"The Civil Service As It Is"

February 3, 1872

Frank Bellew

"The Civil Service As It Is"

Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Congress; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Hon. Member of Congress presenting a Few of his Constituents for Office

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Frank Bellew criticizes the patronage system of government appointment for turning Congressmen into employment brokers and for placing excessive demands upon the valuable time of the president (here, Ulysses S. Grant).  This cartoon appeared as the nation's first Civil Service Commission met in Washington, and sought to bolster the case for civil service reform.

Under the administration of George Washington (1789-1797), the size of the federal bureaucracy was minuscule; the State Department, for example, had nine employees. Over the years, the number of departments and offices grew, as did the number of government employees. In the early decades of the republic, positions in the bureaucracy went primarily to well-educated sons of the elite. 

One of the democratizing reforms of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was to open government employment to the average citizen, based on the notion that it took no special prior knowledge to perform the tasks. The patronage system, as it was called, developed at the same time as the modern party system, resulting in the two becoming intimately intertwined. Government jobs (and contracts) were awarded to those who loyally worked for the party in power. The replacement of one party by another party (or by another faction within the same party) meant a frequent turnover in all government jobs (i.e., rotation in office).

The promise of patronage positions encouraged citizens to become involved in the partisan cause and to vote the party ticket (one’s vote was publicly known to all, not cast by secret ballot). During the election season, patronage employees were a valuable source of campaign workers and campaign finances. They were expected to allocate part of their time to electioneering for the party’s candidates and to contribute a percentage of their annual salaries to the party’s treasury.  To supporters, the patronage system was the lifeblood of the party system and, therefore, of American democracy.

Disapproval of the patronage system, or the "spoils" system as critics nicknamed it, dates to its establishment. Press reports of numerous government scandals in the 1850s raised the level of frustration. The system’s shortcomings and scandals during the Civil War, when an expanded and efficient administration was necessitated, provoked opposition further. In the wake of the war, a civil service reform movement was born, led by Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis. 

The reformers argued that the "spoils" system resulted in a government that was bloated, inefficient, weak, and prone to corruption. They insisted that it encouraged partisan and personal gain to take precedence over principles and the common good. Opponents, however, argued that the patronage system was democratic, while civil service reform would undermine party strength and would perpetuate the educated elite in office. 

The reformers hoped to replace patronage with a professional civil service based on merit appointments (requiring qualifying examinations), merit promotions, and tenure. The first Civil Service Commission, headed by Curtis, existed temporarily during the Grant administration, but it was not until 1883 that the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was enacted by Congress.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Civil Service As It Is"
February 22, 2024

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