Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/A Civil Service Lesson

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The guileless citizen who is still impressed by the favorite argument of the spoils politicians that the head of a public department will know best what kind of help he needs, and should therefore be left entirely unhampered by civil service rules in selecting his subordinates “according to his own sense of duty and responsibility,” may study with profit the illustration of that theory furnished by what is at present going on in the Library of Congress. The Congressional Library has gradually grown to be one of the great libraries of the world. It may be destined to become the greatest. A new edifice has been erected to house it — one of the finest public buildings, if not the finest, in this country. The collections of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, charts, and other things composing the library are soon to be taken from their old quarters in the Capitol to this new abode, and to put and keep the library in the new building in proper order so that it may be one of the greatest possible use and enjoyment to the public, the Librarian has to appoint a number of persons to assist him in his work.

According to the spoils theory, then, no civil service rules should hamper the Librarian in selecting his assistants, as he must be presumed to know best what qualifications are needed for the work to be done. The present Librarian, being a professional man of uncommon ability and large experience, no doubt possesses that knowledge in a much higher degree than most new heads of departments do when they enter upon the duties of which they are at first usually more or less ignorant. The Librarian knows exactly what qualifications those should have who are to serve as his immediate assistants, or in the catalogue department, or in the art gallery, or in the departments of maps and charts, or of periodicals, or of music, or in the Congressional reference library, or in the law library, or in the copyright department. And being a conscientious officer, not a spoils politician in any sense, the Librarian earnestly wishes to put into the places to be filled the best qualified persons he can find. So far the facts in this case tally exactly with the assumption reasoned upon by those who insist that he should not be hampered by civil service rules in “the exercise of his judgment according to his sense of duty and responsibility.” But is he really left free to fill those places according to his own knowledge and sense of duty? Here is the rub.

As credibly reported from Washington, the Librarian has for about one hundred position in the library proper received several thousand applications; some accounts place the number of them as high as six thousand. The papers filed by and in behalf of the applicants are piled up in huge, bewildering masses around him. What is he to do? To study all those documents so as to form from them any intelligent conclusion as to the comparative merits of the candidates, or even to read them all before the time when the appointments are to be made, is, for one man, a physical impossibility. Should he not thrust them all aside and search among his own professional acquaintances for fit persons, or devise certain means to ascertain the qualifications of candidates so as to satisfy his own judgment “according to his sense of duty and responsibility”? But that is not at all what those have in mind who speak so glibly of the head of a department knowing best what kind of help he wants, and of his discretion and sense of duty that should not be hampered by civil service rules. A very large number of the thousands of applications which distress the poor Librarian are endorsed and more or less vigorously urged by Senators, or members of the House of Representatives, or other political potentates; and these powerful persons insist that the Librarian shall not appoint candidates selected by himself, according to his own knowledge and sense of duty, but that he shall appoint the candidates selected for him by them.

Upon what grounds, then, do such Senators, or Representatives, or other political potentates, make their selection for places in the library? Upon the sole ground of fitness for the work to be done? Nobody having any experience of public life will pretend this. It will hardly be denied that persons urged for public place by politicians who deal in patronage are only in very exceptional instances selected on account of their fitness for the duties to be performed. Sometimes, indeed, they possess that fitness; but the grounds upon which they are preferred are usually of a very different nature, their fitness being only a matter of secondary consideration or a lucky coincidence. The coldness or even positive disfavor with which appointments on the sole ground of eminent fitness are apt to be regarded by the so-called practical politician was strikingly exemplified some time ago when President McKinley named Mr. Andrew D. White as ambassador to Germany, and Mr. Angell of Michigan as minister to Turkey. The Republican Senators from New York and from Michigan had not recommended those distinguished gentlemen. However, when the nominations were greeted by the whole country with a round of applause, the Senators acquiesced, but wished the administration to understand, according to common report, that those appointments should not be “charged” to their patronage allowance. What they were most anxious for was not that this republic should have the best possible diplomatic representation in Germany and Turnkey, and that their respective States should have the honor of furnishing the fittest men for those posts, but that their own patronage claims should be reserved for persons of a different category and for interests and purposes of an altogether different nature.

The persons recommended for office by Senators, Representatives, or other party leaders ordinarily belong to one of two classes — those to be provided for, or those to be got rid of. Those to be provided for are usually persons who have been and may still be useful to the party or to the political potentate who recommends them. Those to be got rid of are office-seekers who, like mosquitoes, persistently buzz around the man of influence and make his life miserable until they get what they want or are rudely shaken off. Both classes are doubtless largely represented among the applicants for places in the Congressional Library. One of the Senators representing a commonwealth not far distant from the District of Columbia is reported to be pestered by hundreds of women in his State for comfortable places in the Congressional Library with such furious vehemence and such indomitable tenacity that he, although not at all friendly to civil service reform, secretly prays to have the library put under the civil service rules, simply to save him from the mad-house. Everybody who has had any experience of executive office in the national government knows what kind of argument is now employed with the Librarian by men of political influence who wish to unload upon the library their persons to be provided for or to be got rid of. “Here is a man,” says the Senator, “for whom I must have a place in the library with a good salary — not less than so much.” The Librarian mildly inquires about the qualifications of the candidate, and explains that taking care of a great library is a science, and that assistants to be of service must possess considerable professional knowledge and experience. The Senator grows impatient. “I am very tired of this eternal talk about qualifications,” says he. “Do you mean to say that a man presented by me is unfit? I must have that place for this man, and that is all there is of it.” And the Librarian may consider himself lucky if the Senator does not give him to understand that unless that appointment be forth-coming the Librarian's own position may be in danger. This is no fancy picture. Whoever is well acquainted with official life in Washington remembers scores of similar conversations that have actually taken place. And this is what the spoils politician calls leaving the department chief — in this case the Librarian — entirely free to act upon his knowledge of that kind of help he needs, and to make his selections according to his own sense of duty and responsibility. It is the most audacious of mockeries.

A public library is one of the evidences as well as one of the instrumentalities of civilization. To make the administration of the greatest and most conspicuous library we have the dumping-ground of patronage-mongers for their political hangers-on whom they cannot otherwise dispose of would be a barbarous outrage, degrading this republic before all the world. But just this outrage threatens to happen unless the Librarian arms himself with the fortitude of the martyr, takes his official life in his hand, and defies all the spoilsmen in Congress, or unless the library is put once for all under civil service rules. Such an order would afford the stronger and more permanent protection, for it would always serve as a bulwark of defence to Librarians of doubtful power of resistance. If it be said that such rules too would limit the discretion of the Librarian in the choice of his subordinates, the answer is that they would at least subject all candidates for places under him to competitive tests as to their specific qualifications for the work to be done, and would attract and give the best chance to persons of professional talent and acquirements. The great library, which should be the pride of the country, would then be safe from defilement by spoils politics, and a burning disgrace would be averted from the nation.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.