George William Curtis and Civil Service Reform
IT is now something more than twenty years since Mr. Carpenter, a Senator of the United States from the State of Wisconsin, introduced in the body of which he was a distinguished and influential member a resolution, as he declared, “ for the purpose of submitting some remarks on the recent popular delusion called civil service reform by transferring the patronage of the government from the officers in whom the Constitution had vested it to a board of schoolmasters to sit in Washington.”Five years earlier, Mr. Thomas A. Jenckes, a Representative from the State of Rhode Island, had submitted a report from the joint committee of Congress on retrenchment, and accompanied it by a bill “ to regulate the civil service of the United States and promote its efficiency.” In their report the committee mildly said of the bill, “It is conceded that this will work an entire change in the mode of appointment to and the tenure of office of the subordinate civil service of the government.” It was the first gun. The revolution that it inaugurated constitutes one of the most notable movements in our history. Its object was not, as the Wisconsin Senator would have it, to transfer patronage, but, so far as it was possible, to eliminate from American political life the very idea of patronage as undemocratic and un-American. If it was a delusion, it has proved a most obstinate one, and would seem to have a stronger hold on the people now than it had in 1872, when the Wisconsin Senator came to the rescue of the patronage from the outstretched hands of the schoolmasters.
Whatever it was or is, the stuff that dreams are made of or a sober and practical reform, Mr. Curtis believed in it with all the force of an exceptionally sane and well-balanced mind, and his services in its behalf, I think, will constitute his highest claim to the gratitude of his countrymen. He was, indeed, a great power in American life, influencing it at many points, and always for good. Least of all men was he a panacea-vender, but he was a friend and advocate of every good cause, and the civil service reform found in him a leader of such earnestness and force that, in the minds of his fellowcitizens, the cause and its leader were identified.
It was more true of Curtis than it was of Goldsmith that he “ touched nothing that he did not adorn.” Certainly he adorned this cause, year after year presenting its claims with admirable grace and skill, and with a strength of argument that was irresistible ; but there was something transcending all this. Among public men, there was perhaps none who so won the confidence of sincere and earnest men and women by his own personality. Americans make few pilgrimages to the shrines of oracles. The day has passed, even, when many pin their faith on their newspaper, though they take only one ; but when, by the process of years, a noble and trustworthy character has become clearly established and defined, now as ever, men, by the law of their being, render it homage. The power of such a character, with all his gifts and accomplishments, was what Mr. Curtis brought to the civil service reform.
What was the cause which he thought worthy of the devotion of his ripest years ?
The administrative system under which, by a natural and yet monstrous evolution, the honors, public employments, and even the profitable contracts with the government had come to be regarded as spoils of political victory, and the legitimate means of payment for party service, seemed never stronger than when Mr. Jenckes arraigned it before Congress. Rotation in office from highest to lowest, its natural and necessary accompaniment, though a cruel gospel, had universal party acceptance. It was a question of political thrift, and, from the commercial standpoint, the only way to derive considerable gains from the capital of office was to turn it over frequently.
The wickedness and folly of this system had long been felt by many, but until Mr. Jenckes quietly challenged it on the floor of the House there had been no time when there was any hope that it could be successfully assailed. It had been denounced by the wisest and best, but always from the outside. Mr. Webster had declared that it would change the character of our government; that the same party selfishness that drove good men out of office would push bad men in; that, if not checked, good men would grow tired of the exercise of political privileges, and abandon the government to the scramble of the bold, the daring, and the desperate. But Mr. Webster was in the opposition. Mr. Calhoun had said that if it were not put down it would end by putting down the government. Mr. Clay, in 1832, opposing Mr. Van Buren’s confirmation as minister to England, had said that Van Buren was “ among the first of federal secretaries to introduce the odious system of proscription for the exercise of the elective franchise into the government of the United States. It is a detestable system, drawn from the worst periods of the Roman republic ; and if it were to be perpetuated, if the offices, honors, and dignities of the people were to be put up to a scramble and decided by the results of every presidential election, our government and institutions would finally end in a despotism as intolerable as that of Constantinople.” But Mr. Clay and Mr. Calhoun were also in the opposition. It was easy for “ Jackson men ” to withstand criticism from such a quarter. The new system — for it was practically unknown to the earlier administrations — had its attractions. It added greatly to the interest of “ campaigns,” and provided stakes for the stalwart contestants that imparted a lively human interest to the struggle ; and with the winners nothing could be more “ popular.”
After the administration of Jackson it had undisputed possession. No one in a responsible position denounced it, however much he may have deprecated its existence. During Mr. Van Buren’s term it flourished like a tropical plant. Van Buren’s successor held the office for a few weeks only, and, as might have been expected, they were filled with the turmoil and clamor of a hungry multitude. Mr. Tyler found himself so soon at war with his party that the possession of the offices was all that gave him the semblance of power, and he made diligent use of them. With Polk and the Mexican war, the country began to gird itself for the great struggle over slavery. If anybody thought of administrative reform, there was then no room for the subject in the minds of citizens.
When the storm of secession finally burst on the republic, the federal service was filled with the adherents of a single party, and they were chiefly such as were acceptable to its so-called proslavery faction. Mr. Lincoln found himself at the head of a government nineteen twentieths of whose officials regarded his advent to office with disfavor, and large numbers with bitter resentment. His enemies were intrenched in the departments, and he and his party found a foe in every post-office. All knew that “ a clean sweep ” was to be expected. and apprehension of loss of place mingling with the other excitements of the time naturally embittered those who looked only for dismissal.
It would not be difficult to show that a great part of the disloyalty in the North, more or less pronounced, had its origin in an extreme partisan disappointment, the vital heat of which came from the loss of the federal offices.
The war made necessary not only vast armies, but a great increase of the civil service. An enormous debt had been created, and elaborate systems of taxation provided to meet its demands, which it was evident must continue in some form during an indefinite period. The government had driven out the banking currency of the States, and organized a banking system of its own. The nation, too, had undergone a transformation such as had never before been witnessed. What its growth and development were to be could hardly be exaggerated by the boldest imagination. Even the orators of this Columbian anniversary season have not been able to overstate it.
The great cause of sectional discussion having been removed, and the disputes of reconstruction settled, no absorbing question prevented the examination of administrative details. The Republican party had full control, and seemed likely to retain it indefinitely. When, therefore, Mr. Jenckes, with admirable courage, brought before the popular branch of Congress his resolution, and supplemented it by his report, it was a movement from within the party having control of the offices looking to the eradication of a system that threatened the public safety, and the establishment in its place of one that should be in harmony with democratic institutions and adequate to the demands of the future.
But the country knew little about the subject. Even Mr. Curtis, in his New York address in 1888, said, “Twenty years ago, when Mr. Jenckes spoke to a few persons in the chapel of the University upon reform in the civil service, he was like Paul in Athens declaring the Unknown God.” The evils of the spoils system were well understood, but few had thought seriously about the remedy. In the American way, we had concluded that the trouble was inherent in our political system, or, if not inherent, that it had become so firmly implanted it could not be removed ; that it was useless to complain, and the part of wisdom was to “ go ahead and make the best of it.” To the American mind there is nothing so offensive as a “ reformer ” who can denounce existing institutions, but has nothing better to offer.
Just here the services of Mr. Jenckes were invaluable. He had made a careful study of the civil service in the various countries of Europe, and in his elaborate report, and in another which he submitted in the succeeding year (1868), he furnished a mass of information upon every part of the subject. Pains had also been taken by him to obtain the views of many officials in different branches of the service upon the practical nature of the reform proposed, and these were supplemented by copious extracts from the press, earnestly favoring the bill introduced by Mr. Jenckes.
The subject slowly engaged public attention, but it was not until March, 1871, that any act was passed; and then the best that could be obtained from Congress was a brief section thrust into the Appropriation Rill, authorizing the President to prescribe rules for admission to the civil service, to appoint suitable persons to institute inquiries touching the matter, and to establish regulations for the conduct of appointees to the civil service. Mr. Jenckes’s bill had carefully outlined a competitive system of appointments and promotions and made it imperative, but this could not be passed, and the whole matter was entrusted to the discretion of the President.
President Grant, as might have been expected from so straightforward and patriotic a character, was heartily in favor of the reform movement. He afterwards withdrew from it his support, not, however, because his own views had changed, but because Congress was hostile and would not make appropriations, and because he thought the public sentiment in its favor had so relaxed that it no longer warranted his favorable executive action.
The Appropriation Bill with its civil service reform rider was approved March 3, 1871, and on the next day the President appointed George William Curtis and six other gentlemen an advisory board to conduct the inquiries under the act and report regulations for his approval; in other words, to prepare and report a working plan for the experiment of administrative reform. I have not mentioned the names of Mr. Curtis’s associates on the board, for the reason that no one of them seems to have become personally identified with the reform movement, and the labor and most of the responsibility fell upon the chairman.
Mr. Curtis entered most heartily and at once upon the work. Probably his name imparted a strength to the movement that no other would have given. He had been a civil service reformer in sentiment for many years, even from his earliest occupancy of the Easy Chair. He had hailed with approval the action of Mr. Jenckes, and Supported it with great force by both voice and pen. He was then at the height of his manhood, personally most attractive, and everywhere known and admired, especially by the young men of education and ambition, who found in him their ideal. Since 1856 he had been one of the most acceptable of popular orators, in the lecturer’s desk and on the platform, and he was, if not the first, perhaps the finest specimen the country had seen of “ the gentleman in politics.” His purely literary work was familiar to all persons of taste and culture. So graceful an essayist, so genial an observer and critic of public and social life, had not before graced our letters. But the man was far larger than his work, though never above it. A radical antislavery man even from the early days when, as the young Howadji, he met the slave boat — the “Devil’s Frigate” he called it—floating down the lazy Nile, he had devoted his early manhood to the assault of slavery. He had wasted no strength in efforts outside of political organizations when he found one at hand where he could do good service, but had joined himself at once to the new Republican party. To promote its success he gave all the strength of those early years. He adhered stanchly to that party during the stormy Johnson period, and was one of the most effective supporters of General Grant for the presidency. For years he had been a frequent delegate to the party conventions, and was there regarded as a trustworthy adviser and leader.
He had been the political editor of Harper’s Weekly since 1863, and in its columns had rendered a support to the Republican party the strength of which can hardly be overestimated. In November, 1871, its circulation had reached three hundred thousand copies. Men read his editorial articles to be enlightened as to their duties and strengthened in their patriotism. Women read them to make sure that their husbands and sons were “ keeping step to the music of the Union.” There was perfect confidence in his intelligence, sincerity, and courage. The calm clearness of those weekly utterances was equaled only by their conclusive force. There was no hurry, — there were always time and space for full statement,—no excitement, no smartness, no straining after epigrammatic point, no cowardly refusal to face the facts, no dogmatic assertion. They were models of full and dispassionate statement and sound argument, and in the highest degree persuasive. It may well be doubted whether through any considerable period the political articles of any other journal, at least in America, have been so well calculated to engage the attention and influence the conduct of its readers.
In effect, the work entrusted to the advisory board or commission was to set the new system on its feet. Many intelligent persons had generalized upon the subject. The mischiefs of existing methods were well understood, and the belief was growing that some practical way would be found to remedy them; but the actual constructive work was then to begin, and it was important that no blunder should discredit it at the outset.
The report of the board was submitted to the President on the 18th of December, 1871, and by him promptly sent to Congress. It was prepared by Mr. Curtis, and contained a most conclusive presentation of the entire subject. Every plausible objection was carefully considered and answered, and experience has proved its soundness in every essential part.
In transmitting the report, President Grant said, “ I ask for all the strength Congress can give me to enable me to carry out the reform in the civil service recommended by the commissioners.” We may well believe that he had a noble ambition to verify the closing words of the report, in which it was declared that the administration which vigorously began this reform would acquire “ a glory only less than that of the salvation of a great nation.”
In April following, the advisory board, through its chairman, having prepared the rules regulating appointments, including the grouping of the official places, they were promulgated ; and thereafter, until their suspension by the President in March, 1875, they were enforced in the federal offices in New York and in the departments at Washington with most satisfactory results.
The history of the next three years, in which the President attempted to extend the operation of the rules to other customs ports, but failed, because the officers were either hostile or indifferent, or so unused to the reform methods that the operation was defective, need not be stated more fully. It was evident that the reform was not acceptable to the party leaders; and when, in the short session of 1874-75, Congress refused an appropriation, the President abandoned the effort to enforce the civil service rules, and suspended their operation.
Mr. Curtis criticised, but not with severity, this action of the President. He felt the embarrassment of the situation. He had long known that a powerful clement in the party was bitterly hostile to the reform. He was familiar with its assumption of superiority over the socalled “doctrinaires ” and “ schoolmasters.” His comment on it was : “History teaches no lesson more distinctly than that nothing is so practical as principle, nothing so little visionary as honesty. Political movements, like all other good causes, are constantly betrayed by the ignorance which thinks itself smartness, and the contempt of ideas which is called practical common sense.”
At Newport, in 1887, Mr. Curtis said: “ It was once my duty to say to President Grant that the adverse pressure of the Republican party would overpower his purpose of reform. He replied, with a smile, that he was used to pressure. He smiled incredulously, but he presently abandoned reform.”
The blow was for the moment overwhelming. There was nothing to do but appeal to the people ; and the files of Harper’s Weekly show how little Mr. Curtis was daunted and how unexhausted was his energy. No one more thoroughly than he apprehended the true spirit of democracy. No one more fully recognized that the final resort was to the people, and that no reform would be safe until they had become so thoroughly educated in its principles and so convinced of its necessity that their representatives would not dare to oppose it. The success it had obtained had been owing more to the cowardice of party managers and members of Congress than to any sincere assent on their part to its merit, though both in and out of Congress it had the honest support of many excellent men.
Civil service reform had taken possession of a portion of the government much too easily to be sure of maintaining its ground. The rules and regulations that President Grant had approved and desired to extend as fast as practicable, and which the “ schoolmasters ” were applying at Washington and New York, threatened to transform political life.
If they should be made imperative by legislative enactment, there was great danger that the enormous bribe of the subordinate offices would be eliminated from the federal elections. Politics as an industry might be removed from the category of avocations.
Mr. Curtis consoled himself with the belief that the reform was only postponed, that the experiment already made had vindicated itself at every point, and that the people would demand its renewal. The event speedily realized his anticipation. In the next Republican National Convention at Cincinnati he was a delegate, and a strong supporter of Mr. Bristow, but voted for Mr. Hayes on the final ballot. Both parties vied with each other in strong platform declarations in favor of the civil service reform. Governor Tilden wrote elaborately in its favor in his letter of acceptance. Mr. Hayes took office committed to it most strongly, but he was able to do little for it. He found, as President Grant had found, a determined opposition in Congress, which laughed and sneered after the old manner when the reform was mentioned. To this was added the special and aggressive hostility of Mr. Conkling, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the nomination at Cincinnati, and indulged a pronounced resentment against Mr. Curtis, who not only in convention, but in Harper’s Weekly, had vigorously opposed the nomination of the New York Senator.
It had long been known that Mr. Conkling was greatly trusted and admired by President Grant, and as early as the confirmation of Mr. Murphy as collector of the port of New York Mr. Conkling had wrested from Mr. Fenton, his colleague, the control of the spoils in the Empire State. Mr. Conkling was an opponent of civil service reform from the outset. How much his personal influence had to do with the President’s loss of hope and his final conclusion to suspend the rules is matter for conjecture. Certain it is, however, that Mr. Curtis knew Mr. Conkling to be a powerful enemy of the reform and very close to the President.
There was much talk in 1875-76 of nominating General Grant for a third term, and Mr. Curtis was an outspoken opponent of such action. When the President wrote his letter declining a renomination, Mr. Conkling came to the front as the New York candidate, and Mr. Curtis, as we have seen, opposed him. Probably he regarded him as the most dangerous enemy of the reform. There is no doubt that he intended to include him in the “ group of conspicuous Senators under whose leadership,” he said, “ the party has constantly declined, and whose tone and character were felt to be fatal.”
Mr. Hayes took office under most trying circumstances, owing to the controversy over his right to the place, and factional opposition within his party was easily made formidable by Democratic assistance. The “senatorial courtesy,” too, was then in its most prosperous condition, and Mr. Conkling’s opposition was for a time fatal to any nominations made by Mr. Hayes; but after the confirmation of General Merritt as collector and Colonel Burt as naval officer at New York, in February, 1879, the President revived the civil service rules in those offices. Soon afterward they were again applied to the New York post-office under its incumbent, Mr. James. From that time until the passage of the Pendleton Bill the rules were enforced in those offices with such excellent results that public sentiment was stimulated and encouraged, and many local civil service reform associations were formed throughout the country. The National League, with Mr. Curtis as president, was also organized. Congress, however, Steadily refused any favorable legislation or appropriation ; and yet at the convention which nominated General Garfield the reform “plank” of 1876 was explicitly reaffirmed, and the convention adopted in terms “the declaration of Mr. Hayes that the reform should be thorough, radical, and complete.” To this end it demanded “ the coöperation of the legislative with the executive departments of the government.” Mr. Curtis was not far wrong when he characterized such platform declarations as only “polite bows to the whims of notional brethren, which it is hoped will satisfy them without committing the party.”
There is little likelihood that Mr. Garfield’s administration would have done more for civil service reform than that of Mr. Hayes. It was embroiled at the outset by the fiercest contests over the offices. The history of those brief four months, culminating in the resignation of the New York Senators, and ending with the assassination of the President, furnishes an impressive commentary on the spirit which found in the disposal of the offices the chief subject of interest in presidential elections.
The murder of the President aroused the country, and a demand came up from every quarter for something that would remove the dangers that environed the presidential office. It was seen that to do this the President’s death must be rendered less desirable to a great class of more or less dangerous citizens who might hope to profit by a change in the federal patronage. Guiteau had established a horrible precedent. How soon it might be followed by some other half - crazed creature, some desponding wretch who saw his wife and children beggared by his removal from office, or some miscreant, the tool of deep conspiracy, no man could tell.
It was not, however, until the 18th of January, 1883, that Congress gave to the country what was known as “ the Pendleton Law.” That beneficent measure became practically operative on the 16th of July following. Probably no law ever had fewer real friends in the Congress that enacted it. At the long session of 1882, the year of the Jay Hubbell circular, and of the great revolts in the Republican party in New York and Pennsylvania, the House had refused the President’s earnest request for twentyfive thousand dollars to defray the expenses of the commission, and had cut it down two fifths. But, as Mr. Curtis said at Newport the next year, “the Congress which had adjourned in August, laughing at reform, heard the thunder of the elections in November, and reassembled in December,” and it made haste to pass the Pendleton Bill, which had been a year before Congress.
In every Congress since there have been numerous enemies of the reform, but none has dared either to withhold the appropriation or to repeal the law. It survived the political revolution of 1884 and the counter-revolution of 1888. The great danger that attended it in its cradle was that its enemies, failing in open assaults, would destroy it by indirection. Its success depended upon its honest and vigorous enforcement; and this, with some exceptions, it has received from three administrations. Its recent extension to the Indian Department and the application of its principles to the navy yards by the Secretary of the Treasury have been hailed by the country with applause. More than thirty thousand of the subordinate places of the government are under its control, many of them highly responsible. It has received the approval of three Presidents and many cabinet officers and other high officials, and, so far as is publicly known, the disapproval of none. In the States of New York and Massachusetts, similar statutes have been in force during nine years with official and general approbation, and the courts have adjudged these laws constitutional. A courageous and intelligent Civil Service Commission at Washington has demonstrated to the country that, with honest and energetic enforcement, the federal statute will accomplish all that was ever predicted for it by its warmest friends ; and there seems to be no reason why the scope of its operation should not be extended largely without further delay.
Mr. Curtis was in the highest sense a public man, although he never held political office. He was a delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention of 1867, and chairman of the Civil Service Advisory Board appointed by General Grant. For nearly thirty years, too, he was one of the regents of the New York University, a somewhat anomalous public corporation dating from 1784, which is the unsalaried agency by which the State conducts its relations with the entire system of higher education of the commonwealth. For several years before his death Mr. Curtis had been chancellor of the Board of Regents. He might have represented the United States at the English court during the administration of Mr. Hayes, but he preferred to remain at his work at home. During several administrations place of high distinction was at his command, had he said the word. But he knew better than most men that place rarely adds to the distinction of a really able man, and almost never to his happiness; and besides, for twenty years at least he felt that his highest work must be at home. The history of the civil service reform is the history of those years in the life of Mr. Curtis. There was much more in them, but to no other subject did he give so much thought and such deep and earnest personal interest. Doubtless he enjoyed much of his work as a political editor. He loved, too, the quiet paths of a literary life, and took pleasure in the familiar but gently dignified discourse which from month to month he delivered from the Easy Chair. He was an ardent and intelligent lover of music and art in every form. His nature, “sloping to the southern side,” was hospitable to every pleasure that does not demoralize or degrade. Socially, there was no man more attractive. Every good cause enlisted his sympathy ; and whenever a great occasion demanded an orator who could grasp and express its significance, his was the first name mentioned. About him and within him there was every allurement to the life of a dilettante or to a career in letters, where the disturbing problems and angry controversies of public life would not intrude.
Many who did not know him well mistook him for only an amiable gentleman who had the power of eloquent speech and an attractive literary style ; who enjoyed the applause of cultivated men and women, and moved gracefully through life, temperately tasting its well - bred pleasures, but not caring much for its rugged duties ; and who possessed but little manly force or vigor. There could not be a more mistaken estimate of character. Far above the pleasures of life he placed its duties; and no man, however devoid of grace and culture, could have set himself more sternly to the serious work of citizenship. The national struggle over slavery, and the reëstablishment of the Union on permanent foundations, enlisted his whole nature. In the same spirit, he devoted his later years to the overthrow of the spoils system. He did this under no delusion as to the magnitude of the undertaking. Probably no one else comprehended it so well. He had studied the problem profoundly, and had solved every difficulty, and could answer every cavil to his own satisfaction. Therefore it was not as a mere enthusiast that he gave so many years to its public demonstration. He knew that the party machines, of whatever name, were naturally opposed to the reform. He was a careful student of human nature, and had sounded all the depths and shallows of political life. He did not expect perfection in men or parties. He knew that the choice between parties often must be one between contestants neither of which was satisfactory, but this did not deter him from making the choice. “ Speculations about independent voters which imply that they should support neither party,”he said, “omit the cardinal fact that in politics as elsewhere a sensible man will do the best that the circumstances will allow without dishonor.”
The foremost of American Independents, he believed in parties, and that parties might be divided upon principle only he did all he could to remove from them the chief source of factional disorder and party degradation. He was familiar with the history of parties, especially in the State of New York, where more than anywhere else the scramble for office by adherents of rival leaders had destroyed party loyalty, and broken the greatest parties into discordant and warring factions. The long roll of BarnBurners and Hunkers, Silver Grays and Woolly-Heads, Hard-Shells and SoftShells, Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, is the historic refutation, for the State of New York at least, of the idea that the possession of the government patronage is a source of party strength.
The corruption of the suffrage by money, and the danger that a plutocracy would before long obtain possession of the chief places of honor and responsibility, alarmed him. He was convinced that this corruption could never be successfully met until the immense and constantly increasing bribe of the public offices had been removed from the elections. But he knew how long the corrupting influences had been at work, and how careless and apathetic was the great body of good citizens ; how slow reform Would be, how hesitating and capricious, now advancing, now retrograding, now apparently dead, and again instinct with new and stronger life. When, therefore, Mr. Curtis gave himself to this reform, he understood that it was an enlistment for life. It was no work for the pessimist or unbeliever. It would demand from its friends patience and courage and the highest faith in the people, and he was glad to give it the devotion of his life.
The amount of labor Mr. Curtis gave to this work from first to last is surprising. His annual and occasional addresses and his editorials on the subject would fill volumes. He was president of the leading local association, that of New York, and also president of the National League, and every important detail of the reform movement was under his inspection. That which always struck me as his strongest mental characteristic was his common sense. His judgment was almost unerring, and his tact was marvelous. His mind seemed never closed to a new suggestion. If it had force, he recognized it immediately; if not, he put it aside with such gentle but conclusive refutation that its author was almost glad not to have it accepted.
High as was the standard of his own thinking and living, he was of all men the least censorious. Easily superior in mental gifts and accomplishments, in that personal attractiveness which is the genius of character, he never showed that he was conscious of it. His associates in the League felt that he was the natural leader; but among them, while most effectively leading, he seemed to be only the most hearty and generous of comrades.
For ten successive years, at the annual meeting of the League, the president delivered an address containing a résumé of the pertinent events of the past year, accompanied by a wealth of appropriate comment and argument, and glowing with the fervid faith of a patriotism that never desponded. The old-fashioned divines deemed a sermon incomplete unless it contained enough “gospel truth” to save the soul of a hearer for the first time listening to the good tidings. As expositions of the gospel of civil service reform, each one of these addresses would sustain the test of a similar demand. The ten constitute an imperishable monument to Mr. Curtis as a patriot and reformer, but the fascination of their delivery will soon be but a tradition; the vibrating tones of his voice, sweet and full as a mellow instrument, the fit interpreter of an eloquence that never stooped to ignoble service, have died to an echo.
The last of these remarkable addresses, delivered at Baltimore in April last, was on the highest level of philosophic thought and aggressive courage, and fully equal to the best of its predecessors. In it he spoke as the true tribune of the people, demanding restraint of the executive power that party had usurped, and maintained only by the arbitrary control of patronage. “ Progress in the legal security of liberty,” he said, “has been always effected by regulating the executive power which is the final force in all politically organized communities.
. . . But the executive power, whether in the hands of a king or a party, does not change its nature. It seeks its own aggrandizement, and cannot safely be trusted. Buckle says that no man is wise enough and strong enough to be entrusted with absolute authority ; it fires his brain and maddens him. But this, which is true of an individual, is not less true of an aggregate of individuals or a party. A party needs watching as much as a king. Armed with the arbitrary power of patronage, party overbears the free expression of the popular will, and intrenches itself in illicit power. It makes the whole civil service a drilled and disciplined army whose living depends upon carrying elections at any cost for the party which controls it. Patronage has but to capture the local primary meeting, and it controls the whole party organization. Every member of the party must submit or renounce his party allegiance, and with it the gratification of his political ambition. . . .
“When the control of patronage passed from royal prerogative to popular party, the spirit and purpose of its exercise did not substantially change. A hundred years ago, in England, the king bought votes in Parliament ; to-day, an American party buys votes at the polls. The party system has subjected the citizen to the machine, and its first great resource is the bribery fund of patronage. Tammany Hall defends itself as Hume defended the king. The plea of both is the same. The king must maintain the Crown against Parliament, and he can do it only by corruption, said Hume. Party is necessary, says Tammany, but party organization can be made effective only by workers. Workers must be paid, and the patronage of the government, that is to say the emolument of place, is the natural fund for such payment. This is the simple plea of the spoils system. It places every party on a wholly venal basis. . . . Like a sleuth-hound, distrust must follow executive power, however it may double and whatever form it may assume. It is as much the safeguard of popular right against the will of a party as against the prerogative of a king. The great commonplace of our political speech, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, is fundamentally true. It is a Scripture essential to political salvation. The demand for civil service reform is a cry of that eternal vigilance for still further restriction by the people of the delegated executive power. Civil service reform, therefore, is but another step in the development of liberty under law. It is not eccentric or revolutionary. It is a logical measure of political progress.”
When the fatal illness of Mr. Curtis was announced, there were thousands to whom the question at once occurred,
“ What will be the effect upon civil service reform ?”
Those who had been near to him, who knew how great his services had been and how indispensable lie seemed to the cause, asked one another the question perhaps with something like dismay. Though of all men the most modest, the question may have occurred to Mr. Curtis himself, as the conviction grew upon him that his work was done, and the reform was not yet absolutely secure. He had witnessed from year to year the defiant spirit of party managers, and how, in disregard of solemn pledges, they had refused obedience to this law. He remembered how reluctant had been and would be its extension. He knew, as he had said at Baltimore, that “party machines no more favor civil service reform than kings favor the restriction of the royal prerogative ;but he knew too, as also he had said at Baltimore, that “ if party machines, truculent and defiant, like kings resist, like kings they yield at last to the people.” Ten years of successful trial had demonstrated the true character of the new system. He could not doubt that popular opinion from year to year set more strongly in its favor. The only question that remained was that of extension, and the answer to that question could not be long delayed. Whoever might be the next President, the reform must go on.
At Boston, two years before, Mr. Curtis had said : “ The reformer who would despond because no party has yet adopted reform would despond of day because the sun does not rise at dawn. Civil service reform is not yet established, for the same reason that slavery was not at once destroyed when its enormity was perceived and acknowledged. Like political corruption, slavery was intrenched in tradition, and only gradually did conviction ripen into purpose, and private wish tower into indomitable public will. It was a dark shadow, in which long and shamefully the country walked, its conscience wounded, its name disgraced. But the Union emerged in the clear light of liberty, and there is no American who would turn backward to the evil day. The same conscience, the same intelligence, that at last overthrew slavery now proposes, with the same undismayed persistence, to slay political corruption, and every sign shows that we, like our brothers of the last generation, are walking toward the light.”
Sherman S. Royers.