The Democracy of the Merit System
|←Encouragements and Warnings|| The Democracy of the Merit System
|A Review of the Year→|
|From Proceedings at the annual meeting of National Civil-Service Reform League, Cincinnati, Ohio, December 16 and 17, 1897, pp. 7-34.|
THE DEMOCRACY OF THE MERIT SYSTEM.
By Hon. Carl Schurz.
AT our last annual meeting I had occasion to congratulate the country upon the extraordinary advance the cause of civil service reform had made during the preceding year. President Cleveland's executive order of May 6, 1896, had not only added many thousands of positions to the classified service, but it had also established the general principal that it is the normal condition of public servants under the executive departments of the national government to be under the civil service rules, and that they should be considered and treated as being there, unless excepted by special regulation — a gain of incalculable consequence. I was also able to report signal progress of the reform in various States and in the municipal service of various cities. At the same time I expressed the apprehension that the advocates of the spoils system would not cease their hostile efforts and that, although the final result could not be doubtful, we might still have a period of arduous struggle before us. This apprehension has proved to be well founded.
The American people have hardly ever beheld a rush for the spoils of office more tumultuous than that which followed President McKinley's accession to power. Nor have we ever heard a more furious, and, I may add, a more disgraceful clamor from party men for the breach of party faith than that of Republican politicians demanding the repeal, or at least the disembowelment, of the civil service law by a President and a majority in Congress solemnly pledged to its maintenance and extension.
Recall to your memory some of the almost incredible scenes we have had to witness. The Republican national convention in St. Louis had put these words in its platform: “The civil service law was placed on the Statute book 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.” When the Republican national convention adopted that pledge, President Cleveland's executive order of May 6th had been in operation for several weeks. It had not gone into force unobserved. The friends of good government had praised it, the spoilsmen of both parties, Republicans and Democrats, had denounced it. It was thus with full knowledge of its being an integral part of the civil service system then existing, that the Republican party in national convention assembled made its pledge. Neither could anybody pretend that it was a mere haphazard promise made inadvertently; for one national Republican platform after another had repeated the same declaration for many years. Nor could there be any doubt as to the meaning of the pledge. Nothing could be plainer. It was to enforce, honestly and thoroughly, the civil service law whenever it was then in operation, and to extend, wherever practicable, the operation of the law beyond the limits within which it operated at the time when the pledge was made. And then Mr. McKinley, the Republican candidate for the presidency, made the pledge of the party his own in the letter of acceptance by which he asked for the votes of the people. He accused the opposition party of “decrying this reform”; of being willing “to abandon all the advantages gained after so many years of agitation and effort”; of “encouraging a return to methods of party favoritism which both parties have denounced, which experience has condemned, and which the people have repeatedly disapproved”; and he assured the country that “the Republican party earnestly opposes this reactionary and entirely unjustifiable policy”; and that “it will take no backward step upon this question, but will seek to improve but never degrade the public service.” And when introduced in his office as President, Mr. McKinley reiterated the vow in his inaugural address.
If there ever was a party pledge clear, unequivocal, and specific — if there ever was one sanctioned as a definite party policy by constant reiteration, it was this. And yet no sooner was Mr. McKinley seated in the executive chair than a countless swarm of Republican spoils seekers swept down upon him, struggling to force the barrier of the classified service. Had that swarm consisted only of — pardon the vulgarism — the “deadbeats” hanging around the Republican camp as they hang around every other, or of members of Congress driven to mad despair by the pitiless persecution of hungry supporters insisting upon their reward, the spectacle might have been regarded as a mere after-play of the old barbarism which has brought so much humiliation and shame to our patriotic pride, but is gradually to pass away. But of more sinister portent was it when President McKinley was waited upon by a delegation pretending to come from the “League of Republican Clubs” in whose name they demanded that the President should forthwith rescind the executive order by which his predecessor had enlarged the scope of the civil service law, and that he should thus open again the places covered by that order to appointment by favor, that is, to the invasion of spoils politics.
It is worth while to contemplate that scene. There stood the President of this great republic with the solemn vow honestly and thoroughly to enforce the civil service law and, wherever practicable, to extend it — with that vow still warm on his lips; and, facing him a group of persons pretending to represent a great organization “embracing the young and active men of the party,” coolly insisting that this President should by one of his first official acts break and dishonor his party's and his own pledge and thus before the American people and all the world declare his party to be a cheat and himself a dishonest man. Did it not occur to those persons that in approaching the President with such a request and in professing to think him capable of so disgraceful an act, they offered him just as deadly an insult as if they had asked him to forge a bank check or to embezzle a trust fund, with the expectation that he would do it? Did not one of them feel that after so outrageous an affront the President would have been justified in treating them as persons not to be recognized as gentlemen, and as base slanderers in falsely pretending to represent the young men of the Republican party? Could they forget that if it really were true that the young men of the Republican party can be inspired to strenuous effort only by the prospect of spoil, and that to obtain that spoil they would have their party dishonor itself by breaking a time honored vow, and by repudiating its faith, the moral vitality of that party would soon be gone? It was indeed a repulsive exhibition of the effect which the spoil system has exercised upon the moral sense of men, and the young men of the Republican party cannot too soon repel the calumnious imputation cast upon them by their pretended representatives.
I know the excuse that is given for this amazing demand. It is that President Cleveland's administration had filled a great many positions which were not in the classified service, with Democrats, and then covered them with the civil service rules in order to protect the new incumbents against removal. The civil service reformers have not been sparing in criticism and remonstrance when under the Cleveland administration removals or appointments were made which appeared improper. But I do not hesitate to say that the objection to Mr. Cleveland's great executive order made by the Republican spoils politicians is utterly futile. That order did not protect any public servant covered by it against removal — proof of which is the simple fact that a considerable number of them actually have been removed. The effect of the order simply was that, if any of those places were vacated they could not be arbitrarily filled by way of political or personal favor with incompetent or otherwise unsuitable persons; for the order subjected candidates for such places to competitive examinations. And this is the thing that troubles the Republican politicians of the spoils persuasion. Their sould are in patriotic agony not because some Democratic party hacks were kept in their places by the civil service rules, which they were not, but because those places can not be filled at pleasure with Republican party hacks. Not in order to improve the honesty and efficiency of the service, but to turn over those offices as plunder to their own men they insist that their party shall repudiate its pledge and the President shall dishonor himself by breaking his word.
Besides, there has never been any advance of civil service reform that did not call forth the same flimsy charge. The civil service law was enacted in 1883 when the whole service with very few exceptions, was filled with Republicans. By direction of Congress and with the approval of President Arthur about 14,000 places were classified. It might have been charged by the Democrats, in accordance with the argument used against Mr. Cleveland's order, that President Arthur protected about 14,000 Republican placemen in their positions. Under President Cleveland during his first term about 6,500 places were added to the classified list. A similar charge might have been brought by the Republicans. Under President Harrison's administration, including the growth of the service, the executive extensions, the railway mail clerks, and the navy yard employees classified by Secretary Tracy, about 26,000 were added; and in this case the Democrats brought the same charge with more color of justice, as the execution of the order extending the civil service rules over the railway mail service was stayed for several weeks, giving the Postmaster-General time to stock that branch of the service thoroughly with Republicans before the rules were permitted to take force. About 2,500 vacancies were created by removals, and corresponding appointments of railway mail clerks were made in a hurry. And I may add that when during the Democratic administration following an attempt was made to re-open by law to the persons thus removed the way to their former positions without examination, that attempt was sternly resisted by this league for the reason that, if successful, it would have served as a precedent for further unsettling and demoralizing movements in the future. Then came President Cleveland's second administration when by several successive executive orders and through natural growth over 39,000 places were added, more than 11,000 of which, however, had already been subject to the examination system under separate departmental orders, or were field employees of the war department.
This is sufficient to show that if there were any ground for the charge concerning the alleged protection of appointees by extensions of the civil service rules, that charge would apply to both parties alike. But during the operation of the civil service law there has been no ground for such a charge, for the simple reason that really no operative limitation of executive discretion as to removals existed. It was not until the appearance of Mr. McKinley's recent order that any effective limitation was put in force.
Every self-respecting American will prefer to assume, that the Presidents who ordered those extensions, did so from patriotic motives. But even if partisan considerations had at times intruded into their action, the practical result would, after all, have been only the enlargement of a system which ministers to the public interest without in the end giving either party any advantage at all. Nor should the Republican spoilsmen forget that, had not President Cleveland made the extensions they complain of, President McKinley would have been in honor and duty bound to make them himself — for according to the pledge of the Republican party and his own, he has not only to enforce the civil service law honestly and thoroughly, but to extend it wherever practicable. And that these extensions have been practicable, is proved by the fact of their successful operation. He will soon have to go beyond them, according to the Republican platform, wherever further practicability appears.
True to his honor as a gentleman, to his vows as a Republican, and to his duty as President of the United States, Mr. McKinley stoutly held his ground against the fierce foray which was set on foot to overwhelm him. It may be said that to resist pressure, especially pressure from party friends aiming at a wrongful object, is the first and most obvious duty of the head of the State, and that its simple performance does not call for extraordinary praise. But when faithfully performed against unusual urgency, as it was in this instance, it deserves a tribute of gratitude, and this tribute should be heartily paid to President McKinley by every true friend of good government.
The first onset has been repulsed, but the fight is not finished. The clamor of the place-seekers still resounds with lusty vociferation. In three Republican State conventions resolutions have been adopted hostile to the merit system. An association has been organized to agitate for the repeal of the civil service law, and Republican members of the Senate of the United States and of the House of Representatives are loudly threatening to bring the matter to an issue at the present session of Congress. Two of them, Representative Grosvenor of Ohio, and Senator Gallinger of New Hampshire, have already been designated by one of the spoilsmen's organs as the anti-civil service reform candidates for the presidency and the vice-presidency. It seems that the rapid progress of the merit system had put its enemies into a desperate state of mind and that, seeing their case in deadly peril, they have resolved to rally their whole force for a final effort. The hour has come for them to do or die.
The weapons employed by the champions of this reactionary movement are characteristic of their object. Whoever has attempted to argue the subject of civil service reform with one of its opponents, will have gathered this experience: You ask him whether it is not true that the public service was originally intended, not for the benefit of this or that political party, nor of influential politicians, nor of the public servants themselves, but solely for the accommodation and benefit of the people, and he will have to admit it. — You ask him, whether the people are not clearly entitled to the best — that is, the most honest and efficient service attainable, and he will have to admit that too. — You ask him whether, in order to secure to the people the best attainable service, it is not most reasonable to select public servants with a sole view to their fitness for the work to be done, and to ascertain that fitness by the best available method, and he will admit that also, in theory at least, although with some reluctance. — But when you ask him whether the fitness of a candidate — say, for a clerkship — cannot be better ascertained by examining him as to handwriting, orthography, ciphering, abstract making, tabulating, simple composition, and the like, and by obliging him to exhibit testimonials from some reputable citizens as to his moral character, than by inquiring whether he can claim reward for having served the party by drumming up voters, or by having helped to pack or run a caucus, or by money contributions coming either from himself or his relatives or friends, — and when you ask further, whether the best attainable service cannot most surely be secured by giving every one who considers himself fit for such public employment an opportunity for proving his fitness by assembling the candidates together in a competitive examination or test, which will be apt to point out those best fitted, the best man to have the best chance for appointment — when you ask him these questions, — questions which would be answered by every disinterested citizen of ordinary commonsense with a hearty, “Yes, of course,” — then the brow of your champion of the spoils system becomes clouded with an angry gloom and he tells you with fierce emphasis, that those are outlandish notions, utterly un-American, British, Chinese, or what not, and that you are an impracticable theorist, a visionary, a dude, a pharisee, a “holier-than-thou” man — in short a mugwump, who has no business to interfere with practical politics at all.
You try to appease him by showing him your willingness to hear what he has to say, and give him the floor. He tells you that in a free country there must be political parties and that, without them, the government cannot be carried on. This you do not deny. — He goes on telling you, that without the distribution of patronage in the shape of offices among its workers, a political party cannot exist. You answer him by pointing out the fact, that political parties do exist without patronage in ever so many foreign countries, and that they did exist in this country without the use of offices or patronage before the spoils system was introduced, and that they were then as full of life and energy as ever since. — He excitedly asks you whether you really think that a party can win without patronage, and whether the popular interest in politics can be kept up without holding out to the people the prospect of a large distribution of offices if their party wins. You answer by reminding him of our own experience that in the last four presidential elections that party which possessed the patronage was regularly beaten; that therefore the patronage has certainly not proved an element of strength sufficient to save a party from defeat; that it is rather an element of weakness in creating disappointments and animosities, and in making, by its inevitable abuse, the party possessing it odious to public spirited citizens. And as to the necessity of the patronage for keeping up the popular interest in politics, you turn upon him with this question: Is it not a foul slander upon our national character to say, that, while in England, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, the popular interest in public affairs does not need the stimulus of office plunder, the American people have become such a lot of mercenary wretches, that only the promise of reward, the prospect of official salaries will inspire them to maintain political parties, and keep them alive to the honor and the welfare of this great republic? — This staggers our spoilsman somewhat but he does not give up. He asks whether it is not true after all that many of the busiest workers in party organizations depend upon office as a reward of their activity and that without the stimulus furnished by patronage, their useful zeal would be wanting. You answer that this may be so, but that the zeal which needs the stimulus of patronage is after all a mercenary zeal; that the mercenary element in political parties will grow the more powerful, the more it is stimulated by spoil; that the moral spirit and tone of a party organization will sink the lower, the more powerful the mercenary element in politics grows; that the pushing intrusion of that mercenary element will naturally serve to drive persons of self respect and high ideals from public life; that the patriot for revenue only is the bane of our politics and can best be spared; that if he drops out, he will only make room for a better class of men; that the spoils system has enabled persons whose statesmanship consists in distributing patronage, and hardly in anything else, to maintain themselves in public life, and to organize the so-called machine consisting of patronage mongers and place hunters; that the machine tends to make political parties wholly subservient to selfish ends, to crowd out that statesmanship which is inspired wholly by high patriotism, and to turn our political contests into sordid squabbles about personal advancement and public plunder.
In saying this you have touched a sore point; for the statesman you address is likely to be himself one of those public men whose statesmanship consists mainly in the handling of the patronage and who would be in danger of speedy extinction, were that resource of political sustenance taken from him. It is a delicate matter for him to discuss, and he therefore changes his tack and begins to impeach the efficiency of the merit system itself. He will tell you of absurd questions being asked in the examinations — how a candidate for a letter carrier's place had to give the exact number of the killed in the battle of Marathon, or a candidate for a clerkship the distance of the moon from the planet Mars, and so on. Your answer is that these ridiculous stories are simply not true — mere inventions of the enemy — and that, if the examinations have in any cases not been sufficiently practical, the obvious remedy is, not to abolish the whole merit system but to instruct the examiners to make the examination more pertinent. — He will tell you that under the civil service law only college graduates have a chance and that the whole system is, therefore, aristocratic. You confute him by authoritative statistics proving that in Massachusetts there were during the last eight years among 9323 successful candidates only 157 college men, and that even in the federal service the college graduates form less that 10 per cent. of the successful candidates, and in those branches of the service which require no scientific education, only 6 per cent. — He will tell you that under the merit system a life tenure of office prevails in the public service which is obnoxious to our institutions. Your answer is, that according to the fundamental principle of the merit system, the tenure of the public servant is determined by the efficiency with which he performs his duties, and that his tenure is therefore not a life-tenure, but a merit tenure; and that merit tenure is the vital principle of a good service. — Your spoilsman further insists that a man at the head of a public office knows best what kind of men he wants to do the work under him, and that it is therefore most reasonable to permit him full liberty in the choice of his help. You reply that this rule may hold good as to the conduct of private business where the head of an establishment enjoys real freedom in the selection of his clerks or agents; but that according to universal experience, a public officer under the spoils system is not permitted that freedom; that whenever he has any place to fill he is instantly set upon by party managers, or bosses, or other politicians of influence, who urge upon him their creatures or favorites; that he is apt to be compelled by a fierce pressure to accept men as his subordinates whom his own judgment would have rejected; that the so-called freedom of the head of an office to select his help really means nothing but the freedom of influential politicians to select that help for him and to keep such favorites in place not so long as he likes, but as long as they like; that against such pressure he can find effective protection only in a law or rule making competitive examinations of candidates obligatory, thus excluding favoritism and influence; that the more conscientious an officer is in his desire to serve the public good, the more heartily he welcomes such a law; and that this is not mere theory or guess, but a stubborn fact to which every candid man who has had the experience of official life will unqualifiedly bear his testimony.
Being thus baffled at every point in detail, your antagonist will again take refuge in general assertion and say that the public service is no better now than it was before the civil service law was enacted, and that the boasted merit system is therefore a practical failure. — To this daring allegation — daring I call it, for he who alleges this will have the courage to allege anything — you are able to oppose the crushing fact that since the enactment of the civil service law every President, whether Republican or Democrat, has in his official utterances borne the most ample testimony to the signal benefit the merit system has conferred upon the service in efficiency as well as in moral tone; that one Secretary after another, without distinction of party, has pronounced the merit system the only method by which the business of their departments could be carried on in an honest and proper manner; that ever so many executive offices who entered upon their duties with a prejudice against the merit system, have become ardent converts to it after some practical experience; and that, as the undisputed statistics of the service incontestably prove, wherever the merit system prevailed, more work was done by a smaller force and for less money than before, while, where it did not prevail, the old wastefulness in the multiplication of offices and salaries for little and frequently poor work continued; and that he who disputes this, might as well dispute the multiplication table.
And what has your spoils politician still to say after this? He then thinks it expedient to let others speak for him and brings on his witnesses. Here is the sorely aggrieved patriot who has been accustomed to be taken care of by influential politicians, who finds himself debarred from the public crib by the merit system, and who insists that a boss, or a party committee, or a member of Congress is a better judge of a man's fitness for office than an examining board. Here is the unfortunate who has failed in his examination and thus concludes that the whole system of examination is a cranky contrivance. Here is the man who knows of a case in which the spirit of the merit system has not been honestly enforced, and who therefore denounces civil service reform as a delusion and a snare. Here is the appointing officer who things that any restriction of his power to grant favors is an insult to his dignity, or who occasionally cannot get “the man he wants,” and who therefore concludes that the whole system is utterly impracticable. And so on. But when the investigation is carried further, and the overwhelming preponderance of the testimony sustains the practical as well as moral excellence of the system, your spoils politician falls back upon his last resource which is indeed inexhaustible — his power of imaginative invention. It is not too much to say that “the lie well stuck to” has become a favorite weapon with the ordinary stripe of the enemies of civil service reform; and this weapon is employed with the loftiest confidence in the assumed ignorance or gullibility of the public, and the most reckless disregard of consequences as to the character for truth and veracity of the person using it.
During the long period that I have been an attentive observer of public affairs, I have witnessed many heroic dealings with the truth. But I have seldom seen men of prominent position commit themselves to statements which everybody in the slightest degree conversant with the subject knew to be untrue, with such wild imprudence as some of them do in their struggle against civil service reform. It is almost incredible, but literally true, for instance, that Senator Gallinger, of New Hampshire, with whom I have had some public correspondence, would, among other equally astounding things, stubbornly insist upon it, that under the civil service rules every candidate for the position of compositor or printer in the Public Printing office was required to hop a certain distance on one foot, as part of his examination; that all official inquiries had proved the civil service system a dead failure, and that President Cleveland had issued his order of May 6th, 1896, making large additions to the classified service, only after he had been informed of the Republican victory of the Presidential election, which took place on November 2, 1897. No wonder the organ of the spoils politicians put that Senator forth as their candidate for the vice-presidency.
Nor is it easy to believe that a member of the House of Representatives, hailing from this State, too — the Hon. C. H. Grosvenor, should, at the last session of Congress have made a speech against civil service reform which contained scores of statements of fact flagrantly untrue or misleading. Of their quality you may judge from this representative specimen: He positively asserts that the civil service law “was never intended to cover anything but the departments in Washington, and that alone in its application to the clerical force,” while at the very time when the law was enacted, the competitive system was in actual operation in the Custom House and the Post office in New York, and while the law itself provided in terms that the merit system prescribed by it should be introduced throughout the country in every post office and custom house having 50 employees, and that the President and the several department chiefs should from time to time revise the classification so as to include places theretofore not classified, excluding only from the scope of such extensions offices not in the executive branch, offices to be filled by the President with the consent of the Senate, and common laborers. No wonder Mr. Grosvenor was nominated by the organ of the spoils politicians as their candidate for the presidency.
While thus almost all the objections to the merit system brought forward by its enemies are easily and conclusively refuted either by the public record or by the simplest reasoning, there is one which has a certain plausibility for those who form their judgment upon superficial impressions. It is, that, one American citizen having as much right to public employment as another, a system making appointments dependent upon the result of examinations removes public offices from the reach of the people and confines them to a privileged class, which will bring forth an officeholding aristocracy. The idea of a great American aristocracy consisting of Treasury clerks, or letter carriers, or customs inspectors, or even of such magnates as revenue collectors or presidential postmasters, or Indian agents, must appear laughable not only to the people but to the employees themselves. But there are, indeed, many persons who think that appointment to office as a reward for party service, or upon the recommendation of an influential politician is more apt to give everybody a chance, and, therefore, more democratic than a system requiring a proof of fitness. What a preposterous idea! Subject the essential features of the spoils system to a simple analysis and compare them with those of the merit system, and you will find, as I argued before the Governor of New York last spring, and as recently the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Long, has forcibly set forth, that the merit system furnishes the only method of appointment that is really democratic — the only one that is truly just to the people.
Here is the ordinary course of things under the spoils system. John Smith, a carpenter, or a bricklayer, who sustains himself and his family by industrious work and does his duty as a good citizen by voting according to his honest convictions, has a bright boy. That boy has received a good common school education and sharpened his intellect and increased his knowledge by personal effort in various ways. He is a young man too, of correct habits and excellent character. He wishes to enter the government service as a clerk. How must he go about it? The spoils system prevails. He finds that government clerks are appointed only upon the recommendation of somebody. He can easily obtain testimonials from a number of highly respectable persons who know him, but he is told that he will need the recommendation of some politician of influence, best of all that of the member of Congress — that, in fact, without the good will of the member of Congress nothing can be accomplished. He approaches the member from his district and exhibits the testimonials as to his ability and to his character. “Oh, that is all well enough,” says the honorable gentleman, “but to what party do you belong?” If poor young Smith happens not to belong to the party of the honorable member, there is, of course, the end of it at once. But let us suppose he does. Then the great man continues the examination. “What claims have you?” he asks. “Claims?” replies young Smith — “why, here are my testimonials as to my ability and character, and I am willing to undergo any test to prove that I can well perform a clerk's duty.” “Oh, hang all that,” exclaims the member of Congress, impatiently, — “what claims have you politically, you or your father? I have never heard of either of you during the campaign.” The young man is obliged to confess that they were too poor to contribute money to the campaign fund, and too busy with their daily work to do more in the election than cast their votes and occasionally discuss politics with their neighbors. The examination is finished. “Well,” says the great man languidly, “you may leave your papers here and I will consider them in time.” This ends the interview.
When young Smith passes out of the great man's door, two other persons pass in — Mr. Brown, a wealthy manufacturer with hundreds of operatives in his employ, and his nephew, young Mr. Green, a youth of questionable parts and uncertain character. Mr. Brown is tied of taking care of this unthrifty poor relative and finds it most convenient to unload him upon the government. The member of Congress receives the two most cordially, and asks what he can do for them. “I want a government clerkship for my nephew,” says Mr. Brown. “You know what I did for you in the campaign — my contribution to the war chest and the votes of all my people, —” “Of course,” interrupts the member of Congress, “I know what recognition I and the party owe you. Your nephew seems to be a splendid fellow, too!” “Well,” says Mr. Brown, “as to that, I don't think he knows much, but he may learn.” “Never mind that,” says the member of Congress, smilingly, “that will be all right. Send him on to Washington.” In Washington he takes young Mr. Green to one of the Departments. “I must have a clerkship for this young man,” he says to the Secretary, “and a good one, too. He is the nephew of one of my most powerful constituents whom I am bound to oblige.” The Secretary sees the necessity.
There are pass examinations held in the department — that is to say, examinations conducted by the appointing power itself, to which only candidates with influential recommendations behind them are admitted, not seriously to compete with each other, but, at best, to show that they are not absolute dunces or idiots. These examinations are a mere hollow form, as influence rules it all. The member of Congress asks that they be made easy to young Mr. Green. He receives a knowing wink in reply, and the thing is made easy. Mr. Green is asked to add up two and two and to give the name of the capital city of the Union — questions which were once actually asked within my knowledge. Mr. Green issues triumphantly from the ordeal.
But there is no vacancy. What of it? A vacancy must be made. It is found that some clerk in the Department has “lost his influence,” that is, the member of Congress on whose recommendation he was appointed has died or dropped out of politics. The clerk is indeed very meritorious and valuable, but having lost his influence, and no new influence turning up, he is removed to make room for young Green. Young Green soon shows a fondness for strong drink and neglect of duty, and he is threatened with dismissal. He complains to his member of Congress who rushes at once to the Secretary, exclaiming: “If you dismiss young Green, it will offend Mr. Brown, my most powerful constituent, and my district may be lost. I must insist that Mr. Green be kept.” Young Green is kept in the service, and his duties are made light so that there is not much to neglect. In the meantime young Smith is still waiting for a favorable consideration of his testimonials, which, of course, never comes.
This is no caricature. Not that in every instance, or in a majority of cases the favored individual was a scapegrace or a dunce — for it is true, able and decent men got into public employment that way. Not that every drunkard or drone was kept in the service by political intercession, for some were really turned out. It is also true that there have been conscientious Congressmen who would not recommend unworthy persons. But the story I have told was rendered not only possible by the spoils system, but it has actually so happened hundreds of times. While there was indeed much variety as to the qualifications of the persons appointed, one rule was universal — without influence no appointment; without influence no security of tenure of office.
Now mark the course of proceedings under the merit system. Here is young Smith, the bright son of the carpenter again, wishing to obtain a clerkship in a government Department. He finds an announcement in the papers that at a certain time and place a competitive examination will be held to test the qualifications of candidates for appointment. He finds that admission to that competitive examination is open to him. He has only to satisfy certain requirements as to age, health, and a certificate of good character, to be signed by two reputable citizens. No questions are asked as to his politics, or his creed, or his origin. No claims based upon party service, no recommendations by influential politicians are called for. The examination is held, and the carpenter's son meets there young Green, the nephew and protegé of Mr. Brown, the rich manufacturer who had made a heavy contribution to the campaign chest and has power enough to command ever so many votes. The examination being competitive the candidates are examined and graded according to the degree of their success in answering the tests of merit and fitness proposed to them, those who are most successful to have the best title to appointment. Now, suppose young Smith, the carpenter's son, appears at the head of the list, and young Green, the rich manufacturer's nephew and protegé, far behind. The carpenter's son, without political claims, without influence, will get the clerkship, while the young man with all the power of wealth and political pull at his back will have to look to his rich uncle or to honest work outside of the government service for support. Young Smith will first receive a probationary appointment, for, say, six months, to prove his practical capacity and adaptation to the work he is to do. If that probation is successfully passed, his appointment is made definitive, and then his tenure of the office will not depend upon the influence or power of anybody ever so powerful, but entirely upon his own merit. He will hold his place with undisturbed self-respect so long as he performs his duties efficiently and faithfully and maintains a character befitting a public servant.
This is the merit system in its purity. It is true, the civil
service rules provide that the appointing power shall not be
bound to appoint the one highest on the list, but to have his
choice among the highest three — thus being permitted
some discretion where the difference of merit may be trifling.
But, as a rule, the first of the three gets the place. It is also
true that unscrupulous
sometimes try, by
circumventing the spirit of the system, to give an advantage
to political favorites, or that removals in the classified service
have sometimes been made for political reasons. But such
transgressions are strictly forbidden and punishable by dismissal.
Thus it may truly be said, that while in the administration of
the civil service law influence and favoritism may creep in,
they can creep in only through fraud or violation of duty, and
that the system opens as a rule to every citizen, rich or poor,
without distinction of party or creed or social station, the road
to public employment through the gates of simple merit.
Now I ask any unprejudiced and candid man, which of the two systems is most apt, not only to give the republic an honest and efficient service, but to put public employment most impartially within the reach of everybody? Which of the two is the most democratic? On the one hand we behold the group of political magnates, the bosses, the Senators and the Representatives, the party leaders — the dukes, the earls, and the barons of politics — doling out by way of favor their recommendations, which are usually equivalent to appointments, among the applicants for office who appear as petitioners before them, the favored petitioner to feel himself under constant obligation to the political magnate to whom he owes his place, knowing that he will be secure in his place only so long as that favor continues. Is not this a political aristocracy with something like a feudal retinue in full bloom?
On the other hand we behold the American citizen, the freeman, no matter whether rich or poor, whether backed by the influence of the powerful or not, independent of the favor of anybody, claiming and obtaining the right to compete for public employment upon equal terms with other freemen, the poorest with the richest, the lowliest with the most powerful, the best man to have the best chance. Is not this the equality of opportunity which forms the very life element of true democracy? On the one side the aristocracy of influence which grants or withholds as a favor what merit may claim as its right. On the other hand the democracy of equal opportunity which recognizes in all citizens alike the right of merit by giving the best man the best chance.
It is a significant fact that in England, so long as the government was essentially aristocratic, the spoils system flourished — that is to say, public employment was bestowed by the favor of the powerful. But as the government became more and more democratic, the merit system took the place of favoritism and public employment was thrown open to free and public competition.
I say, therefore, that in contending for the merit system we contend for the right of the people to the offices instituted for their benefit. Whoever opposes it, fights against true democracy. Nothing is more ridiculous than the manner in which the spoils politicians seek to obscure this feature of the question. The carry the word “people” constantly at their tongues' end and mean only those for whom they want public places and salaries. Mr. Grosvenor loudly protests that the men who “in 1896 marched thousands and thousands of miles to hear the words of encouragement and instruction from the President as he stood upon the steps of his home in Canton” shall not be excluded from places in the department by troublesome civil service tests. He will admit that, there being untold thousands of them, they cannot all have offices, unless we create an office with a salary for every applicant of that kind. Who, then is to select from among the untold thousands of patriotic wanderers those who are to be blessed with place and pay? Why, Mr. Grosvenor tells us that the members of Congress are the fittest men to make that selection, and of those members of Congress Mr. Grosvenor is one. Their “people,&rdquo therefore, are those whom this aristocracy of influence find it convenient to favor.
Does not Mr. Grosvenor think that President McKinley, to whom those thousands came to listen, had a much more correct conception of what is really due to the people, when in his letter of acceptance he sternly rebuked those who “encourage a return to the methods of favoritism which both parties have denounced, which experience has condemned, and which the people have repeatedly disapproved?” Is he not much more just to the confidence of the people who made him President, and more conscientiously mindful of the people's rights when he firmly tells the clamorers for the “return to methods of favoritism” that, faithful to his recorded vow, he will to the utmost of his power protect the people in the enjoyment of the right freely to compete on equal terms for public employment?
I repeat, it is the aristocracy of influence on one side and the democracy of merit on the other. And I cannot too strongly impress upon the mind of everyone concerned that every public employment unnecessarily withdrawn from the domain of the democracy of merit and turned over to the aristocratic rule of influence is an encroachment on popular rights. There is constant urgency on the part of so-called practical politicians, and sometimes also from executive officers who are exposed to political pressure, for the withdrawal of this or that class of positions which are now in the classified service, from the competition rule. In hardly any case has my examination of the reasons for such a demand convinced me of the necessity of the withdrawal. In almost every instance we find the same or a similar class of offices elsewhere successfully administered under the competitive rule, and nothing can be more certain than that the withdrawals asked for would result simply in turning over the positions concerned to the abuses of patronage mongering and spoils politics. Those in power should never permit themselves to forget that when an office, the subjection of which to the competitive rule is at all practicable, is withheld from the domain of that rule, or whenever an office already under the competitive rule is without the clearest necessity withdrawn from it and is thus made a matter of patronage commanded by influence, the people are robbed of their right of free competition for that public employment. That right cannot be too jealously guarded, especially by the men and women who are poor, or without influential backing, or too self-respecting to make themselves dependent upon the favor of the powerful instead of their own work, and who, when serving the public, will not make themselves anybody's political slaves. It is in the competitive rule alone that they find a guarantee of a fair and equal chance, and they have every reason to hold to stern account any man in power and any political party that is weak or wicked enough to participate or acquiesce in any attempt to subvert or only to curtail the right of the people to that equality of opportunity, that independence of influence and favoritism, which true democracy demands. And the efforts of certain politicians to repeal the civil service law or to restrict its operation, are clearly a war upon this right.
The first practical attack was made in New York where Governor Black sounded the keynote by proclaiming his desire to “take the starch out of civil service,” whereupon the Legislature followed with a law making an artful distinction between “merit” and “fitness” — a distinction without a difference, never heard of before — and providing that each candidate for a place in the classified service shall have to pass two examinations, — one for “merit” to be conducted by the established civil-service boards, and the other for “fitness” to be conducted by the appointing officers themselves in such manner as they may see fit to adopt, oral or in writing, public or secret. Inasmuch as the value of such examinations is shown by experience to rest upon the independence of their management from the appointing power, it was safe to predict that the practical result of the operation of this law would be the virtual annihilation of the competitive system prescribed by the State Constitution of New York. And this has substantially been the case wherever the dual examination system was applied, while some public departments appointed the existing civil-service boards as their examiners, which in so far set a limit to the restoration of the spoils system. But the new law stands in such glaring antagonism to the evident spirit and intent of the constitutional mandate that a test case which is soon to be carried before the courts, is most likely to bring forth a judicial decision declaring it unconstitutional. Meanwhile there has been an election in the State of New York, which proved quite intelligibly that the Republican party has, to say the least, not been strengthened by the attempted relapse into spoils politics. It is the old experience.
Of the efforts being made to rally the whole army of spoils politicians for a general assault upon the national civil-service law, I have already spoken. The first onset has been bravely beaten back by the President. Instead of breaking his word by rescinding all the extensions of the rules made by his predecessor, he issued an executive order on the 27th of July by which he exempted from the competitive rules certain classes of positions in the revenue service, extended the rule over a few others, and then directed that “no removal shall be made from any position subject to competitive examination except for just cause and upon written charges filed with the head of the department or other appointing officer, and of which the accused shall have full notice and an opportunity to make defence.” Of the exceptions from the competitive rules made in the first part of the order, it may be said that after full consultation they were agreed upon between the Secretary of the Treasury and the Civil Service Commission, both being known to have the cause of civil-service reform seriously at heart. Candidates for the places thus excepted are subject to examinations to be prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury, with the approval of the Civil Service Commission, which is also to conduct them. It is to be said, however, that if this arrangement succeeds in keeping the positions concerned out of reach of spoils politics, it will accomplish more than has usually been accomplished by mere pass examinations before. Nor is there any risk in predicting that further experience will prove not only the practicability, but also the desirability of returning those positions to the domain of the competitive rule.
But the clause of President McKinley's order which attracted the greatest attention is that concerning removals. It is no exaggeration to say that its appearance was greeted with a round of applause that resounded all over the country. The best part of the public press was enthusiastic in its praise, and the hearty acclaim of all the true friends of good government in the land fairly drowned for a while the savage clamor for spoils which since the presidential election had filled the air. When he witnessed that spontaneous outburst of approbation, President McKinley cannot have failed to feel that he had the true public opinion of the country on his side, and that the motley crowd of spoils hunters pressing upon him to force dishonor on himself and his party, was only a small minority making up in noise for what it lacked in good sense as well as in numbers. What was it that called forth that loud and general applause? It was that the American people felt themselves after all the confusing rumors and speculations that had disquieted them, suddenly relieved of all uncertainty as to whether President McKinley would surely meet his own and his party's pledges. The American people like an honest man. They admire a man of courage in the right, who will stand firm as a rock against the pressure even of his friends when they demand what is wrong and dishonorable. And the people saw in President McKinley's order a vigorous manifestation of his patriotic purpose to make true his words: “Civil Service reform has come to stay.”
Besides, the intelligence of the country recognized in the order concerning removals a decided progress of that reform. The time had come for this step and President McKinley responded to a wise public sentiment in taking it. Thoughtful citizens had long been disgusted at the reckless disregard of the public interest as well as of private justice with which meritorious public servants had been turned out of their places merely to make room for the favorites of influential politicians. It was, indeed, thought at first by civil service reformers that arbitrary removals would cease whenever the competitive system made arbitrary appointments impossible. As our lamented leader, George William Curtis, happily expressed it “if the front door is well guarded the back door will take care of itself.” It was, therefore, believed best that the discretion of the chiefs of executive departments in the matter of removals should be left entirely unlimited. But this sanguine expectation did not stand the test of experience, and Mr. Curtis himself, toward the close of his life, was inclined to abandon it. The introduction of the competitive rule in certain branches of the service did not at once produce the effect of wholly curing all appointing officers of the widely prevailing spoils disease.
It was found that those of them who were unscrupulous enough to care more for party politics than for the public interest, as well as others who had not courage enough to stand up against the pressure of political influence, would make arbitrary removals for the purpose of opening a chance for some trick by which, in spite of the competitive system, they might put the favorites of power into the vacated places, — and not seldom they succeeded, either by way of arbitrary promotions, or of emergency appointments, or by other devices. And it may be said that nothing has done more to shake the popular belief in the good faith of the merit system than such dishonest practices.
To such artful violations of the spirit of the civil service law President McKinley's order is intended to put a stop. It does not make a removal subject to a formal judicial proceeding. It does not limit the discretion of the executive officer to an extent prejudicial to the discipline of the service; but it does make the reason assigned for every removal as well as the answer thereto a matter of public record, and it will thus render the executive officer for every removal from a place under the competitive rule amenable to the judgment of public opinion as well as to the judgment and the corresponding action of his superiors. The new rule, if carried out with fidelity and firmness, will thus be well apt to rid the service of a very offensive and dangerous abuse, and President McKinley fully deserves all the praise he has received for this achievement.
To secure the enforcement of the order the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Gage, with recommendable promptness issued excellent instructions to executive officers under the Treasury Department prescribing an appropriate mode of procedure, and containing the important injunction that reductions in grade and salary should be treated in all things like removals — this to put a stop to the tricky device followed by some unscrupulous executive officers, of forcing worthy public servants to resign by arbitrarily reducing them to a lower grade which they could not accept with self-respect — a practice most objectionable on account not only of its injustice, but also of its peculiarly sneaking character. This action on the part of the Secretary of the Treasury was most praiseworthy, and it is greatly to be hoped that his instructions will be made a uniform rule for all the executive departments that have not yet adopted them.
Nothing would gratify me more than to be able to add that the President's order had already borne all the good fruit which it is expected to bear. But I regret to say that so far it has not. Many reports have come to us from Washington as well as from other parts of the country which represent executive officers as making or recommending removals or reductions without assigning any just cause, or any cause at all. There is no doubt that some of those reports will, upon careful examination, turn out to be unfounded, or at least exaggerated. But it must also be admitted that some of the cases that have come to our knowledge, bear an exceedingly ugly look and leave scarcely any doubt that the President's order has in those instances been treated with wanton defiance. It is hardly necessary to say that public officers doing this not only violate their official duty, but are basely disloyal to their chief; especially if they count upon the goodness of his heart to let their offence pass with impunity. For they must know that such leniency on his part would only serve to encourage further defiance and turn the praise he has received for issuing the order into scorn and reproach for permitting it to fall into contempt. It is confidently to be expected that the President, as such offences come to his notice and the facts are fully ascertained, will enforce respect for his order by duly punishing the offenders.
A matter in which not only the civil service reformer, but the whole commercial community takes a lively interest, is the improvement of our consular service. As is well known, certain rules were established under the last administration for the examination of candidates for consular offices drawing $2,500 or less down to $1,000 salary. It is reported that this system is being continued by the State Department, but in what manner and with what effect I am unable to say. Inquiries addressed to the State Department by the officers of this League as to the scope of the examinations and the relative number of those who have succeeded and those who have failed in them, have been answered to the effect that such things are treated as strictly confidential by the Department and that the information cannot be furnished. I can only repeat what I said in former annual addresses, that a system of mere pass examinations may do some good when conducted with particular conscientiousness and courageous independence from political influence, and may then, as Secretary Olney called his measure, be “a step in the right direction,” but that, as all experience has shown, pass examinations are apt to degenerate into a mere matter of form, a mere pretense of a test of qualifications, in which as a rule those who succeed who have the strongest backing, and those fail who have none. Pass examinations for the consular service have been tried at various periods, and they have always taken that course. Whether they have or not in the present instance, I am unable to tell, the matter being strictly confidential. But this I may say with assurance: If our commercial community wants a real reform in the method of appointment to consular positions, it must insist upon three things: competitive examinations for admission to the lowest grade of the consular service, promotion only for merit, and removal only for cause. From this rule should, at most, only those few consular positions be excepted that have a diplomatic character.
The postmaster, too, is receiving promising attention. It is a hopeful sign that the Postmaster-general, a business man not suspected of being a civil service reform theorist, has from a mere business point of view found it expedient to advocate the removal, by Congress, of those restrictions by which the consolidation of minor offices with those which are central, had been hampered. And although the subjection to proper civil service rules of the fourth class post offices, which so far have furnished the material for the most widespread spoils scandals, may as yet seem ever so far away, still it is approaching and may be nearer than even the most sanguine among us now apprehend.
“The system has the approval of the people, and it will be my endeavor to uphold and extend it.” These are the closing words of the paragraph touching civil service reform in the President's annual message. In his endeavor to uphold and extend the merit system the President will have a larger majority of the people on his side than any of his predecessors ever had, for what formerly seemed to be only a dream of idealists, is now a practical fact, well understood and recognized in its beneficial effects by the enlightened public opinion of the country. As I pointed out in my last annual address, not one of President McKinley's predecessors has, since the enactment of the civil service law, failed to distinguish his administration by large and important extensions of the domain of the merit system. It would be doing injustice to his motives as well as to his powers to fear that in his achievements President McKinley might remain behind the best of them. He has signalized the very beginning of his administration by an advance of exceeding importance. And now, considering that wellnigh the whole clerical part of the governmental machinery was already under the merit system when he took office, and need only be protected against the wily attempts of spoils politics to invade it, we may hope that President McKinley may recognize it as his part of the great work, to carry the reform beyond those limits. There is good reason for believing that the necessities of the consular service have already engaged his care; and whoever undertakes seriously the task of putting that, as well as any other, branch of the government service upon a footing of thorough efficiency, will soon recognize that the first requirement is its absolute emancipation from the influence of the patronage mongers.
There is a force working for civil service reform which is now far more effective than ever before. It is the character of the opposition to it. As the number of good citizens favoring our cause increased and grew into a majority, the opposition became numerically weaker but far more desperate and vociferous. And the more it becomes desperate and vociferous, the more recklessly it discloses its true nature and its aims. Civil service reform is now gaining in the esteem and friendship of the people, not only by the recognition of its correct principles and in good results, but also “for the enemies it has made.” The very shamelessness with which certain Republican politicians now clamor for the repudiation of their platform pledge to enforce and extend the civil service law — a pledge of which Mr. McKinley in the House of Representatives once said that “if the Republican party is pledged to one thing more than another it is the maintenance of the civil service law, and its enlargement and further application in the service” — the very vehemence with which they rush upon the President they have just elected, to force him to break his word and to proclaim himself a dishonest man — the very audacity with which they seek to deceive the people with the most barefaced falsehoods about the civil service system — and all this for the palpable purpose of looting the government for party spoil — these very exhibitions of unscrupulousness and fury make unprejudiced men, who never cared much about civil service reform, stop and ask: “What does this all mean? Can a fight carried on so indecently be a good fight? Must not the right be on the other side?”
There was a rumor in the newspapers that the opponents of civil service reform planned a national convention to be held in this very city of Cincinnati for the purpose of organizing a grand movement for the overthrow of the civil service law. This plan is very much to be commended and I fervently hope that its promoters will strain every nerve to insure its execution. Nothing could be a more striking object lesson than a grand muster of the enemies of civil service reform in bodily exhibition. Nothing could be more edifying to the people of Ohio than an open denunciation of the honored son of their State who now stands at the head of the republic, by members of his own party for doing his manifest duty as President and patriot. Nothing could be more generally instructive than clear avowals by themselves of their principles and aims.
Their leading statesman, Representative Grosvenor, has already sounded the keynote of their movement by a cry of exultation with which, in a letter to a Washington newspaper, he recently greeted the triumph of that next of political pirates, Tammany Hall in the city of New York. Mr. Grosvenor says: “The battle cry of Van Wyck (the Tammany candidate for Mayor) is a liberal political education to the people of the United States. He won a victory unprecedented, and he gave out but one great battle cry, and that thrilled through the hearts of a great body of the American people and an echo will be heard. That battle cry was: 'I will put none but Democrats into office in New York.'” Mr. Grosvenor can hardly ignore the fact that there was, accompanying this, another and kindred Tammany battle cry: “To hell with reform!” the two watchwords being inseparably united. And then, after this enthusiastic greeting to Tammany Hall, Mr. Grosvenor admonishes the Republican party to follow Tammany's example thus: “We must teach the members of the Republican party that it is responsible for the administration of the government when it is in power, and to that end we must teach the people that the instrumentalities of government from highest to lowest during Republican administration shall be placed in the hands of Republicans.” There can be no doubt of what this means: A clean sweep from top to bottom, from Cabinet minister to scrub woman, with every change of party in power! The battle cry from which political parties are to receive their strongest inspiration, is to be: “To the victors belong the spoils, and every government employment shall be spoil!” The kindred battle cry: “To hell with reform!” will soon follow. And the result? A great Democratic Tammany on one side and a great Republican Tammany on the other fighting for public plunder and casting lots for the garments of the crucified republic.
What spectacle could be more significant than that of the Republican enemy of civil service reform jubilantly congratulating the Tammany Tiger upon his triumph and proclaiming to the world their common ideal of government! Let this ideal be soberly contemplated by an intelligent people who wish to be proud of their country and to preserve its institutions. Such are the hostile forces the friends of civil service reform has to contend with. Can our victory be doubtful? The enemy being desperate, the struggle now before us may be arduous and bitter. But it is likely to be the last. General Grant's Wilderness campaign of 1864 was the bloodiest of the civil war. But when it began the rebellion was in fact already broken and doomed. Whoever still fights for the spoils system sacrifices himself for a lost cause. The final victory cannot fail to be with sound democratic principles, reason, and civilization.
|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).|