Washington's Birthday (Schurz)

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Washington's Birthday
by Carl Schurz
From the New York Times of February 23, 1884. The speech had no title, and apparently is a response to a toast to “The Day We Celebrate.” Hans Trefousse (Carl Schurz, a biography, 2nd ed., Fordham Univ. Press, 1998, p. 260) notes it as the beginning of an anti-Blaine campaign, and records the location as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the audience as independent Republicans. The speech enlists George Washington's reputation for the cause of civil service reform, and cautions the Republican Party on its selection of a candidate for the coming presidential election.


Mr. Carl Schurz, who was received with much applause, said:

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: You certainly do not expect me, in response to this sentiment, to add one more to the endless number of eulogies on George Washington which have been pronounced since the Revolutionary war. I understand this to be a convivial meeting of Republicans, especially young Republicans, earnestly interested in the cause of administrative reform, and desiring to exchange views on the relation of that cause to the Republican Party in the coming Presidential election. For such a purpose surely no more fitting occasion could have been chosen than the anniversary of George Washington's birthday, since the very name of Washington suggests the most pertinent reflections. The American people are singularly fortunate in the fact that the first President of the Republic was as perfect a model of a Republican Chief Magistrate as can be in the history of any age and any country. [Applause.] Whenever the American people want to remember what the President of the United States ought to be, and whenever a President in our time wishes to make it clear to his mind with what rules he should regulate his conduct, upon what principles he should act, by what motives he should be guided, what methods he should adopt in directing affairs and in managing the machinery of the Government, they will find it all written in characters of light in the first President's teachings and example. No man ever left to those who came after him in this respect a more precious legacy, and the American people grievously wrong themselves if they fail to appreciate it and turn it to their benefit.

It is true that circumstances have changed since Washington's time. Many of the questions of home and foreign policy with which he had to deal have disappeared and others have arisen. But the general principles upon which he conducted the Government, and especially those upon which he organized and managed the Government machinery are to-day and will remain as important as they ever were in their bearing upon the character, the strength, and the durability of our political system. These principles were very simple. Political parties have their legitimate function as means to public ends. An excisiveexcessive and selfish party spirit is an evil. Public questions should be treated upon their own merits, and not with a view to mere party advantage. The Government is to be of the people and for the people, and not the mere instrument for the selfish exercise of party power. [Applause.] Public service is to do the business of the people, as prescribed by law, and not to become a mere party machine. [Applause.] The offices of the Government are places of trust and responsibility, and not mere patronage or spoils of party warfare. [Applause.] The officers and employes of the Government are therefore to be selected on the ground of their fitness for the duties to be performed, and not to account of party service or personal favoritism. [Applause.] They should be removed only for causes connected with the interest of public service and not in order to put more serviceable party tools in their place. [Applause.] These were the simple principles upon which Washington managed the machinery of the Government, and which gave the public service, under his administration, its high moral tone. To secure their observance while he was President no civil service law was required, for he regarded those principles as self-evident. He was, in fact, himself their live embodiment, and he never expected them to be departed from. This was true, that even the most licentious fancy could not imagine the picture of George Washington planning a “clean sweep” or “a new deal,” [laughter and applause,] George Washington using the spoils of office himself or permitting anybody else to do so; “to take care of the boys” [laughter and applause] or to make himself “solid with the workers” or to “grease the machine.” [Renewed laughter and applause.]

From those principles American politics have in the course of a century gradually drifted away until the contests between and within political parties has acquired largely the character of scrambles for spoils, and until the management of the patronage has threatened to become the principal business of American statesmanship. Now at last the reaction has set in, and the American people, becoming sensible of the mischief and depredation, are beginning to work their way back to the Washingtonian rules. This is the real meaning of the civil service reform movement. [Applause.] It is this and nothing else. Its history is instructive in the eyes of the spoils politicians. The first advocates of civil service reform were only a set of harmless lunatics, who would have their talk and then subside. When they showed unexpected perseverance and strength the spoils politicians grew angry and denounced them as a pestiferous set of theorists and disorganizers. Now they are angrier still, for the movement has become a recognized power. It has gradually dictated legislation, and the party managers have to think of it when planning the campaigns. [Applause.] Some of them may still imagine that those engaged in it can be amused with the mere semblance of reform in a narrow circle, permitting the spirit of the spoils politics to rule in reality. This is a mistake. The reform movement has come to stay, nor will it cease to advance until all its purpose is accomplished. [Applause.]

That purpose is the complete restoration of the Washingtonian principle and practice. [Applause.] I speak of this with so much assurance because the growth of the movement has been so natural and healthy. The simple force of those who, at the start, drew and advocated a systematic programme for it, would not have been able to produce much effect upon the popular mind had it not stuck a responsive sentiment. The first phase of this was a vague disgust with the abuses and dangerous effects of machine politics and boss rule. The second phase is the development of this disgust in the perception of the fact that machine methods and boss rule are the natural and inevitable outgrowth of the spoils system, and that if the former are to be prevented, the latter must be abolished. [Applause.] And the third phase is the growth upon men's minds of the imperative conclusion that the spoils system can be eradicated only by the establishment of another system, completely divorcing the public service from party politics — [applause] — the system of appointment on the ground of fitness, promotion for merit, and removal for cause — which is, I repeat, for it cannot be repeated too often, the restoration of the principle and practice of the Washingtonian Administration. A good many of our fellow-citizens may still be in the first stage, but if they are they are sincerely. The political managers will strive in vain to keep them there. Honest logic is a tremendous power with candid minds. How far the reform movement has already taken possession of the people is indicated by a significant fact. Even men and journals that have no sincere sympathy with it are becoming accustomed to pay it a remarkable tribute. When they want to express their highest commendation of an appointment or a removal, what do they say? “This is in direct accordance with civil service principles.” Or when they want to condemn one — “that moves upon no civil service principle; can it be justified?” [Laughter and applause.] You can hear or read this every day, even in the slang quarter. No, this movement cannot be stopped. It has already furnished a popular standard by which official action is judged. It is gradually working itself into the habitual ways of thinking of the people. It has already made a decided impression on party politics, and it is altogether too strong not to be an important element in the issue of the coming Presidential election. [Applause.] It is not unlikely to turn the scale. In saying this I speak not as an agitator but as a mere observer — as an observer, let me add, disposed to be impartial, and to form and express his judgment with malice toward none.

The Republican Party is apt to succeed, when it deserves success. [Great applause.] At the coming election, however, it will be sure to succeed only if it deserves success very much. There are peculiar reasons for this. Neither of the two parties commands a majority of the popular vote in the country. They are both minority parties. [Laughter.] Between them stands a mass of citizens leaning more or less one way or the other, but not regularly following the drum-beat of either. [Applause.] They constitute what is called the independent party. The number of voters who care very little for party success is at this moment larger than it has ever been for two generations. This is undoubtedly in a great measure owing to the fact that the identification of parties with great and existing questions is not what it was 10 or 15 years ago. People have become cooler, more critical, more easily dissatisfied; more inclined when much displeased to teach their own party a lesson. This applies certainly no less, perhaps even more, to the Republicans than to the Democrats. The Republican Party has always in great part resembled an army of volunteers, in this State, for the campaign, rather than an army of regulars hired for whatever service may be required of them. [Applause.] Enthusiasm for a good cause has always been its principal element of strength. [Applause.] With that enthusiasm it is almost irresistibly strong; without it, it is sometimes surprisingly weak. It has always contained a very large number of men determined to do their own thinking, and rather disposed to balk and kick whenever an attempt was made to drive them. [Applause.] Of late it has gone through some curious experiences. We all remember the great overthrow of 1882. There was in this State no excited canvass. There was no organized voting movement, but the Republican voters quietly permitted a Republican candidate for Governor, who is certainly a very respectable man, to be defeated by nearly 200,000 majority. [Applause.] Why? Because they were disgusted with machine methods and suspected interference by the national Administration with the parties in the State, and they chose a caustic way for declaring their determination that this thing must stop. The result was not at all brought about by any act or effort on the part of civil service reform. But it was decidedly an unmistakable symptom of the growing civil service reform movement among the people.

It is supposed by some that such a thing cannot happen in the Presidential election on account of the greatness of the State. Ordinarily this might be so, but it should not be forgotten that at present the Republican Party is in a precarious condition for other reasons. The Republican Party has been virtually in power for nearly a quarter of a century. The thought that the Government should not be in the hands of the same party for so long a time undoubtedly suggests itself to many who have hitherto adhered to it. The cry for a change, simply for the sake of a change, gains more significance and power from year to year. It was strong in 1880, and it will be certainly much stronger in 1884. It might be overwhelming if it is reinforced by other considerations. Here is, therefore, a very great advantage of situation for the Democratic side. It is true there are on the other hand reasons for desiring that the Government should not pass into the hands of the Democratic Party as it now is. [Great applause.] But in order to overrule in the popular mind the not unnatural desire for a change, those reasons must be coupled with a positive and unusually trustworthy promise of good government in the event of the continuation of the Republican Party in power. [Applause.] And this will depend mainly upon the action of the National Convention, especially as regards the selection of candidates.

I certainly speak within bounds when I say that a nomination brought about by machine work, or by even the appearance of trickery, or the nomination of any man with an unclean or even doubtful record, will stand an exceedingly slim chance of being ratified at the polls. [Great applause.] Defeat would be as good as certain. The Republican Party cannot afford a defensive campaign. [Applause.] Neither do I think that the candidate who is only ordinarily respectable [laughter] will have a flattering prospect. A candidate may command the support required, the strength of the party, even its enthusiastic support, and yet be defeated. For he will need more than that. He will need the active power of those Republicans who have grown more or less indifferent to the fortunes of the party as such. He will need a considerable reinforcement from those who, standing aloof from party, merely want to have certain things done for the public interest, and truly deliberate as to the success of which party will be most likely to bring them about. The aspirants for the nominations themselves and their most ardent friends may not think so. They usually do not. They may point to the fact that there is no great bitterness of feeling with regard to any of the aspirants on the part of the public mentioned. this is true. Neither does it at present seem probable that the nomination of any of them would be followed by violent outbursts of wrath, or by organized voting movements. But the danger is of a different kind. It is that, in the case of a bad or only an indifferent nomination, a large number of voters will, without any concerted action, or without any demonstrative noise, simply resolve to let the thing go. [Applause.] A good many may even remember that the Republican overthrow in 1882 was followed by the passage of civil reform laws and sundry good things, and they may say to themselves that as this lesson was immediatly fruitful of very good results, and as it was too quickly forgotten it had better be repeated to bring forth another crop of good results, and to be remembered longer. [Applause.] I do not mean to discuss how wise or unwise such a policy would be, but I do say as a matter of fact that such things have happened, and that in the present temper of the popular mind they are exceedingly likely to happen again upon similar or even less provocation.

How is this danger to be avoided? I repeat, the only safe thing for the Republican Party is to deserve success very much. To this end there is something it must be careful not do do. It must not rely upon the “bloody shirt” or sectional agitation. [Applause.] It is true that many things in the South are not such as they ought to be, but there has been great improvement. That improvement has been especially great during the time when Government interference was less active than it had been before. [Applause.] To deny that there has been such improvement, and to argue that “the rebels are as bad now as they ever were,” may prove a two-edged weapon. The answer suggests itself that, since the Republicans have held power during the 19 years after the close of the war, and since they have during that long period failed in improving things, it might be time to try something else. [Applause.] Besides the people are tired of the “bloody shirt” and inclined to look upon sectional agitation with suspicion, as an expedient to disguise their weak points. But, in addition to this, party managers usually deceive themselves by such contrivances to the detriment of their party. As to the real element of the strength upon which Republican success depends, the real element of strength is in the popular belief that the party, at least in the North, contains a strong preponderance of the popular intelligence, education, and virtue, [applause;] that this element will ultimately shape its ends, policy, and conduct; that the integrity of the Government is therefore, on the whole, the safest in its keeping, and that it is the natural party of reform, whenever and wherever reform is necessary. [Applause.] This belief is the bond that for a long time [applause] has held the Republican party together. By this belief many of the patriotic citizens have been kept attached to it, although their opinions on some important points of policy differ from those of the majority of its members — men, I mean, to whom the cause of administrative reform is supreme, because they think that if that reform in its best sense is thoroughly accomplished it will impart a new intellectual and moral life to the working of our institutions, facilitating the treatment of other problems on their merits and produce far-reaching results of a permanent character. But such a belief can be maintained only if it has facts to rest upon. The intelligence and virtue of the party will lose their attraction if they do not impress themselves upon its policy and conduct. To be trusted as a party of reform it must show itself to be a party of reform indeed, and never in its history would a failure in this respect have been as dangerous to its prestige and power as it will be in its coming trial. [Applause.] No attentive observer can fail to see that as things have shaped themselves administrative reform is likely to be of all issues the most prominent and decisive in the Presidential canvass. It could scarcely be otherwise, and it requires not the zeal of a reformer, but only the instinct of an experienced party man to perceive that the Republican candidate will be the stronger the less he resembles the spoils politician. [Great applause.] If the Republican Party wants to command all the active support which it needs for success, its candidates should be, not only as far as the letter of the law commands, but men whose character, record, and political associations will be a guarantee that, if intrusted with power, they will lead and not merely follow the movement. [Applause.] The best men are at this time the most available men. When the nominations are made it would be melancholy and discouraging indeed if the highest praise of them were “The party might have done worse.” [Laughter.] The word needed for the vigorous contest will be “No party could have done better,” [great applause,] and the best response I can make to the toast on “The Day We Celebrate” is the expression of the earnest hope that the precious legacy of precept and example which Washington left to his countrymen will in the coming contest find a new and faithful embodiment in the creed and candidates of a great national party, and that a year hence you may meet again to celebrate, on Washington's Birthday, the accomplished example of the beneficent principles upon which the first and greatest President conducted the Government of the Republic. [Applause and cheers.]

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).