Reinventing Government, 1882

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With their own choice, Ulysses S. Grant, in power in 1871, Republicans passed a measure that authorized the President to propose new regulations for strengthening the efficiency of the government’s various bureaus. He began bravely enough by naming a blueribbon advisory board—the first Civil Service Commission—to make recommendations for installing a merit system. But congressional defenders of the spoils tradition rendered the board cosmetic by refusing to appropriate any money for its operation. Grant wound up following the old pattern.

The outrage of reformers at his failures deepened their feeling that at root the problem was moral; the country was no longer in the hands of disinterested gentlemen who were above politics. Henry Adams, son and grandson of Massachusetts-born Presidents, complained that Grant did not appoint enough men like Attorney General Ebenezer Hoar, a representative of old New England, “holding his moral rules on the sole authority of his own conscience, indifferent to opposition whether in or out of his party.”

It was the “impractical” antipolitical gentility of the reformers, in fact, that infuriated their enemies most. In 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes, Grant’s successor, under reform pressure, replaced Alonzo Cornell, the collector of the Port of New York, for compelling his customhouse employees to do political legwork. Cornell’s boss and protector, Sen. Roscoe Conkling, delivered a celebrated outburst that declared that the reformers were “the man-milliners, … the dilettanti and carpet knights of politics,” who forgot that “parties are not built up by deportment, or by ladies magazines, or gush.” All the actors in the drama were Republican, but it was a Democratic senator from Ohio, George Pendleton, who, in December of 1880, dropped into the hopper the measure for a Civil Service Examination Board that would eventually carry the day.

The reform efforts then and now are so similar they even have basically the same internal contradictions.

By that time the defenders of the merit approach were making ever more generous claims for what it might do. Typical of their arguments was the speech of an Indiana state legislator sometime after the Pendleton Act finally became an accomplished fact. Asking for a similar state enactment, he said that the removal of patronage would make both parties “purer and cleaner.” The “demoralizing solicitations” that took up the time of politically appointed bureau chiefs would cease, and they would devote their “undivided energy” to their jobs. All in all, civil service was an idea whose time had arrived: “The thinking people of the nation demand it.”

But thinking people, who rarely constitute a majority, needed an extra boost in 1880 to have their way. It came in July of 1881, when President James A. Garfield was mortally wounded by a shot from the hand of a disappointed and mentally unbalanced office seeker. The “crime,” said one editorial, “acted on public opinion very like a spark on a powder-magazine.” It fell on a “mass of popular indignation all ready to explode.” Congress reconvened in December with an understood mandate for some kind of action on civil service. The machinery clanked and groaned for a year, but final passage in the Senate came in December, with no Republican and only five Democrats voting against it. It was gaveled quickly through the House, 155 to 47, and signed in January of 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur, ironically an ally of Cornell and Conkling.

That was, of course, only the beginning. Over many years and administrations the scope of civil service coverage was widened, and other issues and enactments also contributed to the ongoing growth of government in America. The only moral to be drawn, if any, is that the entire question is too complicated for simplistic argument or swift and neat resolution. Government seems indeed to be too damned big, but what neutral hand will pare it down with justice for all? What consensus will support a general reduction of government operations when so many of us are government’s beneficiaries in one way or another? I predict that the question will be a live one for as long as the balancing of public and private concerns, the essential dance of democracy, goes on.