Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/A Burning Shame

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The onset of the spoils-hunters of the victorious party upon the new administration is this time especially reckless and ravenous. It is, indeed, natural enough that the “dead-beats” that hang on the skirts of every party should muster in full force when there are pickings in sight. Neither should we be surprised to see crowding upon the President and the heads of departments the real or pretended party “workers” to claim as their rewards post-offices or consulships or revenue places. And, as a matter of course, the member of Congress is on hand who wants food for his henchmen to keep his home machine in working order, or who is pursued by the furies in the shape of hungry “friends” to whom he has promised places. All these things will occur so long as any government offices are treated as patronage to be doled out by way of favor. Hideous and absurd as such performances must appear to the intelligence and the moral sense of mankind, and humiliating as they are to the patriotic pride of the American citizen who has the good name and the welfare of his country at heart, we might regard them now as mere lingering remnants of vicious old habits which are still desperately struggling against the advent of a better order of things. But of more sinister portent is an address recently delivered to President McKinley by a delegation from the “League of Republican Clubs,” who pretended to speak for more than a million of Republican voters, “embracing the younger and more active element of the party, who had largely contributed to the success of the national ticket last November.” In their name the delegation appealed to President McKinley to revoke the orders of President Cleveland by which some 40,000 places had been rescued from the reach of spoils politics and placed under the civil service rules.

Can the men who made that appeal be utterly blind to the character of their proposal? Have they considered what their demand involves? Here is the Republican platform upon which the party stood when it won that “success” to which the League of Republican Clubs pretends to have so largely contributed: “The civil service law was placed upon the statute-books 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.” Nor was this platform pledge a mere random utterance; it was a repetition of what the party had been promising time and again for a quarter of a century. And here is what the candidate of the Republican party, now President McKinley, said when in his letter of acceptance he asked for the votes of the people: “The pledge of the Republican National Convention that our civil service laws shall be sustained, and thoroughly and honestly enforced, is in keeping with the position of the party for the last twenty-four years, and will be faithfully observed. Our opponents decry these reforms. They appear willing to abandon all the advantages gained after so many years of agitation and effort. They encourage a return to methods of party favoritism which both parties have denounced, which experience has condemned, and which the people have repeatedly disapproved. The Republican party earnestly opposes this reactionary and entirely unjustifiable policy. It will take no backward step upon this question. It will seek to improve but never degrade the public service.” When that platform was made, and when the Republican candidate, Mr. McKinley, put forth his appeal to the voters, the Cleveland orders adding 40,000 places to the classified service had already become an important part of that reformed system which the Republican platform, as well as the candidate, solemnly promised not only to sustain in its integrity, but, wherever practicable, even to extend beyond its then existing limits.

And now this delegation of the League of Republican Clubs has the hardihood to demand that the President, after having made that pledge, and after having been elected upon that platform, shall not only not extend the reformed system, shall not only not maintain it in its integrity, but shall, on the contrary, curtail its area to one-half of what it was when he became President! Do they not know what such a demand means? It means that the Republican party shall deliberately pronounce itself a liar and a cheat. It means that the Republican President shall coolly do himself what he with indignant eloquence accused his opponents of intending to do; that he shall flagrantly break a pledge which he promised “faithfully to observe”; that he shall disgrace himself by utterly dishonoring his word. Were the delegates of the League of Republican Clubs insensible to the deadly insult they offered the President in expressing to his face their expectation that he would do so base a thing? Would it have been worse if they had told him that they thought him capable of perjuring himself, or of forging an indorsement upon a bank-check? In that case he would probably have kicked them down stairs as persons unfit to approach a gentleman. Did they deserve anything better under the circumstances actually existing?

For what reason, then, and to what end, do they demand that the 40,000 places covered by the Cleveland orders shall be taken out of the classified service and exposed again to the grasp of the spoils politician? Is it to promote the public interest? They complain that under the Cleveland administration many places not then in the classified service were filled with Democrats, that then the civil service rules were extended over them for the protection of the new incumbents, and that for this reason the orders in question should be revoked. Is this pertinent? That under the Cleveland administration a number of removals and partisan appointments were made against which the civil service reformers felt themselves called upon to remonstrate is true. But that the persons so appointed are, if objectionable, protected in their places by the civil service rules is not true. There is absolutely nothing in the civil service law or in the rules that would prevent the present administration from removing any person in the classified service who is incompetent, dishonest, or otherwise unsuitable for official position. If, therefore, any of the places covered by the Cleveland orders are now occupied by party workers who were put there by political favor without due regard to the public interest, nothing will be easier than to get rid of them under the civil service rules as they stand. No revocation of the Cleveland orders will be required for that purpose. But under those rules it will not be possible, after such removals have been made, to fill the places so vacated by another set of partisan appointments without due regard to the public interest. The new candidates for those positions cannot reach them except through the gate of regular competitive examinations. And this is what troubles the League of Republican Clubs. Not merely for the removal of one set of partisans from the service, but for the free admission of another set of partisans into the service, they demand the annulment of the Cleveland orders. Not to the end of making the service more efficient and honest, but to provide public plunder for their own men they urge their party to become false to its pledges, and the President to break his word and to forfeit his character as an honest man.

Can it be that in this disreputable effort they speak, as they pretend to do, for “the younger element” of the Republican party? If such a spirit really did prevail among the young men of that organization, then the prospects of its future usefulness would be dark indeed. It is the standing argument of spoils politicians that if the spoil of office were not held up as a reward for political activity our people would lose their interest in public affairs, and political parties could no longer exist; in other words, that while in England, in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Belgium, in Switzerland, the people can keep up their interest in public affairs and political parties can exist without there being any offices as party spoil, the Americans are such a lot of mercenary wretches that they will become indifferent to the welfare and honor of their country unless they have official salaries as rewards in prospect. Have the American people ever been insulted with a more calumnious aspersion? If this were true, then it would be time for the great American republic to go into bankruptcy and to put its affairs into the hands of a receiver. Its moral vitality would be gone. Nor can the young men of the Republican party resent and repel too sharply the opprobrious imputation cast upon them by the League of Republican Clubs. There may be a class of selfish young hustlers in that organization who, after having “contributed to the success” of their party, make haste to urge that party to dishonor itself by a repudiation of its pledges for their personal advantage. But nothing is more certain than that the mercenary crowd forms, indeed, a noisy but only a very small minority of the American people, and that the true youth of America, alive to their ideals of free government and of national honor and greatness, will be foremost in denouncing the outrage committed in their name by the League of Republican Clubs as one of the most disgraceful incidents of the present partisan race for spoils.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.