“Ah, In That, Too?”

September 19, 1903

William A. Rogers

“Ah, In That, Too?”

Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Federal Government Scandals; Postal Service; Presidential Administration, Theodore Roosevelt; Presidential Cabinet, Postmaster General; Symbols, Uncle Sam;

Payne, Henry C.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

From the cartoonist's perspective, Henry C. Payne, the U.S. postmaster general, is waist-deep in a postal scandal, which has injured his reputation and ability to carry out his public duties.  Additional reports of Payne's political use of patronage in Delaware are not too surprising to Uncle Sam, who might answer his own question, "But of course you are."  Beginning in May 1903, Harper's Weekly urged Payne's resignation because of his alleged stonewalling in the face of corruption charges against the Post Office.  In reality, Payne had not mishandled the investigation, but the press.  In September, when this cartoon was published, the journal added the charge that the postmaster general had violated civil service reform rules in Delaware.

Henry Clay Payne was born in Massachusetts in 1843.  As a young man, he clerked in a dry-goods store before entering the insurance business, in which he gained financial success.  In 1872, he served as chairman of the Young Men's Republican Club for the reelection campaign of President Ulysses S. Grant.  In 1876, President Grant gave Payne the patronage job of Milwaukee (Wisconsin) postmaster, a position he held until Democrats regained the White House under Grover Cleveland in 1885.  The next year, Payne became vice president of the Wisconsin Telephone Company, and was promoted to president in 1889.  He served as a business executive for the Milwaukee Street Railway Company and other transportation firms during the 1890s.

Payne also continued his involvement in Republican politics, serving on the party's executive committees at the state and national level from 1872 and 1880, respectively, until his death in 1904.  He was a delegate to the 1888 and 1892 Republican National Conventions, and ran the western branch of William McKinley's presidential campaign in 1896.  Payne successfully pushed Republican delegates to nominate Theodore Roosevelt for vice president in 1900.  Shortly after Roosevelt assumed the presidency in September 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley, the new president named Payne to his cabinet as postmaster general (January 1902).  

Shortly after he took office, Payne quietly requested Congressional funding for a probe of the Post Office.  Within a few months, numerous incidents of wrongdoing came to light, which made the federal department appear to be "honeycombed with dishonesty."  In one case, postal employees in New York accused a cabal within the Division of Salaries and Allowances of blackmailing postal workers under review for promotions or raises.  Meanwhile, the Office of the Assistant Attorney General for the Post Office Department allegedly colluded with lotteries and get-rich-quick enterprises.  Other corrupt practices included bribery, extortion, placing people on the payroll who performed no work, overcharging for goods and services, accepting defective mailbags and lockboxes, and disregard of open bidding and other contract violations.  

The story broke in the press in March 1903.  Since President Roosevelt soon left for vacation in the West and illness kept Payne away from his duties, the administration issued no official response for some time, even though the investigation was proceeding.  In its May 2 issue, Harper's Weekly placed the web of corruption charges against the Post Office on par with the Whiskey Ring and Star Route scandals.  The journal hoped reports that Postmaster-General Payne was not taking the revelations seriously were false, but reassured its reader that President Roosevelt would rigorously pursue the matter.  Two weeks later, the newspaper revealed an allegation that high-ranking Post Office officials had derailed a fraud investigation against its Washington, D.C., bureau in 1900.  Harper's Weekly interpreted Payne's silence as procrastination approaching obstruction, and called for his resignation.  It also pleaded with President Roosevelt to give the investigation his attention.

Payne resumed work, but implemented a gag order forbidding investigators from discussing matters with the press, and he tried to downplay the situation by calling the charges "hot air."  The postmaster's actions were in line with the president's insistence that no information be divulged until the inquiry was completed.  With Roosevelt's return in June, it appeared to the public that the pace of the probe quickened.  Joseph Bristow, the chief investigator, gave the president a preliminary report providing substantial evidence of wrongdoing.  In early July, Attorney General Philander Knox appointed two special prosecutors to the case, and Payne purged the Post Office of several of the top offenders.  Harper's Weekly, however, continued its drumbeat against the postmaster general, who dutifully absorbed press criticism that might otherwise have been aimed at the president.  In September 1903, indictments were returned against thirty Post Office officials and private contractors.

The Post Office was the largest source of federal patronage, which was so important in electoral politics, even as the reformed civil service system slowly advanced over the years.  In January 1902, Roosevelt had not only appointed Payne postmaster general, but had also named William Foulke, a longtime advocate of the merit system of government appointments, to the U.S. Civil Service Commission.  At the time, Harper's Weekly dryly observed, "Mr. Payne's and Mr. Foulke's views on the relations of patronage to the public service are not believed to be the same ..."  When this cartoon appeared in September 1903, the newspaper was editorially criticizing Payne for boosting the political power of one faction of Delaware Republicans by granting them a monopoly of Post Office patronage to the detriment of another faction.  Although Harper's Weekly accused Payne of violating civil service rules, nothing came of it, and the postmaster general remained in office until his death in October 1904.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Ah, In That, Too?”
July 14, 2024

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