Harper's Weekly Editorials on Carl Schurz/Reform of the Civil Service

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Six or seven years ago Mr. Jenckes, of Rhode Island, began the effective agitation in favor of reform of the civil service. The evils of the existing system had long been seen; they had often been exposed, and were seriously pondered by the most thoughtful people. There was not, however, and is not now, any objection to the theory of the present system of appointment. The difficulty is in what is proved by experience to be its necessary operation. If the appointing power would take care always to select honest and fit officers, nothing more could be asked, except that they should be retained so long as the honesty and efficiency remained. But the practice under all parties had become what every body familiar with the facts knows it to be. Good sense and experience suggested the remedy, and it was what Mr. Jenckes proposed. It was true that any kind of independent examination might be very imperfect, but it could not possibly be so absurd as the existing practice; and however politicians might theorize about it, the experience of other countries in its favor was conclusive.

So he urged his plan. Both parties, in Congress and elsewhere, snorted at it with scorn and rage. It was silly, cumbrous, unconstitutional, impracticable, visionary, absurd, hostile to the genius of our institutions, productive of an aristocracy, fatal to the ascendency of any administration party, and a proposal to run the government by a board of broken-down school-masters. No serious question of executive administration was ever treated in Congress with so little intelligence or reason. The debates upon the subject are laughable; they are humiliating to read. They all turn on two points. One is that a man is not necessarily a good inspector of snuff because he knows Greek, and the other that Senators and Representatives probably know quite as well as a squad of college professors who ought to have the post-offices. Whether it was the Democratic Judge Woodward, of Pennsylvania, or the Republican Peters, of Maine, this was the burden of the song.

President Grant differed. He constantly made the most urgent suggestions to Congress to do something to arrest the evil, and in the last moment of the last Congress a clause was attached to a miscellaneous appropriation bill authorizing him to take action upon the subject. Under that authority he promptly acted. He sent a special message to Congress in December, communicating the rules that he had adopted, and asking Congress to strengthen his hands. Both parties in Congress sneered as usual, and after a series of speeches as ludicrously feeble as they were contemptuous of the effort, and appropriation of twenty-five thousand dollars was made to enable the President to pay the expenses of his hobby. Those who hold with the Sage of Chappaqua that, as the way to resume specie payments is to resume, so the way to reform the civil service is to reform it, may think that this is an extravagant sum to pay for putting measures of reform in operation. Those who think upon the subject, however, will be of another opinion. Unless the President knows personally every body in the country, or knows those who recommend others for appointment, or believes that Senators and Representatives will always recommend proper persons for appointment, he must establish some methods of ascertaining fitness, and that can not be done without expense.

The President has lost no time in putting the system in operation. Examining boards have been appointed in each of the great departments. They have completed arrangements for the examinations in Washington and in the New York Custom-house, which will serve as a model for other ports. And while he has been acting in perfect good faith upon the subject, there has been on all sides a loud adhesion to the work. The Cincinnati Convention, the actual leaders of which were the most notorious political brokers in the country, passed a resolution which evaded the practical point of reform by declaring that its root was a single term for the President. The Republican Convention expressed itself unequivocally, demanding laws which should remove the evil of patronage. And Mr. Hendricks, in the Indiana Democratic Convention, declared that a radical reform was essential.

Thus all the conventions obey what they believe to be the wish of the people that the present practice should be changed. But that any of the “working politicians” of any party really wish it, we do not believe. What kind of civil service reform do General John Cochrane, Mr. John Morrissey, Mr. Oakey Hall, Mr. Kinsella, and the Tammany Ring which supports Mr. Greeley in New York, really desire? It is a mere joke to ask what reform of the kind the Democratic party, the great bulwark of the spoils system, wishes. It is notorious also that Republicans like Senator Carpenter and Generals Butler and Logan are wholly hostile to any change. The only people who sincerely desire it are a small number in each party. Of the Cincinnati men, Mr. Schurz, for instance. Of the Democrats there are probably some. Of the Republicans there are many, such as the President, Senator Edmunds, Mr. Shellabarger, Mr. Garfield, Mr. Perry, Mr. Willard, and others.

While, therefore, much of the chorus for civil service reform in all parties is mere lip-service, yet no one who is sincerely interested in it has any reason to regret its progress. When Mr. Jenckes began, it was often necessary to explain what was meant by the words civil service. And now, although ten years are not passed, a radical reform of the practice is demanded by every political organization in the country; and the sharpest shaft that can be flown at an opponent is that he is indifferent to this question. If, as we have suggested, the working politicians of all parties are of opinion that the government can not be carried on except upon the spoils system, their sagacity is as profound as usual, and they will live to learn better. And in the general attention which the subject is now commanding the country will not forget that, as it was a Democratic President who established the practice that subordinate offices should be regarded as spoils, it is a Republican President who declares that “honesty and efficiency, not political activity, will determine the tenure of office.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).