Some Popular Objections to Civil Service Reform: In Two Parts. Part One
“ You gentlemen never weary of telling us that we are fallen on degenerate days ; that during the first forty years of our government, before we lapsed from our sinless state, officials were removed only for cause, and incumbents held on good behavior ; in other words, that civil service reform prevailed in all its purity. Now, it is philosophical generalization, founded on broad experience, that revolutions do not go backwards. Heed it, gentlemen, heed it ! The revolution of 1820—29 is an accomplished fact. It is here to stay, for then did the people come into their own. The present status has endured for a half century ; civil service reform is ancient history. You are chasing moonbeams.”
The fatalist entrenches himself in platitude, and warns reason beyond speaking distance. With him, what is must forever be ; what has been and is not will never be. And thus is the controversy closed.
He forgets that much that is done remains to be undone ; that political progress is mostly negative, consisting mainly in the repeal of bad laws or in the abolition of evil customs. In this sense history is reversed every day, and the process will continue so long as legislation is experimental and legislators are supine. It is true that some things in political history may be regarded as settled. But this can be predicated only of those changes which are based upon the immutable principles of right. The introduction of the spoils system into the administrative branch of the American government is not of these. That system is at war with equality, freedom, justice, and a wise economy, and is already a doomed thing fighting extinction. Its establishment was in no sense a popular revolution, but was the work of a self-willed man of stubborn and tyrannical nature, who had enemies to punish and debts to pay. He overrode a vehement opposition, disregarding the protest and sage prediction of the great statesmen of his time. He wielded a power that was arbitrary ; his caprice was law, his rule was a reign. If he wished to do a thing, it was enough that it seemed good to him to do it. His idea of government was a personal one Solely. Every public official was a private servitor, who must take the oath of allegiance and do homage to his chief. In his view, no man could honestly disagree with him. He was always right: his opponents were hopelessly and criminally wrong. Here was a fit man to establish the spoils system, to explore the Constitution for latent executive powers, to attach to the person of the President the high prerogatives of a monarch. That the King is the fountain of honor, office, and privilege is the theory of the English state ; that the civil service of the United States is a perquisite of the presidency was the theory of General Jackson.
It is needless to say that the American commonwealth was not founded upon any such doctrine. Jackson’s interpretation of the Constitution was a gross perversion of the intent and meaning of that instrument. This was to be a government of laws, not of menb; and so far as the prescience of its framers availed it was made so. The liberties of the people were not to be left to individual scruple, but were secured by specific inhibitions upon the governmental agencies. Three departments were organized severally to make, execute, and interpret the laws, and each was to act as a check upon the other. With the adoption of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, it was thought that every avenue of attack upon popular rights had been closed. But the power of construction is greater than that of legislation. The intention of the lawgiver is determined, not by himself, but by some other who construes the law ; and with that other interpretation is purely a subjective matter. Madison held that “ the wanton removal of meritorious officers ” was an impeachable offense. But Jackson swore to defend and protect the Constitution as he understood it, and not as Madison, one of its framers, conceived it. Regarding the right of removal the instrument itself is wholly silent, except as it provides impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors. When, therefore, Jackson organized the civil service into a gigantic political machine, proscribing office-holders because of his personal enmity to them or because of their political affiliations. it cannot be said that he violated any specific provision of the Constitution. That such action was an usurpation of authority and a wanton betrayal of trust needs no verbal emphasis. With equal propriety and moral justification, he might have used those other coördinate branches of the executive department, the army and navy, to perpetuate himself and his party in power. This he did not attempt to do. Perhaps he did not need their aid. At any rate, after securing his own reëlection and after naming his successor, his ambition rested, — fortunately for the country. But what he did, he did thoroughly. The system of political brigandage inaugurated by him has subsisted even unto this day. But it is now upon the verge of dissolution. Its end is written and sealed. This last is the work of those who are grown weary of the spoliation of office, — of those who are jealous of the encroachments of the Executive. and who would tie the hands of that functionary for all time to come. With them it is not a question whether a clerk holds his office for four years or for fifteen years. They are determined that the great army of the civil service shall not be used by any man or by any set of men for purposes of personal or partisan aggrandizement ; that the freedom of elections shall not be assailed by an intriguing, corrupt, and organized force ; that presidential contests shall not be tumults threatening anarchy. Hereafter there will be no " prizes of victory,” no carnival of spoil. Place-holders will attend to the business for which they are paid to attend ; fitness will be the essential of appointment, not the accident and the incident. This is the popular revolution that is moving forward irresistibly, that is coining to stay. Already has a law been enacted which, though partial in its effects, is capable of large extension by the President alone, without further action on the part of Congress. This measure leaves the power of removal for all except partisan reasons untouched. By regulating the method of appointment, it takes away the temptation to the abuse of that discretion. It is not a revival of a faded statute, nor has it its counterpart in early legislation. It is a new ordering of things ; practically a reversal of procedure. Although, during the first forty years of the republic, there was no statutory restriction upon the manner of appointment and removal, nevertheless the power of removal was controlled by an unwritten law which depended for its enforcement upon mental sanctions. But this was a frail dyke with which to withstand the pressure of a hungry and inflowing sea, and it was only a question of time until it should be swept away. That Congress did not strengthen it by positive legislation is to be deplored. But the omission is explicable. At the time of the formation of our government no law was deemed necessary. The civil service numbered but a thousand persons ; today it numbers two hundred thousand, and not many decades hence it will increase to a half million. Again, Congress had absolute faith in the Executive. All Presidents would be Washingtons, patient and moderate, patriotic rather than partisan. So highly was the first President esteemed that that body waived its consent to the removal of those officers whose appointment required their approval. Of course they did not contemplate the capricious exercise of this power ; the causeless removal of an official being to them an unthinkable proposition. But events outran prevision, and in the course of years not only did a Jackson appear, but Congress itself ceased to desire to protect the service. Such legislative changes as were made subserved a private and not a public interest. The immense patronage which was controlled by the Chief Executive, either directly by commission, or indirectly through the heads of departments, came to be administered for the benefit, not of himself alone, but of the representative politicians as well. This step was gained partly through a recognition by the President of the eminent utility of sub-allotment for personal purposes, and partly, in the failure of that persuasion, through the exercise of such coercive power as could be wielded by the Senate in confirmation, and by both houses in the passage of acts regulating the term and tenure of office. Gradually, out of the chaotic scramble for spoil, there was evolved a system of distribution which was founded upon hoary precedent, and which, in nice precision and in perfection of detail, lacked nothing of a scientific character. The whole country was staked out into districts, as many in number as there were Congressmen. After a conquest, the enemy were driven from their holdings, and the victors took possession of the glebe. But the estates thus granted were made conditional upon the performing of certain services or upon the rendering of certain tribute. Each tenant held of some feudal superior, and all held, mediately or immediately, of the lord paramount, the President. The governmental offices scattered everywhere were so many baronial strongholds, and were filled with retainers who were chosen for their fighting qualities. The chief duty of these men was to check uprisings and to keep the people in subjection. Their places depended upon the faithful discharge of it. In other words, the civil Service was a graded vassalage of a militant character. All offices were the private property of the head of the state, and were dispensed by royal favor. What is this but feudalism in new clothes, or, rather, the garbed skeleton thereof ? By some fantastic jugglery, this mocking semblance of a dead and buried past has become a stalking figure in a new and progressive civilization. Verily has a revolution gone backwards, if it be not promptly relegated to the glass case of antiquities, there to remain as a curiosity for posterity to stare at.
The spoils system should have perished a quarter of a century ago, in the cataclysm which destroyed that other relic of feudalism, slavery. For they were twin evils, and were ever unfailingallies ; and when the time shall come to write the history of public opinion in America during the nineteenth century, they will be classed together. John Morley suggestively says of the “ peculiar institution,” “Nobody has yet traced out the full effect upon the national character of the Americans of all those years of conscious complicity in slavery, after the immorality and iniquity of slavery had become clear to the inner conscience of the very men who ignobly sanctioned the mobbing of the Abolitionists.” 2
Adherence to the letter of a contract which was “ a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” was due partly to an unfaltering instinct of Union. But many were influenced by motives less worthy. Before the war the fidelity of most Northern politicians to the South was a degrading sycophancy. Eager and grateful for the crumbs which fell from the Southern table, and despairing of obtaining those crumbs elsewhere, they suffered themselves to become the supple tools of the slave power. These “ Swiss guards of slavery fighting for pay ” were a race of place-hunters, with whom office was the end, not the means, and whose statesmanship, like that of the Augustan Senate, consisted in justifying personal flattery by speculative principles of servitude. They steadily prostituted principle to preferment, and came near involving this country in irretrievable ruin.
But the age of compromise — the era of “ bigotry with a doubt ” and of “ persecution without a creed — was succeeded by the age of blood and iron. The war was an ethical education ; like a great storm, it purified the air. After it was over the people began to see more clearly and more truly ; they learned to view things “ in the visual angle of the absolute principle.”
Before this keener vision the spoils system, a long-established practice claiming charter by prescription, has been called upon to justify itself. Until recently, the people of this country supposed that traffic in place, the unceasing clamor for office, the sack and pillage of the government by the dominant party, were a necessary part of democratic institutions. Many politicians, with selfish purposes to subserve, were interested in enforcing this view. To the principle that, the majority must rule they added the corollary that all the offices are essential to that rule. They further inculcated the idea that every national election is a battle of enemies, instead of an amicable contest of friends, whose interests are the same, and “who disagree not except in opinion.”
It must be confessed that during the rebellion, when the North was divided between the war party and the peace party, there was some foundation for this doctrine. He who was not with you was against you. But the intense partisanism engendered by that strife is relaxing into an amiable toleration. Happily, party fealty is not always to be a test of patriotism. The government is not the property of faction, and the minority have rights which must be respected. “ Væ victis ” is no longer the slogan of the fight. If civil service reform has not made that progress which idealists expect, — conquering all on the instant, — let it be remembered that the growth of moral movements is necessarily slow, especially in a democracy, where, it is scarcely hyperbole to say, the last man must be convinced. It is none the less sure, however ; for “ one man in the right becomes a majority, and the American people mean to do right when they know where the right lies.
“ I believe this commission to be undemocratic. I believe it favors certain voters in this country at the expense of other voters, and I know that if the rulings of the civil service commission were applied to the members of this House not seven eighths of the members would ever reach the floor again. [Laughter.] Now, sir, believing this to be undemocratic, and believing that it is in violation of the fundamental principles of the government, I move to strike out the whole section, and hope that it will be agreed to.” 3
To apply the rules of the merit system to the members of Congress would be a cruelty indeed, and is altogether a harrowing suggestion. But it is beside the point. If civil service reform be undemocratic, and if it violate the fundamental principles of our government, the motion made in the House of Representatives to strike out the appropriation to the commission should have prevailed. As a matter of fact, it was overwhelmingly defeated by a vote of twenty-five to one hundred and thirtyeight. This would appear to be decisive. It is evident, however, from the discussion that preceded the calling of the yeas and nays, that the scope and object of civil service reform are still profoundly misunderstood by some Congressmen, and inferentially by their constituencies. A restatement may therefore serve a useful purpose: —
The doctrine of civil service reform as applied to the subordinate, clerical, or purely ministerial offices of the government is based upon the following self-evident propositions : that offices are created to fulfill certain necessary functions involved in the routine of government. and not to give some men a place ; that offices are supported by non-partisan taxation ; that taxation is an evil, and therefore it is essential that the public service shall be as efficient and economical as possible ; that offices are public and not private property, and administration is a trust, not an ownership ; that in a republic something less arbitrary than favoritism shall govern appointment and removal ; that men shall be appointed solely on the ground of merit, and not in payment of personal debt ; that an examination is the fairest means of ascertaining the qualifications of an appointee, because it insures that a clerk shall know how to write, a bookkeeper how to keep books, and a gauger how to gauge ; that such examination shall be competitive and open to all, not being confined to the members of any one political party ; that a class system is opposed to the spirit of onr institutions, and therefore offices should not be the vested property of ward-workers and political henchmen, to the total and absolute exclusion of the great body of the common people ; that an office-holder is a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights and privileges attaching to such citizenship ; that neither the President nor any other executive officer has the right to proscribe such office-holder, remove him from place, or threaten his subsistence on account of his politics ; that such a brutal procedure is un-American ; that tenure of office should not be dependent upon the degradation of manhood and the prostitution of political opinion ; that the practice of the President and his cabinet in changing two hundred thousand office-holders at will, for causes unconnected with good administration, is dangerous and despotic, and should be restrained ; that under the present system these office-holders constitute a great standing army of paid servitors, ever ready to do the bidding of their patrons, to the perversion of the public will, and are a menace to good government ; that political assessments, if paid unwillingly, are an extortion and a direct theft from the office-holder, and, if paid willingly, are generally a brokerage commission for appointment, or a bribe to the appointing power for continuance in place ; that if salaries are so large that assessments can be endured without inconvenience, such salaries should be cut down to a saving of the people’s money ; that promises of appointment to office made, whether definitely or indefinitely, work a corruption of public opinion ; that the enormous bribe of two hundred thousand offices, offered as a reward for party work, tends to obscure the real issues of politics, encourages the sacrifice of principle to selfish personal gain, and induces a laxity of political morals ; that a “ clean sweep ” of the offices demoralizes the public service, and is the direct and indirect source of great financial loss ; that skill in the manipulation of a caucus and in the packing of a primary is not presumptive evidence of capacity for the performance of official duties ; that the Constitution of the United States contemplates the election of a Congressman as a legislator, and not as a patronage-monger; that such patronage is a burden to every honest, conscientious, and able Congressman, compels the neglect of his proper duties, creates petty factional disputes and wrangles among his constituents, and often defeats the reëlection of a trustworthy servant of honorable record ; that the statesman is thus rapidly becoming an extinct species, being succeeded by the politician, and the consequent loss inflicted on the people through crude and unwise legislation is incalculable ; that the fear of losing the spoils of office is paralyzing the legislative branch of the government, makes cowards of political parties, and is the enemy of progress ; that the retention of the vast patronage of two hundred thousand offices is becoming of more concern than the triumph of principle ; that the mania for place-hunting is increasing ; that the clamor of spoilsmen compels the creation of sinecures, thereby increasing the taxes ; and finally, that all the evils here before enumerated are growing with the multiplication of offices, and will ultimately, unless checked by a comprehensive and decisive enactment, undermine and overthrow the institutions of our country.
Such is an imperfect outline of the doctrine of civil service reform and of the abuses it is designed to remedy. By this showing, is it not the spoils system which is “ undemocratic,” and which “ favors certain voters of this country at the expense of other voters ” ? What, to repeat, can be less democratic, less American, than persecution for opinion’s sake? Yet this is the very essence of the spoils system, its guiding spirit and its crowning infamy. If this assertion need further explication, it may be found in a recital of what takes place in this country when one party succeeds another in the control of the government. The newly elected President goes (by deputy) through all the departments, and may be supposed to interview each clerk in a conversation of which the following is typical : —
President. Whom did you vote for at the last election ?
Clerk. That does not concern you. I am an American citizen, and have the right to vote for whomsoever I please, without being subjected afterwards to a governmental inquisition by you or any other man.
President. I asked the question in conformity with a time-honored practice, and shall insist upon an answer.
Clerk. Very well ; I will answer the question, not because of your menaces, but because I do not hold my political opinions covertly. I voted for your opponent.
President. Then you must vacate this office.
Clerk. If you can show that I have not performed my duties properly, or that I have neglected them for politics or for any other reason, I am willing to go.
President. I have not looked into that ; it is immaterial, any way. I want your place for some one else.
Clerk. For one of your partisan “workers,” perhaps, whose qualifications you have also not looked into ?
Clerk. By what right do you proscribe me, then ? You are merely a trustee ; these offices do not belong to you.
President. You are the victim of an illusion. These offices do belong to me. They are my personal patronage and plunder, to do with whatsoever I will. If you refuse to resign, I will remove you.
Clerk. Very well ; I will yield the place as I would my purse to a highwayman who puts a pistol to my head. Nevertheless, I denounce your action as an outrage upon my rights as an American citizen.
If this conversation does not often take place actually as reported, its substance is at least tacitly understood. Generally the clerk stifles his protest and resigns, quietly submitting to a system that is an heritage of barbarism. Proscription of minor office-holders on account of political opinion is as completely indefensible as proscription on account of religious belief. It has no proper place in the United States. It is an anachronism, and belongs to the age of the crusades against the Catholics and the Jews.
“ Civil service reform is an English importation, upon which, unfortunately, there is no tariff. We broke with England and with her monarchical institutions a century ago, and set up a government of our own,—a democratic government. It supplies our needs, and stands as an example to mankind. Servile imitation of foreign polities is unworthy of our pride of race or nation.”
Anglophobia is in the American blood. A common law, language, literature, and religion do not of necessity constitute the ties of sentiment. Although the American people are the heirs of all the ages, they do not like to be reminded of their obligations, nor to acknowledge an ancestry. They will not claim kinship even with Shakespeare. To them their history knows no perspective : in the discovery of a new and virgin world was the beginning of things. England is the traditional enemy, and all the pretty speeches made over London dinner-tables do not alter this fact in the least. This prejudice seems to be enduring, and any appeal made to it by politicians is generally successful.
Happily, in the present case, the retort is complete. The spoils system, with the stamp of feudalism upon it, was imported into this country from England, where it had obtained in the modern form for one hundred and forty years. It pervaded all departments of the English state, the army, the navy, and the church, as well as the civil service, attaining a growth which it has never known here. Offices were openly bought and sold, the purchaser acquiring a proprietary interest therein. There, as here, patronage was the active coefficient of corrupt elections. Rotten boroughs were exposed for sale in the market, and members of Parliament were bribed to the support of the Crown by sinecures, pensions, and money. At the time our government was founded, the spoils system was flourishing luxuriantly in England, and George III. found it a most serviceable instrument in enforcing his policy of persecution against the thirteen colonies. It is a pity that those gentlemen who claim the spoils system as peculiarly " American should have forgotten this. It embarrasses their argument. Per contra, the merit system is a democratic institution, and its practical application to our civil service was coeval with the beginning of our government. That England should have been before us in embodying it in the form of law proves nothing more than the immense progress which has been made in that country toward popular institutions.
“ The executive power of Great Britain is hereditary, and changes only at the death of the monarch. The administration, however, changes at will, and may change every week. Therefore, the idea of life tenure for executive officers is consistent with an executive for life. Therefore, an official class of lifelong tenure is consistent with monarchical and aristocratic government, which is peculiarly a government of classes. But it is not consistent with a democratic government and a short-lived executive where no class is recognized by law and all men are equal.” 4
It happens, unfortunately for the consistency of this argument, that in England. under the modern system of parliamentary government, the administration is the executive. The executive powers of the Crown are obsolete, having passed to the prime minister and his cabinet. But these officials “ change at will; ” they “ may change every week.” Consequently, tenure on good behavior — miscalled life tenure — is consistent with democratic government and a shortlived executive. If civil service reform is not adapted to the United States, where the President holds for four years, a fortiori, it is not adapted to England, where the tenure of the premier — the real executive — is the shortest and most precarious imaginable. Indeed, what we call civil service reform is the very life of parliamentary government. If, with every change of the ministry, a “clean sweep ” of the offices should be made, the English civil service would soon be in a state of anarchy. Under such a system, rapid alternation in party control would totally disorganize the administrative machinery of the government, and would be a perpetual threat against the existence of the empire itself, — a thing of course not to be tolerated. The situation in England was logically reducible to this : either the spoils system must be abolished, or some one party must be continued in power indefinitely, which would mean the destruction of popular government. There could be no hesitation in choosing. The new democracy achieved a victory over feudalists privilege that was complete and final.
Even apart from any political principle, the reform has vindicated itself. When the administrative departments ceased to be asylums for decayed gentry, and were thrown open to public competition. there was an improvement in the morale and efficiency of the service. Reorganization upon the basis of the merit system was extended even to India, where the duties of officials are of a most delicate and complicated character, involving, as they do, tactful relations with and control over two hundred millions of aliens.
But it has come to pass that civil service reform, which was denounced in England as “ democratic,”is opposed in the United States as representing exactly the opposite tendencies. “ Aristocracy,”“bureaucracy,” and “insolence of office ” are expressions as familiar as they are misleading. They deserve a brief consideration.
Aristocracy means the permanent exaltation of a few individual names. It implies great social dignity and distinction, and generally is based upon an hereditary succession of title and land. An aristocracy of department clerks and mail-carriers is an absurdity. However worthy such persons may be, they will have no more social distinction than clerks in business houses, whose tenure is the same as theirs. They possess neither title nor wealth, and are condemned to a routine of labor. The effect of service in a great government machine is to sink individuality, not to exalt it. The tens of thousands of school-teachers who are in the pay of every State do not constitute an aristocracy. In fact, they are rarely in the public view, and this for the reason that they are not “ in politics.” Fortunately, the spoils system has not been applied to our public schools. If, however, it were the practice to dismiss all the Republican school-teachers whenever a Democratic governor was elected, and vice versa, we should, without doubt, be feelingly assured that any other tenure would seriously imperil our institutions.
Bureaucracy is another chimera. It cannot exist where the heads of administration are constantly changing, where admission to the civil service is open to all, and where the removal of the unfit servant is expeditious and easy.
Insolence of office is an a priori argument. It has been pertinently said, in answer to it, that, at the time tenure on good behavior was superseded by Crawford’s four-year law and by Jackson’s régime, it was never urged by the innovators as a reason for the change that the manners of office-holders were contemptuous and overbearing. The objection is an after-thought. Of the insolence of bureaucracy and of the arrogance of aristocracy the American people have had no experience under any official tenure, and are not likely to have.
A civil service becomes formidable to the liberties of a people only when it seeks to perpetuate itself by interfering with elections. Inasmuch as this purpose (to override the public will and to create a bureaucracy) is the very vice of the American spoils system, speculation as to what may be, under civil service reform, can be profitably postponed to an observation of what is.
The countless minor offices of the United States are filled by a distinct class known as “ professional politicians.” These men live by politics, receiving place as reward for political work. Their control of public office is monopolistic. Mr. Bryce estimates their number at two hundred thousand, but this is probably an underestimate. They constitute a guild, although they are not organized under formal articles of association. With them office-getting (or keeping in office) is an industry, and the fees and emoluments are accepted as payment for partisan services rather than for the exercise of official functions. The influence which the officeholders wield is altogether out of proportion to their numbers or to their intellectual attainments. But they possess this advantage over all other classes, — they are unified and organized. They make the management of primaries and conventions the serious business of their lives, and acquire a skill and experience in “ wire-pulling ” which ordinary citizens cannot hope to cope with. The politics of the country is in the hands of these men. The people elect, but cannot nominate, being reduced to a choice of candidates selected by the politicians of opposing parties. These politicians dictate nominations, high and low, and afterwards foreclose a lien upon public place which they claim to have earned. All others, those who cannot show a certificate of this character, are excluded. The spoils system has been compared with a fairly conducted lottery, in which every one has an equal chance. But the analogy is loose. In all lotteries the prizes are limited to ticket-holders, and in the American political lottery the ticket-holders are few. The farmer, the shopkeeper, and the laborer generally have not the remotest chance of preferment, unless they can produce evidence of partisan work more or loss technical or questionable. Of course the number who can offer such credentials is comparatively small. To begin with, all the members of the defeated political party (who, under our electoral system, constitute, as often as not, more than one half of the people) are rigidly debarred. Secondly, only that small contingent of the dominant party who have been of practical use to the candidates in convention and elsewhere, and who possess the advantage of a personal acquaintance with one or more of them, receive any consideration whatever. The idea, therefore, that the offices are in the hands of the people is the shallowest of delusions. They are sold to the few for a price which the many are unwilling and are unable to pay. It is needless to say that, in this barter and sale of public place, the proper transaction of government business is lost sight of. Competency does not appoint an applicant, and cannot save an incumbent. Other motives of a mercenary or selfish character control in both cases. Office brokerage is a shameless and conspicuous fact, as the newspapers and the congressional debates daily attest. It is the great object of civil service reform to restore these offices to the people, and to overthrow the bastard aristocracy who have despoiled them. Those good citizens who are apprehensive of government by “official caste ” need not strain their eyes to the future. They should look about them.
“ The political disqualification of office-holders is an invasion of their rights as American citizens.”
Civil service reform, as embodied in the Pendleton Act of 1883, does not deny to an office-holder any rights which properly belong to him as a citizen of the United States; on the contrary, it restores to him those rights of which he has been deprived. It protects him against partisan discrimination by the appointing power; it protects his salary from assessment by his official superiors; it protects him against removal for refusing to render any political service. It restores to him the right to think for himself, and to register his opinion at the ballot-box, free from the espionage of the informer. In this wise the law protects him. But civil service reform, in its gross and scope, within the statute and without, looks to the protection of the people also. There are certain things which a citizen as a place-holder may not do. He may not use his official influence to coerce the political actions of his neighbor, to wit: he may not neglect the duties of his office to do a henchman’s work; he may not pack primaries, manipulate conventions, collect and disburse election funds, corrupt the ballot-box, or tamper with the returns. Some of these things are forbidden by the federal and state criminal law ; others not. But whether or not, any and all of them are grave breaches of his duty, both as a citizen and as an officeholder. Yet these are the things which, in varying kind and degree, many officials notoriously are doing. Is it necessary to characterize such partisan activity as a monstrous evil in a country where the triumph of right is a question of majority, or to justify the executive orders which have been issued to suppress it?
In England, more than a century ago, the interference of office-holders in elections assumed such proportions that the whole body of subordinates in the executive department were forbidden by law to vote for members of Parliament. In 1868, after the introduction of the merit system, this law was repealed, as being an unnecessary restriction. It a man procures an appointment on his deserts, and not through political influence, the obligations of appointee to patron do not exist, and the temptation to indulge in corrupt election practices disappears. The American doctrine of the relation of the office-holder to the body politic was set forth (albeit little to the immediate purpose) by President Cleveland in an executive order issued July 14, 1886. In it he said : —
“ Individual interest and activity in political affairs are by no means condemned. Office-holders are neither disfranchised nor forbidden the exercise of political privileges, but their privileges are not enlarged, nor is their duty to party increased to pernicious activity, by office-holding. A just discrimination in this regard between the things a citizen may properly do and the purposes for which a public office should not be used is easy, in the light of a correct appreciation of the relation between the people and those entrusted with official place, and the consideration of the necessity, under our form of government, of political action free from official coercion.”
“ Is a competitive examination the best or any test for official competency or efficiency ? May not a man be eminently competent for official preferment, and not at all competent for a competitive examination ? ” 5
The system of competitive examination may not be perfectly adapted to ascertaining the comparative fitness of candidates for place ; but it is the best that has been suggested, and it is infinitely better than a system in which fitness is not considered at all.
It accomplishes, within the sphere to which it has been limited, the chief object of civil service reform, namely, the removal of the ministerial offices from the domain of partisan politics. It tends also to increase the efficiency and to decrease the cost of the civil service,— an important though secondary consideration. There are some kinds of officers who cannot well be chosen by competition : the fourth-class postmasters, for instance, who live in sparsely settled districts, and who may be appointed by one of several feasible plans that have been suggested, and the higher grade of officers, such as chiefs of bureaus, whose competency would be better assured if they obtained their positions by promotion, based upon worth, fidelity, and long experience. As to the intermediate offices, the system of competitive examination works satisfactorily. The official duties are clearly defined, and it is an easy matter to test the qualifications of applicants. If it be urged that business men do not select their employees by this method, it may be replied that they always make searching verbal inquiries into the capacity of applicants, and that, in some instances, where large numbers of men are employed, written questions are submitted. In fact, competition, iu some form, is the unwritten law of the commercial world, it being a needful guarantee of the best service.
It is, of course, possible that a man may be “ eminently competent for official preferment, and not at all competent for a competitive examination; ” but the chances are greatly against it, if the examination be “ practical,” as the law says it shall be. The civil service commission have performed their duty in this matter judiciously. That part of the examination which is intended to test the general fitness of applicants will not greatly tax the mental resources of any one possessing a common school education, unless expert services are required. The standard set is low rather than high. Sir G. O. Trevelyan says that the opening of the English civil and military services to competition, in its influence upon national education, was equivalent to a hundred thousand scholarships and exhibitions of the most valuable kind. Whatever may be the influence of the system of federal examinations upon the education of the American people, there cannot be two opinions as to the effect of that system upon the national character. It is needless to point out that a public contest of merit, into which any one may enter without fear or solicitation, induces high endeavor, and conserves manhood. On the other hand, it is equally patent that where offices go by favor thrift follows fawning. Women seeking an honest career are reduced to importuning, mayhap subjected to insult ; young men are transformed into mendicants and sycophants ; and the position of all applicants does not differ materially from that of the Elizabethan courtier, whose ignominy Spenser, in travail of spirit, has described so vividly : —
What hell it is in suing long to bide :
To loose good days, that might be better spent ;
do waste long nights in pensive discontent ;
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow ;
To feed on hope, to pine with feare and sorrow ;
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares ;
To eate thy heart through comfortlesse dispaires;
To fawne, to crouche, to wait, to ride, to ronne,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undonne.”
- Such of these objections as are taken from the records of Congress are indicated by marginal reference and are quoted literally. The others — which reflect current lay discussion of the newspaper and the street — are repeated substantially, but not formally.↩
- Critical Miscellanies, Harriet Martinean, page 268.↩
- Mr. Cummings, Proceedings of the House of Representatives, December 19, 1888.↩
- Senator Vance, Cong, Rec., vol. xvii. Part III. p. 2949.↩
- Senator Call, Cong. Rec., vol. xiv. Part I. p. 498.↩