“The more barbarous the nation….” Democrats and patronage after the 1892 election

Political patronage was still a political issue in 1893, half a century after clamoring office seekers had contributed to the demise of one president, William Henry Harrison, and over twenty years after another president, Grant, “wearied with official mendicants and seeking surcease from care,” as the Times describes it in a summary of civil service history, created the civil service commission.  Civil service reform made slow progress under Grant’s Republican successors: after James Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed office seeker, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform act of 1883 required aspiring bureaucrats to take a written exam, but few federal jobs were covered in following years.

Grover ClevelandThus when Grover Cleveland returned to office for a second term in 1893,  he was besieged by office seekers from his first presidential term. An article in the Kansas City Times reported that 90 per cent of ex-Democratic officeholders from Missouri had petitioned for  federal jobs with the new administration: “Since the first news of Cleveland’s election,” the paper said, “the meetings of the various state and congressional central committees have been converted into mass conventions for swapping signatures to petitions for office. And in nearly every instance the petitions which contained the names of ex-officeholders obtained through mutual exchange, were considered the strongest.” 

Cleveland upset these expectations soon after his inauguration by announcing that federal officeholders from his first term need not apply. The “push” or political machine, in every state will be “doomed to bitter disappointment” by the decision, the Times predicted. “Eventually the main offices will be filled by democrats, but President Cleveland has evidently undertaken to build upon a broad foundation.” Cleveland also promised that there would be no appointments for those “who do not intend to devote their entire energies to the duties,” according to a Times editorial.

“It is,” said the editors, “a new experience for the country to hear these rules announced as a policy.” They speculated that the changes, if carried through, would affect all other public employment, forcing “reluctant imitation in state and local government,” and sending into the work force “that rather numerous body of citizens who toil not nor spin, but wait for the day of office distribution to roll around and who meanwhile live upon their friends….”

It was evident, the pro-Democrat Times argued, that Cleveland was attempting in his second term “the difficult task of a purification of politics….. The idea is not original with President Cleveland, but the rather feeble attempts which have heretofore been made in this direction distinguish him as one of the great exponents which this latter half of the century has produced of an anti-spoilsmen theory of government. If he succeeds he will have demonstrated the claims of his admirers to a broad and comprehensive statesmanship.” 

The pro-Republican Kansas City Journal commented in ironic tone that Cleveland had “taken occasion to administer direct rebukes to the state bosses by making appointments of men who have only their cheek and whiskers to recommend them,” rather than the backing of congressmen and senators. The paper predicted an “army of individual applicants … will now throng the White house in an endeavor to get in personal touch with Mr. Cleveland,”  adding that the most successful will likely be those with “an imposing appearance or… a luxuriant growth of side whiskers…. Beardless faces will at once go out of style among Democrats and men of small physique will learn that body goes farther than brains with this administration,” an allusion to the president’s own considerable bulk.

The Journal’s prediction of hordes of office seekers, or their Congressional patrons, descending on Cleveland was borne out after the inauguration, leading in one case to the resignation of a Utah territorial congressman when the President refused to follow his recommendations for patronage appointments. Even if former office seekers were excluded from consideration, the congressmen and senators “continue to come as numerously as ever,” reported the Times, and they occupy just as much time as they did when they brought a crowd with them. There being comparatively few of them, each member of Congress feels entitled to prolong his conversation with the President so that, as far as time is concerned, they consume fully as much as ever.” 

The paper predicted the “curtailment, if not the complete abolishment, of active and persistent efforts by Congressmen in the distribution of patronage,” since lobbying the executive branch for patronage positions was interfering with the business of Congress: it was a common sight, the editors wrote, “to see dignified and white-haired Senators and grave Representatives, charged with the duties of making laws and dealing with great legislative questions of vital importance to the nation, abandoning their duties and trudging through the departments, cooling their heels in secretaries’ ante-rooms, intent upon pressing the claims for office of persistent constituents.” 

The ability to get appointments for influential constituents and sway the administration was for many Congressmen, especially southern ones, a prerequisite for election. The editors did not contemplate what devices Congressmen might resort to for support of campaigns if their ability to dispense patronage, not to mention levy compulsory assessments on office holders, was eliminated, as the civil service act required.

In any case, Congressmen could be relieved that at least they did not have to make the case for former office holders. The Journal and Times ran unsympathetic stories on the latter’s situation after Cleveland issued to them what the Journal called a “’go-home’ card”:  “The colonels are very mad about it,” the paper reported, referring perhaps to old-line Democrats, and more specifically to Colonel Jones of Kansas, “the most conspicuous in the Kansas crowd for whom the order was issued.” 

The Times described the disappointed aspirants as waiting for the first train home with “nothing to show for the months of weary waiting inTheodore Roosevelt Washington except expressions of blank astonishment and a big hotel bill…”  The President’s order was seen by the Times as “something decidedly unique and original … a precedent in the history of the White House,” and a few days after it was issued Theodore Roosevelt, one of the three members of the civil service commission, spoke optimistically about the future of civil service reform:  “I believe,” he was quoted as saying, “when public officers generally are willing to examine the merit system without prejudice they become not only well disposed toward it as applied at present, but desirous of extending its operation.” 

Roosevelt was being optimistic, knowing that the ability to dispense government jobs remained the foundation of power for politicians at all levels, not least the President, and therefore a partisan battleground.  

In an editorial entitled “Making himself dictator,” the Journal speculated that Cleveland, having eliminated individual office seekers from his presence, was using his patronage powers to coerce senators and representatives to do his bidding in the matter of the great national debate over bi-metallism, in which Cleveland supported the pro-gold side. “The silver sentiment of the country, if not interfered with by outside forces,” the paper argued in an editorial entitled “Making himself dictator,”  “would prevent any unfriendly legislation to the white metal. If patronage had been out of the way the administration would not have precipitated the contest, but the president having faith in the all powerful influence of the pie counter” – a reference to office seekers awaiting their slice of the political pie – “reached the conclusion that this would enable him to run the country through congress, as he desired…. the president has commenced the game of making himself dictator of congress….” 

U.S. TreasuryThe Journal reported on an example of the administration playing politics with civil service positions at the Treasury Department in Washington, where 15 percent of the clerks were declared “inefficient.” All happened to be Republicans.  The vacant places would be filled, the paper predicted, by Democrats who were presently “on the streets most of the time, even by night was well as by day,” but had “goldbug senatorial or representative influence.” 

Among the recent Democratic appointees were two from Kansas who “knew no more about the treasury than anyone else who knew nothing,” but who had already detected “inefficient clerks” in their department,  In addition, the paper claimed, Republican treasury employees who weren’t being fired would have their salaries reduced. The civil service commission had as yet raised no objections to these largely conjectural events.

In Kansas City, Kansas, the two federal offices offering the most patronage opportunities were meat inspection, under the Department of Agriculture, and the post office. Although post office positions in most states had been “classified” under the previous Harrison administration, the post offices of Kansas had not: “There are a few states we have not reached in the matter of complying with the conditions that make the Harrison order operative,” commissioner Roosevelt told the Journal. After July 1, he promised, “we will be able to protect the people of Kansas from defective service in the postoffice by reason of giving the ward strikers salaries in the post-offices.”

In the meantime post office appointments continued to be made at the behest of local ward bosses and their national sponsors in Congress. TheJohn Martin1 Journal article mentions efforts in Wichita to replace the current, Republican, postmaster and “get the office organized with a few selections from the local pie counter aspirants.” The paper alleges that John Martin, the Democrat-Populist “Fusion” senator from Kansas, was behind the effort, but as an apostate he lacked influence with the Democratic administration: “in the present chaotic state of affairs,” the paper reflects, referring to the political melee in Kansas, “it would appear to be impossible to work the scheme.”

In Kansas City, Kansas, postmaster Mapes, at the behest of the postmaster general, was more successful in organizing his office “with men of his political faith,” as the Journal put it.  In June, he replaced fourteen Republican-appointed letter carriers with what the Journal called “democratic spoilsmen.” The fired carriers talked of taking the matter to the civil service commission for an investigation, claiming President Harrison’s order had put post offices under civil service rules, requiring cause be shown for their dismissal. Facing a refusal of the fired carriers to turn in their keys and pouches, Mapes pointed out that Kansas post offices would not be covered by civil service rules until July 1, when a civil service examination would be held and an eligible list prepared. At that point post office jobs would no longer be at the disposal of ward bosses.

The Kansas City, Missouri, post office was covered by civil service rules, but they did not cover the postmaster, Nofsinger, who was accused by a trio of post office inspectors of presiding over “a horrible state of affairs.” The inspectors had told him, he reported to the Journal, [1893-08-17-DailyJournal-p4-HeWasSuprised] that they’d found his office in “excellent condition.” The Journal suggested that the postmaster Wilson Bissell, postmaster generalgeneral Wilson Bissell had decided “it would be a good plan to appoint a Democrat” in Nofsinger’s place.  The pro-Cleveland Times reported the examiners’ criticism of Nofsinger’s management without insinuating partisan intent on Bissell’s part.

The post office civil service examination was competitive. A Times story in February reported that fifty-one applicants showed up for the Kansas City exam in February, among them three or four women. The exams were to be sent to Washington for rating; a list of those above a certain percent would then be sent to the postmaster, who would select one from the three with the highest ratings.  The “eligible” list contained about seventy-five names, but no more than twenty-five vacancies opened in a given year. The Journal took a more jaundiced view of the exam, in an article titled “They had their little ponies,” the title referring to various cheating aids the candidates  -- who included “two colored men, several Germans, an Italian and one Swede” -- brought with them to the examination. It was a “tame sort of affair,” the paper recounted, broken only “when some one of the would be clerks or carriers slipped quietly out into the corridor to slyly consult a map of the city or a dictionary which he carried concealed in his pocket….. One applicant was a regular walking library. He had an arithmetic, a geography, a spelling book and a guide to the city concealed on his person.”

The applicants were examined in “orthography, arithmetic, penmanship, geography, abbreviations and history of one’s self,” and in speed writing, an examiner dictating a passage to them.  The final exercise was to decipher handwriting resembling “the erratic trail of a fly escaping from an ink blot.”

Despite Roosevelt’s assurances about reform, a civil service commission report found that patronage at the P.O. remained an issue, especially in smaller offices, where conditions existed like those in the railway mail service before its being placed in the classified service. Under the unclassified system, at each change of political parties “great blocks of railway mail clerks were changed and the whole service demoralized and thrown out of gear, to the great detriment of the business interests of the country.”

After classification, said the report, the change of parties produced “scarcely a ripple among the postal clerks. Over half the men had been appointed according to civil service and all were doing their duty faithfully, wholly without regard to political complexion of their superior officers, as is always the case in a classified office, where as a matter of experience, it had been found that just as faithful service is rendered by the men who practically disagree with their superiors as by those who are politically in accord with them.”

 As letter carriers from across the country met in Kansas City in September for the annual convention of the National Letter Carriers’ Association,NALC badge patronage or “the civil service question” remained the main concern. In many offices, including Kansas City, the Journal reported, “there have been no discharges for political reasons,” but in some other cities it was different and the carriers wanted legislation passed “describing more particularly NALC convention badgethe reasons which must be given for the discharge of a carrier.” Said the Association president, Frank Smith, in a later Journal  story,  “What we wish is that no carrier shall be discharged until he shall be confronted with the charges against him, and given a chance for a hearing before an impartial board.”

Packing houses were the largest employers in both Kansas Citys, and probably the inspectors, taggers and microscopists employed by the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry to certify meat quality provided the largest patronage opportunities as well. In January, weeks before the newly-elected Democratic administration was to take office,  sixteen new microscopists, all female, were appointed to the inspection department at the Swift packing house, adding to twenty already there.  Probably most, if not all, owed their positions to Republican patronage politics.

Grover Cleveland had barely taken the oath when a fight broke out for patronage rights between Kansas and Missouri politicians. Senators from Missouri demanded that they be permitted to make some of the appointments, while Kansas politicians cited “home rule,” arguing that since the packing houses were all in Kansas, the state should have a monopoly on patronage. The secretary of agriculture, J. Sterling Morton, would have to decide between the parties.

The Journal pooh-poohed the dispute as ridiculous, since the number of inspectors was to be reduced by at least one half, due to the effects of the international economic depression. “If this is to be done because there is no work for them to do there is little chance that there will be any places to fill for a long time to come.” Another possibility, however, was that the reduction of forces was for “the mere purpose of making vacancies to be filled by the patronage mongers.” In either case, “it is small business.”

The politicians involved, especially the Fusion Senator from Kansas, John Martin, and the Kansas City, Missouri House Representative John Tarsney, didn’t agree. The appointment of a Kansas City, Missouri, man to the lowly position of tagger   -- an individual who stamps and tags meat after it is inspected -- was taken by the Journal as a test case, since it was the first appointment from Missouri to the Kansas packing houses. Up to this time, the paper said, “Kansas politicians have been able to protect themselves from invasion on the part of Missouri, but as soon as it was discovered that the official representation of the state was not as formidable as it had been” – a reference to accusations of fraud surrounding Martin’s election to the Senate -- “the idea presented itself that a change could be made.” Martin made frequent visits to see the Agriculture Secretary, attempting to hold onto his patronage, but “The fusion accent in his feature… is believed to have impaired the force of his fight,” said the Journal… The senator was in an ill humor, as he was sure he had been politically and officially outraged.”

In June, twenty-seven microscopists were dismissed from the Swift’s and James Street departments on orders of the Secretary, who cited the need for economy and a slackening of the hog business. Further dismissals were expected and according to the Times, the secretary was in no hurry to make new appointments, although Mr. Tarsney had provided him with a list of candidates for the various positions. The list had gone missing, prompting an invasion of the office of the local secretary of the Democratic congressional committee by young women hoping to get their names on a new list for the vacant microscopist positions, but at the end of the year all forty-six woman microscopists and thirty-six men  at the Central Station were laid off indefinitely, without pay. An official was cited in the Journal explaining that demand for export pork was so light in Germany and France “on account of the present high price” – largely due to the efforts of a cabal of traders including “Jack” Cudahy and others to corner the hog market -- that the packing houses "had a large stock of inspected pork on hand, and there was practically no excuse for the continued expense of keeping the present large force at work.”

Soon after, Secretary Morton was quoted as saying that the whole inspection department of the Bureau of Animal Industry was likely soon to be discontinued as uneconomical and unnecessary, but he continued to appoint Missouri residents to inspection departments. None of the appointments went to Kansas.  The Democrat-Populist fusion politicians were being handed a lesson by the national Democratic party.

Federal patronage jobs tended to be serious business because of the large numbers of people involved; local patronage, on the other hand, was often the stuff of comedy as county and municipal officials tried to reap benefit from their positions. In Independence, for example, the Journal poured scorn on the three-man county court, which tried to create offices at the expense of taxpayers. A dozen politicians, said the paper, “wanted the chain gang at Independence organized in order to get at the county crib.” The number of prisoners in jail did not justify putting them to work in a chain gang, which would require hiring superintendents and guards, but the “hungry push” wanted the patronage, and a superintendent and three guards were appointed “to carefully watch eleven men, fettered by chain and ball, work.”

One county judge objected that a chain gang should not be organized until more men were confined: “A gang then would be worth something to the county,” the judge argued. “The pushers then argued,” the paper reported, “that all they wanted was to have the court organize the chain gang guard and they would guarantee enough crime to take place to fill out the thirty men required.” The politicians got their way with the two other county judges, and four patronage positions – a superintendent at $75 a month and three guards at $60 each – were created to watch the handful of prisoners work.  The county road which is to be worked, noted the paper, ran by the property of one of the judges.

A few months later, the whole scheme was thrown into disarray by a new road law putting the construction of roads under new authority; the superintendent and guards were discharged. “It is believed,” reported the Journal “that the working of the chain gang on the county roads is a thing of the past, and hereafter nothing but contract work will be let for road improvement. This will lop off some of the favorites of the court house ring.” The ring was not finished, however, and in November the judges, with the same judge dissenting, reactivated the chain gang and the patronage jobs for guards, who were said to be gleeful at the prospect of “a winter’s job at summer wages.”

The end of year report by the civil service commissioners was self-congratulatory. Americans in 1893 wanted to believe their raw country was becoming civilized and progressive, regardless of what the “Old World” thought, and the commissioners were happy to oblige: “In reference to the questions of appointments, dismissals and retirement,” it said, as quoted in the Journal “it may be said that the facts show that the more barbarous the nation the more nakedly the spoils system is applied in its political life and that the gradual adoption of a merit system, such as that which is established by the civil service law of the United States, is one of the tests of a nation’s progress in civilization.”


June 20, 2013