The New International Encyclopædia/Civil-Service Reform

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The New International Encyclopædia
Civil-Service Reform
Edition of 1905. Written by George W. KirchweySee also Spoils system and Merit system on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CIVIL-SERVICE REFORM. In the most general sense, the adoption, by legislation or executive action, of rules for improving the civil service of the State by prescribing the qualifications of candidates for public office, and for the good behavior of public servants and their independence of external control. Specifically, and as commonly employed in the United States, the expression refers to the movement of the last hundred years in Great Britain and the United States for the elimination from the public administration of the corrupting influences of party politics.

Owing to the power which has usually attended the possession of public office and the lack of any effective supervision or criticism, public administration has in all stages of political development been affected with corruption and inefficiency and extravagance. The various forms of autocratic government, which preceded the more popular governments of our day, furnished a peculiarly favorable soil for the growth of these evils. (See Civil Administration.) It was a disappointing result of the first effective appearance of government ‘by the people’ in modern times, that it should not only have failed to correct these tendencies of the earlier régime, but should have intensified them and given them new and more enduring vitality. It is to the excessive and vicious development of the party system in its earlier stages that we owe this condition of affairs. Human nature is much the same under all forms of government; and it is, therefore, not to be wondered at that great party leaders, like Bolingbroke and Walpole, having great patronage at their command, should employ it to consolidate their power or that of their party. The ‘spoils system,’ as it is called in the United States, had its inception with the real beginning of popular government, in the reign of William III. William III. was himself a great administrator, and his first efforts were directed to a reform in the public service. But the only permanent ‘reform’ effected was the substitution of Parliament for the Crown as the source of office and official corruption. At the accession of Anne in 1702, the party system had enveloped the whole civil service of Great Britain. All of the offices of State and all employments under them, from the highest to the meanest, were the assets of the party in power and were available for party purposes. The results of the system were in the highest degree demoralizing to the public administration and to the public spirit of the nation. As has been well said of this period in England, “the partisan system of appointments and promotions aggravated the evils of Parliamentary patronage, made administration costly and feeble, spread corruption from the departments to cities, boroughs, and elections, while it disgusted the better class of citizens, alarmed statesmen, and exasperated and debased all political contests.” Matters grew steadily worse through the early part of George III.'s long reign, the efforts of Rockingham, Burke, Pitt, and other patriots to stay the tide of corrupt practices being neutralized by the stubborn resistance of the King. The tide turned, however, with the coming in of the second Rockingham Ministry in 1782, and when George IV. ascended the throne, in 1820, though the partisan system still existed, its worst abuses had been driven out by the growth of a better public sentiment. The great Reform movement which culminated in 1832 had no direct concern with administration and produced no immediate effect on the movement for administrative reform; but the ‘merit system’ of selecting candidates for office was tried on a small scale as early as 1834, and slowly but steadily made its way. It was probably the demoralization of the Indian service which opened the eyes of British statesmen to the necessity for more sweeping methods of reform; and after securing the passage of the India Act of 1853, the Government of Lord Aberdeen appointed a commission, consisting of Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan, to make an inquiry into the condition of the public service and to suggest improvements therein. This commission having in the same year reported, recommending a uniform system of competitive examinations to test personal fitness for the public service, in 1855 such a system was established by the Ministry of Lord Palmerston, through an order of the Queen in Council. This sweeping reform, which has proved to be as permanent as it has been salutary, was brought about by the wisdom and experience of the administration, in the face of a hostile majority in Parliament and an apathetic public opinion. The beneficial effects of the new system quickly became apparent, and in the extremely short space of four years had roused a strong public sentiment in its favor and won the unanimous support of Parliament, and in 1859 was fully legalized by statute. The last step in the reform of the British civil service was taken in 1870, when the competition, previously somewhat restricted, was thrown open by an Order in Council to all persons of requisite age, health, and character.

The ‘spoils system’ and its reform have had a shorter and a more recent history in the United States. It was instituted by President Jackson in 1829, as an incident of his bitter and proscriptive campaign for the Presidency, at a time when it was already on the wane in Great Britain. The doctrine enunciated in the notorious declaration of Senator Marcy, that “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” rapidly became the accepted principle of political action in this country, and represents a more thoroughgoing and vicious form of the system than ever existed in England. There, as here, office was the reward of party service; but the principle of the ‘clean sweep,’ whereby an incoming administration makes room for its supporters by the wholesale removal of the incumbents of the public service, was the exclusive possession of the American Republic. So well adapted did this principle prove itself to the American party system, that it spread rapidly from the national Government to the several States until it permeated the entire public life of the country. So firmly did it become intrenched in the civic life of the American people, that it has been affectionately described and defended by its supporters as the ‘American system.’ Its essentially artificial character is evidenced by the fact that in the forty years from the beginning of Washington's administration to that of Jackson, not a single subordinate officer of the Government was removed without cause, while in Jackson's first term the number of such removals rose to thousands.

This was not accomplished without protest, however. The new principle was vigorously combated in the Senate of the United States by Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and other leaders — the first of whom denounced it as “a detestible system, drawn from the worst periods of the Roman Republic.” But nothing availed to stay the tide, and for forty years more no President raised his voice against the system or failed to act upon it. But the sentiment in favor of reform was slowly gathering force, and in 1867 it found its first effective expression in a report to the House of Representatives, made by Mr. Thomas A. Jenckes of Rhode Island, recommending the establishment of a merit system, based upon competitive examinations. A second report, recommending similar action, was made by Mr. Jenckes the next year, but it was not until 1871 that the growing force of public opinion compelled Congress to take action upon the subject. In that year a clause in the general appropriation bill authorized the President to prescribe rules for admission to the civil service, and to appoint a commission for that purpose. President Grant thereupon appointed the first Civil Service Commission, with George William Curtis as chairman, and in December of the same year the Commission reported, recommending a set of rules and regulations. This report was adopted and the rules and regulations of the Commission put into effect, and thus the first victory for Civil-Service Reform was won. These rules, with certain additions to them recommended by the Commission in the spring of 1872, remained in force until the winter of 1875, when the growing opposition of the politicians induced Congress to withhold the annual appropriation for the working of the system, and the President yielded to party pressure and suspended the operation of the Civil-Service Rules. The most memorable event in the long struggle for the reform of the civil service in the United States was the organization of the Civil-Service Reform Association in New York in May, 1877. This organization, and the National Civil-Service Reform League into which it developed, under the presidency of Mr. Curtis, instituted an active propaganda for the creation of a public sentiment in favor of the reform, and by its meetings and public addresses, and by the high and disinterested character of the men who were prominent in its work, powerfully stimulated the movement. After this the triumph of the reform was not long delayed. In January, 1883, the bill introduced by Senator Pendleton, of Ohio, which, in the language of the National Civil-Service Reform League, provided “a constitutional, practical, and effective measure for the remedy of the abuse known as the spoils system,” was adopted by overwhelming majorities of both Houses of Congress, and the ‘merit system’ was an established fact. The Civil-Service Law, which went into effect in July, 1883, prohibited the vicious practice of levying assessments for partisan purposes upon members of the civil service of the Government, authorized the appointment of a commission to frame rules and regulations for the civil service, and empowered the President, from time to time, to determine by executive order what classes of the public services should come under the operation of such rules. In the same year a similar bill, applying the same principles to the civil service of the State of New York, was passed by the Legislature and became a law, and in the following year the system was extended by statute to the twenty-three incorporated cities of that State. In 1884, also, the new system was adopted in Massachusetts. The reform of the civil service was now secure, but still far from complete. The President (Arthur), who had himself, as a New York politician, been a devoted adherent of the old system, nevertheless administered the new one faithfully; but it was deemed expedient to proceed slowly in its application, and only 14,000 employés of the Government were at first brought within the ‘classified service.’ It must he said that the high tide of public feeling which resulted in these sweeping victories for the movement has never been reached again, and that the active hostility of party leaders has greatly retarded its progress. The new system has made gains; it has been adopted in whole or in part in a few more States, and it has been extended by executive order of the President to classes of public servants not previously affected by it, but in many of the United States the political ‘machine’ has been strong enough to maintain the old system unimpaired, and in many others there is a complete absence of popular feeling on the subject. In other words, the political development of the American people has not yet reached the point, attained by the English electorate a generation ago, of recognizing the supreme importance of clean and efficient administration to the welfare of the State. Much of the progress of the past twenty years has been due to the cautious initiative of enlightened Presidents, especially of Cleveland, Harrison, and Roosevelt, the last of whom has long been known as a devoted friend of the reform movement, and, as Civil-Service Commissioner under President Harrison, did much to commend the new system to the American people. The nature of the ‘merit system’ and its operation will be described under that title. The character of the partisan system will be found discussed in the article on the ‘Spoils System.’ See also Civil Service; and consult: Eaton, Civil Service in Great Britain: A History of Abuses and Reforms and Their Bearing Upon American Politics (New York, 1880); George William Curtis, Orations and Addresses, vol. ii. (New York, 1894); Theodore Roosevelt, American Ideals, part ii. (New York, 1900); Bain, Practical Essays (London); Clarke, Civil-Service Law (3d ed., New York, 1897); Rogers, “George William Curtis and Civil-Service Reform,” in Atlantic Monthly (January, 1893); and the reports of the American Civil-Service Reform Association.