Archibald Loudon Snowden.

The need of an elevated and permanent civil service, an address before the American Philosophical Society, March 15, 1880 online

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Elevated and Permanent




MARCH 15, 1880,





Philadelphia, 22nd March, 1880.

Dear Sir:

Believing that the excellent address on " Civil
Service Reform," made by you on the occasion of the
Centennial Commemmoration of the Incorporation of the
American Philosophical Society, needs a wider circulation
than that which it will have in the proceedings of the
Society, we would respectfully ask for a copy, in order
that it may be printed for separate distribution.


Hon. a. Loudon Snowden,

Superintendent, Mint of the U. S., at Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, 24TH March, 1880.

Gentlemen :

I am in receipt of your very kind letter of
the 22nd inst., and in reply beg to say that whilst the
remarks I had the honor to submit upon the occasion to
which you refer, were but surface gleanings hastily thrown
together, upon a very important subject, I nevertheless
comply with your request, in the hope that the " wider
circulation " you propose giving them may not be entirely
without good results.

I am, gentlemen,

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,


To William Sellers, Esq.,
Dr. John L. LeConte,
Mr. S. H. Nichols,
Prof. J. P. Lesley.


the need of an
Ilevated and' Permanent Civil Service.

I am honored, Mr. President, by your call, and doubly
so by the cordial manner in which it has been received by
the gentlemen of the Society, and heartily wish it were in
my power to repay your kind partiality by something
worthy of your consideration.

It must be a pleasure to all the members of the Society
to be present upon this interesting occasion, not alone to
discuss the good things provided by the thoughtfulness of
the Committee of Arrangements, but to partake of the
intellectual feast which has been so bountifully provided.

You have been pleased, sir. In presenting my name, to
associate with it, the names of three of my predecessors
in the management of the Mint of the United States in this
City, who were also presidents of this ancient Society,
which has embraced in its membership, and upon its rolls
of honor, some of the most illustrious names in letters
and science which the last century has produced.

The three distinguished gentlemen to whom you were
good enough to refer, David Rittenhouse, Robert Patterson
and Robert M. Patterson, were. In their day, citizens and
public officers who conferred lasting benefits upon the
public service, and who were, in all the relations of life,
examples worthy of imitation.

David Rittenhouse, who succeeded Benjamin Franklin,
and preceded Thomas Jefferson, as President of this So-
ciety, was wisely selected by Washington, on the passage
of the Act of 1792, authorizing the establishment of the
Mint in this City, on account of his eminent scientific
knowledge and great mechanical skill. He superintended
the erection of the Mint building on Seventh street, saw
to its equipment in machinery, to the perfecting of its or-
ganization, and, in 1 793, issued the first coinage of the
Republic. Little did he dream in that day of small things,
that in less than fifty years, the one cumbersome screw
press then in use, and capable of executing all the coinage
required, at the rate of about ten or fifteen pieces a min-
ute, would give place to the steam toggle-joint press with
a capacity of from eighty to one hundred pieces to the
minute, and that in much less than one hundred years,
over thirty of those grand coining presses, with largely in-
creased capacity and power, would be kept thundering
night and day to execute the coinage demanded by law
and by the wants of the people.

Robert Patterson, the fifth President of this Society,
was called to the management of the Mint by President
Jefferson in 1805. He had been honorably connected with
our Revolutionary struggle, and subsequently, was a Pro-
fessor in the University of Pennsylvania, conspicuous for
his learning and thorough administrative ability.

Robert M. Patterson, elected the eiofhth President of
this Society, was a son ol Robert Patterson, to whom I
have just referred, and succeeded Dr. Samuel Moore in
the Mint.

He graduated at the University of Pennsylvania, and
subsequently prosecuted his studies in Europe. On his

return to Philadelphia, he was elected Professor in our
University, was Vice-Provost, and filled successively, the
Chairs of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and Mathematics.
In 1828, he became a Professor in the University of Vir-
ginia, from which he was transferred to the Directorship
of the Mint in 1835 ; ^^ which position he remained, ren-
dering most acceptable service, until 1851, when failing
health induced him to retire from public life.

It were well, Mr. President, for the honor and profit
of our country, if high public station were always as well
filled, and sacred public trusts as faithfully administered as
in the instances to which, by your courtesy, I have been
permitted to refer.

This brief allusion to the services rendered by these
distinguished public officers brings me very naturally to
the consideration of the theme you have been pleased to
assign me this evening, to wit :


This is a practical and important question, touching
very closely the highest and best interests of our Country,
and entitled to the thoughtful attention of every American

Neither the proprieties of this occasion nor your pa-
tience would justify an elaborate or exhaustive discussion
at my hands. What I shall, therefore, with your leave,
submit, will be but a brief reference to the most obvious
points that present themselves in a rapid glance at the

In the minds of all thoughtful and patriotic men, there
can be no doubt as to the great advantage resulting from
the elevation of our civil service above the control and
influence of mere partisan interference. The battle to be
fought before the triumph of this important principle is
assured, will be sharp and well contested at every point,
although no one should despair of the result, in view of
the general and increasing intelligence of ihe people, now
being brought to bear upon the question.

Of late years, public attention has been much directed
to the subject, but, as was to be expected, it has met the
most determined opposition from the representatives of all
parties. Every weapon that sarcasm, ridicule, and false-
hood could forge in the workshop of selfishness, has been
hurled against its advocates. And yet it must be con-
fessed that the greatest injury inflicted, has come from pre-
tended friends, who, under that garb, have attempted to
accomplish selfish ends, and thus have brought ridicule
upon the cause.

Nevertheless, steady advance has been had within the
past few years, and some lodgment made in the minds of
the people.

That there is too much foolish, intemperate, and unjust
denunciation of our present service there can be no doubt.
If we were to believe one-half that is written and spoken
on this subject, we must conclude that but few, if any, honest
or honorable men are engaged in public affairs.

This tendency to carp and cavil at, and criticise all men
engaged in the public service, is said to be a natural out-
growth of our free institutions, which makes every citizen a
censor. But whether this be true or not, the fact is never-

theless patent, that from the very organization of our Gov-
ernment, there has been more or less of this sort of thing
prevalent. Even Washington, the most illustrious of all
our citizens, if not the most illustrious man of all the world,
was not exempt; nay, on the contrary, in spite of his inval-
uable services to the country, his nobility of soul, and his
transcendent patriotism, he was subjected to the most vio-
lent, bitter, and unreasonable abuse, and under it retired
from public life.

It was fashionable then, as it is now, among certain
grumblers and inconsiderate persons, to denounce our
civil service on all occasions. They do not take the
trouble to obtain reliable facts upon which an intelligent
judgment may be formed, as touching the general service,
but are prone to take isolated instances of wrong doing, and
base their opinion of the whole service thereon.

That this is a most irrational and unjust process from
which to arrive at a sound conclusion, there can be no
doubt, and yet it is the usual mode.

These grumbling pessimists who find no good in their
own country or times, are very often least fitted, either
by cultivation of mind or purity of character, to form a sound
judgment of their fellow men.

Dismissing this class as worthy of no farther attention,
it must be admitted, that although our civil service fairly
represents the average moral and intellectual status of our
people, it can nevertheless be elevated and rendered more
efficient by means which are simple in themselves, and not
difficult of application.

When I say the means of accomplishing this desired
end are simple and easy of application, I should say, they


are so, provided the people have courage and patriotism
enough, to demand of their political leaders, that our civil
service must be permanent, — promotions coming through effi-
ciency, and the te^iure of office dependent upon good behavior.
It will not do to simply incorporate these ideas or principles
into the political platforms of the parties, as catch votes, to
be forgotten after elections are lost or won ; but let our
civil service be organized under the sanction of law, as are
the military and naval services, and thus secure a permanent
application of this important principle, no matter how often
administrations change, or parties succeed to power. That
the law should bind all parties in this respect — if the principle
is good — must be quite apparent. An attempt on the part
of any administration to establish such a wholesome system
without the binding force of law to sustain it, can only
hope for partial and unsatisfactory results, no matter how
earnest and honest may be the effort.

It is doubtful, indeed, if any administration is strong
enough to enforce the reform against long established pre-
cedent, and the selfishness of partisan managers, unless
fortified and strengthened by law.

The reasons are manifold why the policy, as a mere
administrative measure, is likely to be a failure; First, if for
no other reason, because it would be looked upon as an
ephemeral effort or experiment, likely to disappear with
the administration, if not break down before it terminated.
Second, because as such, It would be constantly assaulted
with a view to its abandonment; whereas, if under the
sanction of the law, it would be accepted as a fixed fact and
remain practically unassailed ; and Third, because it would
have no binding force upon succeeding Presidents, who


could and probably would overthrow in a day the work of

President Hayes will ever be remembered for a noble
effort in this direction, and although much good has been
accomplished, yet, from the causes I have enumerated, and
others, results expected and hoped for have not been fully

General Jackson is credited with the declaration that,
"to the victors belong the spoils," and whether he or
William L. Marcy, is responsible for the utterance, there
can be no doubt that Jackson was the first President who
broke down the old tenure of office, handed down to us
from our English ancestors, and recognized by Washington
and his compatriots, as of the highest value in the adminis-
tration of public affairs.

It is well to remember, however, that whilst General
Jackson struck a fatal blow at the civil service, and pros-
tituted it to selfish partisan ends, the service itself was
largely responsible for the blow that was given.

Although existing by English and American precedents,
it was not restrained by law within its legitimate sphere.

The service at that time was largely composed of those
who differed politically with Jackson, and as it was a period
of bitter partisan strife, they did all in their power to hamper
and embarrass his administration. This was neither wise
nor prudent, and exhibits to us the fact that, with the ex-
ception of the tenure of office, the service was badly organ-
ized and conducted. Instead of performing quiedy and
efficiently its legitimate functions, without regard to the
change in the political head of the government, it was
violently partisan, and used its entrenched position to defeat
the measures advanced by the President.


There was, therefore, some excuse for Jackson's course.
He was a positive, brave, — although sometimes an indiscreet
man, and accustomed, from his habits of thought and training,
to strike an enemy whenever and wherever he could find him.
He struck his Whig adversaries, fortified in the civil service,
and paralysed them, as a power against himself. But in
doing so he inflicted an evil upon his country which has
widened and deepened as the years have followed. Had
Gen. Jackson succeeded in applying a remedy for the evil
justly complained of, by such legislation as would prevent a
civil officer — as the unwritten law prevents officers in the
army and navy, — from participating in partisan strife, he
would have accomplished the immediate purpose in view,
and left to the future, this, as the brightest page in his re-
markable career.

The primary and paramount object of all service is, to
promote that which is best for the people at large, without
distinction of party; whereas, under a corrupted system, it
is customary to consider all the offices of the country as
the common property of the party in power, to be distri-
buted to their partisans as rewards for services rendered,
or as implements to be used for future party purposes.
No one will deny that this is the fact, and yet it is an utter
perversion of the true and legitimate objects for which the
offices were created.

The number of officers or places under the govern-
ment is quite insignificant in comparison with the popu-
lation of the country, and it is of very little moment to
the great bulk of the people, whether John Smith, Jones,
or Robinson hold office or place ; hut it is of the highest
importance that whosoever does hold the same, be skilled,
intelligent, polite, and trustworthy.


How are these essential qualities to be obtained ? Is it
by rotating a man in or out of office for a political purpose,
or in having his continuance in place depend upon his ability
to carry a precinct or a ward convention in partisan contests,
or, on the contrary, are not the offices more likely to be well
and acceptably filled by having those holding them under-
stand that so long as they are honest, attentive, and faithful
in the discharge of their duties, they will be retained and
promoted for meritorious conduct when an opportunity
presents? The continuance of a faithful and intelligent
officer increases his opportunities for usefulness to the public.
One of the evils, and not a small one, attending our present
defective system, is, that we are, by our short tenure, con-
stantly put to the inconvenience and expense of educating
new men.

A change in the national administration of the Gov-
ernment, especially where one political party is succeeded
by another, must of necessity be followed by a change in
such leading and important public positions as reflect the
purposes and policy of the party in power, but in the name
of all that is reasonable and proper why should a change
in the administration necessitate a perfect upheaval in all
our civil service, from the humblest laborer to the most
skilled expert, mechanic or accountant? Because a new
President is elected, is no reason why a skilled workman
in the Mint, an intelligent, well trained letter carrier, or
any other faithful employe of the government should be
removed. They have been educated for the service at the
public expense, their education and equipment is the
common property of the people, and should not be thrown
away to gratify partisan selfishness.


What man of business, banker, manufacturer or
merchant would think of adopting such a short-sighted or
pernicious system in his own business ? I know of no such

And why should we not apply in public affairs the same
common sense principles and rules that govern in the
ordinary pursuits of life? It seems to be so reasonable and
proper a course that I can not conceive of a good argument
against its adoption. Because the people, as is their right,
see fit to change the administration of national affairs on
account of important public questions, such as the tariff,
finance, state right incroachments, or centralization, or any
other issue that may arise, is no reason why all the faithful
and skilled employes of the government, from the lowest
up. should be turned out to give place to inexperienced
successors, whose education and equipment for the service
is attended with discomfort, errors, and loss to the people.

Without going deeper into the subject, in all its bearings,
or trespassing farther upon your kind indulgence, I think it
must be admitted that a civil service based upon so illogical
and uncertain a tenure is defective in the extreme, and should
be replaced by one resting upon common sense, as mani-
fested in the usual business affairs of lile. The opposition
to a change from the present to a better system, comes
principally from those leaders of both parties who claim
that patronage is an important partisan weapon. But I
am clearly of the opinion that an honest and fair test of
the new system woulc^ satisfy even these persons, that they
had over estimated patronage as a factor in partisan con-
tests. I think our political leaders would discern, like
many an intelligent man of the South has, by the great


lesson of the war, that, whereas he formerly leaned upon
slave labor, — felt he could not exist without it, — yet, when
schooled in adversity to self-trust and self-support, would
not now return to the same order of things, or repossess
his slaves if freely proffered him. Patronage is not always
a power — and is oft-times a weakness — and 1 am convinced
with some knowledge and experience, that its influence is
much over-rated.

Some of the grandest and most memorable contests
ever fought upon the political battle fields of our country
have been fought and won without patronage, and indeed
against the whole patronage of an administration improperly

The proposed change in our civil service would not
only elevate and increase its efficiency, but would eliminate
much that is venal, selfish, and dangerous to the politics of
the country. This branch of the subject is too wide and
far-reaching in its results, for more than a passing allusion to
this evening.

Knowing the defects in our present service, and the
evils flowing therefrom, what is the remedy, and how shall
it be applied? The remedy I would suggest is, to remove
by law the civil service of the country from under the control
of partisan interfere7ice, and p^'event its suboi'dinates froTn an
active participation therein. By this course you will elevate
the service, increase its efficiency, and largely decrease its
expense to the people.

Is the remedy an impossible or even a difficult one to
apply? To a nation which has laid forests, built splendid
cities, peopled a continent, overcome a mighty rebellion, and
emancipated four millions of human beings within the stride


of a single century — it would seem as if this might be accom-

I know full well that it can be done, and that quickly
if good men of all parties will only unite and determme that
it shall be.

If the pernicious influences exerted by our present de-
fective system are eliminated from our politics, we will have
removed one of the greatest hindrances to our advance, and
danger to our future peace, tranquility, and prosperity as a


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Online LibraryArchibald Loudon SnowdenThe need of an elevated and permanent civil service, an address before the American Philosophical Society, March 15, 1880 → online text (page 1 of 1)