Civil Service Reform

Civil Service Reform

The Stalwarts, a faction of the Republican Party in the late nineteenth century, opposed civil service reform and favored machine politics.

Learning Objectives

Summarize efforts made to reform the civil service system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Republican National Convention of 1880, the Half-Breeds advocated the candidacy of James Blaine of Maine for president. A stalemate occurred between the Half-Breeds and the Stalwarts, and a compromise was struck to nominate a decent, less abrasive man: James Garfield.
  • Instead of giving federal jobs to political supporters, Rutherford B. Hayes wished to award them by merit according to an examination that all applicants would take. Immediately, Hayes’s call for reform brought him into conflict with the Stalwart, or pro-spoils, branch of the Republican party.
  • Hayes made strides toward eliminating political patronage in government jobs during his administration.

Key Terms

  • reform: Amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved.
  • Chester A. Arthur: (October 5, 1829–November 18, 1886) The 21st president of the United States (1881–1885), who took office after the assassination of President James A. Garfield. Arthur overcame suspicions about his beginnings as a politician by embracing the cause of civil service reform. His advocacy for, and enforcement of, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was the centerpiece of his administration.
  • stalwart: A member of a faction of the Republican Party toward the end of the nineteenth century. Stalwarts were the “traditional” Republicans who opposed Rutherford B. Hayes’s civil service reform. They were pitted against the Half-Breeds (moderates) for control of the Republican Party. The only real issue between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds was patronage. The Half-Breeds worked to get civil service reform, and finally created the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Stalwarts favored traditional machine politics.
  • spoils system: A practice in which a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for their support and as an incentive to keep working for the party.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Civil service reform in the United States was a major national issue in the late 1800s and a major state issue in the early 1900s. President Rutherford B. Hayes took office determined to reform the system of civil service appointments, which had been based on the spoils system since Andrew Jackson was president. Instead of giving federal jobs to political supporters, Hayes wished to award them by merit according to an examination that all applicants would take. Immediately, Hayes’s call for reform brought him into conflict with the Stalwarts, a pro-spoils branch of the Republican party. Senators of both parties were accustomed to being consulted about political appointments and turned against Hayes. Foremost among his enemies was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who fought Hayes’s reform efforts at every turn.

To show his commitment to reform, Hayes appointed one of the best-known advocates of reform, Carl Schurz, to be secretary of the Interior and asked Schurz and William M. Evarts, his secretary of state, to lead a special cabinet committee charged with drawing up new rules for federal appointments. John Sherman, the Treasury secretary, ordered John Jay to investigate the New York Custom House, which was stacked with Conkling’s spoilsmen. Jay’s report suggested that the New York Custom House was so overstaffed with political appointees that 20 percent of the employees were expendable.

Although he could not convince Congress to outlaw the spoils system, Hayes issued an executive order that forbade federal office holders from being required to make campaign contributions or otherwise taking part in party politics. Chester A. Arthur, the collector of the Port of New York, and his subordinates Alonzo B. Cornell and George H. Sharpe, all Conkling supporters, refused to obey the president’s order. In September 1877, Hayes demanded the three men’s resignations, which they refused to give.

Hayes was forced to wait until July 1878 when, during a Congressional recess, he fired Arthur and Cornell and replaced them through the recess appointments of Merritt and Silas W. Burt, respectively. Conkling opposed the appointees’ confirmation when the Senate reconvened in February 1879, but Merritt was approved by a vote of 31 to 25, as was Burt by 31 to 19, giving Hayes his most significant civil service reform victory. For the remainder of his term, Hayes pressed Congress to enact permanent reform legislation, even using his last annual message to Congress on December 6, 1880, to appeal for reform. While reform legislation did not pass during Hayes’s presidency, his advocacy provided, “a significant precedent as well as the political impetus for the Pendleton Act of 1883,” which was signed into law by President Chester Arthur.

Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (ch. 27, 22 Stat. 403) of the United States is a federal law established in 1883 that stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit. The act provided for the selection of government employees based on competitive exams, rather than on ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons. To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission.

The Pendleton Act served as a response to the massive public support of civil service reform that grew following President Garfield’s assassination. Despite his previous support of the patronage system, Arthur, nevertheless, became an ardent supporter of civil service reform as president. However, the law also would prove to be a major political liability for Arthur. The law offended machine politicians within the Republican Party and did not prove to be enough for the party’s reformers; hence, Arthur lost popularity within the Republican Party and was unable to win the party’s Presidential nomination at the 1884 Republican National Convention.

Postal Service Reform

Page from Puck magazine with a cartoon showing Chester Arthur getting kicked out of the New York Custom House by a man holding paper "charges" in front of a sign pointing to Washington D.C. The caption reads: "Another president who had a rise in the world - From the toe-path to the White House"

“From the Toe-Path to the White House”: Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Custom House.

President Hayes also dealt with corruption in the postal service. In 1880, Schurz and Senator John A. Logan asked Hayes to shut down the ” star route ” rings, a system of corrupt contract profiteering in the Postal Service, and to fire Second Assistant Postmaster General Thomas J. Brady, the alleged ring leader. Hayes stopped granting new star route contracts, but let existing contracts continue to be enforced. Democrats accused Hayes of delaying proper investigation so as not to injure Republican chances in the 1880 elections but did not press the issue in their campaign literature, as members of both parties were implicated in the corruption. Although Hayes and Congress both looked into the contracts and found no compelling evidence of wrongdoing, Brady and others were indicted for conspiracy in 1882. After two trials, the defendants were found not guilty in 1883.

When Arthur succeeded Garfield, reformers feared that Arthur, as a product of the spoils system, would not devote his administration’s energy to continuing the investigation into the Postal Service scandal. However, when a new trial of Brady was granted due to questions of bribery, Arthur removed five federal officeholders who were sympathetic with the defense, including a former senator. The second trial began in December 1882, and lasted until July 1883, but again, did not result in a guilty verdict. Failure to obtain a conviction tarnished the administration’s image, but Arthur did succeed in putting a stop to the fraud.

The Scurrilous Campaign

The issue of personal character figured prominently in the 1884 presidential campaign.

Learning Objectives

Examine the signature achievements of the Cleveland administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The presidential campaign of 1884 was marked by an emphasis on personality and scandal.
  • James G. Blaine, the Republican nominee, was implicated in a scandal that involved his burning of several important letters that revealed he took money from corporations in exchange for political influence.
  • Grover Cleveland, the Democratic nominee, was discovered to have fathered a child out of wedlock.
  • Though the popular vote was close, Cleveland won in the Electoral College.
  • Early in his presidency, Cleveland focused on political reform of the spoils system.
  • Cleveland fought against Republicans to lower import tariffs.

Key Terms

  • mugwump: A Republican political activist who bolted from the U.S. Republican Party by supporting Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland in the presidential election of 1884.
  • James G. Blaine: An American Republican politician who served as a U.S. representative, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. senator from Maine, and twice as secretary of state. He was nominated for president in 1884, but was narrowly defeated by Democrat Grover Cleveland.
  • Grover Cleveland: The 22nd and 24th president of the United States, the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897), and therefore, the only individual to be counted twice in the numbering of the presidents.
  • Tariff Act of 1890: A law framed by Representative William McKinley that raised the average duty on imports to almost 50 percent, an act designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition.

The issue of personal character was paramount in the 1884 presidential campaign. Former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine had been prevented from getting the Republican presidential nomination during the previous two elections because of the stigma of the “Mulligan letters.” In 1876, a Boston bookkeeper named James Mulligan had located some letters showing that Blaine had sold his influence in Congress to various businesses. One such letter ended with the phrase, “burn this letter,” from which a popular chant of the Democrats arose: “Burn, burn, burn this letter!” In just one deal, Blaine had received $110,150 ( more than $1.5 million in 2010 dollars) from the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad for securing a federal land grant, among other things. Democrats and anti-Blaine Republicans made unrestrained attacks on his integrity as a result.

New York Governor Grover Cleveland, on the other hand, was known as “Grover the Good” for his personal integrity. In the space of the three previous years, he successively had become the mayor of Buffalo and then the governor of the state of New York, cleaning up large amounts of Tammany Hall ‘s corrupt political machinery.

It came as a tremendous shock when, on July 21, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, that the child had gone to an orphanage, and that the mother had been driven into an asylum. Cleveland’s campaign decided that candor was the best approach to this scandal: They admitted that Cleveland had formed an “illicit connection” with the mother and that a child had been born and given the Cleveland surname. They also noted that there was no proof that Cleveland was the father, and claimed that, by assuming responsibility and finding a home for the child, he was merely doing his duty. Finally, they showed that the mother had not been forced into an asylum. Her whereabouts were unknown.

Cleveland Gains Support

The Democrats held their convention in Chicago the following month and nominated Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. Cleveland’s time on the national scene was brief, but Democrats hoped that his reputation as a reformer and an opponent of corruption would attract Republicans dissatisfied with Blaine and his reputation for scandal. They were correct, as reform-minded Mugwump Republicans denounced Blaine as corrupt and flocked to Cleveland. The Mugwumps, including such men as Carl Schurz and Henry Ward Beecher, were more concerned with morality than with party politics, and felt Cleveland was a kindred soul who would promote civil service reform and fight for efficiency in government. However, even as the Democrats gained support from the Mugwumps, they lost some blue-collar workers to the Greenback-Labor party, led by Benjamin F. Butler, Blaine’s antagonist from their early days in the House.

After the election, the term “Mugwump” survived for more than a decade as an epithet for a party bolter in American politics. Many Mugwumps became Democrats or remained Independents; most continued to support reform well into the twentieth century.

The image shows Blaine disrobed. He is dressed in short pants and a bib. His scandals are literally written all over him.

Bernard Gilliam’s “Phryne before the Chicago Tribunal”: This 1884 cartoon in Puck magazine ridicules Blaine as the tattooed man, with many indelible scandals. The cartoon image is a parody of Phryne before the Areopagus, an 1861 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The Election

Both candidates believed that the states of New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Connecticut would determine the election. In New York, Blaine received less support than he anticipated when Arthur and Conkling, still powerful in the New York Republican party, failed to actively campaign for him. Blaine hoped that he would have more support from Irish Americans than Republicans typically did. While the Irish were mainly a Democratic constituency in the nineteenth century, Blaine’s mother was Irish Catholic, and he believed his career-long opposition to the British government would resonate with the Irish. Blaine’s hope for Irish defections to the Republican standard were dashed late in the campaign when one of his supporters, Samuel D. Burchard, gave a speech denouncing the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The Democrats spread the word of this insult in the days before the election, and Cleveland narrowly won all four of the swing states, including New York by slightly more than 1,000 votes. While the popular vote total was close, with Cleveland winning by just one-quarter of a percent, the electoral votes gave Cleveland a majority of 219 to 182.

Cleveland’s Presidency

Soon after taking office, President Grover Cleveland was faced with filling all of the government jobs for which the president had the power of appointment. These jobs were typically filled under the spoils system, but Cleveland announced that he would not fire any Republican who was doing his job well. Nor would he appoint anyone solely on the basis of party service. Cleveland also used his appointment powers to reduce the number of federal employees, as many departments had become bloated with political timeservers.

Later in his term, Cleveland replaced more of the partisan Republican officeholders with Democrats. While some of his decisions were influenced by party concerns, more of Cleveland’s appointments were decided by merit alone. Cleveland also reformed other parts of the government. In 1887, he signed an act creating the Interstate Commerce Commission. He also modernized the navy and canceled construction contracts that had resulted in inferior ships. Cleveland angered railroad investors by ordering an investigation of western lands they held by government grant.

Cleveland and Tariff Reform

The Tariff Act of 1890, commonly called the ” McKinley Tariff,” was an act of the U.S. Congress framed by Representative William McKinley that became law on October 1, 1890. The tariff raised the average duty on imports to almost fifty percent, an act designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Protectionism, a tactic supported by Republicans, was fiercely debated by politicians and condemned by Democrats.

The tariff was not well received by Americans, who suffered a steep increase in the cost of products. In the 1890 election, Republicans House seats went from 166 to only 88. McKinley, the act’s framer and defender, was then assassinated. In the 1892 presidential election, Harrison was soundly defeated by Grover Cleveland, and the Senate, House, and presidency were all under Democratic control. Lawmakers immediately started drafting new tariff legislation.

Cleveland’s opinion on the tariff was that of most Democrats: The tariff ought to be reduced. American tariffs had been high since the Civil War, and by the 1880s, the tariff brought in so much revenue that the government was running a surplus. After reversing the Harrison administration’s silver policy, Cleveland sought next to reverse the effects of the McKinley tariff. What would become the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act was introduced by West Virginian Representative William L. Wilson in December 1893. After lengthy debate, the bill passed the House by a considerable margin. The bill proposed moderate downward revisions in the tariff, especially on raw materials. The shortfall in revenue was to be made up by an income tax of 2 percent on income above $4,000, ($103,000 U.S. dollars in present terms).

The bill was next considered in the Senate, where opposition was stronger. Cleveland faced opposition from key Democrats, led by Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland, who insisted on more protection for their states’ industries than the Wilson bill allowed. Some voted partly out of a personal enmity toward Cleveland. By the time the bill passed the Senate, it had more than 600 amendments attached that nullified most of the reforms. The Sugar Trust in particular lobbied for changes that favored change at the expense of the consumer. Cleveland was outraged with the final bill, and denounced it as a disgraceful product of the control of the Senate by trusts and business interests. Even so, he believed it was an improvement over the McKinley tariff and allowed it to become law without his signature.

Republican Reform Under Harrison

Civil service reform, pension reform, and the “Billion Dollar Congress” characterized the Harrison administration’s Republican reforms.

Learning Objectives

Outline the legislative achievements of the Benjamin Harrison administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the election of 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison narrowly defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland.
  • Civil service reform was a prominent issue following Harrison’s election. However, he did little to advance civil service reform during his time in office, fearing Congressional conflict.
  • Harrison enacted the Dependent and Disability Pension Act in 1890, granting pensions to all disabled Civil War veterans regardless of the cause of their disability.
  • The 51st Congress was nicknamed the “Billion Dollar Congress” for its massive spending. This Congress was also responsible for a number of pieces of landmark legislation, many of which expanded the authority of the federal government.
  • Two significant pieces of legislation that would have removed some of the voting barriers faced by African Americans failed to gain Congress’s approval.

Key Terms

  • Billion Dollar Congress: The 51st U.S. Congress, criticized for its lavish spending, that met from 1889 to 1891, during the first two years of the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.
  • Dependent and Disability Pension Act: A federal act that provided pensions for all Union Army veterans who had served 90 days and who were unable to perform manual labor, whether or not the cause of their disability was related to their service in the American Civil War. The act also provided pensions for minors, dependent parents, and widows of veterans.
  • Pendleton Act: A federal law established in 1883 that stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit.

The 1888 election for president of the United States saw Grover Cleveland of New York, the incumbent president and a Democrat, try to secure a second term against the Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison, a former U.S. Senator from Indiana. Tariff policy was the principal issue in the election. Harrison took the side of industrialists and factory workers who wanted to keep tariffs high, while Cleveland strenuously denounced high tariffs as unfair to consumers. His opposition to Civil War pensions and inflated currency also made enemies among veterans and farmers. On the other hand, he held a strong hand in the South and border states, and appealed to former Republican Mugwumps. The economy was prosperous and the nation was at peace, but Cleveland lost reelection in the Electoral College, even though he won a plurality of the popular vote by a narrow margin. Harrison was sworn into office on March 4, 1889.

Civil Service Reform

Civil service reform was a prominent issue following Harrison’s election. Harrison had campaigned as a supporter of the merit system, as opposed to the spoils system. Although some U.S. civil service jobs had been classified under the Pendleton Act by previous administrations, Harrison spent much of his first months in office deciding on political appointments.

Congress was widely divided on the issue, and Harrison was reluctant to address the issue because he feared alienating either side. The issue became a political football of the time and was immortalized in a cartoon captioned, “What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?” Harrison appointed Theodore Roosevelt and Hugh Smith Thompson, both reformers, to the Civil Service Commission, but otherwise did little to further the reform cause.

Pension Reform

Harrison, who wears a large top hat, is shown pouring a bag of coins labelled "$ 100,000,000 Surplus Left by Cleveland in 1882" into a hold labelled "Billion Dollarism Hole."

The “Billion Dollar Congress”: In this cartoon from Puck, Benjamin Harrison and the “Billion Dollar Congress” are portrayed as wasting the surplus.

Harrison quickly saw the enactment of the Dependent and Disability Pension Act in 1890, a cause he had championed while in Congress. In addition to providing pensions to disabled Civil War veterans, regardless of the cause of their disability, the act depleted some of the troublesome federal budget surplus. Pension expenditures reached $135 million under Harrison, the largest expenditure of its kind at that point in American history, a problem exacerbated by Pension Bureau commissioner James R. Tanner’s expansive interpretation of the pension laws.

The 51st Congress

The 51st U.S. Congress, referred to by some critics as the “Billion Dollar Congress,” was a meeting of the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government that met in Washington, D.C., from March 4, 1889, to March 4, 1891, during the first two years of the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.

Legislative Achievements

The 51st Congress was responsible for a number of pieces of landmark legislation, many of which expanded the authority of the federal government. Emboldened by their success in the elections of 1888, the Republicans enacted virtually their entire platform during their first 303-day session, including a measure that provided American Civil War veterans with generous pensions and expanded the list of eligible recipients to include noncombatants and the children of veterans. Grover Cleveland had vetoed a similar bill in 1887. The 51st Congress was criticized as the “Billion Dollar Congress'” for its lavish spending, and for this reason, it incited drastic reversals in public support that led to Cleveland’s reelection in 1892.

Economic and Trade Legislation

Other important legislation passed into law by the Congress included the McKinley tariff, authored by representative, and future president, William McKinley. The Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibited business combinations that restricted trade, and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the U.S. government to mint silver were both authored by Senator John Sherman.

National Forests

The 51st Congress also was responsible for passing the Land Revision Act of 1891, which created the national forests. Harrison authorized America’s first forest reserve in Yellowstone, Wyoming, the same year.

Significant Legislation That Failed

Other bills were discussed but failed to pass, including two significant pieces of legislation focused on ensuring African Americans the right to vote. Henry Cabot Lodge sponsored a so-called Lodge Bill that would have established federal supervision of congressional elections so as to prevent the disfranchisement of southern blacks. Henry W. Blair sponsored the Blair Education Bill, which advocated the use of federal aid for education in order to frustrate Southern whites employing literacy tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote.