Author: Carl Schurz  | Date: 1894

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Civil Service Reform (1894)


WHAT Civil Service Reform demands, is simply that the business part of the Government shall be carried on in a sound, businesslike manner. This seems so obviously reasonable that among people of common sense there should be no two opinions about it. And the condition of things to be reformed is so obviously unreasonable, so flagrantly absurd and vicious, that we should not believe it could possibly exist among sensible people, had we not become accustomed to its existence among ourselves. . . .

Looking at the financial side of the matter alone—it is certainly bad enough; it is indeed almost incomprehensible how the spoils system could be permitted through scores of years to vitiate our business methods in the conduct of the national revenue service, the postal service, the Indian service, the public-land service, involving us in indescribable administrative blunders, bringing about Indian wars, causing immense losses in the revenue, breeding extravagant and plundering practices in all Departments, costing our people in the course of time untold hundreds of millions of money, and making our Government one of the most wasteful in the world. All this, I say, is bad enough. It might be called discreditable enough to move any self-respecting people to shame. But the spoils system has inflicted upon the American people injuries far greater than these.

The spoils system, that practice which turns public offices, high and low, from public trusts into objects of prey and booty for the victorious party, may without extravagance of language be called one of the greatest criminals in our history, if not the greatest. In the whole catalogue of our ills there is none more dangerous to the vitality of our free institutions.

It tends to divert our whole political life from its true aims. It teaches men to seek something else in politics than the public good. It puts mercenary selfishness as the motive power for political action in the place of public spirit, and organizes that selfishness into a dominant political force.

It attracts to active party politics the worst elements of our population, and with them crowds out the best. It transforms political parties from associations of patriotic citizens, formed to serve a public cause, into bands of mercenaries using a cause to serve them. It perverts party contests from contentions of opinion into scrambles for plunder. By stimulating the mercenary spirit it promotes the corrupt use of money in party contests and in elections.

It takes the leadership of political organizations out of the hands of men fit to be leaders of opinion and workers for high aims, and turns it over to the organizers and leaders of bands of political marauders. It creates the boss and the machine, putting the boss into the place of the statesman, and the despotism of the machine in the place of an organized public opinion.

It converts the public officeholder, who should be the servant of the people, into the servant of a party or of an influential politician, extorting from him time and work which should belong to the public, and money which he receives from the public for public service. It corrupts his sense of duty by making him understand that his obligation to his party or his political patron is equal if not superior to his obligation to the public interest, and that his continuance in office does not depend on his fidelity to duty. It debauches his honesty by seducing him to use the opportunities of his office to indemnify himself for the burdens forced upon him as a party slave. It undermines in all directions the discipline of the public service.

It falsifies our constitutional system. It leads to the usurpation, in a large measure, of the executive power of appointment by members of the legislative branch, substituting their irresponsible views of personal or party interest for the judgment as to the public good and the sense of responsibility of the executive. It subjects those who exercise the appointing power, from the President of the United States down, to the intrusion of hordes of office-hunters and their patrons, who rob them of the time and strength they should devote to the public interest. It has already killed two of our Presidents, one, the first Harrison, by worry, and the other, Garfield, by murder; and more recently it has killed a mayor in Chicago and a judge in Tennessee.

It degrades our Senators and Representatives in Congress to the contemptible position of office-brokers, and even of mere agents of office-brokers, making the business of dickering about spoils as weighty to them as their duties as legislators. It introduces the patronage as an agency of corrupt influence between the executive and the legislature. It serves to obscure the criminal character of bribery by treating bribery with offices as a legitimate practice. It thus reconciles the popular mind to practices essentially corrupt, and thereby debauches the popular sense of right and wrong in politics.

It keeps in high political places, to the exclusion of better men, persons whose only ability consists in holding a personal following by adroit manipulation of the patronage. It has thus sadly lowered the standard of statesmanship in public position, compared with the high order of ability displayed in all other walks of life.

It does more than anything else to turn our large municipalities into sinks of corruption, to render Tammany Halls possible, and to make of the police force here and there a protector of crime and a terror to those whose safety it is to guard. It exposes us, by the scandalous spectacle of its periodical spoils carnivals, to the ridicule and contempt of civilized mankind, promoting among our own people the growth of serious doubts as to the practicability of democratic institutions on a great scale; and in an endless variety of ways it introduces into our political life more elements of demoralization, debasement and decadence than any other agency of evil I know of, aye, perhaps more than all other agencies of evil combined.

These are some of the injuries the spoils system has been, and still is, inflicting upon this Republic—some, I say; not all. . . .

. . . Every intelligent and unprejudiced citizen, when he candidly inquires into the developments which have brought about the present state of things, will understand that of the evils which have so alarmingly demoralized our political life, and so sadly lowered this Republic in the respect of the world, many, if not most, had their origin, and find their sustenance, in that practice which treats the public offices as the plunder of victorious parties; that as, with the increase of our population, the growth of our wealth, and the multiplication of our public interests, the functions of government expand and become more complicated, those evils will grow and eventually destroy the very vitality of our free institutions, unless their prolific source be stopped; and that this force can be effectually stopped not by mere occasional spasms of indignant virtue, but only by a systematic, thorough and permanent reform. Every patriotic citizen understanding this must be a Civil Service Reformer.

National Civil-Service Reform League, , 1894 (New York, 1894), 7–37 passim.

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Chicago: Carl Schurz, Proceedings, ed. National Civil-Service Reform League in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed September 20, 2019,

MLA: Schurz, Carl. Proceedings, edited by National Civil-Service Reform League, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 20 Sep. 2019.

Harvard: Schurz, C, Proceedings, ed. . cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 September 2019, from