Fighting the Spoils System

As Civil Service Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt cracked into the prevailing corrupt spoils system. Aided by the Pendleton Act, he fought fearlessly to uphold the practice of appointment on merit.

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Theodore Roosevelt upheld the practice of appointment on merit
T.R's Declaration of Independence - Theodore Roosevelt as the new President seeks to enforce the civil service rules in federal hiring practices, 6-Nov-1901

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) – American President, Conservationist

When Theodore Roosevelt was appointed commissioner of the Federal Civil Service in 1889, it was considered a plausible appointment in some quarters, but for different reasons. For the president who appointed him to the role, it was a good way of rewarding a loyalist who was instrumental to his campaigns and eventual electoral victory.

For reform activists, it was finally a chance to have an official that believed in monumental change at the helm of the civil service affairs. Of course, a good number of other individuals received news of his appointment with lots of reservations. Undoubtedly, this group had officials in their pockets, who supported and benefited from the spoils system.

Long before Roosevelt even had any chance to be in government, he was an unapologetic supporter of civil service reforms. He believed that every appointment made in the civil service, from the very top to the very bottom must be based on merit. This was an idea that he never stopped fighting for, from his youth until he became president.

From his days at Harvard, and even after graduation, he supported various resolutions that were aimed at establishing a merit-only basis for appointing people in public offices. A lot of these resolutions failed, but as he progressed in the New York political scene, he saw more success. Shortly after Benjamin Harrison was elected president, Cabot Lodge, who was Roosevelt’s close friend and political ally as well, advised him that Theodore be selected as one of the commissioners.

As soon as Theodore was confirmed as a commissioner, he hit the ground running. He started by reviewing the appointment of various officials as far as his office allowed by law. A ton of government staff was dismissed in a few days when it became clear that they got their positions illegitimately.

Theodore was able to do this due to the legal backing he had from the Pendleton Act. The Pendleton Act of 1883 is a United States federal law that mandates the appointment of people into certain positions in the civil service must not be based on political affiliation. As of 1889 when Theodore was appointed, only about 10 percent of all federal appointments were merit-based. Others were a result of malpractices and exploitation of loopholes in the law and the recruitment system.

A copy of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, 16-Jan-1883

In 1891, there was one such incident in Baltimore, Maryland. The republican party members were to elect delegates to the state convention. According to John Rose, the counsel for Maryland Civil Service Reform League, the Baltimore postmaster coerced every member of the staff of the postal office to pay at least $5 to support republican candidates that were pro-Harrison. When Roosevelt was notified of this, he decided not to step in to investigate personally. Rather, he asked the postmaster general, John Wanamaker to do the investigation. The reason for this was that Roosevelt and Wanamaker were not on good terms. Wanamaker was a supporter of the spoils system, which Roosevelt was vehemently against.

Theodore Roosevelt raided Baltimore on the election-day and witnessed how the whole process was rigged. Many people voted multiple times after being persuaded by cash rewards. There were vote-buying and all sorts of atrocities on display on a large scale. After Roosevelt made his findings, he recommended that Wanamaker do his investigation and possibly dismiss 25 Baltimore Republican appointees.

Wanamaker eventually did nothing as regards to the issue. He completely dissociated himself from the process, saying it was the decision of the ward leaders who nominated the appointees. Of course, this provoked the Baltimore republican leaders, who responded by demanding that President Harrison remove Roosevelt. The president responded that he had to wait for the official report before he could determine that Roosevelt was guilty of any wrongdoing.

Wanamaker came up with his 900-page report of the Baltimore incident. The report cleared the Baltimore officials of any wrongdoing. This prompted Roosevelt to draw up his report of the incident. While putting the report together, he interviewed over 200 employees in Baltimore, gathering evidence of all the illegitimate actions that took place there. The report was in direct contrast to Wanamaker’s claims.

The content of Roosevelt’s report was so embarrassing to the republican party. It indicted several members of the party and if made public, would be detrimental to their political standing and popularity among the people. Because of this, the White House decided to wait until the Summer of that year before taking any steps on the report.

In August 1891, the White House released a well-censored version of Roosevelt’s report. It had been beaten down so that it wasn’t as brutally honest as the original report. Even with all the censoring, there was a lot of damning information which the Democrats were able to use as solid criticisms of the ruling party.

John Wanamaker seated in his office
Postmaster General John Wanamaker supported the spoils system.

By March 1892, Theodore grew impatient at the pace at which the whole case was going. It was already about a year after the incident and still, Wanamaker had taken no steps regarding the recommendations on the report. Roosevelt then bypassed the president and directly submitted his report to the House Committee on Civil Service. At that time, the majority of Lawmakers were Democrats and understandably, were very eager to look into Roosevelt’s report.

Eventually, both Roosevelt and Wanamaker were summoned by the congress, and throughout the hearings, Roosevelt came out on top, with Wanamaker unable to effectively defend his 900-page report. There were three Republicans on the committee, and they all went in favor of Wanamaker. Their stance was however not enough to grant the postmaster general his desired win, because the Democrat majority went in favor of Roosevelt.

The tension between Wanamaker and Roosevelt caused some friction in the republican party. Various political commentators believed that President Harrison would have to remove one of those two from office. The general opinion at the time was that Roosevelt would take the ax because Wanamaker had enough influence to cement his place in the administration. As fate would have it, Roosevelt outlived both Wanamaker and President Harrison in public service.

When it concerned Theodore Roosevelt, there was rarely any middle ground. He was either fiercely loved or vehemently disliked. Even members of his party appeared on both ends of the spectrum in their opinion on the Bull Moose.

By 1892, some progress was made in civil service reforms. Using the Pendleton Act as base, Roosevelt and other commissioners tried all they could to bring violators to the altar. For all the progress they could have made, the courts failed to convict most of the violators charged with going against the act. The public was on the side of the reformers, so Roosevelt used the instrument of media to reduce the violations. Public officials were wary of violating the act because if they did, their actions would be publicized, and would be exposed to ridicule.

Additionally, during Roosevelt’s time as commissioner, the civil service appointment exams became much more transparent. The administration, grading, and selection processes were thoroughly scrutinized and monitored. Despite Roosevelt’s best efforts, the majority of public positions were being filled using the spoils system even by 1893. However, there was an improvement in the share of positions filled by merit.


“I have made this Commission a living force, and in consequence, the outcry among the spoilsmen has become furious; … But I answered militantly; that as long as I was responsible the law should be enforced up to the handle everywhere, fearlessly and honestly.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

President Harrison failed in his re-election bid, causing the Republicans to cede power to the Democrats. Grover Cleveland became the 24th American President after Benjamin Harrison. It was widely expected that because the ruling party had changed, there would be a massive overhaul in key positions. Roosevelt was one of the officials that different commentators expected Cleveland’s government to remove from office. It was the popular opinion that Roosevelt would prove difficult for the current government.

To everyone’s surprise, Roosevelt was asked to continue in his role as commissioner. Two factors contributed to his selection. One was Carl Schurz, a die-hard civil service reformer who was Roosevelt’s father’s friend. Schurz put in a good word for Roosevelt with the president. Another important factor that helped Roosevelt’s case was the Pendleton Act. The act required that at least one of the three civil service commissioners be from the opposing party. With Schurz’s influence, the spot was given to Roosevelt. According to Schurz, “You can hardly find a more faithful, courageous and effective aid than Mr. Roosevelt”.

With the Democrats in government and a reform supporter as president, things became better in Roosevelt’s fight against the rigged system. Of course, there were still principal officers who opposed the merit system, but Roosevelt had a major share of government officers who were sympathetic to his cause.

One of the principal officers who opposed Roosevelt was John Carlisle, the Treasury Secretary. Carlisle often removed Republicans from their respective appointments and replaced them with Democrats. This was not what angered Roosevelt the most. His major concern was the fact that a lot of these officials were professionals who had worked for many years in their positions. Carlisle replaced them with less qualified individuals.

Some of those removed were Cyrus Stevens, A.O Latham and A. F McMillan; all of whom had at least 20 years of work experience in the Treasury department. Even some officials resigned in protest against Carlisle’s appointments. Prof. Mendenhall, a scientist that headed the Coast Survey quit his position when Carlisle replaced members of his team with less qualified people.

Despite the opposition, he faced, most of Roosevelt’s work in his second term as commissioner revolved around the fight against racial discrimination and illegal political assessments. Political assessments are the contributions that government staff was required to make towards political campaigns. Usually, this assessment was a certain percentage of their salary. It could be as high as 7% at times. In extreme cases, government workers are mandated to take an active part in campaigning for candidates.

At times, racial discrimination and political assessment problems overlapped. While the Pendleton act was there to restrict assessment collection, there was no concrete law against racial discrimination in government service. This meant that while they had to cut corners and look for loopholes to circumvent the Pendleton Act, racial discrimination in appointments and removals were done with impunity without any resistance by the law.

In 1894, the practice of collecting assessments became so corrupt that the principal officials had ways of intimidating uncooperative workers. Some of the methods they used included making the job inconvenient by transferring the worker far away from where they live. They did this without giving any explanations as to why the transfer was made. Interestingly, they restored the staff to their original posting once they paid the requested assessment!

Things went from bad to worse when Attorney General Richard Olney made a ruling that made it legal to solicit political assessments through the mail. This was when the racism motivated dismissals gained momentum. The principal officials simply sent a mail to black workers’ homes. This mail contained threats of instant removal upon failure to pay the required assessment.

With the Judiciary not being of much help, Roosevelt turned to Department heads, since they were backed by law to take necessary steps. Unfortunately, most of the Department heads supported the spoils system. This wasn’t a surprise since the majority of them were products of the same system. Rather than tackle the assessment problem head-on, the Department heads only removed violators that belonged to the other party.

Undeterred by the discouraging turn of things, Roosevelt decided to use the media once again to publicize these wrongdoings. Although a tough way to go, this proved effective, because a good number of the principal government officials wanted to avoid public backlash.

In December 1894, Roosevelt wrote, “We haven’t succeeded in putting a complete stop…but we have greatly diminished the number of political assessments.” Even though the progress was slow, it had a tremendous impact on the civil service.

Cartoon - Theodore Roosevelt on a elephant charges into the corrupt post office.
“More Rough Riding” – Illustrative of T.R.’s attempt to clean-up the corruption in the Postal Service, 29-Jul-1903

Before 1894, professionals and well-educated people avoided civil service. The reason for this isn’t exactly shrouded in doubt: The uncertainty that surrounded the position of holding a public office was too much for most. A new government from another party usually meant large scale dismissals and appointments. By 1895, there were more career professionals and even college graduates took up jobs in the civil service.

Shortly before Roosevelt resigned from the commission in 1895, it was discovered that government agencies that used the merit system were more effective than those that stuck with the spoils system. This was evident in the contrast between the effectiveness of the Railway Mail Service and the wastefulness of the Census Office.

It wasn’t a surprise when Roosevelt became president in 1901, that the Census Office was his first point of action in the civil service. The issues of the census office ran deeper than political appointments and removals. Successive governments used the census office as an avenue to falsify figures to rig elections more effectively. The appointments into the census office were so politicized that congressmen handpicked people for appointments into the positions. As expected, there was resistance from the congress against the move by Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt used his executive power as president to push his merit system agenda. This period was a huge relief for civil service reformers. However, even as strong-willed as Roosevelt was, he could not make the whole civil service merit-based. Nevertheless, he was able to increase the merit-based positions over and above those filled by the corrupt system.

The legacy of integrity and meritocracy that Roosevelt left in the Federal civil service stands even till today. In remembrance of his dedication to a functional civil service, the Office of Personnel Management named a building in his honor in 1992.

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