Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The Quadrennial Disgrace

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How long will the American people tolerate the scandals of the spoils carnival which accompanies every change of party rule in the national government? Two of our Presidents, both hailing from Ohio, have already fallen victims to it — one, the first Harrison, by harassment; the second, Garfield, by murder. And now it is hounding another. Let every American citizen who has the honor and welfare of the republic at heart watch with care what is going on in these days. Ever since the Presidential election last November Mr. McKinley has been in a state of siege in his home at Canton. Hordes of pushing office-seekers pressed around him from morning till night. His mail was so burdened with applications for place that the attempt to acknowledge the receipt of each of them had to be given up in despair. At last Mr. McKinley's health broke down, and his physicians forced him to deny himself to the relentless throng. Now Mr. McKinley, his health hardly recovered, goes to Washington to assume the duties of his high office. Problems of tremendous magnitude and perplexing difficulty await him. Since the civil war there has been no Presidential election involving more momentous issues than the last. The country narrowly escaped a great danger for the time being. It is the task of Mr. McKinley's administration to avert this danger for the future. A task of greater responsibility can hardly be imagined. It will require, on the part of those who stand at the head of government unceasing exertion of their working strength and endurance, mental as well as physical, and it is of the utmost importance not only to themselves, but to the American people generally, that they should have at least a fair chance for such exertion.

But what do we behold? Tens of thousands of persons rush to Washington to transfer the siege from Mr. McKinley's home in Canton to the White House. And not to the White House alone. Mr. McKinley has invited into his cabinet and put at the head of the government departments eight gentlemen who, however able and upright, are not yet familiar with the great duties imposed upon them. They need, especially at the beginning, times for arduous study to master the work they will have to perform. They too are besieged day in and day out by the same countless crowds. And these besiegers, headed by Senators and Representatives in Congress or other party magnates, clamorously demand that the President and the cabinet ministers — dismissing from their minds all thoughts of currency reform, or of foreign policy, or of public economy, or of measures or methods of administration — shall instantly take to pieces the working machinery of the government, for the purpose of dealing out to those crowding around them foreign missions and consulates and revenue places and commissionerships and post-offices and what not. Nor is this distracting torment confined to the President and the heads of departments. The Senators and Representatives in Congress, too, at least those of the majority party, are chased about like errand-boys in pursuit of offices for their hangers-on, thus being robbed of the time and the working strength needed for their legislative duties, and not seldom even of their self-respect. And what is the pretence on which this wild turmoil is carried on? Not that the present incumbents of the offices to be vacated and refilled are unfit for their duties or unfaithful in the discharge of them; not that the persons demanding the places are better qualified for them; but, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, simply that the “ins” belong to the wrong party and “ought to go,” that the clamoring “outs” have been or will be of service to the ruling party and ought to “have something,” and that the possession of the offices will strengthen the ruling party in maintaining its power — a ghastly plea in the face of the fact that the party possessing the offices has in the last four Presidential elections regularly been defeated. What this pursuit of spoil really does effect is to demoralize our political life by increasing in it the elements of selfishness, to impair popular government by developing machine politics, and to discredit democratic institutions by a relapse into barbarism.

Let every thoughtful American citizen soberly contemplate this spectacle. What other civilized nation is there that presents so absurd and shocking an exhibition to the world? Can any American who respects himself and takes pride in his country behold it without contrition and shame? Must he not devoutly pray for the coming of the day when this disgrace will be put an end to? Will he not hail with enthusiasm as a great benefactor of the republic the man who, possessing the power, will use that power to extinguish it? The President of the United States is the first sufferer. He is also the man that can break down this monstrous abuse — at least for the time being; but the example, once set, would surely be followed in the future. What the President can do is to make known to all concerned, in behalf of the public interest which it is his duty to guard, that no patronage will be distributed at the White House; that appointments will be made only when recommended by the departments under which the appointees are to serve; that whoever wishes to apply or recommend others for appointment to office must do so in writing and not otherwise; that when oral advice or consultation about appointments to office is desired, it will be specially invited; that removals and appointments will be made only for the good of the service and after careful inquiry by the executive branch of the government itself; and to facilitate the attainment of the end in view, that the 67,000 minor post-offices will without delay be put under proper civil service rules, that the examinations for consular places will be made competitive, and that, as to other Presidential offices, the President, for the guidance of the Executive in making nominations, will adopt proper methods for ascertaining the comparative fitness of candidates.

Is there any doubt that such an announcement — made on the ground that the public good requires it, and that those at the head of the government are in duty bound to devote their time and strength to the real business of the people instead of wasting both in distributing patronage — would electrify the country, and that the good-citizenship of the republic would with enthusiasm rally around such a President to hold up his hands? If President McKinley made the experiment, this would be his experience. Indeed, it is said that no President can get along with Congress unless he makes friends in the Senate and the House by dispensing favors in the shape of offices. It was once said, in Walpole's time, that the British Constitution would not work without the practice of purchasing the votes of members of Parliament with money or patronage. The bribing of members of Parliament has long ceased, but the British Constitution is working better than ever. So with us the co-operation between the Executive and Congress would be more honest and harmonious than ever without the use of the patronage; and sensible members of Congress would even rejoice at being relieved of the burden it imposes upon them, provided that in being deprived of it they were all treated alike.

It is, indeed, probable that the country editors who wish to be village postmasters would scowl and bluster; that the incompetents in public life who need the patronage to prop up their influence and to hold together their following would raise a wail of despair, and that the party bosses and the machine workers and their henchmen who depend for sustenance upon the public crib would gloomily predict the downfall of republican government. But the enlightened and patriotic public opinion of the country would soon overrule and silence them all. Even that member of Congress from Ohio who recently at a public dinner in Brooklyn defiled Abraham Lincoln's memory by asserting that the martyr President, if he lived, would condemn civil service reform as an encroachment upon the rights of “the plain people,” would find better employment for his oratorical gifts than to misrepresent a great historic character. Abraham Lincoln had much experience of the use of patronage. But a few days after the fall of Richmond he pointed out to a friend the crowd of office-seekers besieging his door, and said: “Look at that. Now we have conquered the rebellion; but here you see something that may become more dangerous to this republic than the rebellion itself.” It was the spoils system that Abraham Lincoln meant in speaking this word of warning; and that spoils system will not cease to be a source of danger and disgrace until it is totally wiped out. Is it too much to hope that President McKinley, obeying his best impulses, will, for his own salvation and that of the republic, strike the decisive blow?

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.