An Object Lesson in Civil Service Reform

Atlantic Monthly/February, 1891

During the last year the National Civil Service Commission has been able to do a piece of work which seems to me to deserve particular attention as an object lesson in practical civil service reform. For the first time since the Commission fairly began operations in 1883, we have succeeded in getting such a number of applicants from the southern states to enter our examinations that these states have now received their full share of appointments in the departmental service at Washington; and the most gratifying feature about this is that the great bulk of the men and women thus appointed to positions in the government service from these states are politically opposed to the party in power.

The purpose of the Civil Service Commission is to secure an absolutely nonpartisan public service; to have men appointed to and retained in office wholly without reference to their politics. In other words, we desire to make a man’s honesty and capacity to do the work to which he is assigned the sole tests of his appointment and retention. In the departmental service at Washington we have succeeded in putting a nearly complete stop to removals for political purposes. Men are retained in the departments almost wholly without regard to politics. But it has been a matter of more difficulty to get them to come forward and enter the examinations without regard to politics.

The task set us is very difficult. We have to face the intense and interested hostility of the great mass of self-seeking politicians, and of the much larger mass of office-seekers, whose only hope of acquiring office rest in political influence, and is immediately cut off by the application of any, even the most modest, merit test. We have to overcome popular indifference or ignorance, and we have to do constant battle with that spirit of mean and vicious cynicism which so many men, respectable enough in their private life, assume as their attitude in public affairs.

Our chief difficulty, however, arises from the slowness with which the popular mind takes to any new theory, and from its inability, by no means wholly unnatural, to discriminate between the branches of the service where the law does apply and those where it does not. For over sixty years American citizens have grown accustomed to seeing the public service treated as so much plunder, to be parceled out among the adherents of the victorious party for the time being. No other cause during these sixty years has been so potent in effecting the degradation of public life and in working a real and serious harm to the national character. In the course of the last few years a portion of the public service, that known as the classified service, with which alone the commission has to do, has been withdrawn from the degrading and demoralizing effects of this patronage system; but the greater portion still remains outside the classified service, and therefore in the hands of the spoils-mongers. There are about thirty thousand places in the classified service, and in the neighborhood of four times that number outside of it. Now, the average citizen does not draw any fine distinctions between classified and unclassified places, and can with difficulty be made to appreciate that the systems of entrance into and retention in the two branches of the service have absolutely nothing in common. When he sees a fourth-class postmaster turned out for purely political reasons, and an employee of the Census Bureau appointed only because he has influential political friends, it is hard for him to understand that politics has absolutely nothing to do with the appointment or retention of a government clerk in Washington or of a letter-carrier in one of the larger post offices. If political considerations enter into the one case, he cannot understand why they should not enter into the other. Of course there is a certain justification for this attitude. There can be no earthly reason for retaining the bulk of the civil service of the country under the old patronage system when the merit systems has been applied to the remainder, including by far the most important places, and has been found to work admirably. There should be no more politics in the appointment of a fourth-class postmaster than in the appointment of a letter-carrier in a large city; and indeed I may go further, and say that there should be no politics in the appointment of any postmaster anywhere, or of any other governmental employee, save where his position is really political. However, at present we are confronted with a public service, part of which is managed chiefly with regard to political considerations, and part of which is not, and the average outsider is inevitably somewhat confused by the contrast.

Again, the utter recklessness of the ordinary party newspaper and party orator, whether Republican, Democratic, or Independent, is a very serious drawback to creating a public belief in the honesty of the reform system. Each newspaper wishes to make a point against its foes, and so is loath to give the party to which it is opposed credit for honesty in anything. No matter what administration is in power, most of the newspapers politically opposed to it loudly proclaim that the civil service law is not faithfully observed; and they are always able to point to innumerable and flagrant instances where, outside the law, wholesale removals are being made for purely political reasons. Thus they create in the minds of the adherents of the party to which they belong a genuine disbelief in the honesty of the system, and a reluctance to come forward and take the examinations. When a man is told authoritatively by people of his own party that he will not have a fair show even if he does go into the examinations, he often believes the statement, and does not take the trouble to test it personally. To this cause more than to any other is attributable the difficulty of getting men who belong to the party out of power to come into the examinations.

All these and some other causes have been particularly active in the southern states. Until very recently, the people in these states, as a whole, knew comparatively little about the workings of the law in Washington, while they have seen their local offices administered by every national administration purely on the patronage system. Moreover, the large majority of the men whose education and qualifications fit them for clerical positions at Washington belong to the party opposed to the present administration; and until a few months ago these men took it for granted that their political affiliations forbade them to hope for any appointment. Finally, there has been much less tendency among the Southerners than among the Northerners to try to enter the public service at Washington on any terms. Even during Mr. Cleveland’s administration, when the Democratic party was in power, the southern states fell steadily behind in their quotas.

When the present commission took offices, in May, 1889, it found that the southern states stood at the foot of the list as regards the number of appointments they had received, the Gulf States in particular being very far behind. For over a year we worked in vain to remedy this inequality. We would hold examinations in the North for many hundreds of applicants, whereas in the South it would be with the utmost difficulty we could gather a scant half dozen. At last a chance was given us which we seized eagerly. Congress passed a law authorizing the appointment of some six hundred additional clerks in the departments at Washington; and we took advantage promptly of this circumstance to get the Southern quotas level with the rest. Had we relied purely on the regular examinations advertised in the regular way, the North would have received an utterly disproportionate share of these six hundred appointments, and the South would have been left so far behind in the apportionment that it would have been practically impossible ever to get it up again. But as soon as the law was passed we arranged for two special series of examinations to be held in all the southern states, notably the Gulf States. At the Same time we advertised these examinations and the reasons for holding them in all the southern papers; and, to call public attention to the subject, I held, at the office of the commission, a meeting, at which a large number of the Congressmen from the different southern states, together with many of the reporters of the various southern papers, were present. To these southern congressmen and reporters I set forth the situation, laying especial stress upon the fact that a man’s politics or creed had nothing to do with his entering the classified service, and adding that no “influence” of any kind would help an applicant, as I had requested the Congressmen to be present merely in order that they might advertise the facts in their several districts. I explained carefully that we could guarantee absolute impartiality as regards examining, marking, and certifying the candidates. I further explained that, under the law, the appointing officer had a certain liberty of rejection among the applicants certified which amounted to allowing him to reject two out of five, but that we were determined to get up the quotas of the southern states to their proper level, and would certify these states first, and that I could therefore guarantee that of those standing highest on our lists from the southern states sixty per cent would be appointed. I added my firm belief that more than this number would be appointed, as my experience for a year and a half in the departments had convinced me that, in the great bulk of cases, the appointing officer knows nothing whatever of the politics of the men appointed from our lists, and even when he does know usually pays little heed to this consideration. He wishes a good clerk who will reflect credit on his office, and in most cases he is heartily glad to get rid of all political pressure in the matter.

Events made my guarantee more than good. The law was passed about midsummer, 1890. We began our examinations at the end of July, continuing them until the beginning of October. More men came into them from the southern states than had come into the Civil Service Commission’s examinations during any three years of its previous history. In July Louisiana was the farthest behind in its apportionment of all the states of the Union, having had only about half of the appointments she was entitled to. In November she stood among those states at the head of the list, having had two more than she was entitled to. In all, the South obtained nearly three hundred of the six hundred appointments, and the southern states now stand almost exactly level with the northern as regards their quotas. Every one was examined, marked, and certified without the least reference to anything but the record he himself made in the examination, and in nine cases out of ten the appointing officers chose the men in the order of their standing. Thus, among those entering the July, August, September, and early October examinations in the southern states, of the two hundred and sixty standing highest on the lists two hundred and thirty-one, or about eighty-nine per cent, were appointed, instead of the sixty per cent, which I had guaranteed. The men who were passed by were usually men standing practically on a level with the lowest of those who were appointed, the choice being evidently made for perfectly good and sound reasons. Not an instance of political discrimination came to our ears.

We of course knew nothing of the politics of any of the clerks until after they had been examined, marked, certified, and appointed; but since this was done much information has come to me as to the character and political leanings of the bulk of the southern appointees. It had been freely asserted that we should not be able to get any but people of color and northern emigrants to come into our examinations, but the direct reverse has proved true. Of the new appointees from the southern States, a proportion—in the neighborhood of a fourth, I believe—were people of color; and indeed one merit of the system has been the utter disregard of color. The colored people thus appointed were mostly graduates of the different colored colleges; in very few instances did a colored politician of the stamp so well known to the ordinary dispensers of government patronage secure a place. Hardly any men who were northern by birth got on the lists of these states, and over two thirds of the appointees were native-born southern whites, who had lived practically all their lives in the districts from which they came. In the overwhelming majority of cases these native-born southern whites were Democrats.

Recently I have talked with many of these new southern appointees. Almost every one of the whites with whom I have come in contact has been a Democrat. So far as I could find out, they had never thought much about entering the civil service, until the facts were prominently brought to their eyes by the advertisements and interviews above mentioned. They had then decided to stand their chances. The successful applicant was, as a rule, some man trained in the common or high schools of the neighborhood, who did not see much opening for himself in his native town or village, and thought he should like to try the larger life at Washington. Often two or three came from the same town, or from the same small academy or agricultural college. They had talked the matter over among themselves, upon seeing the announcement of the examinations, and had decided to try their luck, though in most instances, as they frankly told me, they had little or no expectation of being appointed. They were usually people who had not taken any very active part in politics, and, moreover, they had no acquaintance or backing among politicians having influence with the administration at Washington. They rarely attempted to invoke any outside assistance whatever. My experience goes to show that those who did attempt to exert political influence were men of inferior ability, who, as a matter of fact, did not stand well in the examinations, and consequently were not appointed. Ordinarily, the first thing the successful applicants knew about their standing any chance for appointment was when they received the notice of the appointment itself. In almost every instance, among those I spoke to (and this applies to those from the northern no less than to those from the southern states), the appointee came on and took his position without having even mentioned the fact that he was an applicant for office to any politician in or out of Congress. Indeed, I have found it to be a general rule that those who rely on congressional influence are men whose abilities are too slender to give them any chance of getting the positions they seek, and who accordingly fail.

I am thus able to state authoritatively that, in a series of examinations for governmental positions at Washington, the bulk of the successful applicants—those who passed and were appointed—were men opposed in politics to the administration in power.

I have spoken of the southern states in particular, because we know that most of the southerners who came forward were Democrats, and therefore their appointment affords a striking instance of the good faith with which the law is being executed, and of the excellent results attained in consequence. I have every reason to believe that the appointments from the northern states were made as absolutely without regard to politics, but the result is less striking as regards these states, because, so far as I can find out, the majority, though by no means all, of the applicants from them who entered our examinations were Republicans. Among the appointees from the great cities, however, there were plenty of Democrats. Thus, of the two hundred and fifty-eight applicants standing highest on the lists from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, two hundred and forty-seven were appointed. These figures afford very nearly positive proof that there has not been the slightest political discrimination in making the appointments from these various lists.

It is noteworthy that the men and women appointed in this manner have given entire satisfaction. I have heard nothing but praise of them from the officers under whom they are serving. Many have already been promoted. Of seven I am able to speak from personal experience, as they were appointed to our own office, and it would be impossible to wish for more zealous and efficient clerks.

Be it observed that this result was accomplished quietly and smoothly, by natural operation of law, without friction or scandal of any kind. No politician had to be consulted, nor a particle of “influence” secured. We advertised the examinations and furnished blanks to all applicants. All they had to do was to go to the place nearest their home where the examination was held and be examined; they were then graded, and if their mark warranted it were certified, and nine times out of ten were appointed. The prizes were thrown open to honest, manly competition, and the best men won; feeling, moreover, that they won because they deserved it, and not because they had been able to render service to some party chief.

Contrast this with what would have occurred had these six hundred appointments been made under the old patronage system. In that case, the instant the law authorizing the making of the appointments was passed shoals of office-seekers would have swarmed to Washington, and every department would have been filled with a clamorous crowd of politicians of every grade, each demanding his share of the spoil. For every one place it is safe to say there would have been twenty applicants, and probably double that number. The appointments would have been given to the men having the most political influence, and until they were made not a cabinet officer who had them in his gift would have been able to do a stroke of the work which he was appointed to do, or in fact anything but listen to and balance the representations and recommendations of Senators, Congressmen, and local party chiefs. Instead of simply taking an examination, and then going on with his usual work until, if at all, he was appointed the average applicant would have come to Washington, where he would have wasted two or three months, very likely have failed to get an appointment, and have gone back to his home out of pocket, out of temper, sore, dispirited, and embittered. The papers would have been full of the contests between rival chiefs, engendered by the scramble for patronage. I am a strong Republican, and I say quite seriously that it is my belief that if, last summer, these six hundred appointments to office had been made under the patronage system instead of under the action of the civil service law, the already sufficiently slender Republican representation in the next Congress would have been still further decreased to the extent of at least half a dozen congressmen. Half the factional fighting in any congressional district is due to squabbles over patronage. No matter how many places there are, they cannot begin to go around among the hungry expectants, and when they are all taken out of politics the benefit will be really immeasurable.

The quotas of the southern states were thus raised by the appointment, under a non-partisan law, of nearly three hundred clerks, the majority of them being Democrats. The commission did this at a time when the Republican party was absolutely dominant, the administration and both branches of the national legislature being under its control. It seems to me that no better proof could be desired of the honest non-partisanship with which the law is now being executed at Washington. We have been able to show clearly to the country at large that people can and do get appointments in the departmental service entirely without regard to politics. Incidentally, the vivid contrast between the methods that obtain in the classified departmental service and those that are followed in dealing with fourth-class postmasters offers an instructive commentary on the relative worth of the merit and spoils systems.

If the elections of 1892 retain the Republican party in control, I trust that, after the experience of last summer, applicants for departmental places from the southern states will continue to come forward without regard to their politics. If in 1892 the Democratic party is reinstated in power, I trust that the Executive and Congress then elected, seeing that, at Washington, the law has been executed under a Republican administration so as to do justice to Democrats, will, from motives of pride no less than from every consideration of patriotic statesmanship, do all that is possible to keep the system on an absolutely nonpartisan basis. At least those who desire the law to be upheld will be strengthened; for belief that such a law is not faithfully observed by one administration always renders it doubly difficult for the law’s supporters to have it observed by the next administration.

In conclusion, I wish to state that all the proceedings of the commission are open, and that anyone who wishes can test for himself the truth of the statements I have made. Our registers are public. If any Democratic or Republican paper in the country wishes to look into the results of the examinations, the facts concerning which I have described, all it has to do is to instruct its Washington correspondent to come to the rooms of the commission. We will at once show him our books, and he can see for himself who took the examinations from a given state, who passed, and who were appointed. In particular, the correspondent of a southern newspaper can at any time get a list of all those appointed during the past few months, and can publish them in his paper, and thus the people of that locality can very easily find out whether partisanship has been shown in making the appointments. Many of the southern newspapers helped us greatly by the interest they took in our efforts to get the quotas of their states up to the required level; the New Orleans Picayune especially rendering us very valuable aid.

 

(Source: Theodore-Roosevelt.com, “Articles and Editorials,” http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/treditori)

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