George Lewis Prentiss.

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_" These are my sentiments, weak perhaps, but honest and unbiased ; and submitted en-
tirely to the opinion of grave men, well affected to^ the Constitution of their country, and
of experience on what may most promote or hurt it."

—Burke's Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.















" These are my sentiments, weak perhaps, but honest and unbiased ; and sub-
mitted entirely to the opinion of grave men, well affected to the Constitution of
their country, and of experience in what may best promote or hurt it."

— Burke's Thoughts on the Cause o/ the Present Discontents.



900 Broadway, cor. 20th Street.



n/ To







The substance of the following tract was
first read before a clerical circle of this city
and afterwards picblished i7c The Tribune of
March loth. At the suggestion and desire
of friends^ whose judgment on the subject is
worth a great deal more than mine, it is
now reprinted — with considerable additions and,
as I hope, improved also — in the interest of

Civil Service Reform,

G. L. p.
New York, April ^Ih, 1877.


I. Republican Institutions Liable to Con-
stant Abuse and Decay i

II. Origin and Growth of Political Abuses, . 2

III. Executive Patronage, 4

IV. The Spoils System, 7

V. Stages in the Development of the System, 10

VI. "To THE Victors Belong the Spoils," , 14
VII. Did Gen. Jackson Inaugurate the Spoils

System? — Mr. Webster's Testimony, . 16

Vlll. The System under President Van Buren, . 24

IX, Congressional Patronage, . . . .27

X. Position of Gov. Hayes 35

XI. Machinery of the System 37

XII. Politics as a Trade, 43

XIII. Demagogues and the Spoils, . . . .48

XIV. Demagogues and Repudiation, ... 52
XV. Spoils and the Ballot-Box, . . . .56

XVI. Spoils and Party Spirit, 59

XVII. Public Spirit, 62

XVIII. Public Life and Stewardship, . . .68

XIX. Civil Service Reform, 74

XX. Practical Conditions of Successful Re-
form, 80

XXI. Other Conditions of a Successful and Per-
manent Reform, 92

XXII. The New Administration :— Is it the Dawn

of a New Era? .,.*.. 103






Our free institutions partake of the weakness and
evil tendencies that belong to human nature, and,
like all things temporal, are exposed to constant
abuse and decay. This is plainly implied in the
manifold constitutional and legal checks and penal-
ties which mark our whole political system. No offi-
cer of the Government stands so high that the law
does not warn him to take heed lest he fall. Our
Presidents, members of Congress, and judges are men
of like passions with rulers, and legislators, and judges
in a monarchy or an empire ; and so are all other
servants of the state. It is an old saying that the
corruption of the best is the worst — corriiptio optinti
pessima. No religious error is so terrible as that
which turns the truth of God into a lie and the
grace of God into licentiousness. No social vice is so
debasing as that which pollutes the marriage union ;
and on the same principle no political evils are so


virulent and degrading as those which come of the
prostitution of Hberty.

This is the lesson which history and philosophy
teach with equal emphasis. We may boast never so
loudly of our democratic freedom ; there is one and
one only way of preserving it unimpaired — namely, by
conforming in all things to the divine laws of social
order and well-being. These laws are as immutable
as that of gravitation ; there is with them no respect
of persons or of forms of government, and if violated,
they are, to say the least of it, quite as sure to avenge
themselves upon republican transgressors as upon
those of any other name. Civil freedom, then, like
individual freedom, can be kept from abuse and de-
cay only by steadfast obedience to the moral laws of
the world. But, of course, the more truly free a na-
tion is, so much easier and more natural will it find
such obedience, just as the wiser and better any man
is, so much more likely will he be to use his liberty
aright. To a people, as to an individual, character
is of unspeakable value as a protection against temp-
tation and wrong tendencies. And if, in spite of high
character, grave error is committed, we may fairly
infer that the evil first wrought by stealthy methods
and unperceived.


The point just made throws light on the origin
and growth of political abuses. " In States," remarks
Burke, "there are often some obscure and almost
latent causes, things which appear at first view of
little moment, on which a very great part of their


prosperity or adversity may essentially depend." No-
where does human ignorance show itself more im-
pressively. In the best governments it must needs
be that offenses come ; but nobody can foretell ex-
actly when, or how, or by whom they will come.
Omniscience alone could provide for all the endless
contingencies and caprices of sovereign power, wheth-
er wielded by a single man or by many millions of
men. Of one thing, however, we may feel absolutely
sure : zvherever a wrong principle is admitted and
acted upon, there an abuse will^ in due time, make
its appearance. Democracy no more puts a stop to
the proper effects of human ignorance, folly, and
selfishness than to the changes of the moon, or the
ocean tide. Constitutions and laws are designed
to protect society against these baleful influences ;
but in the nature of the case the object can be
only partially secured. For the current of human
ignorance, folly, and selfishness is always setting
strongly — and in times of great public excitement
and peril rushes madly like a raging sea — against the
appointed barriers and safeguards of social order.
There has probably never been a moment — even the
most peaceful — in our history when the fundamental
law was not more or less violated, both in the letter
and the spirit. Even Holy Scripture, the great char-
ter of religious faith and conduct, is but partially
carried out in practice in the best ordered Christian

The genesis of political abuses and corruption, then,
is usually this: Some wrong principle was inadvertently
admitted, some point of danger left unguarded, in the
organic law, or else a vital mistake has been made in


carrying out one or more of its provisions ; both the
original and the legislative error having been, perhaps,
the result of a slight, casual majority. For a consid-
erable period the evil remains latent, or at least at-
tracts scarcely any notice ; but by and by it begins to
take shape, to show its real character, and to excite
the alarm of thoughtful citizens. Yet the law sus-
tains it ; it proves to be invaluable as an instrument
of part}' discipline and advantage ; and so the alarm
about it is decried or laughed at as altogether need-
less. When at last the eyes of the community are
fairly opened to the mischief, it is found to be a vast
political power, intrenched in law and established cus-
tom, supported by an army of mercenaries, and ready
to bid defiance alike to public opinion and the public



Slavery and the slave power will at once occur as
the most impressive illustration in our political annals.
Next, and only next to slavery, as a case in point, is
Executive patronage ; and upon that I shall chiefly
dwell. In intrusting the power of appointment to
the President, in conjunction with the Senate, the
Convention of 1787 were evident!)' actuated by that
spirit of considerate and watchful patriotism which so
eminently distinguished them. The probability of
any very flagrant abuse of the power seems hardly to
have crossed their minds. And in defending this pro-
vision of the Constitution The Federalist is equally
confident. In respect to no subject was the judg-


ment and foresight of that great authority more at
fault. This was doubtless owing — in part, at least —
to the circumstance that, in the opinion of The Fed-
eralist, removal from office also required the concur-
rent action of the Senate. " The consent of that
body (says Hamilton, No. jf) would be necessary to
displace as well as appoint. A change of the Chief
Magistrate, therefore, would not occasion so violent
or so general a revolution in the officers of the Gov-
ernment as might be expected, if he was the sole dis-
penser of offices. Where a man in any station had
given satisfactory evidence of his fitness for it, a new
President would be restrained from attempting a change
in favor of a person more agreeable to him, by the ap-
prehension that the discountenance of the Senate
might frustrate the attempt, and bring some degree
of discredit upon himself." Had this construction
prevailed, the country would probably have been
spared a large portion of the evils which have re-
sulted from Executive patronage. But, unfortunate-
ly, the first Congress decided — in the Senate by the
casting vote of the Vice-President — that the power of
removal belonged exclusively to the President. The
argument was that in extreme cases, such, e.g., as the
insanity or absconding of a public officer, the inter-
ests of the Government might render it absolutely
necessary that the power of removal should be exer-
cised while the Senate was not in session. It was
contended that, as the Executive (and we must re-
member that Washington was then President) would
only use the power in extraordinary exigencies, no
harm was likely to come of it. Mr. Madison, who
favored the bill on the ground mentioned, did not


hesitate to declare that, if a President should resort
to the power except in extreme cases, or from mere
personal motives, he would deserve to be impeached.
In other words, he would by such action violate his
oath of office.

The decision of the Congress of 1789 was almost
certainly wrong. Not a word is written in the Con-
stitution about displacement from office, except in
case of impeachment. The removing power is either
contained in the appointing power, or it is to be found
in the clause : " The executive power shall be vested
in a President of the United States." But to derive
it from this mere general statement or description is
contrary to the spirit and manner of the whole instru-
ment. On any point of constitutional construction
the opinion of Mr. Madison is entitled to profound
respect ; but in the present instance the opinion of
Mr. Webster, I venture to think, outweighs even that
of Mr. Madison. And it was the judgment of Mr.
Webster, formed after long reflection, and expressed
with all his wonted deliberation and strength of rea-
soning, that an erroneous construction had been
adopted by the first Congress. Mr. Calhoun, whose
opinion is also entitled to uncommon weight, fully
concurred with Mr. Webster in holding that the
power of removal is part and parcel of the power of
appointment, and can be rightfully exercised only " by
and with the advice and consent of the Senate " —
or in accordance with statutory provisions. He re-
garded the decision of 1789 as a lasting political

But if, as these and other eminent statesmen be-
lieved, a grave error was committed by the Congress


of 1789 in conceding the power of removal to the
President alone, it was yet an error committed in the
interest of the Government and without a thought
of personal or party advantage. And for a long time
the Executive patronage was exercised with such
scrupulous care and moderation as to afford scarcely
any ground of complaint. Office, from the highest
to the lowest, was generally regarded as a public trust,
to be bestowed and held for the public good. The
prevailing sentiment respecting it was analogous to
that with which, happily, the office of a United States
Judge is still regarded. Even as late as 1820, when
the mischievous four years' law was passed, nobody,
probably, discerned in Executive patronage the germ
of that- anti-republican and ruthless thing, that mon-
strum horrendum, ingens, informe, cut lumen ademp-
tum, which it has since become.



The history of the spoils system is a history of
national shame and demoralization. The bitterest
enemies of republican institutions could have devised
no more effectual method of undermining and cast-
ing reproach upon them. For in this system are
consolidated some of the worst vices of both demo-
cratic and despotic governments. While marked by
the intense selfishness, party tyranny, disregard of
the rights of the minority, vulgar ostracism and pro-
scription for opinion's sake, which are the bane of
democracy, it is marked none the less by the adula-


tion of power and man-worship, the craven, fawning
temper, the spirit of intrigue, suspicion, and calumny,
the suppression of individual freedom, and the inso-
lence of place, which belong to despotism. As the
very name imports, its whole animus is that of an
army of soldiers gorging themselves with the spoils
of victory. The conception is as false as it is infa-
mous and degrading. Public office is not plunder;
it is a solemn trust ; and both he who appoints to it
and he who fills it, are alike bound to have the pub-
lic good first and chiefly in view. This, to be sure,
seems to many an extravaganza of political mor-
ality; but it is the principle by which Washington
and all the earlier Presidents were governed in dis-
pensing the Executive patronage. And it is the
principle to which every President's oath of office
solemnly binds him. There can be no doubt that
he violates that oath as really, if not as flagrantly, in
appointing to public office on merely partisan or per-
sonal grounds, as he would in conniving at open de-
falcations and frauds upon the Government. The
Constitution, it is true, docs not say in so many words
that the President shall nominate men to office with
primary and supreme regard to their qualifications
for the right performance of its duties. That, how-
ever, is clearly implied ; that is why the appointing
power is vested in him conjointl}' with the Senate.
But according to the spoils system, the public offices
of the country- arc a gigantic party monopoly; no
man is entitled to one except on party grounds ; no
man is permitted to have and to hold one unless he
bears the party name, puts on the party collar, and
yields implicit obedience to the behests of party lead-


ers. It is nothing else, in a word, than a vast party
" ring," of which the President is head-center, mem-
bers of Congress the directors-in-chief, and poHticians
by trade the local managers. It is inspired and sus-
tained by three grand motives — personal ambition,
pecuniary reward, and party domination. One class
desires place for the sake of the honor, the influence,
and the opportunity of personal distinction ; a far
larger class desire place for the sake of the emolu-
ments ; while the whole party desire and seek it for
their own aggrandizement.

And in the spoils system the interests of all
three are mutually cared for, defended, and bound
up in a strong chain of moral cause and effect. It is
hard to imagine a more perfect or a more effective
scheme of political greed and selfishness. And it
only needs an entire change of administration to
m.anifest this in a way to astonish the country. The
same party has now had control of the Government
for so many years that the younger generation can
hardly conceive of the wild and disreputable scenes
which attended such a change in 1841, '45, '49, '53,
'61. In each case, for weeks and months after his
inauguration, the new President's name was mixed
up with all the office -seeking cliques of his party
throughout the Union ; the telegraph was largely
occupied in reporting what postmaster or other
insignificant subordinate had been removed or ap-
pointed ; Washington City was invaded by a huge
army of place-hunters, flushed with the sense of their
patriotic services, pushing their " claims," fawning
or bullying to get their rewards, and imperilling — in
one case, it was said, actually destroying — the life of


the Chief Magistrate by their desperate importuni-
ties. It was a spectacle most pitiable and degrading
to the manners, morals, and whole manhood of the
nation. Heaven forbid it should ever be repeated !



There are four principal stages in the growth of the
spoils system that deserve to be distinctly noted.

{a^ The decision of the Congress of 1789 conceding
to the President alone the power of removal. This
was the first fatal step, Xht proton pseudos of the sys-
tem ; but it was only a latent germ — a germ that re-
quired for its full development a political atmosphere
and order of sentiment very different from those
which marked the age of Washington and the earlier

{b) The Four Years' law of 1820. Until then the
tenure of office was, virtually, during the faithful per-
formance of its duties, the commission, like that of
an officer in the army or navy, being unrestricted as
to time. By the law of 1820 every commission was
to run for four years and then lapse unless renewed.
Several disbursing officers had defaulted and the law
was designed to meet such cases. But, as not infre-
quently happens in special and hasty legislation, the
real drift and effect of the law was not only to hold dis-
bursing officers of the Government to a stricter ac-
countability by the necessity of having their commis-
sions renewed at the end of every four years — which
was, so far, a good thing — but also to change en-

LA W OF 1820. 1 1

tirely their tenure of office, increase indefinitely their
dependence upon mere Executive pleasure, expose
them to the greatest temptation to political subserv-
iency and man-worship, and, worse than all, to di-
minish the responsibility, while it multiplied seven-
fold the power, of the President in dispensing the
Federal patronage. John Holmes, of Maine, then
just admitted as a State of the Union, was, I believe,
the author — in part, at least — of the bill. It seems
to have excited little, if any, notice or opposition ;
to have been passed, in fact, almost sub silentio. But
Mr. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, when he heard
of its passage, remarked to a friend that it was " one
of the most dangerous ever passed, and that it would
work a great REVOLUTION." His prediction has been
fulfilled to the letter. The law, which was passed and
approved the closing day of the session. May 15,
1820, is entitled : ^^ An Act to limit the term of office
of certain officers therein named and for other pur-
poses." The first section is as follows :

" From and after the passing of this act, all district attorneys,
collectors of the customs, naval officers and surveyors of the cus-
toms, navy agents, receivers of public moneys for lands, registers
of the land offices, paymasters in the army, the apothecary-gen-
eral, the assistant apothecary-general, and the commissary-gen-
eral of purchases, to be appointed under the laws of the United
States, shall be appointed for the term of four years, but shall be
removable from office at pleasure."

The term of office of postmasters was fixed later.
The law was retroactive and began to take effect
Sept. 30, 1820, upon all officers whose commissions
were dated on or before Sept. 30, 18 16. Up to the
close of Mr. Monroe's second term^ and during^ the

12 REPORT OF 1826.

term of Mr. Adams, however, these officers, if their
accounts were correct and there was nothing wrong
about them, were, in almost every instance, reap-
pointed. As a matter of fact, therefore, no serious
harm came of the law until Gen. Jackson's acces-
sion to the Presidency in 1829, when its power of
mischief as an instrument of personal and party
revenge and ambition was suddenly revealed in a
manner to startle the whole nation. In 1826, the
second year of John Quincy Adams' administration,
the subject of Executive patronage attracted much at-
tention, and an elaborate report upon it was made to
the Senate by a committee, of which Col. Benton was
chairman. That model republican, Nathaniel Macon,
of North Carolina ; Mr. Van Buren, afterward Presi-
dent ; Mr. Hayne, of South Carolina ; Mr. Holmes, of
Maine ; Mr. White, of Tennessee, and Col. Johnson,
of Kentucky, afterward Vice-President, were members
of this committee. In their report t\\Q possible evils
of Federal patronage are depicted in very vivid colors
and with great ability. Much of it would form an
excellent tract on Civil Service Reform in our own
day. The report traces the overshadowing prerog-
ative of the President in the matter of patronage
partly to the action of the Congress of 1789, giving
to him alone the power of dismissal, and partly to the
Four Years' Appointment law.

"This single act (that of 1820) by vacating almost the entire
civil list, once in every period of a Presidential term, places more
offices at the command of the President than were known to the
Constitution at the time of its adoption."

Having shown that the power and influence of
Federal patronage, contrary to the argument of The


Federalist, is altogether an overmatch for the power
and influence of State patronage, the report proceeds :

" The whole of this great power will center in the President.
The King of England is the ' fountain of honor ; ' the President of
the United States is the source of patronage. He presides over
the entire system of Federal appointments, jobs, and contracts.
He has power over the ' support ' of the individuals who administer
the system. He makes and unmakes them. He chooses from
the circle of his friends and supporters, and may dismiss them ;
and upon all the principles of human actions, will dismiss them,
as often as they disappoint his expectations. His spirit will ani-
mate their actions in all the elections to State and Federal offices.
There may be exceptions, but the truth of a general rule is proved
by the exceptions. The intended check and control of the Sen-
ate, without new constitutional or statutory provisions, will cease
to operate. Patronage will penetrate this body, subdue its ca-
pacity of resistance, chain it to the car of power, and enable the
President to rule as easily, and much more securely, with than
without the nominal check of the Senate. We must then look
forward to the time when the principle of public action will be
open and avowed ; the President wants my vote, and I want his
patronage ; I will vote as he wishes, and he will give me the
office I wish for. What will this be but the government of one
man ? "

If read in view of the fact that Mr. Adams dis-
missed but two officers during his entire term, and
especially in view of the literal fulfillment of so many
of its predictions under the next administration, of
which its author, Col. Benton, was a trusted leader,
this Report is one of the most striking and suggest-
ive documents ever presented to the Senate of the
United States.




(c.) We come now to the third stage in the growth
of this odious system — namely, the open avowal and
adoption of the principle that to the victors belong the
spoils. The avowal, it is said, was first made on the
floor of the United States Senate, in 1832, by Mr.
William H. Marcy, afterward so distinguished as

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Online LibraryGeorge Lewis PrentissOur national bane; → online text (page 1 of 9)