Our New Spoils System

Young man, thy words are like the cypress, tall and large, but they bear no fruit. — PHOCION TO LEOSTHENES


THE present administration has added roundly 235,000 persons to the direct full-time payroll of the Federal Government, but only one in 107 among the new personnel is under Civil Service.

‘Spoils! Spoils!’ cry the defenders of the merit system.

‘Emergency! Emergency!’ respond Postmaster-General James A. Farley and all the beneficiaries of ‘political clearance.’

And the issue here joined promises to influence American affairs profoundly, perhaps fundamentally, for a decade; for if the merit system is to be abandoned, as prevailing policies portend, we soon shall find our national affairs dominated by a whole new complex of primary motivations. When partisan activity degenerates to a bald race for the Treasury trough, the very concept of public service shrinks, withers, then dies. Thereupon government ceases to be the testing ground for measures of social adjustment and progress, and becomes the mere battleground of the ‘ins’ versus the ‘outs’ for the exactly measured plunder of the public payroll.

Since 1933 the percentage of Federal positions subject to competitive examination, in relation to the total of fulltime employees in the executive branch, has declined steadily from month to month, a phenomenon not experienced previously since establishment of the United States Civil Service Commission in 1883.

In 1884 only 10.5 per cent of those in the executive civil service were under statutory merit regulations. By 1904 this percentage had increased to 51.2. Woodrow Wilson increased it to 67.2, Mr. Coolidge to 74.8, and Mr. Hoover to 80.8. In 1928 the Civil Service Commission was happy to report formally: ‘Every President since the Civil Service law was enacted has extended its scope by executive order, and each Congress finds now avenues for the activities of the Civil Service Commission.’ The march of merit was unbroken for half a century. But by the end of the fiscal year 1935 the percentage of competitive places had slipped back to 57, approximately the ratio which prevailed in the period 1906-1908.

Nor is this quarter-century retrogression the whole sorry tale. Unrelenting pressure for the rooting out of Civil Service employees in department after department, under pretexts often persuasive enough, has broken the morale of the whole Federal personnel. No longer is hard-won Civil Service status regarded as security against a patronage raid. Where the job makers will strike next, nobody ever knows. Heaped upon all the recognized frustrations of top-heavy bureaucratic organization is the new incessant and demoralizing intrigue of the appointive against the Civil Service personnel.

During the ten-year period 19211930 the average number of persons carried on the direct civil rolls of the national government was 570,000; and when Mr. Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the figure, as officially reported by the General Accounting Office, stood at 564,481. By December 1, 1935, the comparable total was 798,677, an increase of 234,196 jobs in thirty-three months. The added payroll runs $425,000,000 a year — a considerable increase in a payroll which already ran $800,000,000 a year at inauguration day.

On top of these new jobs there were, during the same months, roundly 61,500 replacements of personnel in the ante-New Deal agencies. The total of jobs available to Mr. Farley’s appointive system to date, therefore, has been 295,000. This, by the Census Bureau’s tables of occupational distribution, is a few more people than are gainfully employed in normal times in a city of 1,000,000 population. It represents an average of 8939 appointments every month. But in the face of this tremendous expansion and turnover the total classified positions subject to Civil Service regulations declined from 467,161 on June 30, 1932, to 455,264 on June 30, 1935.1

Assuming careful selection of appointees, Mr. Farley estimates, from long experience and careful checks, that every job, on average, is worth forty votes in the next election. Some are worth a thousand, but many align only the immediate family, a matter of four to ten votes. There is no legal method, of course, by which one may record the secret vote of an appointee, or of any friend of Cæsar; but by comparing precinct totals constantly in the light of patronage distribution between elections the approximate average value of each appointment may be readily determined. So if everybody’s allegiance holds according to the Farley tables of American morality, there already are corralled some 11,800,000 votes for Mr. Farley’s presidential candidate in 1936. In a prospective vote of 40,000,000, that would be a fair beginning. It equals, in fact, the combined 1932 presidential vote of both major parties in the sixteen states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

Where the influence of such a horde of job holders ends, no one can say. But the fiftieth-anniversary historical review of the Civil Service Commission, in 1933, recalled in impressive language the grave apprehensions of discerning men of the Jacksonian period: ‘The spoils system, as it was officially described as early as 1835, was introduced, and extended until it permeated the entire civil service of the country and, in the opinion of leading statesmen, threatened to change completely the form of government.’

Mr. Farley acknowledges in moments of neighborly philosophical reflection that parties do not live by patronage alone. But in the boisterous day-to-day hurly-burly of practical politics there is little time for philosophy. A twentieth-century Pooh-Bah endeavoring conscientiously to execute the magnificent rôles of PostmasterGeneral of the United States, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee for New York, Member of the National Emergency Council, and Member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, needs, rather, a swift and certain rule of thumb. Mr. Farley’s rule was proclaimed publicly about the time the AAA got its first automatic checkwriter. ‘Patronage,’ he wrote in an hour of exultation in July 1933, ‘is a reward to those who have worked for party victory. It is also an assistance in building up the party machinery for the next election.’

Questioned in a press conference a few days later concerning the mystifying delay in replacing a certain important holdover bureau chief who was widely reputed for exceptional scientific and technical qualifications, the Postmaster-General restated the first principles of patronage.

‘Don’t worry,’ he answered with convincing inflection; ‘if we look hard enough we can find a good Democrat for the job.’


History has not yet established that our new spoils régime developed inexorably from the sheer cosmic pressures of recovery. On the other hand, the record, as Mr. Alfred E. Smith calls it, appears to indicate pretty clearly that the system might have been planned with some deliberation several months before Mr. Roosevelt’s inauguration.

Immediately after the 1932 election, for example, Mr. Farley laid down firmly, in communications with state lieutenants, that the first question concerning the qualifications of any prospective appointee would be, ‘Was he for Roosevelt before Chicago?’ So sweeping was the rule, and so firmly held, that the press soon was bantering the ’F. R. B. C. Club’—the first of the alphabetical agencies. Senators and Representatives by the score crossed swords with Mr. Farley on the rule, but few ever were able to penetrate his skillful precinct defenses.

Early in December 1932, a month after election, Senator McKellar, of Tennessee, then ranking minority member of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, framed a resolution requiring the Civil Service Commission to compile an official catalogue of all appointive places in the Federal establishment. The resolution was approved promptly, and on January 14, 1933, still six weeks before inauguration, the Government Printing Office released Senate Document No. 173 of the Seventy-second Congress, a volume of 420 pages in very small type. The formal title runs, A List of Offices, Positions, Places, and Emoluments under the Federal Government and the District of Columbia not under Civil Service Rules and Regulations. It catalogued some 33,600 jobs soon to be ‘housecleaned,’ as the saying goes in the river wards.

The Plum Book, as Washington quickly styled it, retailed at forty cents and was an instant sensation among Government best-sellers. With this volume before him, every state or precinct chairman could know at a glance exactly what jobs were to be available in his territory on March 4. As in the Army Register of the Indian Service, which impressed Kipling so deeply in his youth, salaries were tabulated neatly at the right. From coast to coast duly certified members of the F. R. B. C. fraternity began to set their caps.

Almost overnight the government departments were demoralized, even to the highest scientific and professional grades in the Bureau of Standards, the Weather Bureau, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. Everyone whose place was listed knew beyond peradventure precisely what his fate would be. Even should he survive the first orgy of the job-hungry faithful, attrition would flatten him in the end. Among the Civil Service holdovers the scramble for protective influence — political, personal, legislative, by transfer, or by voluntary retirement to the half-wage security of the pension rolls — became positively pathetic. Drafting officers in the State Department raced for remote foreign posts, in the hope that they, in truth, might become forgotten men. In several cases, less rugged individuals elsewhere registered nervous breakdowns right in the bureau. Within thirty days the Plum Book had reduced Washington to a veritable patronage stampede; and by mid-February the routine departmental services had come to a standstill.

Concurrently with the action on Mr. McKellar’s resolution, Senator Joseph T. Robinson, the Democratic leader, announced the formal decision of the Minority Conference to deny confirmation of all future nominations by the retiring President. The grappling hooks were deep in the sea of spoils, reaching for the last janitor in the Custodial Service.

One more episode of the post-election interregnum completes the present evidence on this aspect of national planning. On February 24, 1933, a week before inauguration, Mr. Farley was a caller at the Hyde Park residence of the President-elect, who was just returned from a two weeks’ cruise aboard the Nourmahal. Michigan, it will be recalled, had been prostrate for ten days. Maryland was in the act of proclaiming the second state holiday in that calamitous series. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were one roaring prairie fire of panic. But at Hyde Park Mr. Farley apparently was able to hew to the line; for next morning Mr. James Hagerty, a New York political correspondent of the highest professional reputation, reported in the New York Times:

Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Farley discussed the New York state patronage situation late this afternoon and decided on procedure to coördinate the distribution of state and Federal patronage, a system which would be put into effect in other states.

With Democratic governors in forty-one states, Mr. Farley believes there should be coöperation between the national and state party organizations in parceling out the jobs.

He is in a position to do this effectively in New York State, because he is both national and state chairman. For example, if a man from Cayuga County should receive a Federal post, it is Mr. Farley’s idea that a state post of equal calibre should go to a resident of some other county than Cayuga, or at least should lessen the chance of a Cayuga resident for appointment.

He will attempt to have the various state chairmen coöperate with him, that the organization recommendations in the distribution of minor patronage will be so arranged that it will receive the widest possible distribution, thus to build up an effective party organization throughout the country. . . .

Thus was the national stage set for an old-fashioned Tammany Putsch — this time against the fifty-year-old Civil Service.


It was the execution of this February plan which, in the early summer of 1933, gave a new and rasping term to Washington’s hysterical recovery lexicon — ‘political clearance.’ In a word, political clearance is merely the required certificate of party regularity from the state or county chairman. Without it one may not even apply for a Federal job. A more extended official definition of the term is found in a notice posted by the Bureau of Reclamation at Denver, under date of May 15, 1934, as follows: —

The Secretary of the Interior requires that each recommendation submitted to him for appointment to a non-Civil Service position in the Bureau of Reclamation be supported by clearance from some appropriate official in the Democratic Party organization.
Such clearance need not necessarily be in the form of an endorsement or recommendation. A brief statement to the effect that there is no objection to the proposed appointment is all that is needed.
In order to support a recommendation to be forwarded for your appointment, it is requested that you obtain from either the chairman of the Democratic county committee, the chairman of the Democratic state committee, or the chairman of the Democratic central committee in the county or state in which you claim legal residence, a brief statement or clearance as indicated above.
The clearance should be mailed by you to the Chief Engineer, U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, Denver, Colorado.
Very truly yours,
Chief Engineer

Delineating the play-by-play operation of this system is the case of Mrs.—, an experienced government typist, who applied in September 1933 for a position in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In the rather voluminous correspondence, her qualifications for the position sought never come into question. From the office of the Comptroller of the Currency she was directed to the secretary of the Democratic Central Committee for Prince William County, Virginia, where her father had been sheriff. On October 16 the county committee formally recommended her appointment to Senator Byrd. On October 19, Representative Howard W. Smith signified his approval to J. F. T. O’Connor, Comptroller of the Currency. Under the same date Senator Byrd addressed a similar communication to O. W. Stratton, personnel officer in the F. D. I. C. ‘Mrs. — comes to me with the endorsements of friends upon whose judgments I rely,’ this letter said in part. ‘She is a widow with four dependent children and in real need of work.’

But her need was not so great that political clearance could be certified in less than six weeks.

In every department, bureau, agency, authority, and corporation this system of clearance applies down the line, even to the $1200-a-year recreation director in each of the 2800 CCC camps. So disturbing did the spoils pressures become at length in the Comptroller’s office, the Treasury, and the RFC, that the American Bankers Association was moved to suggest modestly in November 1934: ‘Politics should have nothing to do with the appointment of bank examiners.’

Nor has Mr. Farley, in his public utterances, been evasive or apologetic concerning the F. R. B. C. policy. The frankness with which he discusses it is suggested by the following excerpt from his address dedicating the new post office at Greensboro, North Carolina, on July 6, 1933: —

Your delegation at the Chicago convention not only gave loyal support to the candidacy of Governor Roosevelt, but rendered effective service among other delegations. I am very glad indeed that the President named as collector of internal revenue in this state one of the most effective of your delegates, Mr. C. H. Robertson. Another of the North Carolina delegates, Mrs. Palmer Jerman, has been named assistant collector of internal revenue, and Honorable Josephus Daniels, another delegate, has been made ambassador to Mexico. Another distinguished North Carolinian, Honorable James Crawford Biggs, has been appointed SolicitorGeneral of the United States, a post that has been held by some of the country’s most eminent lawyers.2

Under political clearance the appointment of ‘experts’ in the emergency agencies at length became so scandalous that Comptroller-General McCarl felt impelled to insist upon a more precise definition of offices and duties. In January 1934 he held up salary checks of some 400 ‘experts’ in the AAA. Salaries ranged from $2000 to $9800 a year. But the payrolls offered no description of duties, no hint of qualifications.

One expert, appointed August 15, 1933, was Mr. Charles G. Miller. His payroll title was ‘administrative expert, Rice Section,’ with headquarters at Stuttgart, Arkansas. Inquiry disclosed that Mr. Miller is a brother-in-law of Senator Robinson.

Comparable cases have come to light in every department. The good fortune of Senator Bilbo, of Mississippi, has been discussed widely. Between his term as governor and the beginning of the senatorial campaign in 1934 he served at $6000 a year in the AAA press-clipping bureau. Former Senator Stephens, whom Mr. Bilbo defeated in the 1934 primary, since has been appointed a director of the RFC.

Robert N. Anderson, who was vice chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Committee in Virginia and a delegate to the 1932 convention, was appointed on February 9, 1934, to be Special Assistant to the AttorneyGeneral in the Tax Division.

Mrs. Bernice M. Pyke, selected on March 10, 1934, to be Collector of Customs for the Northern District of Ohio, was serving at the time of appointment as Democratic National Committeewoman from that state.

Mr. H. C. McKellar, a brother of the senior Senator from Tennessee, was appointed postmaster at Memphis on March 10, 1933. Senator McKellar by this time had advanced to the rank of Chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.

Another point at which political clearance could be certified expeditiously was the post office at Danville, Virginia. Henry C. Swanson, a brol her of the Secretary of the Navy, was appointed acting postmaster on October 23, 1933.

James J. Hooey, who managed the Roosevelt campaign in Manhattan in 1932, won the post of Collector of Internal Revenue in New York City.

Herbert L. Petty, who served as Director of the Radio Division at Democratic National Headquarters in New York during the 1932 campaign, was appointed in June 1933 to be secretary of the Federal Radio Commission, later reorganized as the Federal Communications Commission. On August 14, 1933, it became his duty to address a circular to all licensed radio stations in the United States, opening on the note: —

It is the patriotic, if not the bounden and legal duty of all licensees of radio broadcasting stations to deny their facilities to advertisers who are disposed to defy, ignore, or modify the codes established by the NRA.

When a senatorial investigation in July 1935 forced the resignation of Justice T. Webber Wilson from the District Court for the Virgin Islands, Attorney-General Cummings made a place for him on the United States Parole Board at Washington. Dr. Amy Stannard, who had been a member of the Board since its creation in 1930, was asked to resign to create a vacancy. She had a professional Civil Service record covering twelve years in various psychiatric posts and was recognized widely in the profession for her special qualifications in criminal psychology. Mr. Wilson, formerly an attorney in Laurel, Mississippi, had served three terms in Congress from that state.

As recently as December 1935, Mr. J. David Stern, New York and Philadelphia newspaper publisher noted for his militant defense of Mr. Roosevelt’s monetary and budget policies, was appointed a director of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. The appointment coincided with the announcement of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington that Mr. Owen D. Young would not be reappointed to a new term as director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Mr. Stern’s appointment came six months after the gentleman who for several years had served as his Washington correspondent had accepted the nonCivil Service berth of Executive Assistant (publicity agent) to Mr. Marriner S. Eccles, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

The only defense of political clearance ever to come from the White House is the oft-repeated suggestion that in the emergency of 1933 there was no time for the establishment of Civil Service routine applicable to the new agencies. The point falls, however, before the fact that in the wartime expansion of the Wilson administration the number of classified competitive positions in the Federal executive service increased from 326,899 on June 30, 1917, to 642,432 on June 30, 1918 — an increase of 315,533 Civil Service posts during one fiscal year. The vigorous methods by which this herculean labor was accomplished still stand in American history as the high mark of fidelity to the merit principle. Not only were emergency places laboriously classified, but hundreds of new examinations were devised hastily to cover highly specialized services theretofore unknown to Federal administration. Later, the pressing shortage of man power enforced a relaxation of competitive standards all along the line, and the whole job of classification had to be reviewed and revised. But never was the emergency deemed so compelling as to demand abandonment of the merit system.


By his own text Mr. Farley, between March 4 and September 28, 1933, removed 661 hold-over postmasters before the expiration of their appointive terms. Discussing these removals in an address before the National Association of Postmasters at Rochester, New York, on September 28, 1933, he explained that ‘625 were removed because of infractions of the postal laws and regulations relating solely to the conduct of the offices, and only 36 were removed for political activity.’

But another view of these ‘infractions ’ is presented by a former president of the Service Postmasters Association, who, because he still is in the service, must speak here anonymously: —

In most cases the local Democratic organization was behind the move, and called for an investigation simply to force the man out and put their own man in the place.

The inspectors have orders to find something, and no postmaster can ever hope to run his office 100 per cent perfect. They can always find something to base removal charges on. In many cases the grounds for removal are absolutely unfair and unjustified.

No branch of government, however remote from politics, escaped the spoilsmen’s fine-tooth comb. In 1934 an informal committee of the House was delegated to survey the personnel records of the Library of Congress. When this shameless thrust at highly specialized professional categories aroused a particularly noisy storm of indignation among Washington’s civic societies, the plan to houseclean the Library was compromised in an agreement to create some one hundred new jobs, without raiding the incumbent personnel. The new berths were filled through political clearance.

In the case of the District of Columbia government, the patronage raid was a bit more subtle, and correspondingly more successful. It was discovered that President Hoover’s executive order transferring the District personnel to Civil Service merely had authorized the adoption of the merit routine in that quarter. The ravenous job makers determined easily in 1934 that this order did not require competitive examinations. So the Washington city hall was housecleaned.

No system, of course, can work perfectly. Every so often an F. R. B. C. appointment turns out very badly. On July 27, 1933, for example, A1 Capone and twenty-two others were indicted in Chicago in connection with a union cleaning-and-dyeing bombing. In the legal dragnet with the already incarcerated Scarface was one Benjamin F. Squires. Three hours after news of the true bills had flashed over the press wires Squires was located in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was engaged at the moment as Department of Labor conciliator in a hosiery strike.

By long usage one place on the police bench in the District of Columbia always is reserved for a Negro. It often turned out, of course, that the available Negro attorney was a voter of Republican predilection. And such was the background of Justice James A. Cobb, incumbent on March 4, 1933. It took Mr. Farley twenty-seven months to find a qualified F. R. B. C. candidate in that part of the country. Despite strong recommendations for Justice Cobb’s reappointment, from the District of Columbia Bar Association, the Colored Bar Association of Washington, the Women’s Bar Association, and the Barristers’ Club, Mr. Farley declined to assent to a new term. On April 22, 1935, President Roosevelt nominated Mr. Cobb’s successor. The nominee’s service record, as transmitted from Democratic national headquarters, concluded with the observation that he had been ‘active in civic and fraternal work, and worked for the Democratic national ticket in 1932.’ So Justice Cobb was housecleaned.

Commenting upon an earlier breathtaking judicial appointment, the New York Times remarked editorially on July 8, 1934: —

Since Mr. Roosevelt became President he has had to fill several vacancies on the Federal bench. In too many cases, the evidence appears to be conclusive that the appointments were largely political. . . .

Manœuvring long-established units out of the merit system is another interesting development of the new personnel policy. The Shipping Board is a case in point, involving the careers of some 750 men and women. Section 4 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1916 required that, with certain negligible exceptions, ‘all employees of the Board shall be appointed from lists of eligibles to be supplied by the Civil Service Commission, and in accordance with Civil Service law.’

Pursuant to a delegation of authority in the Post Office Appropriation act of March 3, 1933, President Roosevelt issued an executive order on June 10, 1933, abolishing the Shipping Board and transferring its functions to the Department of Commerce. The appropriation act delegating this authority expressly provided that all laws governing transferred or consolidated agencies ‘ shall, in so far as such laws are not inapplicable, remain in full force and effect.’ But President Roosevelt’s executive order of June 10 provided in Section 19 that ‘All personnel employed in connection with work of an abolished agency . . . shall be separated from the service of the United States, except that the head of any successor agency, subject to my approval, may, within a period of four months after transfer or consolidation, reappoint any such personnel required for the work of the successor agency, without reëxamination or loss of Civil Service status.’ This resounding bit of legal circumlocution left the Civil Service status of the Shipping Board personnel unimpaired, only the Shipping Board had been abolished. They were, in a word, unemployed. And under the specific terms of the President’s executive order none could be reappointed to his old work in the successor bureau save by express presidential approval. Thus were some 750 more Civil Service jobs tossed to the lions. During the first twenty-one months of his term, Mr. Roosevelt signed eleven major bills which specifically exempted some 41,400 new personnel from Civil Service administration. During the same months he issued three executive orders transferring 2448 classified positions from the Civil Service to the appointive lists.

Finally, Mr. Farley has not held the White House to be above the political stratagems essential to housecleaning and clearance, as witness the following case. In July 1934, Professor John W. Finch, Dean of the School of Mines in the University of Idaho, relinquished his place to accept appointment by Secretary Ickes as Director of the Bureau of Mines. He presented himself at the Interior Department on July 2, only to learn that his commission had not arrived from the Executive Offices. Three days later it came along, unsigned. Penned across the face in a familiar hand was the notation, ‘Held up temporarily because of political objections by P. M. G.’ Delving into the professor’s record, Mr. Farley had discovered that this prospective appointee had supported Mr. Hoover in 1928. In the roar of editorial protest which followed disclosure of the circumstances surrounding his delayed commission, Professor Finch finally was appointed — but not before the Job-master-General had carried the spoilsmen’s fight to the personal desk of the President of the United States.

Merely as pointing an interesting historical coincidence it may be observed here that this confusion came into the record only three weeks after President Roosevelt, in accepting an honorary doctorate at Yale, on June 20, 1934, jovially had assured the nation, ’I can’t tell to-day the party affiliations of most of the responsible people in government, and it is a mighty good thing I can’t.’ (Applause)

As early as August 1933, Mr. Roosevelt had written to the National Civil Service Reform League, in response to an inquiry relative to the then emerging evidence of a spoils restoration: ‘The merit system in Civil Service is in no danger at my hands; but on the contrary, I hope that it will be extended and improved during my term as President.’

In the same vein, the President lauded the merit system in his radio address of August 24, 1935, to the Young Democrats of America, in national convention at Milwaukee. On that occasion he said: —

Government now demands the best brains of every business and profession. Government to-day requires higher and higher standards of those who would serve it. It must bring to its service greater and greater competence.

The conditions of public work must be protected. Mere party membership and loyalty can no longer be the exclusive test.

In the light of these declarations and others equally impressive during the last three years, it is not too much to say that no President ever has bolstered Civil Service with more compelling eloquence.

  1. All the figures above relate only to the executive services. They take no account of the following personnel paid directly from the Federal Treasury: judicial, 1859; legislative, 4840; military, 256,491; wholly Federal construction, 428,438; CCC enrollees, 439,753. Neither do they include 2,228,064 on direct work relief. — AUTHOR
  2. Mr. Biggs voluntarily resigned this post in April 1935. — AUTHOR