“No Surrender”

December 7, 1872

Thomas Nast

“No Surrender”

Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; Symbols, Columbia; Symbols, Uncle Sam; Women, Symbolic;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

U. S. G. "I am Determined to enforce those regulations."

With the expansion of the federal government during the Civil War, and the postwar struggle between Democratic President Andrew Johnson and Congressional Republicans over control of Reconstruction, the civil service reform movement began in earnest in the late 1860s.  Reformers, such as cartoonist Thomas Nast, considered the patronage system of government appointments based on partisan loyalty to be corrupt and inefficient.  They wanted to replace it with a system of government service based on merit appointments (through standardized examinations), promotion, and tenure.  In 1867, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted to table a civil service reform bill, and with the election of Republican Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868, some Republican supporters of the reform during the Johnson years suddenly decided that the patronage system worked quite well.  In 1871, however, President Grant created the nation’s first Civil Service Commission, naming as its chairman George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly and president of the National Civil Service Reform Association. 

The featured cartoon presents a scene following Grant’s reelection in November 1872.  In the glow of Republican victory, Senator Simon Cameron and Governor John Hartranft, both of Pennsylvania, pressured the president to suspend the civil service rules for the Philadelphia post office, an important source of patronage for the Republican Party in that state.  Grant steadfastly refused, reaffirming his commitment to civil service reform.  Here, Cameron (left) and Hartranft (right) are dressed as Italian bandits, while their supporters in the background carry aloft a banner inscribed with the battle cry of the patronage (“spoils”) system:  “To the Victors, Belong the Spoils.”  Grant expresses his determination to implement the new civil service regulations, which are held by Columbia, and Uncle Sam appears (behind the door) as a policeman ready to enforce the law.  The cartoon’s title—“No Surrender”—alludes to Grant's commitment as Union commander during the Civil War to full Union victory and the “Unconditional Surrender” (his nickname) of the Confederacy.

In March 1871, the lame-duck session of the 41st Congress passed an appropriations bill that included a rider authorizing the president to appoint a commission to draft rules for civil service examinations.  Congress had defeated four civil service bills during that session, and opponents called the appropriations rider a sneaky trick, but it became the law of the land.  In June, President Grant named the seven members of the commission, led by Curtis, and they began meeting in the sweltering summer heat of Washington, D.C.  In December, Curtis presented the commission’s preliminary report, for which he was primarily responsible, to Grant, who approved the document. 

The initial civil service rules were somewhat limited in scope in order to test the system and gain broader political support.  The Civil Service Commission possessed no legal authority of its own, and the president’s implementation of its rules was discretionary.  The regulations did not apply to current office holders, although applicants for low-level positions (the most common appointments) would be tested.  Vacancies would be filled by choosing one of the three top scorers on the competitive exams.  The rules outlawed the practice of collecting “assessments”—a percentage of the salaries of patronage appointments, which was expected to be turned over to the party.  Reaction in Congress was intense, with opponents labeling civil service reform “impractical,” “humbug,” “a political delusion,” and “unconstitutional.”

In January 1872, Grant asked Congress to appropriate $100,000 to fund the Civil Service Commission.  In March, the Senate allocated $50,000, which in April the House reduced to $10,000.  A joint House-Senate conference settled on $25,000, which both houses approved in May.  As the party in power, many congressional Republicans opposed civil service reform, and backers of President Grant were conspicuous among them (including Senator Cameron and Governor Hartranft).  During the presidential campaign that year, a group of liberal Republicans broke away from their party to nominate their own candidate, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, and to adopt a platform that included support for civil service reform.  Although they were liberal reformers, Curtis and Nast remained loyal to Grant, as the featured cartoon indicates of the latter.

Curtis, though, had been fighting an uphill battle with Congress and the Grant administration over funding and implementation of civil service reform.  Curtis’s breaking point came in the spring of 1873.  In February, President Grant had appointed him to a three-member committee that was assigned to find a suitable replacement for the position of surveyor of the New York Customhouse, the most lucrative source of patronage in the country.  Curtis wanted the position to be filled under the reform rules, but when the new employee was chosen without Curtis’s input or knowledge, the Harper’s Weekly editor resigned as chairman of the Civil Service Commission.  Curtis continued to believe that Grant “saw the reason and necessity for reform,” but was compelled to act against his instincts by unyielding political forces.  The president’s action “was indeed a surrender, but it was the surrender of a champion who had honestly mistaken both the nature and strength of the adversary and his own power of endurance.” 

Without Curtis at its helm, the Civil Service Commission continued to struggle, and its funding was discontinued in December 1875 with the acquiescence of the Grant administration.  On March 27, 1876 (a presidential election year), the reform rules were suspended indefinitely.  It would take years of relentless, organized effort on the part of reformers before the federal government passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 in the wake of President James Garfield’s assassination by a disgruntled federal job-seeker.  It would take several more years before most states and cities followed suit, and decades before the rules covered the majority of federal positions.

Robert C. Kennedy

“No Surrender”
February 22, 2024

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