Speeches of Carl Schurz
An Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the National Civil Service Reform League, at Baltimore, Md., December 15, 1898.
“This League is the only organized and authentic national representative of the reform sentiment. I challenge any man to show that it has in any degree, or at any time, betrayed the trust voluntarily assumed by it, with the approval of the locally organized friends of reform, of honestly and adequately representing that sentiment, and its criticisms and demands upon political parties and public men. The League has pandered to no personal ambition, to no party purpose. It has been no man's instrument, nor has it been the organ of any faction.”
I trust the League deserves this definition of its character and attitude to-day as much as it deserved it twelve years ago, and that it will always deserve it while it lives. Indeed, if it ever ceased to be perfectly non-partisan as between political parties, and perfectly impartial as between persons, it would forfeit all claim to public confidence, and all possibility of public usefulness. And this I am confident it never will, so long at least as you and I have any part in its direction.
Our record will bear me out when I say, that we have always been heartily glad to praise and heartily sorry, even reluctant, to blame, when our duty demanded it. And so we are now. But at present we find ourselves, much against our liking, compelled to recognize the fact that in the year now ending the cause of civil service reform has been less prosperous than in the year which preceded it. In saying this, I have the national service especially in mind.
President McKinley, was elected on a platform which declared that: “The civil service law was placed on the Statute book by the Republican party, which has always sustained it, and we renew our repeated declaration that it should be thoroughly and honestly enforced, and extended wherever practicable.” In his letter of acceptance and his inaugural address he emphatically accepted this platform, and pledged himself that under his administration there should be no backward step. These pledges clearly covered the extension and the scope of the civil service rules made by President Cleveland, which had long been published and sufficiently discussed by the public press to bring them to the knowledge of every intelligent person in any manner interested in public affairs. At our last annual meeting, at Cincinnati, the League whenever opportunity offered, was profuse in its praise of the fidelity with which President McKinley had withstood the pressure of the spoils politicians urging him to rescind President Cleveland's order, and with which he had upheld the integrity of the merit system as far as it then existed; and gladly were some delinquencies of minor importance overlooked which, occuring here and there, it was hoped would be promptly corrected by the administration as soon as its attention were invited to them. In short, the League in every possible manner expressed its confidence in the President's intention to make good the solemn pledges of his party, as well as his own, and it left nothing undone to assist him in doing so, by offering such information as was at its disposal, and such suggestions as occasion seemed to demand. And it must be added that the President uniformly received such information and such suggestions with great courtesy, and with the assurance that they would have his earnest consideration.
But some time ago he gave us to understand that he purposed to issue an order excepting certain important classes of offices from the operation of the civil service law, against which we thought it our duty respectfully to remonstrate, hoping to convince him that such exceptions were unnecessary and would be injurious to the public interest. When the report that such an order would after all be issued continued to appear, the League thought it proper to submit to him a more formal protest, which has been spread before the public, together with elaborate briefs showing in detail how uncalled for, as we thought, as well as how hurtful, such curtailments of the merit system would be.
So far the order in question has not appeared, but we have no assurance of any sort that the President has changed his mind as to his intention to issue it. Under these circumstances I can only repeat the appeal made to him by the General and Executive Committees of the League in these words:
“We believe that changes, whereby positions and classes of positions are now removed permanently from the classified service, will be accepted not only as a step backward, but as proof that the system is not regarded by the present administration as here, and here to stay, and will inevitably awaken doubts as to the sincerity of repeated declarations of the party now dominant in national affairs that the law establishing it shall be thoroughly and honestly enforced and extended wherever practicable. How far this view of the action said to be contemplated would be just or reasonable, we do not think it needful to discuss: we lay before you our conviction that it would be the view taken, in fact, by the intelligent public, that it would impair the confidence of many patriotic Americans in the honor and good faith of their government, and that it would encourage the pernicious activity of men interested in our polities principally as a means of securing selfish advantage. We urge earnestly, that these grave evils may be guarded against.” And I may add that if the President should after all decide to abstain from issuing such an order that decision would be welcomed by the advocates of civil service reform with hearty gratitude.
It is not su
pprising that the frequent recurrence of the
announcement coming from Washington, that the President was
resolved to except certain classes of officers from the operation
of the civil service law, should have had a somewhat unsettling
effect upon those branches of the service which were
reported to be most concerned. It being, for instance, taken
for certain that the Deputy Internal Revenue collectors would
be excluded from the classified service, many Internal Revenue
collectors proceeded to remove their deputies and appointed
others without the slightest regard for the civil service rules,
defending their lawless conduct by the pretense that they were
only anticipating an Executive order, which they believed
was sure to come.
The Treasury Department, indeed, in one or two cases, addressed to the officers concerned a mild remonstrance against so flagrant a breach of discipline, apt to demoralize the whole service by contagious example, but when the remonstrance proved unavailing, no further steps to punish the offenders or to prevent repetition of the same offence were taken.
The Department of Justice did the same thing, in a considerable number of cases, and utterly ignored the remonstrances made by the Civil Service Commission.
Now, I would respectfully ask whether the circumstance that an order of exception was merely foreshadowed in newspaper reports, should be regarded as a valid excuse for violating the rules in anticipation of it, and whether these Departments should have permitted such violations to pass with impunity?
In the Interior Department likewise many appointments, especially in the inspecting and examining forces of the General Land Office, were made with entire disregard of the principles of the civil service law and the rules under it.
The plea in justification was in many cases that there were no eligible lists available at the time when the appointments were made, but the flimsiness of that excuse appeared from the fact that when examinations might have been held, and eligible lists might have been formed, that means of keeping the offices in question practically within the classified service was not resorted to; and that the cause of this is to be found not in any unwillingness or unreadiness on the part of the Commission, but rather in an indisposition of the Secretary of the Interior to take the officers or employees concerned from such lists, or to co-operate with the Commission in holding the examinations for forming the lists.
It has also been urged that many of the offices in question require special qualifications, which would be better ascertained by the appointing power than by examination. This is a well-known plea urged by the opponents of civil service reform. How much that plea holds good is strikingly exemplified by the fact that the officers who by their misconduct helped to bring on the recent Indian outbreak in Minnesota, belonged mostly to that identical class which we are told must be excluded from the merit system because of peculiar fitness required for the performance of the duties imposed upon them, and which, we are told, can be secured only by the Department exercising an untrammelled discretion in the selection of candidates. It is hardly necessary to say that in this, as in almost all similar cases, the discretion exercised by the head of the Department is a ghastly myth, and that he exercises hardly any discretion at all, but that the appointments are simply imposed upon him by influential politicians, usually members of Congress, who seek to quarter their tools, or dependents, or favorites, upon the public purse, without much, if any, regard to their fitness for the duties to be performed.
This applies with equal pertinency to the forest rangers who have been appointed to protect the public timber lands against devastation by fire. These officers, too, required in the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior peculiar qualifications, which made it impracticable to confide their selection to the methods of the merit system, and demanded the exercise of personal discretion by the head of the Department. A searching investigation of the results will undoubtedly convince him that the “discretion” of the politicians who usually succeed in obtaining appointments for “their men” in such cases, is the last thing to be depended upon, if really conscientious and efficient persons are desired for so important a branch of the public service.
The President's order of July 27, 1897, that no removals from positions subject to competitive examination shall be made without assignment of cause in writing, and without giving the person to be removed an opportunity for being heard in his defence, was at the time hailed by public opinion as a reformatory step of great value. And such it unquestionably was, not only inasmuch as it established a rule desirable in itself, but also as it served to confirm the popular belief that it was the President's settled purpose to advance the progress of civil service reform so far as his power would go. I am sincerely glad to say that the order did have the effect of making arbitrary removals — and a great many of them of sufficiently flagrant and conspicuous a character — to attract public attention.
In my last annual address it was my duty to mention the fact that in some cases the President's order had been set at defiance with great boldness; that such instances had been duly brought to the President's notice, and that it was hoped the President would, after satisfactory ascertainment of the circumstances, deal with the offenders according to law, and make of some of them warning examples by dismissing them from the service. I sincerely wish I could report that this had been done, but I am compelled to say that it has not, and that so far the offenders have escaped with impunity. This is deplorable in two respects. In the first place it is apt to encourage in the service itself a spirit of insubordination and contempt for the law and the rules. When the spoils politicians in public place, or public officers who are subject to the influence of spoils politicians, are made to understand that they can trample upon the law and upon the regulations laid down by the Chief Magistrate, without danger of being held to account for it, what can be more natural than that in constantly widening circles the law should become an object of sport for those who desire to circumvent or to subvert it? But we observe another effect of that toleration of insubordinate conduct which is hardly less important. There is not one of those occurrences which, as soon as it came to public knowledge, did not call forth from the enemies of the merit system the customary cry — “See there another proof of what an unmitigated humbug civil service reform is!” Indeed, such cries are extremely unjust; but who will deny that they have a most undesirable effect upon those who do not take the trouble to discriminate? Do we not know that most people judge others rather by their faults than by their virtues, rather by their failures than their successes?
There are ten commandments. A man will be less praised for observing nine, than he will be blamed and discredited for breaking one. Nor has he any right to complain of this. The observance of the nine commandments is a simple duty, the performance of which should be regarded as a matter of course. By the breach of one he forfeits his virtue, and lays himself open to the suspicion of being capable of breaking more of them. So it is with the government in its administration of the civil service law. One conspicuous dereliction in its enforcement going unpunished will cause a widespread belief that there may be many similar derelictions not so conspicuous, and that the whole system is a hypocritical farce. And such a suspicion is especially dangerous and deplorable in view of the fact that the permanency and the extension of the merit system depend very largely upon the popular belief in the honesty of its advocates and the trustworthiness of its enforcement.
Equally deplorable in its spirit, as well as in its effect is the manner in which the reform of the Consular service has been treated. You will remember how the rushing rapidity with which, at the beginning of President Cleveland's second administration, Consular officers were removed and new men put in their places, was at the time resented by public opinion, and how severely it was denounced by this League. In all parts of the country not only civil service reformers, but almost the whole business community, through its representive commercial organization, joined in the demand that the Consular service should be taken out of politics, that Consular offices should cease to be treated as the spoil of party warfare, or to be used as the mere reward of partisan activity, that capable and efficient Consular officers should be kept in their places without regard to their party standing, and that vacancies in that branch of the service should be filled only upon proof of the specific fitness of the candidates for the duties to be performed. President Cleveland's administration, recognizing this demand as just, made an effort, no doubt an honest one, to comply with it. Mr. Olney, as Secretary of State, proposed, and President Cleveland issued, in 1895, an order that no person should be appointed to a Consulship, the salary of which was between $1,000 and $2,500, both inclusive, without having been subjected to a rigid examination on the following subjects:
These examinations were to be conducted by a Board consisting of the Third Assistant Secretary of State, the Solicitor of the State Department, and the Chief of the Consular Bureau.
Secretary Olney, himself, pronounced this order at the time of its promulgation, not a final measure, but a “step in the right direction.” As a step in the right direction, as a proof of good intentions, and as an official recognition of the necessity of withdrawing the Consular service from the reach of spoils politics, this League hailed the measure with hearty applause. But we could not conceal our apprehension that inasmuch as the system of examinations proposed did not contain the feature of open competition, and that it permitted the selection by the Department, or by those exercising influence upon the Department, of the candidates to be put through a mere pass examination, it would eventually meet the fate of similar experiments that had been made before; that is to say, that the examination would degenerate into a mere formality, and as before, almost all Consular appointments would again be ruled by political favor. To this apprehension I gave expression in my annual address of 1896, when I predicted that eventually “the waves of influence will wash down the feeble breakwater of the pass examination once more.”
I must confess, however, that when I said this I did not expect that my prediction would be verified so soon. The character as well as the rapidity of the changes in the Consular service, which were made during the first months of President McKinley's administration — the number of such changes even exceeding the number made during the corresponding period of the Cleveland administration — startled many people also among those who were not as warmly interested in the cause of civil service reform as the members of this League are. Many things happened which excited suspicion as to the seriousness of the examinations to which, under the Olney order, candidates for consulships were to be subjected, and officers of the League thought it their duty to make, from time to time, enquiries of the State Department as to the scope of the examinations, and the relative number of the successful and unsuccessful candidates.
Such inquiries until lately were met with the answer that the information so called for could not be furnished, for the reason that such things were treated by the State Department as strictly confidential. But the veil of mystery has been lifted since the new Secretary of State entered upon the discharge of his duties.
I have had before me two examination papers for consulships of more than ordinary importance — one in France and one in England. The questions therein proposed to the candidates conform in appearance to most of the subjects enumerated in the Olney order. But they are so put that any person of ordinary intelligence and average memory can prepare himself for such a trial of his faculties and attainments by a very brief study of the consular instructions. The requirement that he should know the language of the country to which he wishes to be sent, need not embarrass him; for the candidate for the consulship in France is not asked to write a letter in French, but simply to write a letter in English “in regard to his knowledge of the French language.” He may answer that he thinks he has enough even if he can say only “oui” and “non;” and that may be considered satisfactory by the appointing power.
Moreover, excepting two or three points, the questions on the two examination papers are not only substantially but literally the same, so that by frequent repetition they are certain to leak out. Indeed, it would be a perfect wonder if the coaching schools for examinations, which no doubt exist in Washington, were not, under such a system, in full possession of them, and thus enabled to send every candidate into the examination with a complete assortment of answers securely in his coat pocket. It is therefore not surprising that, of 112 candidates for consular offices examined during the first year of this administration, only one failed to pass, and that this one did not pass can be explained only upon the assumption that his must have been an obtuseness of extraordinary pathological interest, or that he must have fallen a victim to political intrigue, which misfortune would entitle him much to public sympathy.
At any rate, the facts ascertained leave no doubt as to the mode of procedure by which this great Republic receives its Consular representatives abroad, under this so-called reform system. It is this: A useful party worker who is to be provided for, or a person of some local political influence who is the favorite of a powerful political patron, conceives the idea that it would be pleasant to him to have some comfortable salaried position abroad, either because he has no other paying job on hand, or because his wife's health needs a change of climate, or because he wishes his daughters to have good and cheap music lessons, or because he wants to be “vindicated” or raised in the social scale by means of recognition on the part of the Government. The United States Senator from his State, or his representative in Congress, or both, find it desirable for what they call the public interest — that is, their own interest, in keeping their political machine in order — that the ambition of this person should be gratified, and they assail the President with suitable urgency, telling him that the people of their respective States or districts demand just this thing, and that unless it be done the consequences to the party will be awful.
The President is impressed. It may happen that the candidate presented to him is a very improper person, and that the respectable part of the community from which he comes make, with more or less indignation, their protest against the appointment, as happened in the case of the notorious Saylor, of Pennsylvania, whose appointment to a consulship even standing above the $2,500 level was successfully demanded by Senator Quay. Now the President considers that he needs the support of this Senator or Representative for whatever policy he may wish to put through Congress, and, if the candidate aspires to a consulship subject to an examination, he orders him to be examined. The candidate then passes the examination, as a matter of course, and the appointment follows. It is the old story.
Now, I do not deny that in this way some meritorious persons have been appointed — be it that their congressional patrons were uncommonly conscientious, or that they happened to find that they could by presenting such a person do themselves a good turn. But in view of the fact that in the same manner many inefficient and generally improper persons have found their way into the Consular service, and that this method of appointment encourages, with every change of administration, sweeping removals of Consular officers, when after some years of service they have acquired a certain desirable degree of experience and efficiency, it will be admitted that this is certainly not a system calculated to give the American business community as good a Consular representation abroad as it should have. It is our duty to call things by their right names, and that duty compels me to acknowledge the fact that, Secretary Olney's step in the right direction notwithstanding, the method of selecting and appointing Consular officers is substantially what it was under the frank and open old spoils system. The business men and the commercial bodies that have petitioned and memorialized for the reform of the Consular Service with so much energy, and who were made to believe that by the Olney order at least a beginning of that reform was to be made, must understand taht their efforts have so far been in vain, and that, very thinly disguised, the old spoils methods in the appointment of Consular officers are in full flower. They seem to acknowledge this, for they have begun to petition for reform of the consular service once more, with Cleveland, Ohio, in the lead.
I am sure I am expressing the feelings of every member of this League — indeed of every honest and self-respecting citizen the country over — when I say that we should prefer the dropping of the disguise. If men of unsuitable character and acquirements must, at the dictation of Senatorial or other bosses, be put into the Consular Service of the country, let it at least be done frankly and courageously under the old spoils flag, and not under the cover of a so-called reform system.
The new Secretary of State, Col. John Hay, has done a good service to the country by permitting the truth about the Consular examinations to emerge from the veil of mystery in which they had been shrouded. The public obligation to him will of course be much greater if he employs his official influence to the utmost, as I earnestly hope he will, toward accomplishing what the business community of the country has so long and so vainly been praying for — that is a system of examinations for Consular positions that will really rescue the Consular service from the deleterious touch of spoils politics, and bring to it the best attainable ability and character.
I have no doubt that he is the man to do this, and that he has the honorable ambition to earn this title to the gratitude of the country. But if he makes the attempt he will, in order to succeed, have to take the experience of the past earnestly to heart. Why have all similar attempts failed? Not necessarily because the men making them acted in bad faith, but because they contented themselves with mere pass examinations.
The first consequence regularly was that presently admission to these examinations was granted only by way of political favor and influence; and the second, that the political favor and influence which had secured to the favored the admission to the examination, then also proved strong enough to have the examination so arranged that the favored could easily pass. And thus appointments were controlled by influence and favor, just as they had been before. Now I admit that in countries in which spoils politics have never prevailed, as in Germany, or in which, as in England, they have long ceased to prevail so as to have entirely disappeared from the habits and even from the memory of the people, pass-examinations may more easily be maintained in practical efficiency, although even there, — as John Stuart Mill forcibly set forth in a well remembered dissertation — even there they were apt to deteriorate. But in a country, in the politics of which the spoils system has long been the rule, is still struggling for existence, and has a majority of active politicians still on its side, and those spoils politicians constantly scheming how to prevent every arrangement that might wrench any office with a salary worth having from their grasp, or how to subvert or circumvent existing barriers in order to get hold of those offices again — in such a country mere pass examinations can answer the purpose only when they are conducted by exceptionally conscientious and competent persons under an administration so indomitably resolved to maintain them in absolute integrity, as to be perfectly proof against all political influence and pressure. An administration fully answering this requirement we have not had yet. It is therefore necessary that in such surroundings the administration should protect itself with as strong a bulwark as possible against the pressure of influence, and the strongest bulwark as yet discovered is the competitive system of examination, open to all, which gives the best man the best chance for appointment without regard to party affiliations. In this respect I can only repeat what I said in my last annual address:
“If our commercial community wants a real reform in the method of appointment to Consular positions, it must insist upon three things: competitive examination for admission to the Consular service; promotion only for merit; and removal only for cause.”
Nor can it be said that competitive examinations are inapplicable to Consular offices, appointments to which are subject to confirmation by the Senate; for it is wholly within the power and discretion of the President to order, for his own guidance, open competitive examinations for the candidates presenting themselves, and then to nominate to the Senate, as his own choice, the man who comes out best. If then the Senators systematically refuse to confirm such nominations in order to save their patronage, they will do so on their own responsibility to their constituents. But I have no doubt that if the President introduced such a system, and the Senate sought to break it down by systematically rejecting the candidates so selected, the commercial community would rise up in its might, and the public opinion of the country would teach the Senators a lesson not likely to be soon forgotten.
I said that the competitive system is the strongest bulwark so far devised against the pressure of political influence. I do not pretend, however, that it is an absolutely safe bulwark when those whom it is to protect collude with those who assail it.
It appears that the smuggling of persons into places subject to competitive examination without such an examination has been developed into a fine art in various branches of the service, and that the “beating” of the law and of the rules is extensively carried on with much ingenuity and system.
Some of these practices, as they occured in the Revenue Service, and in the Internal Departments, I have already discussed; but more is to be said. The Pension Commissioner circumvented the law in the appointment of Examining Surgeons by appointing in localities where Boards already existed, new Boards, and sending all applicants to these. As the personnel of such Boards become classified only when the amount of fees received is $300 annually, the new appointees were invariably treated as unclassified, and the old classified Boards were practically driven out of business. In the Post-Office Department it has become a not infrequent practice to appoint persons without examination as clerks in offices that are about to be made free delivery offices becoming thereby classified, and then to transfer such person, immediately after they have thus been “covered in,” to other positions in other parts of the Post-Office department, or even in other departments. Four persons have been transferred in this way to the important classified position of Post Office Inspector, four have been sent to the Treasury Department, and others to the San Francisco Mint, the Government Printing establishment, and other offices.
The method followed in the field force of the Interior Department, whereby persons have been employed temporarily in the absence of eligible lists, and all efforts to hold examinations to secure permanent appointees have then been discouraged, has been referred to.
As the Civil Service Commission depends on the department officers for a statement of the duties for which specific qualifications are desired, and for other information necessary in fixing the scope of an examination, it will readily be seen that where the department refuses utterly to co-operate, the provisions of the law cannot be enforced. The Department of Justice has followed this same plan in the appointment of clerks and others made in the offices of United States District Attorneys and Marshals. In other departments and offices, notably in the San Francisco Custom House, persons have been appointed to positions nominally in the “excepted” list and then assigned to other duties, while the “excepted” duties are performed by old employees under classified titles.
The tricks employed in getting rid of employees whose places are desired, have been quite as various. In many cases men have been laid off, ostensibly “for lack of work,” while immediately afterward their positions have been filled by others who perform the identical duties. In other cases the reasons stated in nominal compliance with the President's order of July, 1897, have been so plainly of the “trumped up” sort as to call forth indignant protests not only from the Civil Service Commission but from the inspecting officers of the departments themselves. In still others employees have been given an “indefinite furlough without pay,” and their places quickly filled by persons appointed to do the same work “ in the absence of eligible lists.”
These are not secret matters. Many of these occurrences are reviewed in the last published annual report of the Civil Service Commission, 127 pages of which are devoted to them. The most serious fact is that such cases, remaining uncorrected, are permitted to stand as precedents of the most vicious and demoralizing sort.
This is an unwelcome exhibition which I should be most happy not to be obliged to spread before you. But however unpalatable that duty may be, it must be done. The President's good intentions are not to be questioned. But those intentions are evidently treated with reckless disrespect by some of the officers under him who by their evil practices burden him with responsibilities which he must find extremely irksome, and which he should not be willing to bear.
Let us now turn to the brighter side of the picture. I believe I can say with perfect assurance that the public opinion of the country has never been so strongly supporting the cause of civil service reform as it is now. Among the great newspapers of the Republic, that is to say among those which have the largest circulations, and command the most influence, there are avowedly opposed to it hardly more than you can count upon the fingers of one hand. A large majority of them are advocating and sustaining it with more or less fidelity and force. Discussion on the usefulness of the merit system as it affects the administration of the public business has substantially ceased. On the whole, the spoils politician in assailing civil service reform confines himself to certain hackneyed ribaldries, and to the fierce exclamation that he and his kind must have the offices as a reward for party service. I have of late observed only one argument against the merit system, which, although not new, has recently been advanced by an adherent of the Republican boss of Pennsylvania in the tone of a wail of despairing virtue clad in a garb of politico-philosophical reasoning. It appeared in one of our journals in these words:
“The amount of jobbery and corruption which pervades all parties and all factions is enough to make a man who knows anything about it sick and skeptical concerning the future of the country. I call it horrible. I will tell you what has done more than anything else to debauch American politics. It is this civil service reform business. Before the Chinese system came in, whenever you wanted a man to work for you in politics, all you had to do was to promise to find him a place in Washington if you were successful and your party got into power. If you did not win he did not expect anything. To-day, if you are running for an office, and ask a man in town to round up the voters at the caucus for you, he stands back and asks: ‘What am I to get out of it?’ You cannot give him a place in Washington now, and if this civil service business is allowed to go on the day will come when you cannot give him anything in the line of office anywhere. The result is now that he wants money, and in plain English, you have got to hire and pay for whatever you want done. The outcome, then, is that an aspirant for political power must either be very rich or must work the corporations which are seeking favors. If he can turn legislative privileges to profit, and so make himself indispensable to somebody, he will have money to do business on. One man cannot run this alone, for one man does not make a Legislature. Hence we must have leaders or ‘bosses’ as you would call them, so that whenever a great corporation wants something which it is willing to pay for, it can go directly to the boss, and he in turn can parcel out the money to such of his followers as are willing in state Legislatures, city Councils, and the national Congress to vote as he directs, or to earn the money. This is a plain business proposition.”
Thus we are asked to return to the spoils system in the interest of the public virtue, and strange to say, I have known cases in which this appeal has had some effect upon otherwise sensible persons. Their reasoning is this. We must have political parties. A party must have an organization. An organization must have workers to get out the vote. The workers must have reward. That reward must be either in the shape of office or of money. If you take away the office, only money remains. And then it will require more and more money.
This reasoning is not without plausibility to a certain point. We must have political parties, and a party in order to be effective must have an organization and workers. This is true. But what kind of an organization and what kind of workers must a party have? Is it necessary that the organization and the workers should consist of a lot of mercenaries who put themselves to party work only for the purpose of making politics profitable to themselves personally? Some people will say that only that class of persons can be found willing to devote themselves to the drudgery of party work. This is plausible. But is it true? We have had political parties in this country before the offices were distributed among party workers with every change of administration, and before much money was used in elections to bring out the voters; and yet parties were as active and party contests as spirited, and the vote was as full then as now. We know that in other countries which have constitutional government, and political parties, and elections, but no distribution of offices as party spoil, and no bands of mercenary party workers living on politics, party contests are as energetic as they are here.
Must we then admit it to be a fact that while in other countries parties can be maintained without official spoils, and while in this Republic, too, they have in former times been so kept in energetic vitality, the American people have become so mercenary and degraded that they will not give any time or work to their public interests unless they are individually bribed to do so? Have we sunk so low? But if we had, would the substitution of one kind of bribe for another furnish any remedy for this appalling evil? For the distribution of money in the guise of official salaries to party workers is no less a bribe than cash itself. Would not the result of the complete restoration of the spoils system be that those who now demand money for their patriotism, would then demand money and offices, too? Do they not do so now, wherever the offices are still attainable? Is is not true, as a matter of history, that it was the use of offices as a means of bribery that gradually developed the mercenary spirit in our politics? And will not this mercenary spirit, started and stimulated by the partisan use of the patronage, necessarily spread more widely the more it has to feed upon? The spoils system offered the mercenaries offices. The offices presently proved insufficient to satisfy their greed. They then exacted money in addition. They received money, together with the offices. Then certain classes of offices were withdrawn from their grasp, and they demanded more money. And now they simply want the offices back on the ground that they otherwise must insist upon still more money. Is it not certain that the return of the offices to their constantly widening greed would not satisfy, but only sharpen, the appetite?
The suggestion that under existing circumstances we cannot keep our political parties in effective activity without systematic bribery and corruption of some sort, and the fact that such a theory can be advanced with the expectation of its being accepted by good citizens, should only serve to open our eyes to the frightful character of the condition confronting us. It should convince us that the true remedy must be found in the direction of the complete abolition of political pelf.
We must not seek to satisfy the mercenary element, but to get on without it. We must not endeavor to attract the mercenary element to political activity, but do everything we can to drive it out of that political life. We must strive to convince the popular mind that while political parties must have organization, party machines consisting of patronage-mongers and bribe-givers as leaders, with hordes of patronage-hunters and bribe-takers at their command, are not only not necessary to the existence or efficiency of political parties but will deprive parties of their moral vitality, and turn them into mere agencies of general robbery and spoliation.
Nothing could be more deceptive and dangerous than the doctrine that if one party has such a machine, the other one must have one, too, in order to fight the devil with fire. If the observance of this doctrine were carried to its logical consequences, it would turn our party contests simply into something like two or more devils fighting each other with fire. Where two bosses, and the head of two parties respectively, fight one another, this is actually and visibly the case. The peculiarity of these pyrotechnical contests is that not the devils themselves but the people are scorched and roasted.
To put an end to this abominable state of things, there is no other effective means than to deprive the devils as much as possible of their fuel — that is, of their means of bribery; to strip them of their patronage by the greatest practicable extension of civil service reform, and then also to restrict the use of money in elections to the narrowest attainable limits by corrupt practices laws. The latter has been tried, so far with little success, but it is to be hoped that experience will suggest more effective methods, and that the moral sense and the enlightened opinion of the people will compel their introduction and enforcement, as it has compelled the establishment, and is compelling the maintenance of the merit system in the National civil service against all the open assaults and hidden intrigues of spoils politicians.
How strong on our side that moral sense and public opinion
have become was strikingly manifested by the signal failure
of the anti-civil service reform campaign in the last
session of Congress. Every imaginable enginery of warfare
was set in motion. There was a committee to investigate
the practical working of the civil service rules, by which the
enemies of the merit system expected to bring to light its
uselessness, or at least striking abuses in its administration. There
were speeches made, some of which resembled in their
fierceness of denunciation the wild fury of Indian war whoops. But
the investigation served only to show that the working of
the merit system had been most beneficial wherever the civil
service regulations had been most faithfully enforced; and the
boisterous oratory served only to expose the futility of the intent
to hide the absence of argument by vituperate epithets
and frantic exclamations. The result was the utter failure
of the legislation hostile to the merit s
which had been
intended, and that result was unquestionably due to the restraining
power of that public opinion which sternly condemns any
backward step from the position gained by the advance of
civil service reform. It must be emphasized that the
President himself also earnestly discountenanced legislation of
that kind, and assiduously used his influence to discourage
and prevent it.
We have indeed to admit that under cover of the pressure put upon the Government by the breaking out of the Spanish War, some things were done during that session which looked like real successes of spoils politics. The War Department, as well as the Navy Department demanded, to satisfy the exigencies of the time, many additions to various classes of the service under them. The additions were certainly needed, and needed without much delay. The question was only whether the persons needed could be taken from existing eligible lists, or through examinations that might have been speedily held. This question was raised when the Emergency Bill, appropriating money for such positions, was up in Congress. The chairman of the Committee on Appropriations in the House, who had charge of the bill, asked that the additional force be appointed without regard to the civil service rules, for the reason that the Civil Service Commission was utterly unable to cope with the emergency, — that is to furnish a sufficient number of men in accordance with the regulations. This was a remarkable mistake — all the more remarkable as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee had never taken the trouble to inform himself by application to the Civil Service Commission as to what that Commission was able to do.
The fact is, that the Commission had eligible lists ready to hand from which a large majority of the additional force needed might have been taken, and that there was enough time for holding more examinations, and for preparing additional lists, before all that force would have been needed. These facts were actually communicated to the Senate Appropriations Committee after the Bill had passed the House, but without effect.
It has been ascertained that of the emergency appointments under the War Department without examination, about 560 were made in the Washington offices directly. It is an interesting fact that a large proportion of these persons, so appointed, were incompetent, and generally ill-suited for the work to be done. That was at the point where political pressure was strongest. On the other hand, the appointments made “in the field,” outside of the Department at Washington, were of better character. That was where the political pressure was weakest. The emergency appointments without examination made by the Navy Department were much less in number than those made by the Department of War, but on the whole, of great efficiency. The popular impression is not wrong, that, in the Navy Department, political pressure had the least effect.
While the emergencies of the War were thus taken advantage of to foist into the civil service a large number of persons without examination, the same emergencies, and the events of the War generally have really served to put the necessity of a consistent and vigorous enforcement of the merit system, wherever there is any possibility for it, into a clearer light.
The finest illustration of the virtues of the merit system is furnished by the American Navy, in its administrative as well as in its fighting force. If there be a person in the land who would favor the injection of spoils politics into that splendid organization, the American people would surely set him down as an idiot, or as a traitor. And there is hardly less unanimity of opinion as to the fact, that had there been as general an adherence to the merit principle in the management of the various branches of the military service, the heroic efforts of our soldiers would have achieved their triumphs far more easily, and been attended with far less loss and suffering. This lesson is so obvious that it should penetrate even the dullest understanding, and disarm the most plausible advocacy of spoils politics.
Can the most inventive ingenuity produce any valid reason why the whole public service — National, State and Municipal — should not be organized upon the simple and self-evident principle which in our Navy has proved so brilliantly successful? Can there be any excuse that would really satisfy the conscience and the common sense of any patriotic citizen, for not conducting the management of our Revenue service, our Consular Service, our Postal Service, our Land and Forestry Service, our Indian Service, the taking of the Census, and every other branch of our administrative machinery, on the basis of the same simple principle? Should not, in the face of these palpable and convincing experiences, the President, and every head of department, and every Senator and Representative in Congress, make haste to break through the vicious notions and habits with which the traditions of spoils politics have surrounded them, and to recognize not only in theory, but by corresponding action, the self-evident truth that as mere skill or unscrupulousness in carrying a caucus, or mere zeal and dexterity in electioneering, or mere liberality in contributing to a party campaign chest, or mere energy in bringing out the voters, would not by any sane person be considered sufficient qualification for the command of a ship, or even for the humble position of a gunner or boatswain on a man-of-war, so it should not be considered a sufficient qualification for a consulship, or a post-office, or a revenue place, or an Indian agency, or even the humblest clerkship; but that wherever any work is to be done for the public, the people are entitled to the best work, and that the work should be given only to those who by the best available method prove themselves best fitted for that work?
There is much talk about the new obligations which the results of the recent war have thrust upon us. This is indeed not the place for discussing the question whether it is desirable or not for this Republic to possess colonial dependencies. But it is certainly pertinent to say that if this Republic should charge itself with such dependencies, the question of their government will be to us one of the gravest problems of the future. Now, however opinions may differ on other points, will anybody deny that if such colonial governments were run on the spoils principle, they would inevitably bring upon us not only disastrous failures, but unbearable disgrace? I think I am not going too far in saying that the intelligence and the moral sense of the country should in that event be united in demanding for these dependencies a civil service organized upon merit rules as strict, and upon examinations as exacting, as are those of the India Service of Great Britain, that is, rules and examinations far more strict and far more exacting than those which at present govern our classified service.
Now, if the merit system in its fullest development should be considered indispensable for the government of the colonies, in case they come, will there be any hope of obtaining it unless it be considered equally necessary for our home service? I may therefore be permitted to point out in what manner the system we have may still be improved and extended. In the first place all public officers who have any power over their subordinates in the way of promotion or reduction in grade, or of appointment or removal, should be made to understand that they will not be permitted to take any liberties with the civil service law and the rules. In this respect nothing would seem to be more desirable, in order to restore that necessary discipline which in some quarters seems to have become dangerously lax, than the removal of offending officers, by way of warning example. This would prevent much mischief in the future, and save the President himself much otherwise inevitable and exceedingly vexatious tribulation. Secondly, in accordance with the pledge contained in the Republican platform, that the operation of the civil service law should not only not be restricted, but, on the contrary, extended wherever practicable, in would be fitting, and greatly to the public interest, that the assistant postmasters, the employees of the District of Columbia, those of Congress, those of the Congressional Library, the fourth class postmasters, the whole clerical force of the Census Bureau, and the laborers, should be brought into the classified service — the unskilled laborers by means of registration.
Nor should we fail to repeat that, for reasons often set forth by this League, the four-years-term laws, which have been denounced by almost every one of our prominent statesmen in the first half of this century, from Jefferson down, as a prolific source of favoritism, profligate intrigue, and political demoralization, should at last be repealed.
It is gratifying to observe that in several States and municipalities the cause of civil service reform is prosperously advancing.
The story of that Governor of New York who undertook to take the starch out of the civil service of his State, is familiar to you all. He did indeed succeed in taking out of the civil service much of the starch it contained, although, thanks to the watchful energy of the friends of civil service reform in the State, by no means as much as he had intended. But now, having been dropped by those whom he had sought to serve, but, it seems, whom after all he did not serve enough to keep their favor, he will be succeeded by a new Governor, Col. Roosevelt, who in whatever other respects some of us may differ with him, is hailed by all of us as a champion of civil service reform, who in many a hard fought contest for that cause has amply proved that in his composition there was starch in almost limitless abundance. We may therefore confidently expect that, so far as his power reaches, we shall not only recover the ground temporarily lost under his predecessor, but advance beyond it to new fields. At any rate, in the co-operation between Governor Roosevelt and the civil service reformers of the State, good faith and energy will not be wanting, and as there is no doubt that the best part of the intelligence and respectability of that great Commonwealth stands behind them, a happy outcome may surely be hoped for.
From Illinois, too, where since the adoption of the merit system in Chicago, long and somewhat confused struggles have been going on concerning its scope, we have the welcome news of important victories won by the civil service reformers in the Courts.
In far-away San Francisco also, a new city charter has been adopted by a majority of 4,000 votes, after a contest carried on mainly on the civil service issue; and from many other cities we are receiving evidences of hopefully rising interest in our cause.
The present situation may therefore, be summed-up
thus: The national administration has so far failed to
redeem the pledge contained in the platform upon which it
was elected — not only to “enforce the civil service laws
honestly and thoroughly,” but also to “extend it wherever
practicable;” and various abuses have been allowed to creep
into the conduct of the civil service which have had the effect
of nullifying the spirit and intent of the law and of the rules
in a considerable number of cases. It is gladly
that the number of such cases is still so
limited that it may be spoken of as exceptional. But it has been
large and conspic
ious enough to impair the
confidence of many
people in the honest enforcement of the merit system and to
justify the apprehension that, if the abuses complained of be
permitted to continue and to spread, they will undermine the
discipline of the service and bring back many of the worst
evils which the introduction of the merit system was designed
to remedy. On the other hand, recent events have served to
put the necessity of the maintenance and of the greatest
possible extension of the merit system in a stronger light than
ever, and still more to invigorate that patriotic public opinion which,
steadily increasing in righteous power, will not only not
tolerate any backward step but never cease to press on
until the work of reform is wholly accomplished and firmly
We are indeed at this annual meeting not so fortunate as to have fresh conquests achieved during the past year to celebrate. But it remains nevertheless true that the main strength of the enemies of civil service reform is broken, that their arsenals of argument are exhausted, and that in the intelligence and virtue of the people we possess a reserve force growing stronger every day. The attacks we have now to beat back from the ground we have won, are after all those of mere marauding parties seeking lodgment in ill guarded positions of ours, and trying to pick up what there may be within their reach, for a living. While they are not without power of mischief, they will be really dangerous only if there be negligence, or pusillanimity, or bad faith in our own camp.
Our duty, always the same, is clear and peremptory. It is to hold aloft with a firm hand the standard of genuine civil service reform; to permit nothing to pass under that name that does not truly satisfy its test; to repel without regard of person or party, without fear or favor, whatever attack may be made upon it, and to press on with indomitable perseverance toward the final consummation of the work. If that duty is fulfilled, as I am fully confident it will be by the League and its patriotic allies, with the old fidelity, truthfulness and courage, a complete and final victory of our cause will surely come, and come at a day not far distant.From Proceedings at the annual meeting of National Civil-Service Reform League, Baltimore, Maryland, December 15 and 16, 1898, pp. 7-31.
Speeches of Carl Schurz