Chronicles of America 

The Champion Of Civil Service Reform

The four years after the Cleveland-Blaine campaign were divided into two parts for Roosevelt by another political experience, which also resulted in defeat. He was nominated by the Republicans and a group of independents for Mayor of New York. His two opponents were Abram S. Hewitt, a business man of standing who had been inveigled, no one knows how, into lending respectability to the Tammany ticket in a critical moment, and Henry George, the father of the Single Tax doctrine, who had been nominated by a conference of some one hundred and seventy-five labor organizations. Roosevelt fought his best on a personal platform of "no class or caste" but "honest and economical government on behalf of the general wellbeing." But the inevitable happened. Tammany slipped in between its divided enemies and made off with the victory.

The rest of the four years he spent partly in ranch life out in the Dakotas, partly in writing history and biography at home and in travel. The life on the ranch and in the hunting camps finished the business, so resolutely begun in the outdoor gymnasium on Twentieth Street, of developing a physical equipment adequate for any call he could make upon it. This sojourn on the plains gave him, too, an intimate knowledge of the frontier type of American. Theodore Roosevelt loved his fellow men. What is more, he was always interested in them, not abstractly and in the mass, but concretely and in the individual. He believed in them. He knew their strength and their virtues, and he rejoiced in them. He realized their weaknesses and their softnesses and fought them hard. It was all this that made him the thoroughgoing democrat that he was. "The average American," I have heard him say a hundred times to all kinds of audiences,"is a pretty good fellow, and his wife is a still better fellow." He not only enjoyed those years in the West to the full, but he profited by them as well. They broadened and deepened his knowledge of what the American people were and meant. They made vivid to him the value of the simple, robust virtues of self-reliance, courage, self-denial, tolerance, and justice. The influence of those hard-riding years was with him as a great asset to the end of his life.

In the Presidential campaign of 1888, Roosevelt was on the firing line again, fighting for the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison. When Mr. Harrison was elected, he would have liked to put the young campaigner into the State Department. But Mr. Blaine, who became Secretary of State, did not care to have his plain-spoken opponent and critic under him. So the President offered Roosevelt the post of Civil Service Commissioner.

The spoils system had become habitual and traditional in American public life by sixty years of practice. It had received its first high sanction in the cynical words of a New York politician, "To the victor belong the spoils." Politicians looked upon it as a normal accompaniment of their activities. The public looked upon it with indifference. But finally a group of irrepressible reformers succeeded in getting the camel's nose under the flap of the tent. A law was passed establishing a Commission which was to introduce the merit system. But even then neither the politicians nor the public, nor the Commission itself, took the matter very seriously. The Commission was in the habit of carrying on its functions perfunctorily and unobtrusively. But nothing could be perfunctory where Roosevelt was. He would never permit things to be done--or left undone unobtrusively, when what was needed was to obtrude the matter forcibly on the public mind. He was a profound believer in the value of publicity.

When Roosevelt became Commissioner things began swiftly to happen. He had two firm convictions: that laws were made to be enforced, in the letter and in the spirit; and that the only thing worth while in the world was to get things done. He believed with a hot conviction in decency, honesty, and efficiency in public as in private life.

For six years he fought and infused his fellow Commissioners with some of his fighting spirit. They were good men but easy-going until the right leadership came along. The first effort of the Commission under the new leadership was to secure the genuine enforcement of the law. The backbone of the merit system was the competitive examination. This was not because such examinations are the infallible way to get good public servants, but because they are the best way that has yet been devised to keep out bad public servants, selected for private reasons having nothing to do with the public welfare. The effort to make these examinations and the subsequent appointments of real service to the nation rather than to the politicians naturally brought the Commission into conflict with many men of low ideals, both in Congress and without. Roosevelt found a number of men in Congress--like Senator Lodge, Senator Davis of Minnesota, Senator Platt of Connecticut, and Congressman (afterward President) McKinley--who were sincerely and vigorously opposed to the spoils system. But there were numbers of other Senators and Congressmen who hated the whole reform--everything connected with it and everybody who championed it. "Sometimes," Roosevelt said of these men, "to use a legal phrase, their hatred was for cause, and sometimes it was peremptory--that is, sometimes the Commission interfered with their most efficient, and incidentally most corrupt and unscrupulous supporters, and at other times, where there was no such interference, a man nevertheless had an innate dislike of anything that tended to decency in government."

Conflict with these men was inevitable. Sometimes their opposition took the form of trying to cut down the appropriation for the Commission.

Then the Commission, on Roosevelt's suggestion, would try the effect of holding no examinations in the districts of the Senators or Congressmen who had voted against the appropriation. The response from the districts was instantaneous. Frantic appeals came to the Commission from aspirants for office. The reply would be suave and courteous. One can imagine Roosevelt dictating it with a glint in his eye and a snap of the jaw, and when it was typed, inserting a sting in the tail in the form of an interpolated sentence in his own vigorous and rugged script. Those added sentences, without which any typewritten Roosevelt letter might almost be declared to be a forgery, so uniformly did the impulse to add them seize him, were always the most interesting feature of a communication from him. The letter would inform the protesting one that unfortunately the appropriation had been cut, so that examinations could not be held in every district, and that obviously the Commission could not neglect the districts of those Congressmen who believed in the reform and therefore in the examinations. The logical next step for the hungry aspirant was to transfer the attack to his Congressman or Senator. In the long run, by this simple device of backfiring, which may well have been a reminiscence of prairie fire days in the West, the Commission obtained enough money to carry on.

There were other forms of attack tried by the spoils-loving legislators. One was investigation by a congressional committee. But the appearance of Roosevelt before such an investigating body invariably resulted in a "bully time" for him and a peculiarly disconcerting time for his opponents.

One of the Republican floor leaders in the House in those days was Congressman Grosvenor from Ohio. In an unwary moment Mr. Grosvenor attacked the Commission on the floor of the House in picturesque fashion. Roosevelt promptly asked that Mr. Grosvenor be invited to meet him before a congressional committee which was at that moment investigating the activities of the Commission. The Congressman did not accept the invitation until he heard that Roosevelt was leaving Washington for his ranch in the West. Then he notified the committee that he would be glad to meet Commissioner Roosevelt at one of its sessions. Roosevelt immediately postponed his journey and met him. Mr. Grosvenor, says Roosevelt in his Autobiography, "proved to be a person of happily treacherous memory, so that the simple expedient of arranging his statements in pairs was sufficient to reduce him to confusion." He declared to the committee, for instance, that he did not want to repeal the Civil Service Law and had never said so. Roosevelt produced one of Mr. Grosvenor's speeches in which he had said, "I will not only vote to strike out this provision, but I will vote to repeal the whole law." Grosvenor declared that there was no inconsistency between these two statements. At another point in his testimony, he asserted that a certain applicant for office, who had, as he put it, been fraudulently credited to his congressional district, had never lived in that district or in Ohio, so far as he knew. Roosevelt brought forth a letter in which the Congressman himself had categorically stated that the man in question was not only a legal resident of his district but was actually living there then. He explained, says Roosevelt, "first, that he had not written the letter; second, that he had forgotten he had written the letter; and, third, that he was grossly deceived when he wrote it." Grosvenor at length accused Roosevelt of a lack of humor in not appreciating that his statements were made "in a jesting way," and declared that "a Congressman making a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives was perhaps in a little different position from a witness on the witness stand." Finally he rose with dignity and, asserting his constitutional right not to be questioned elsewhere as to what he said on the floor of the House, withdrew, leaving Roosevelt and the Committee equally delighted with the opera bouffe in which he had played the leading part.

In the Roosevelt days the Commission carried on its work, as of course it should, without thought of party. It can be imagined how it made the "good" Republicans rage when one of the results of the impartial application system was to put into office from the Southern States a hundred or two Democrats. The critics of the Commission were equally non-partisan; there was no politics in spoilsmanship. The case of Mr. Grosvenor was matched by that of Senator Gorman of Maryland, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Mr. Gorman told upon the floor of the Senate the affecting story of "a bright young man from Baltimore," a Sunday School scholar, well recommended by his pastor, who aspired to be a letter carrier. He appeared before the Commission for examination, and, according to Mr. Gorman, he was first asked to describe the shortest route from Baltimore to China. The "bright young man" replied brightly, according to Mr. Gorman, that he didn't want to go from Baltimore to China, and therefore had never concerned himself about the choice of routes. He was then asked, according to Mr. Gorman, all about the steamship lines from America to Europe; then came questions in geology, and finally in chemistry. The Commission thereupon turned the bright young applicant down. The Senator's speech was masterly. It must have made the spoilsmen chuckle and the friends of civil service reform squirm. It had neither of these effects on Roosevelt. It merely exploded him into action like a finger on a hair-trigger. First of all, he set about hunting down the facts. Facts were his favorite ammunition in a fight. They have such a powerful punch. A careful investigation of all the examination papers which the Commission had set revealed not a single question like those from which the "bright young man," according to Mr. Gorman, had suffered. So Roosevelt wrote to the Senator asking for the name of the" bright young man." There was no response. He also asked, in case Mr. Gorman did not care to reveal his identity, the date of the examination. Still no reply. Roosevelt offered to give to any representative whom Mr. Gorman would send to the Commission's offices all the aid he could in discovering in the files any such questions. The offer was ignored. But the Senator expressed himself as so shocked at this doubting of the word of his brilliant protege that he was unable to answer the letter at all.

Roosevelt thereupon announced publicly that no such questions had ever been asked. Mr. Gorman was gravely injured by the whole incident. Later he declared in the Senate that he had received a "very impudent letter" from the young Commissioner, and that he had been "cruelly" called to account because he had tried to right a "great wrong" which the Commission had committed. Roosevelt's retort was to tell the whole story publicly, closing with this delightful passage:

"High-minded, sensitive Mr. Gorman. Clinging, trustful Mr. Gorman. Nothing could shake his belief in the "bright young man." Apparently he did not even try to find out his name--if he had a name; in fact, his name like everything else about him, remains to this day wrapped in the Stygian mantle of an abysmal mystery. Still less has Mr. Gorman tried to verify the statements made to him. It is enough for him that they were made. No harsh suspicion, no stern demand for evidence or proof, appeals to his artless and unspoiled soul. He believes whatever he is told, even when he has forgotten the name of the teller, or never knew it. It would indeed be difficult to find an instance of a more abiding confidence in human nature--even in anonymous human nature. And this is the end of the tale of the Arcadian Mr. Gorman and his elusive friend, the bright young man without a name."

Even so near the beginning of his career, Roosevelt showed himself perfectly fearless in attack. He would as soon enter the lists against a Senator as a Congressman, as soon challenge a Cabinet member as either. He did not even hesitate to make it uncomfortable for the President to whom he owed his continuance in office. His only concern was for the honor of the public service which he was in office to defend.

One day he appeared at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Civil Service Reform Association. George William Curtis was presiding, and Roosevelt's old friend, George Haven Putnam, who tells the story, was also present. Roosevelt began by hurling a solemn but hearty imprecation at the head of the Postmaster General. He went on to explain that his explosive wrath was due to the fact that that particular gentleman was the most pernicious of all the enemies of the merit system. It was one of the functions of the Civil Service Commission, as Roosevelt saw it, to put a stop to improper political activities by Federal employees. Such activities were among the things that the Civil Service law was intended to prevent. They strengthened the hands of the political machines and the bosses, and at the same time weakened the efficiency of the service. Roosevelt had from time to time reported to the Postmaster General what some of the Post Office employees were doing in political ways to the detriment of the service. His account of what happened was this:

"I placed before the Postmaster-General sworn statements in regard to these political activities and the only reply I could secure was, 'This is all second-hand evidence.' Then I went up to Baltimore at the invitation of our good friend, a member of the National Committee, Charles J. Bonaparte. Bonaparte said that he could bring me into direct touch with some of the matters complained about. He took me to the primary meetings with some associate who knew by name the carriers and the customs officials. I was able to see going on the work of political assessments, and I heard the instructions given to the carriers and others in regard to the moneys that they were to collect. I got the names of some of these men recorded in my memorandum book. I then went back to Washington, swore myself in as a witness before myself as Commissioner, and sent the sworn statement to the Postmaster-General with the word, "This at least is firsthand evidence." I still got no reply, and after waiting a few days, I put the whole material before the President with a report. This report has been pigeonholed by the President, and I have now come to New York to see what can be done to get the evidence before the public. You will understand that the head of a department, having made a report to the President, can do nothing further with the material until the President permits."

Roosevelt went back to Washington with the sage advice to ask the Civil Service Committee of the House to call upon him to give evidence in regard to the working of the Civil Service Act. He could then get into the record his first-hand evidence as well as a general statement of the bad practices which were going on. This evidence, when printed as a report of the congressional committee, could be circulated by the Association. Roosevelt bettered the advice by asking to have the Postmaster General called before the committee at the same time as himself. This was done, but that timid politician replied to the Chairman of the committee that "he would hold himself at the service of the Committee for any date on which Mr. Roosevelt was not to be present." The politicians with uneasy consciences were getting a little wary about face-to-face encounters with the young fighter. Nevertheless Roosevelt's testimony was given and circulated broadcast, as Major Putnam writes, "much to the dissatisfaction of the Postmaster General and probably of the President."

The six years which Roosevelt spent on the Civil Service Commission were for him years of splendid training in the methods and practices of political life. What he learned then stood him in good stead when he came to the Presidency. Those years of Roosevelt's gave an impetus to the cause of civil reform which far surpassed anything it had received until his time. Indeed, it is probably not unfair to say that it has received no greater impulse since.