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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Political Reforms

The Public Service.—It was a wise comprehension of the needs of American democracy that led the friends of reform to launch and to sustain for more than half a century a movement to improve the public service. On the one side they struck at the spoils system; at the right of the politicians to use public offices as mere rewards for partisan work. The federal civil service act of 1883 opened the way to reform by establishing five vital principles in law: (1) admission to office, not on the recommendation of party workers, but on the basis of competitive examinations; (2) promotion for meritorious service of the government rather than of parties; (3) no assessment of office holders for campaign funds; (4) permanent tenure during good behavior; and (5) no dismissals for political reasons. The act itself at first applied to only 14,000 federal offices, but under the constant pressure from the reformers it was extended until in 1916 it covered nearly 300,000 employees out of an executive force of approximately 414,000. While gaining steadily at Washington, civil service reformers carried their agitation into the states and cities. By 1920 they were able to report ten states with civil service commissions and the merit system well intrenched in more than three hundred municipalities.

In excluding spoilsmen from public office, the reformers were, in a sense, engaged in a negative work: that of “keeping the rascals out.” But there was a second and larger phase to their movement, one constructive in character: that of getting skilled, loyal, and efficient servants into the places of responsibility. Everywhere on land and sea, in town and country, new burdens were laid upon public officers. They were called upon to supervise the ships sailing to and from our ports; to inspect the water and milk supplies of our cities; to construct and operate great public works, such as the Panama and Erie canals; to regulate the complicated rates of railway companies; to safeguard health and safety in a thousand ways; to climb the mountains to fight forest fires; and to descend into the deeps of the earth to combat the deadly coal gases that assail the miners. In a word, those who labored to master the secrets and the powers of nature were summoned to the aid of the government: chemists, engineers, architects, nurses, surgeons, foresters—the skilled in all the sciences, arts, and crafts.

Keeping rascals out was no task at all compared with the problem of finding competent people for all the technical offices. “Now,” said the reformers, “we must make attractive careers in the government work for the best American talent; we must train those applying for admission and increase the skill of those already in positions of trust; we must see to it that those entering at the bottom have a chance to rise to the top; in short, we must work for a government as skilled and efficient as it is strong, one commanding all the wisdom and talent of America that public welfare requires.”

The Australian Ballot.—A second line of attack on the political machines was made in connection with the ballot. In the early days elections were frequently held in the open air and the poll was taken by a show of hands or by the enrollment of the voters under names of their favorite candidates. When this ancient practice was abandoned in favor of the printed ballot, there was still no secrecy about elections. Each party prepared its own ballot, often of a distinctive color, containing the names of its candidates. On election day, these papers were handed out to the voters by party workers. Any one could tell from the color of the ballot dropped into the box, or from some mark on the outside of the folded ballot, just how each man voted. Those who bought votes were sure that their purchases were “delivered.” Those who intimidated voters could know when their intimidation was effective. In this way the party ballot strengthened the party machine.

As a remedy for such abuses, reformers, learning from the experience of Australia, urged the adoption of the “Australian ballot.” That ballot, though it appeared in many forms, had certain constant features. It was official, that is, furnished by the government, not by party workers; it contained the names of all candidates of all parties; it was given out only in the polling places; and it was marked in secret. The first state to introduce it was Massachusetts. The year was 1888. Before the end of the century it had been adopted by nearly all the states in the union. The salutary effect of the reform in reducing the amount of cheating and bribery in elections was beyond all question.

The Direct Primary.—In connection with the uprising against machine politics, came a call for the abolition of the old method of nominating candidates by conventions. These time-honored party assemblies, which had come down from the days of Andrew Jackson, were, it was said, merely conclaves of party workers, sustained by the spoils system, and dominated by an inner circle of bosses. The remedy offered in this case was again “more democracy,” namely, the abolition of the party convention and the adoption of the direct primary. Candidates were no longer to be chosen by secret conferences. Any member of a party was to be allowed to run for any office, to present his name to his party by securing signatures to a petition, and to submit his candidacy to his fellow partisans at a direct primary—an election within the party. In this movement Governor La Follette of Wisconsin took the lead and his state was the first in the union to adopt the direct primary for state-wide purposes. The idea spread, rapidly in the West, more slowly in the East. The public, already angered against “the bosses,” grasped eagerly at it. Governor Hughes in New York pressed it upon the unwilling legislature. State after state accepted it until by 1918 Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Mexico were the only states that had not bowed to the storm. Still the results were disappointing and at that very time the pendulum was beginning to swing backward.

Popular Election of Federal Senators.—While the movement for direct primaries was still advancing everywhere, a demand for the popular election of Senators, usually associated with it, swept forward to victory. Under the original Constitution, it had been expressly provided that Senators should be chosen by the legislatures of the states. In practice this rule transferred the selection of Senators to secret caucuses of party members in the state legislatures. In connection with these caucuses there had been many scandals, some direct proofs of brazen bribery and corruption, and dark hints besides. The Senate was called by its detractors “a millionaires’ club” and it was looked upon as the “citadel of conservatism.” The prescription in this case was likewise “more democracy”—direct election of Senators by popular vote.

This reform was not a new idea. It had been proposed in Congress as early as 1826. President Johnson, an ardent advocate, made it the subject of a special message in 1868 Not long afterward it appeared in Congress. At last in 1893, the year after the great Populist upheaval, the House of Representatives by the requisite two-thirds vote incorporated it in an amendment to the federal Constitution. Again and again it passed the House; but the Senate itself was obdurate. Able Senators leveled their batteries against it. Mr. Hoar of Massachusetts declared that it would transfer the seat of power to the “great cities and masses of population”; that it would “overthrow the whole scheme of the Senate and in the end the whole scheme of the national Constitution as designed and established by the framers of the Constitution and the people who adopted it.”

Failing in the Senate, advocates of popular election made a rear assault through the states. They induced state legislatures to enact laws requiring the nomination of candidates for the Senate by the direct primary, and then they bound the legislatures to abide by the popular choice. Nevada took the lead in 1899. Shortly afterward Oregon, by the use of the initiative and referendum, practically bound legislators to accept the popular nominee and the country witnessed the spectacle of a Republican legislature “electing” a Democrat to represent the state in the Senate at Washington. By 1910 three-fourths of the states had applied the direct primary in some form to the choice of Senators. Men selected by that method began to pour in upon the floors of Congress; finally in 1912 the two-thirds majority was secured for an amendment to the federal Constitution providing for the popular election of Senators. It was quickly ratified by the states. The following year it was proclaimed in effect.

The Initiative and Referendum.—As a corrective for the evils which had grown up in state legislatures there arose a demand for the introduction of a Swiss device known as the initiative and referendum. The initiative permits any one to draw up a proposed bill; and, on securing a certain number of signatures among the voters, to require the submission of the measure to the people at an election. If the bill thus initiated receives a sufficient majority, it becomes a law. The referendum allows citizens who disapprove any act passed by the legislature to get up a petition against it and thus bring about a reference of the measure to the voters at the polls for approval or rejection. These two practices constitute a form of “direct government.”

These devices were prescribed “to restore the government to the people.” The Populists favored them in their platform of 1896. Mr. Bryan, two years later, made them a part of his program, and in the same year South Dakota adopted them. In 1902 Oregon, after a strenuous campaign, added a direct legislation amendment to the state constitution. Within ten years all the Southwestern, Mountain, and Pacific states, except Texas and Wyoming, had followed this example. To the east of the Mississippi, however, direct legislation met a chilly reception. By 1920 only five states in this section had accepted it: Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, and Maryland, the last approving the referendum only.

The Recall.—Executive officers and judges, as well as legislatures, had come in for their share of criticism, and it was proposed that they should likewise be subjected to a closer scrutiny by the public. For this purpose there was advanced a scheme known as the recall—which permitted a certain percentage of the voters to compel any officer, at any time during his term, to go before the people at a new election. This feature of direct government, tried out first in the city of Los Angeles, was extended to state-wide uses in Oregon in 1908. It failed, however, to capture popular imagination to the same degree as the initiative and referendum. At the end of ten years’ agitation, only ten states, mainly in the West, had adopted it for general purposes, and four of them did not apply it to the judges of the courts. Still it was extensively acclaimed in cities and incorporated into hundreds of municipal laws and charters.

As a general proposition, direct government in all its forms was bitterly opposed by men of a conservative cast of mind. It was denounced by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge as “nothing less than a complete revolution in the fabric of our government and in the fundamental principles upon which that government rests.” In his opinion, it promised to break down the representative principle and “undermine and overthrow the bulwarks of ordered liberty and individual freedom.” Mr. Taft shared Mr. Lodge’s views and spoke of direct government with scorn. “Votes,” he exclaimed, “are not bread … referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses, recalls do not furnish clothes, initiatives do not supply employment or relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity.”

Commission Government for Cities.—In the restless searching out of evils, the management of cities early came under critical scrutiny. City government, Mr. Bryce had remarked, was the one conspicuous failure in America. This sharp thrust, though resented by some, was accepted as a warning by others. Many prescriptions were offered by doctors of the body politic. Chief among them was the idea of simplifying the city government so that the light of public scrutiny could shine through it. “Let us elect only a few men and make them clearly responsible for the city government!” was the new cry in municipal reform. So, many city councils were reduced in size; one of the two houses, which several cities had adopted in imitation of the federal government, was abolished; and in order that the mayor could be held to account, he was given the power to appoint all the chief officials. This made the mayor, in some cases, the only elective city official and gave the voters a “short ballot” containing only a few names—an idea which some proposed to apply also to the state government.

A further step in the concentration of authority was taken in Galveston, Texas, where the people, looking upon the ruin of their city wrought by the devastating storm of 1901, and confronted by the difficult problems of reconstruction, felt the necessity for a more businesslike management of city affairs and instituted a new form of local administration. They abolished the old scheme of mayor and council and vested all power in five commissioners, one of whom, without any special prerogatives, was assigned to the office of “mayor president.” In 1908, the commission form of government, as it was soon characterized, was adopted by Des Moines, Iowa. The attention of all municipal reformers was drawn to it and it was hailed as the guarantee of a better day. By 1920, more than four hundred cities, including Memphis, Spokane, Birmingham, Newark, and Buffalo, had adopted it. Still the larger cities like New York and Chicago kept their boards of aldermen.

The City Manager Plan.—A few years’ experience with commission government revealed certain patent defects. The division of the work among five men was frequently found to introduce dissensions and irresponsibility. Commissioners were often lacking in the technical ability required to manage such difficult matters as fire and police protection, public health, public works, and public utilities. Some one then proposed to carry over into city government an idea from the business world. In that sphere the stockholders of each corporation elect the directors and the directors, in turn, choose a business manager to conduct the affairs of the company. It was suggested that the city commissioners, instead of attempting to supervise the details of the city administration, should select a manager to do this. The scheme was put into effect in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1912. Like the commission plan, it became popular. Within eight years more than one hundred and fifty towns and cities had adopted it. Among the larger municipalities were Dayton, Springfield (Ohio), Akron, Kalamazoo, and Phoenix. It promised to create a new public service profession, that of city manager.

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