To trace political effects up to their causes is a dangerous kind of ratiocination for contemporaries; but sometimes the handwriting on the wall is in a character easily deciphered by the ordinary on-looker without the aid of a prophet. The principle of the spoils system was an old one, but before the war its abuse was limited. The levying and expending of vast sums of money during and since the war, the increased number of officials, the higher premium set upon office-getting, attracted a class of men into public life who made office-seeking and office-giving a profession. These professionals were politicians, not statesmen; and their shrewdness, skill, and knowledge of men made it possible for them to get a hold upon the national executive that fairly sucked away much of that magistrate’s appointing power long before the people knew where or what the evil really was. It was some time before the big nation, with its veins full of strong young blood, came to realize the extent of the disease which had taken hold of its political life, and that its very bigness gave the malady more nourishment. A few experts looked at the patient, and quietly wrote down the diagnosis: “spoils system.” But that opinion then received little attention.
For the encouragement of those who believe in the ultimate triumph of the best in society, no little cheer is to be found in the growth of what may properly be called the New Party. It may be said here that the writer views this matter neither from the Republican nor Democratic standpoint; and that when much is said of the Republican party it is solely because that organization has held the reins of power since the war. The other party would doubtless have fallen into the same methods, had it controlled the country.
A little more than ten years ago the average voter was awakening to the undoubted existence of corruption in the administration of the state, and yet he had a dull feeling of discouragement at realizing that the two great parties divided nearly equally the suffrages of the people, and interposed their huge, bulky organizations, with their unsatisfactory nominating conventions (a-choice-between-two-evils game), in the way of any proper schemes of reform. It seemed like pure folly to talk of facing either great party with imperative demands, when these demands were not visibly supported by a large constituency. Those were the days when we heard a great deal of the “scholar in politics,” and lamentations on the absence of good men from the polls. The Republican party had passed under the control of politicians who made office a means of personal advancement, and who regarded it no longer as a grave public trust. This ignoble and selfish spirit permeated Congress (and not long ago), disgraced the sessions of the Senate by a long quarrel over its door-keeper, and has even colored legislation. What followed upon the recognition of the evil, and the means adopted by the best sense of the people to gain the end of reform, are interesting lessons in our political history, and compare favorably with such movements as that for the abolition of the corn laws in England.
Honest, intelligent voters began to see the dim, ugly form of the wrong, and were groping around for the proper instruments, and those nearest at hand, for its destruction. The first attempt disclosed a real difficulty. In 1871 and 1872 the dissatisfaction with existing policies led a body of the bolder men to meet in a private room in Washington chiefly for the purpose of organizing a movement to aid in revenue reform. It embraced a number of editors, congressmen, and public men; but on issuing their call and attempting active measures, they found the public temper such that what was only a revenue-reform purpose in the beginning extended to a movement for political reform in general. The policy then seemed to be to make overtures to the Democrats, and offer them an alliance as well as a definite policy. Charles Francis Adams was demanded by the reformers as their candidate, and it was expected that the Liberal Republican Convention at Cincinnati in 1872 would make this nomination, and that the Democrats would then adopt it. The desire of large numbers of Republicans to see this result is well remembered, and many prominent men appeared at their head. The convention system was the death of this plan. Not often do the majority of delegates get beyond a wish to be on the winning side, and put the candidate under obligations to them which shall be later Liquidated by appointments to office. This convention, under the influence of politicians, and even of Republican agents it is said, nominated Horace Greeley, insured the second election of Grant, and perpetuated the spoilsmen in the possession of the offices.
The offending sores now emitted so rank an odor that the men whose votes were never cast without thinking took np a new policy, without a common understanding, guided rather by an unconscious political instinct (for which the American voter is not always given enough credit), and intuitively struck together at the spoils enemy in the elections for Congress in 1874. Disaffected Republicans transferred the control of the lower house in Congress to the opposition,1 although the majority of the old party, from habit and attachment to the organization which had served them so well in the war days, still voted the party ticket. The dissatisfaction with “machine government” gathered head after this display of power at the polls, until in the next presidential year of 1876 the Republicans felt distinctly that some concession must be made to the new force in politics; and the nomination was given to Mr. Hayes, rather than to Mr. Bristow, the more aggressive candidate insisted on by the same set of men who had urged Mr. Adams four years before. Here was a decided gain; and be it noticed that it was a gain obtained first by learning the effectiveness of independent voting, and secondly by better organization within the party lines, vigorously acting in time to influence the election of delegates themselves.
The selection of Mr. Schurz as a cabinet officer by President Hayes was the first public recognition of the existence of the independent voter; not that the young party demanded office, but it demanded recognition of the fact that some officials, at least, must be appointed who were opposed to the spoils system. The old organizations avoided issues to save themselves from formidable attack; the new party attacked them because their platforms avoided all issues. The old organizations manœuvred solely to gain, or perpetuate, their control of the government. The new party demanded that the state should not be made the tool of shrewd, manipulating managers; that politics should serve the state, not the state politics; that legislation should be freed from partisan ambitions; and that the spoils system should be abolished. Here was a situation of curious interest: a large number of voters, who deserved the title of a new party, because they alone of the political bodies presented any distinct issues; and yet, paradoxically enough, they did not form a party, in the ordinary use of the word, for it was not organized; it held the balance of power already, growing in a sense of its weight and effectiveness, and yet without a common name, organization, or a central group of managers. It was better than a mere party: it represented the intelligent political intuition of the country, guiding us aright before reasons for a change of management had been distinctly formulated in our minds. In my opinion, its steady growth and present existence are among the most hopeful signs in our political zodiac, and well worth looking after by the astrologers of the old parties.
The most decisive triumph of the young liberals was yet to be won, and won against heavy odds. The wing of the Republican party which had lost its control during Mr. Hayes’s administration made a most determined and well-planned campaign to recover power in the now famous contest in the presidential convention at Chicago in 1880. No stone had been left unturned to send delegates pledged to nominate General Grant; and perhaps no political organization ever showed better discipline than was apparent in the steady and well-drilled evolutions of the “306” who never deserted their candidate. In the teeth of such a movement, managed by the most experienced politicians of the country, in an attempt to secure a return to the control of the executive, the balance of power was so wielded by the independents as to give them the nomination of Garfield, and his overwhelming election to the presidency. This result was gained simply because no candidate who could not command the votes of the independents could be elected.
Better results came, however, with organization and by a piece of good fortune. The office-broking wing of the Republican party, as already said, had lost the control of affairs during the administration of President Hayes. This loss was signalized in a dramatic way by the contest between President Garfield and Senator Conkling. Stung to the quick at realizing he could no longer command offices for his followers, and so perpetuate his position, the New York Senator broke out in open revolt against the elected head of the party, resigned, and went to his constituents asking for approval of his attitude by a reëlection (May, 1881). His attempt was a failure, and he was not reëlected. The discomfiture of the strongest “boss” and manipulator of offices in the country was a marked event. It at once broke the strength of the spoilsmen, and encouraged the new party.
President Garfield, it will be remembered, recognized the influence of the new party in his appointment of cabinet officers even more than did President Hayes. It will also be remembered that a name for the Bangor collectorship in Maine was sent to the Senate in direct violation of all the wishes of the reformers, and was awaiting a tardy confirmation. On Friday, the day before the shooting of the President, the Bangor affair was made a matter of cabinet discussion, and precipitated an open struggle between the friends and opponents of civil service reform in the administration. The friends of purer politics were, happily, vigorous, effective, and successful, and a resolution was agreed to establishing a civil service commission to govern admissions to the government service. This victory was gained on Friday, and on Saturday Garfield was shot.
The assassination of the President advertised the evil of patronage as nothing else could have done. Whether rightly or not, the vast number of voters believed that the spoils system had been the cause of the President’s murder. A nearly universal demand spread for legislation reforming the evils of our civil service, and a healthy agitation began all over the land. The story of this success is yet fresh in all minds. Politicians of the old school sat contentedly by, waiting for-the commotion to subside, and thinking it was only a visionary Utopian scheme; but again, in 1882, as in 1874, they suddenly found that their constituents were in deadly earnest, and had taken their seats in Congress from them and given them to the opposition. The politicians immediately granted a civil service bill. By this time the party leaders began to learn that an uncomfortably large number of voters cared more for principles and good men than for an old party with no issues.
The evidences of this determination are now easily to be found. In New York the infant party in the state elections of 1881 stretched its young hands in open defiance to unscrupulous management, and “scratched” the party ticket, until the process became very painful to the leaders. It was indisputably clear then that twenty thousand independent voters in that single State were ready to throw themselves in a body against bad nominations. The ideas of the new party began to leaven the expressions of even the old leaders. In this and the next year (1882) the state election of Pennsylvania showed an organization for a vigorous revolt in the interest of pure politics, and the “boss” system in that State suffered a serious defeat. The free lances were getting uncomfortably numerous, it must he admitted, and very exacting, too, as to the character of candidates. In New York, in the same year (1882), Secretary Folger allowed his honorable name to be used as nominee for governor by a ring of manipulators, in such a way that he was defeated by a “rising vote,” and his opponent given nearly two hundred thousand majority in a State often carried by the Republicans.
Another presidential nomination is at hand, and it does not require much sagacity, in view of past events, to prophesy that the demands of the new party will be pressed more urgently than ever, and that there exists a widespread determination to vote against any candidate who stands for “machine government” in the public eye. Such a man will certainly not get the votes of those quiet citizens who so disagreeably go down to the polls and vote a party out of power, to the surprise of everybody. There is a huge giant lying underneath the political surface, and when he is uncomfortable, and moves his bulky form, like Enceladus under Ætna, according to the old mythology, there is likely to be considerable fire and lava thrown up, and some political burials under the ashes of the volcano.
- As compared with the returns for 1872, eighty thousand Republicans changed their votes in the State of New York. ↩