving was covered by a garment, though a scant one, of legality, and since the investigations which were made during this period were purely partisan,[20] it is impossible to distinguish fraud from maladministration. Both existed and both cost the government heavily, but the popular interest in the threatening political dangers of the patronage and in the suspected dishonesty of the service, which had characterized the period from 1811 to 1840, had died away, and had not yet been succeeded by a demand for efficiency. Every one knew that money was lost, but no one of sufficient influence troubled himself to get behind the mutual recriminations of the politicians and find out who was really at fault.

While this apathy accounts in part for the lack of expressed dissatisfaction at the conduct of the government, it is extremely probable that public business was administered, though expensively, yet much better than one would imagine from a description of the spoils system. Jackson was partly right when he said that the duties of most public officers were not hard: the party leaders were only too glad to multiply the offices until the duties of none of, the inferior positions would overtax the energy or the ability of the most commonplace citizen. Moreover, the argument of American adaptability is true, though hackneyed. Particularly in this very period the life history of the average citizen showed a great variety of occupations pursued with fair success, and an amazing capacity for acquiring a simple rule of thumb and applying it with ingenuity. The study of Van Buren's administration showed us that high ability was not lacking when required: a man who could organize a party for victory could administer a large body of officials with vigor. The recent success of Mr. Hanna in politics, taken in conjunction with the fortunes honestly accumulated by politicians like Amos Kendall, illustrates the similarity of talent required by a party organizer and the manager of a great administrative enterprise.

Another fact that should not be lost sight of is that rotation in office was never actually practised. First, many men secured a long intermittent term of service by coming into office whenever their party came to power, even though they were removed by the other party; secondly, a large residuum, often composed of those performing the most technical duties, were always left in their places, by whom the continuity of departmental tradition was preserved;[21] and thirdly, instances of promotion, even from staff to presidential positions, are found.[22] It would be tedious to mention even the more conspicuous of these men. The most prominent was William Hunter, who served in the state department from 1829 to 1886. The well-known case of the Fox family, which has held the consulship at Falmouth, England, from the time of Washington to the present year (1903), is interesting rather than important.[23] John Randolph Clay occupied with honor various positions in the diplomatic service continuously from 1830 to 1861.[24] It often happened that when a politician was appointed to an office, as a collectorship, he found an efficient and trained deputy, whom he retained in office under him, and who bore on his shoulders the weight of service. The result was a double-headed system, a working director, representing the public service side of office-holding, and a political director, who was paid for being a good servant of his party.[25]

Some few attempts at improvement are to be noted. Between 1851 and 1853 the question of efficiency was discussed in two reports to the Senate. It was discovered that examinations for candidates had been tried in the treasury department, and that they were approved by all the members of the cabinet except Webster. It was recommended that pass examinations be held for the lowest grades of clerkships, and that all vacancies above these, except the chief clerkships, be filled by promotion. In 1853 pass examinations were prescribed by law, and a few years later the system was reported as working well.[26] The character of the examinations, however, depended entirely on the discretion of the department head, who was also the appointing officer; and consequently they amounted to little. In 1857 Howell Cobb, secretary of the treasury, announced that his examinations would be strict, and that he would remove no one except for cause. It is perhaps unjust to suggest that when he added to the customary causes of removal, the buying of lottery tickets and the frequenting of gaming houses, he had anything in mind other than the establishment of moral decorum at Washington.[27] Salmon P. Chase also announced his intention of making these examinations something more than a name; but the very fact of these special announcements shows that as a rule the examinations were a farce.

In 1856 a bill was enacted providing for the improvement of the consular service by the appointment of twenty-five consular pupils. They were to pass a qualifying examination, and those “possessing the requisite qualifications, and exhibiting an aptitude for the consular service, who have been faithful in the performance of their consular duties, will, from time to time, be recommended to the president for promotion”; in 1857 this bill was repealed. In 1864, on recommendation of the secretary of state and the finance committee of the Senate, Mr. Fessenden urged that the repealing clause be repealed; and after a debate in which the proposed law was attacked as undemocratic, as not making adequate provision for promotion, and as unwise on the ground that the consuls were not fit to educate pupils, a poor fragment of the former act was finally passed. This provided that consular clerks should be appointed, — not more than thirteen to be in service at any one time, — and that they should be over eighteen years of age and should receive not more than a thousand dollars a year. A new provision was added, that they should not be removed except for cause stated in writing and submitted to Congress at the session next following.[28]

These petty improvements could not be supposed to touch the great evils of the spoils system, as the most noxious of its effects were social. The government service, which should have set the example of stability to the country at large, was conducted on principles radically wrong. Besides this, the subtle attraction that public offices have always had for the average American brought into the ranks of office-hunters many times the number that could find places. As the Herald said: “If loss of time be taken into consideration, and loss of money, it costs him [the office-seeker] probably his first year's salary to obtain office. . . . The consequence is, that many of these officials cheat the public by various frauds and impositions, in order to indemnify themselves for their losses. At the end of four years they are, perhaps, set adrift upon the world, without any calling or business connection.”[29]

The result was that a large class of persons led a fluctuating existence. Many were, at times, reduced to such an extremity that they would do practically anything in return for the most trifling recognition, and hence constantly tempted the not unwilling party leader to go deeper and deeper into questionable practices by offering themselves as fit instruments. The effect on the general public was twofold: people were led to regard the agents of the government with contempt even while the offices proved alluring, and the political sense became somewhat blunted. The very intelligent Washington correspondent of the Tribune complained: “The ‘spoils’ doctrine is ... at the bottom of the Galphanizing which has of late come to be so fashionable as to permit each current instance thereof brought to light, to pass out of popular recollection almost without receiving a second thought. And, further, . . . it threatens to bring more evils upon us than any dozen others of the many elements conspiring, as it were, to entirely change the character of the Government of the United States.”[30] During the fifties no practicable method of reform was suggested, and during the Civil War the very depths of the spoils system were sounded in the conduct of the national service in the Southern states. Yet in 1865 the attention turned toward England, the Sumner and Jenckes bills, and the check given to rotation promised a new and better era.


  1. Riddle, Recollections of War Times, 24. March 9, 1849, Lincoln wrote to the secretary of the treasury: “Colonel E. D. Baker and myself are the only Whig members of Congress from Illinois — I of the Thirtieth, and he of the Thirty-first. We have reason to think the Whigs of that State hold us responsible, to some extent, for the appointments which may be made of our citizens.” He asked to be heard when such a one was to be appointed or when an office was to be filled in that state. He sent various recommendations for offices which were in his district; but he did not consider that he held them in absolute gift, for he made himself the medium for recommendations which he did not favor. When the functions of the office vacant or to be vacated were restricted, or almost restricted, to his district, he claimed the right to be heard independently of Colonel Baker. When this was not the case, he recognized that the whole delegation — in this case only two in all — should be consulted. In regard to the pension agency, he wrote that, as it pertained to the whole state, Colonel Baker had an equal right with himself to be heard concerning it; but that, as the office was located in his district, he did not think it probable that any one would wish to remove from a distance to take it, and therefore his influence should be greatest. Lincoln, Complete Works, i. 151-154. On the whole, his correspondence indicates that a peculiar weight was at that time attached to names suggested by members of Congress, but that the latter did not dictate. See New York Herald, March 6, 11, 1853; New York Tribune, March 16, 1861.
  2. Riddle, Recollections of War Times, 24; Lincoln to the postmaster-general, March 12, 1861, Tarbell, Lincoln, ii. 340. Postmaster-general Blair (under Lincoln) said that he accepted the recommendation of a majority of the responsible patrons of the district served by the office; that in case of doubt the representative, if an administration man, was consulted; and that the senators controlled their home offices. United States Civil Service Commission, 15th Report, 1897-1898, p. 472.
  3. “They have resolved themselves into committees to parcel out the patronage of the several states, and avow openly that the president must make the nominations which they dictate” (New York Herald, March 11, 1853). See also the issues of March 8 and 9, and the Tribune of March 10; Lincoln to Governor Sprague, May 10, 1861, Lincoln, Complete Works, ii. 45. On his policy, see also Ibid. 23, 200; to Chase, April 11, 1861, Chase Manuscripts.
  4. New York Herald, March 17, 1853.
  5. Lincoln to Gillespie, May 19, 1849, Tarbell, Lincoln, ii. 299; American Historical Review, iii. 290.
  6. Weed, Autobiography, 473. He describes with great satisfaction his relation with various presidents. Among the men having especial influence over appointments may be mentioned Duff Green, Corwin, Dix, Crittenden, Clay, and Benton.
  7. New York Herald, March 9, 1853. These appointments were so important that men from all over the country claimed a voice in them.
  8. Seward to Weed, March 24, 1849, Seward, Seward, ii. 107; Lincoln to Governor Sprague, May 10, 1861, Lincoln, Complete Works, ii. 45; to Governor Morton, June 28, 1862, to Governor Pierpont, October 16, 1862, and to Governor Tod, March 9, 1863, Tarbell, Lincoln, ii. 347, 352, 361.
  9. New York Tribune, March 13, 1861; Lincoln to Stuart Brown, March 30, 1861, Tarbell, Lincoln, ii. 340-341; Hollister, Schuyler Colfax, 173; United States Civil Service Commission, 15th Report, 1897-1898, 472.
  10. Instances are numerous. One of particular interest was the struggle of ex-Senator and then Representative Benton with the majority of the Missouri delegation. See New York Tribune, March 8, 1853.
  11. New York Herald, March 12, 1853. At this time the machinery of distribution excited much interest and was much commented on. See the Herald and the Tribune of March and April, 1853.
  12. Welles, Lincoln and Seward, 71; Hart, Chase, 315-317.
  13. New York Herald, March 8, 18, 1853.
  14. Statutes at Large, v. 734; New York Observer, April 26, 1845; New York Tribune, March 11, 1853; Connecticut Courant, March 21, 1857; Lincoln, Complete Works, ii. 44, 653.
  15. New York Herald, March 16, 21, 1853; Boston Daily Advertiser, March 17, 1849; Lincoln, Works, i. 159.
  16. New York Herald, March 5, 1857. This may have been a joke.
  17. Ibid. March 30, 1853, March 14, 1857; Clay, Private Correspondence, 448-450. In 1857 Schell removed 389 out of 690 employees. House Documents, 27 Cong. 2 sess. vi. No. 212; House Executive Documents, 46 Cong. 3 sess. No. 94, p. 11.
  18. To the postmaster-general, April 7, 1849, Lincoln, Complete Works, i. 153.
  19. Derby, Political Reminiscences, 85, 97; House Documents, 27 Cong. 2 sess. vi. No. 212. A San Francisco official, as the story goes, was assessed, but refused to pay. Lincoln wrote to him asking for his reasons; he gave them and was no more bothered.
  20. There was an investigation of Fillmore's conduct of the patronage (House Reports, 36 Cong. 1 sess. v. No. 648, p. 5). See also the Galphin investigation, Ibid. 1-835; Curtis, Buchanan, ii. ch. xii.; New York Herald, March 9, 1853.
  21. See Appendix B. See above, pp. 49, 90, 148; for other cases, National Intelligencer, April 16, 1849, and New York Herald, March 4, 16, 1853.
  22. See New York Herald, March 9, 1853. The New York Tribune, March 11, 1853, says: "The appointment of Peter G. Washington to be the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, is an excellent one. . . . He has served a long lifetime in office here, having by dint of excellent sense and a faithful and laborious discharge of duties devolved on him, raised himself step by step from a clerkship of a lowest grade, to his late position." Elisha Whittlesey retained his position of first comptroller of the treasury from 1850 till 1857, and was again appointed by Lincoln (Executive Journal, viii. 109, x. 293, xi. 376). See also Davis, Rise and Pall of the Confederate Government, i. 24-25.
  23. New York Evening Post, March 3, 1902. Charles Forrester, his father and his son, together served over one hundred years in the New York post-office (D. B. Eaton, The “Spoils” System, 76, note).
  24. Livingston, Portraits of Eminent Americans, i. 133; also Blue Books for the period.
  25. New York Herald, March 20, 1853.
  26. Senate Executive Documents, 32 Cong. 1 sess. ix. No. 69; 32 Cong. 1 sess. No. 95; Statutes at Large, x. 211; New York Herald, April 2, 1853; House Executive Documents, 33 Cong. 2 sess. ii. No. 3, pp. 97-98.
  27. New York Tribune, March 10, 1857.
  28. Statutes at Large, xi. 55, 160; Congressional Globe, 38 Cong. 1 sess. 1115 ff.; and Appendix, 181-182.
  29. New York Herald, March 9, 1853, also March 11, 1857.
  30. New York Tribune, March 15, 1853; see also Niles's Register, lxiv. 351 (July 29, 1813).