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Curtis, George William 1824-

Editor; born in Providence, R. I., Feb. 24, 1824; became a member of the Brook farm Association (q. v.) in 1842. In 1846 he went abroad, and, after spending a year in Italy, entered the University of Berlin, where he saw the revolutionary movements of 1848. He spent two years in travelling in [468]

George William Curtis.

Europe, Egypt, and Syria, returning to the United States in 1850, in which year he published Nile notes of a Howadji. He joined the editorial staff of the New York Tribune, and was one of the original editors of Putnam's monthly. He was for many years an eloquent and successful lyceum lecturer, and was generally regarded as one of the most accomplished orators in the United States. In 1867 he became editor of Harper's weekly, and was extremely influential. In his writings and speeches he was a very efficient supporter of the Republican party for nearly a generation. He contributed a vast number of very able short essays through Harper's monthly, in the department of “The easy chair.” In 1871 President Grant appointed Mr. Curtis one of a commission to draw up rules for the regulation of the civil service. He was a member of the constitutional convention of the State of New York in 1868, in which he was chairman of the committee on education. In 1864 he was appointed one of the regents of the University of the State of New York. He died Aug. 31, 1892.

The spoils system.

The following is an abridgment of his celebrated speech on the evils of the spoils system in politics, delivered before the American Social Science Association, in Saratoga, N. Y., Sept. 8, 1881:

The spoils spirit struggled desperately to obtain possession of the national administration from the day of Jefferson's inauguration to that of Jackson's, when it succeeded. Its first great but undesigned triumph was the decision of the first Congress, in 1789, vesting the sole power of removal in the President, a decision which placed almost every position in the civil service unconditionally at his pleasure. This decision was determined by the weight of Madison's authority. But Webster, nearly fifty years afterwards, opposing his authority to that of Madison, while admitting the decision to have been final, declared it to have been wrong. The year 1820, which saw the great victory of slavery in the Missouri Compromise, was also the year in which the second great triumph of the spoils system was gained, by the passage of the law which, under the plea of securing greater responsibility in certain financial offices, limited such offices to a term of four years. The decision of 1789. which gave the sole power of removal to the President, required positive executive action to effect removal; but this law of 1820 vacated all the chief financial offices, with all the places dependent upon them, during the term of every President, who, without an order of removal, could fill them all at his pleasure.

A little later a change in the method of nominating the President from a congressional caucus to a national convention still further developed the power of patronage as a party resource, and in the session of 1825-26, when John Quincy Adams was President, Mr. Benton introduced his report upon Mr. Macon's resolution declaring the necessity of reducing and regulating executive patronage: although Mr. Adams, the last of the Revolutionary line of Presidents, so scorned to misuse patronage that he leaned backward in standing erect. The pressure for the overthrow of the constitutional system had grown steadily more angry and peremptory with the progress of the country, the development of party spirit, the increase of patronage, the unanticipated consequences of the sole executive power of removal, and the immense opportunity offered by the four-years' law. It was a pressure against which [469] Jefferson held the gates by main force, which was relaxed by the war under Madison and the fusion of parties under Monroe, but which swelled again into a furious torrent as the later parties took form. John Quincy Adams adhered, with the tough tenacity of his father's son, to the best principles of all his predecessors. He followed Washington, and observed the spirit of the Constitution in refusing to remove for ally reason but official misconduct or incapacity. But he knew well what was coming, and with characteristically stinging sarcasm he called General Jackson's inaugural address “a threat of reform.” With Jackson's administration in 1830 the deluge of the spoils system burst over our national politics. Sixteen years later, Mr. Buchanan said, in a public speech, that General Taylor would be faithless to the Whig party if he did not proscribe Democrats. So high the deluge had risen which has ravaged and wasted our politics ever since, and the danger will be stayed only when every President, leaning upon the law, shall stand fast where John Quincy Adams stood.

But the debate continued during the whole Jackson administration. In the Senate and on the stump, in elaborate reports and popular speeches, Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, the great political chiefs of their time, sought to alarm the country with the dangers of patronage. Sargent S. Prentiss, in the House of Representatives, caught up and echoed the cry under the administration of Van Buren. But the country refused to be alarmed. . . .

It heard the uproar like the old lady upon her first railroad journey, who sat serene amid the wreck of a collision, and, when asked if she was very much hurt, looked over her spectacles and answered blandly, “Hurt? Why, I supposed they always stopped so in this kind of travelling.” The feeling that the denunciation was only a part of the game of politics, and no more to be accepted as a true statement than Snug the joiner as a true lion, was confirmed by the fact that when the Whig opposition came into power with President Harrison, it adopted the very policy which, under Democratic administration, it had strenuously denounced as fatal. The pressure for place was even greater than it had been ten years before, and although Mr. Webster, as Secretary of State, maintained his consistency by putting his name to an executive order asserting sound principles, the order was swept away like a lamb by a locomotive. “Nothing but a miracle,” said General Harrison's Attorney-General, “can feed the swarm of hungry office-seekers.”

Adopted by both parties, Mr. Marcy's doctrine that the places in the public service are the proper spoils of a victorious party was accepted as a necessary condition of popular government. One of the highest officers of the government expounded this doctrine to me long afterwards. “I believe,” said he, “that when the people vote to change a party administration they vote to change every person of the opposite party who holds a place, from the President of the United States to the messenger at my door.” It is this extraordinary but sincere misconception of the function of a party in a free government that leads to the serious defence of the spoils system. Now, a party is merely a voluntary association of citizens to secure the enforcement of a certain policy of administration upon which they are agreed. In a free government this is done by the election of legislators and of certain executive officers who are friendly to that policy. But the duty of a great body of persons employed in the minor administrative places is in no sense political. It is wholly ministerial, and the political opinions of such persons affect the discharge of their duties no more than their religious view or their literary preferences. All that can be justly required of such persons, in the interest of the public business, is honesty, intelligence, capacity, industry, and due subordination; and to say that when the policy of the government is changed by the result of an election from protection to free-trade every bookkeeper and lettercarrier and messenger and porter in the public offices ought to be a free-trader is as wise as to say that if a merchant is a Baptist every clerk in his office ought to be a believer in total immersion. But the officer of whom I spoke undoubtedly expressed the general feeling. The [470] necessarily evil consequences of the practice which he justified seemed to be still speculative and inferential, and to the national indifference which followed the war the demand of Mr. Jenckes for reform appeared to be a mere whimsical vagary most inopportunely introduced.

It was, however, soon evident that the war had made the necessity of reform imperative, and chiefly for two reasons: First, the enormous increase of patronage, and, second, the fact that circumstances had largely identified a party name with patriotism. The great and radical evil of the spoils system was carefully fostered by the apparent absolute necessity to the public welfare of making political opinion and sympathy a condition of appointment to the smallest place. It is since the war, therefore, that the evil has run riot and that its consequences have been fully revealed. Those consequences are now familiar, and I shall not describe them. It is enough that the most patriotic and intelligent Americans and the most competent foreign observers agree that the direct and logical results of that system are the dangerous confusion of the executive and legislative powers of the government; the conversion of politics into mere place-hunting; the extension of the mischief to State and county and city administration, and the consequent degradation of the national character; the practical disfranchisement of the people wherever the system is most powerful; and the perversion of a republic of equal citizens into a despotism of venal politicians. . . .

The whole system of appointments in the civil service proceeds from the President, and in regard to his action the intention of the Constitution is indisputable. It is that the President shall appoint solely upon public consideration, and that the officer appointed shall serve as long as he discharges his duty faithfully. This is shown in Mr. Jefferson's familiar phrase in his reply to the remonstrance of the merchants of New Haven against the removal of the collector of that port. Mr. Jefferson asserted that Mr. Adams had purposely appointed in the last moments of his administration officers whose designation he should have left to his successor. Alluding to these appointments, he says: “I shall correct the procedure, and that done, return with joy to that state of things when the only question concerning a candidate shall be, Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?” Mr. Jefferson here recognizes that these had been the considerations which had usually determined appointments; and Mr. Madison, in the debate upon the President's sole power of removal, declared that if the President should remove an officer for any reason not connected with efficient service, he would be impeached. Reform, therefore, is merely a return to the principle and purpose of the Constitution and to the practice of the early administrations.

What more is necessary, then, for reform than that the President should return to that practice? As all places in the civil service are filled either by his direct nomination or by officers whom he appoints, why had not any President ample constitutional authority to effect at any moment a complete and thorough reform? The answer is simple. He has the power. He has always had it. A President has only to do as Washington did, and all his successors have only to do likewise, and reform would be complete. Every President has but to refuse to remove non-political officers for political or personal reasons; to appoint only those whom he knows to be competent; to renominate, as Monroe and John Quincy Adams did, every faithful officer whose commission expires, and to require the beads of departments and all inferior appointing officers to conform to this practice, and the work would be done. This is apparently a short and easy constitutional method of reform, requiring no further legislation or scheme of procedure. But why has no President adopted it? For the same reason that the best of Popes does not reform the abuses of his Church. For the same reason that a leaf goes over Niagara. It is because the opposing forces are overpowering. The same high officer of the government to whom I have alluded said to me as we drove upon the Heights of Washington, “Do you mean that I ought not to appoint my subordinates for whom I am responsible?” I answered: “I mean that you do not [471] appoint them now; I mean that if, when we return to the capital, you hear that your chief subordinate is dead, you will not appoint his successor. You will have to choose among the men urged upon you by certain powerful politicians. Undoubtedly you ought to appoint the man whom you believe to be the most fit. But you do not and cannot. If you could or did appoint such men only, and that were the rule of your department and of the service, there would be no need of reform.” And he could not deny it. . . .

A President who should alone undertake thoroughly to reform the evil must feel it to be the vital and paramount issue, and must be willing to hazard everything for its success. He must have the absolute faith and the indomitable will of Luther. How can we expect a President whom this system elects to devote himself to its destruction? General Grant, elected by a spontaneous patriotic impulse, fresh from the regulated order of military life, and new to politics and politicians, saw the reason and the necessity of reform. The hero of a victorious war, at the height of his popularity, his party in undisputed and seemingly indisputable supremacy, made the attempt. Congress, good-naturedly tolerating what it considered his whim of inexperience, granted money to try an experiment. The adverse pressure was tremendous. “I am used to pressure,” said the soldier. So he was, but not to this pressure. He was driven by unknown and incalculable currents. He was enveloped in whirlwinds of sophistry, scorn, and incredulity. He who upon his own line had fought it out all summer to victory, upon a line absolutely new and unknown was naturally bewildered and dismayed. . . .

When at last President Grant said, “If Congress adjourns without positive legisnation on civil service reform, I shall regard such action as a disapproval of the system and shall abandon it,” it was, indeed, a surrender, but it was the surrender of a champion who had honestly mistaken both the nature and the strength of the adversary and his own power of endurance.

It is not, then, reasonable, under the conditions of our government and in the actual situation, to expect a President to go much faster or much further than public opinion. But executive action can aid most effectively the development and movement of that opinion, and the most decisive reform measures that the present administration might take would be undoubtedly supported by a powerful public sentiment. The educative results of resolute executive action, however limited and incomplete in scope, have been shown in the two great public offices of which I have spoken, the New York custom-house and the New York postoffice. . . .

The root of the complex evil, then, is personal favoritism. This produces congressional dictation, senatorial usurpation, arbitrary removals, interference in elections, political assessments, and all the consequent corruption, degradation, and danger that experience has disclosed. The method of reform, therefore, must be a plan of selection for appointment which makes favoritism impossible. The general feeling undoubtedly is that this can be accomplished by a fixed limited term. But the terms of most of the offices to which the President and the Senate appoint, and upon which the myriad minor places in the service depend, have been fixed and limited for sixty years, yet it is during that very period that the chief evils of personal patronage have appeared. The law of 1820, which limited the term of important revenue offices to four years, and which was afterwards extended to other offices, was intended, as John Quincy Adams tells us, to promote the election to the Presidency of Mr. Crawford, who was then Secretary of the Treasury. The law was drawn by Mr. Crawford himself, and it was introduced into the Senate by one of his devoted partisans. It placed the whole body of executive financial officers at the mercy of the Secretary of the Treasury and of a majority of the Senate, and its design, as Mr. Adams says, “was to secure for Mr. Crawford the influence of all the incumbents in office, at the peril of displacement, and of five or ten times an equal number of ravenous office-seekers, eager to supplant them.” This is the very substance of the spoils system, intentionally introduced by a fixed limitation of term in place of the constitutional tenure of efficient service; [472] and it was so far successful that it made the custom-house officers, district attorneys, marshals, registers of the land office, receivers of public money, and even paymasters in the army, notoriously active partisans of Mr. Crawford. . . .

To fix by law the terms of places dependent upon such officers would be like an attempt to cure hydrophobia by the bite of a mad dog. The incumbent would be always busy keeping his influence in repair to secure reappointment, and the applicant would be equally busy in seeking such influence to procure the place, and, as the fixed terms would be constantly expiring, the eager and angry intrigue and contest of influence would be as endless as it is now. This certainly would not be reform.

But would not reform be secured by adding to a fixed limited term the safeguard of removal for cause only? Removal for cause alone means, of course, removal for legitimate cause, such as dishonesty, negligence, or incapacity. But who shall decide that such cause exists? This must be determined either by the responsible superior officer or by some other authority. But if left to some other authority the right of counsel and the forms of a court would be invoked; the whole legal machinery of mandamuses, injunctions, certioraris, and the rules of evidence would be put in play to keep an incompetent clerk at his desk or a sleepy watchman on his beat. Cause for the removal of a letter-carrier in the post-office or of an accountant in the custom-house would be presented with all the pomp of impeachment and established like a high crime and misdemeanor. Thus every clerk in every office would have a kind of vested interest in his place because, however careless, slovenly, or troublesome he might be, he could be displaced only by an elaborate and doubtful legal process. Moreover, if the head of a bureau or a collector or a postmaster were obliged to prove negligence or insolence or incompetency against a clerk as he would prove theft, there would be no removals from the public service except for crimes of which the penal law takes cognizance. Consequently, removal would be always and justly regarded as a stigma upon character, and a man removed from a position in a public office would be virtually branded as a convicted criminal. Removal for cause, therefore, if the cause were to be decided by any authority but that of the responsible superior officer, instead of improving, would swiftly and enormously enhance the cost and ruin the efficiency of the public service by destroying subordination and making every lazy and worthless member of it twice as careless and incompetent as he is now.

If, then, the legitimate cause for removal ought to be determined in public as in private business by the responsible appointing power, it is of the highest public necessity that the exercise of that power should be made as absolutely honest and independent as possible. But how can it be made honest and independent if it is not protected so far as practicable from the constant bribery of selfish interest and the illicit solicitation of personal influence? The experience of our large patronage offices proves conclusively that the cause of the larger number of removals is not dishonesty or incompetency; it is the desire to make vacancies to fill. This is the actual cause, whatever cause may be assigned. The removals would not be made except for the pressure of politicians. But these politicians would not press for removals if they could not secure the appointment of their favorites. Make it impossible for them to secure appointment, and the pressure would instantly disappear and arbitrary removal cease.

So long, therefore, as we permit minor appointments to be made by mere personal influence and favor, a fixed limited term and removal during that term for cause only would not remedy the evil, because the incumbents would still be seeking influence to secure reappointment, and the aspirants doing the same to replace them. Removal under plea of good cause would be as wanton and arbitrary as it is now, unless the power to remove were intrusted to some other discretion than that of the superior officer, and in that case the struggle for reappointment and the knowledge that removal for the term was practically impossible would totally demoralize the service. To make sure, then, that removals shall be made for legitimate cause only, we must [473] provide that appointment shall be made only for legitimate cause.

All roads lead to Rome. Personal influence in appointments can be annulled only by free and open competition. By that bridge we can return to the practice of Washington and to the intention of the Constitution. That is the shoe of swiftness and the magic sword by which the President can pierce and outrun the protean enemy of sophistry and tradition which prevents him from asserting his power. If you can say that success in a competitive literary examination does not prove fitness to adjust customs duties or to distribute letters or to appraise linen or to measure molasses, I answer that the reform does not propose that fitness shall be proved by a competitive literary examination. It proposes to annul personal influence and political favoritism by making appointments depend upon proved capacity. To determine this it proposes first to test the comparative general intelligence of all applicants and their special knowledge of the particular official duties required, and then to prove the practical faculty of the most intelligent applicants by actual trial in the performance of the duties before they are appointed. If it be still said that success in such a competition may not prove fitness, it is enough to reply that success in obtaining the favor of some kind of boss, which is the present system, presumptively proves unfitness.

Nor is it any objection to the reformed system that many efficient officers in the service could not have entered it had it been necessary to pass an examination; it is no objection, because their efficiency is a mere chance. They were not appointed because of efficiency, but either because they were diligent politicians or because they were recommended by diligent politicians. The chance of getting efficient men in any business is certainly not diminished by inquiry and investigation. . . .

Mr. President, in the old Arabian story, from the little box upon the sea-shore carelessly opened by the fisherman arose the towering and haughty demon, evermore monstrous and more threatening, who would not crouch again. So from the smallest patronage of the earlier day, from a civil service dealing with a national revenue of only $2,000,000, and regulated upon sound business principles, has sprung the un-American, un-Democratic, un-Republican system which destroys political independence, honor, and morality, and corrodes the national character itself. In the solemn anxiety of this hour the warning words of the austere Calhoun, uttered nearly half a century ago, echo enstartled recollection like words of doom: “If you do not put this thing down, it will put you down.” Happily it is the historic faith of the race from which we are chiefly sprung that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is the faith which has made our mother England the great parent of free States. The same faith has made America the political hope of the world. Fortunately removed by our position from the entanglements of European politics, and more united and peaceful at home than at any time within the memory of living men, the moment is most auspicious for remedying that abuse in our political system whose nature, proportions, and perils the whole country begins clearly to discern. The will and the power to apply the remedy will be a test of the sagacity and the energy of the people. The reform of which I have spoken is essentially the people's reform. With the instinct of robbers who run with the crowd and lustily cry “Stop thief!” those who would make the public service the monopoly of a few favorites denounce the determination to open that service to the whole people as a plan to establish an aristocracy. The huge ogre of patronage. gnawing at the character, the honor, and the life of the country, grimly sneers that the people cannot help themselves and that nothing can be done. But much greater things have been done. Slavery was the Giant Despair of many good men of the last generation, but slavery was overthrown. If the spoils system, a monster only less threatening than slavery, be unconquerable, it is because the country has lost its convictions, its courage. and its common-sense. “I expect,” said the Yankee, as he surveyed a stout antagonist— “I expect that you're pretty ugly, but I cal'late I'm a darned sight uglier.” I know that patronage is strong, but I believe that the American people are very much stronger.


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