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Civil Service Reform
Under the administration of George Washington (1789-1797), the size of the federal bureaucracy was minuscule; the State Department, for example, had nine employees. Over the years, the number of departments and offices grew, as did the number of government employees. In the early decades of the republic, positions in the bureaucracy went primarily to well-educated sons of the elite. One of the democratizing reforms of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was to open government employment to the average citizen, based on the notion that it took no special prior knowledge to perform the tasks. The patronage system, as it was called, developed at the same time as the modern party system, resulting in the two becoming intimately intertwined. Government jobs (and contracts) were awarded to those who loyally worked for the party in power. The replacement of one party by another party (or by another faction within a party) meant a turnover in all government jobs (i.e., rotation in office).

The promise of patronage positions encouraged citizens to become involved in the partisan cause and to vote the party ticket (one's vote was publicly known to all, not by secret ballot). During the election season, patronage employees were a valuable source of campaign workers and campaign finances. They were expected to allocate part of their time to electioneering for the party's candidates and to contribute a percentage of their annual salaries to the party's treasury. These "assessments," as the reimbursements were known, constituted about three to five percent of salaries, but workers could be assessed by all levels of the party-national, state, and local-not merely by the one for which they worked. The newspapers that received government printing contracts generated positive publicity for the party. To supporters, the patronage system was the lifeblood of the party system and, therefore, of American democracy.

Disapproval of the patronage system, or the "spoils" system as critics nicknamed it, dates to its establishment. Press reports of numerous government scandals in the 1850s raised the level of frustration. The system's shortcomings and corruption during the Civil War, when an expanded and efficient administration was necessitated, provoked opposition further. In the wake of the war, a civil service reform movement was born, led by Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis. The reformers argued that the "spoils" system resulted in a government that was bloated, inefficient, weak, and prone to corruption. They insisted that it encouraged partisan and personal gain to take precedence over principles and the common good. Opponents, however, argued that the patronage system was democratic, while civil service reform would undermine party strength and ensconce sons of the elite in office. The reformers hoped to replace patronage with a professional civil service based on merit appointments (requiring examination for fitness), merit promotions, and tenure. The first Civil Service Commission, headed by Curtis, existed temporarily during the Grant administration, but it was not until 1883 that the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was enacted by Congress.

Education: Aid to Religious Schools
Since colonial times, American society had been overwhelmingly Protestant, and hostility toward minority religious groups had ebbed and flowed over the years. The tolerance of the Protestant majority was tested as increasing numbers of 19th-century immigrants, particularly from Ireland, confessed adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. Most Protestants held deep-seated prejudices against the Catholic Church as a repository of ignorance, repression, and authoritarianism. They also assumed that the loyalty of Catholics, especially immigrants, was primarily to the Vatican, rather than to their adopted land.

For most of the nation's history, education had been provided by a variety of private, charitable, public, and combined public-private institutions, with state and municipal governments even allocating funds to religious schools. The public schools in the 19th century were considered by most Protestants to be non-sectarian, but in fact were pan-Protestant in nature. In public schools the Protestant version of the Bible was read and Protestant moral lessons were taught by Protestant teachers. Catholic leaders realized this, and asked that Catholic schools, supported by tax-paying Catholics, receive their fair share of public funds. Protestant defenders of public schools erroneously considered that request to be an attempt by Catholics to destroy the spreading public school system.

In 1876 Republicans, whose membership was mostly Protestant, endorsed a proposed Constitutional amendment that would have banned government aid to parochial schools. Controversy was stirred during the final days of the 1884 election when a Protestant minister condemned Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion"-i.e., as opponents of the regulation or prohibition of alcohol, promoters of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in public schools and other areas of public life, and supporters of the Confederate cause. That view of Democrats, however, had been standard among Republicans for many years. Democrats, with large Irish-Catholic and German-Catholic constituencies, tended to support aid to parochial schools and insisted that Catholics and immigrants were loyal Americans.

Money Question
Monetary policy was one of the most persistent and conspicuous issues of the late-19th century. It was first raised during the Civil War when the federal government suspended the gold standard and began printing and issuing paper currency (called "greenbacks") in order to help finance the extraordinary cost of the war. The greenbacks were not backed by gold or silver ("specie"), but were "fiat" money i.e., legal tender based on government decree. The policy was controversial, with critics condemning it as inflationary and unconstitutional. Supporters, however, justified it as a wartime measure that was fiscally necessary but temporary.

The money question (as it was called) came to be seen as a moral, as well as an economic, issue. Supporters of specie payments, especially of a gold standard, believed that "hard money" had intrinsic value, as opposed to greenbacks, which had worth only because the government said that they did. Hard-money advocates also believed that gold stabilized the money supply and the economy, which in turn stabilized the society. They were convinced that greenbacks were both economically and morally reckless.

Support of greenbacks and (later) "free silver" (i.e., the unlimited coinage of silver) came from constituencies that were debt-ridden, particularly farmers. Those debt-ridden Americans and their elected officials demanded that the federal government follow a "soft-money" policy of expanding the money supply with more greenbacks or more silver. Proponents believed that the level of prices correlated directly with the amount of money in circulation, so a larger money supply would lead to price inflation. Inflation meant that the amount of debt would be less in real value, and that, farmers would need less of a crop yield (because crop prices were higher) to pay back loans.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party was dominated by hard-money advocates, although segments of Western Republicans were sympathetic to soft-money schemes. The Democratic Party was far more divided over the issue. At the national level the Democratic Party was led by hard-money politicians from the Northeast, like Samuel Tilden, August Belmont, and Grover Cleveland, until the mid-1890s and the free-silver insurgency of William Jennings Bryan. From the late 1860s into the 1880s, however, influential Democrats, such as George Pendleton and Thomas Hendricks, made their inflationist views known and chipped away at the power of the hard-money leaders .

Between 1865 and 1873, the gold standard gained preeminence in Europe as the silver standard sank into oblivion. The United States officially had a bi-metallic monetary system, but by the early 1870s silver had almost disappeared from circulation. In 1873 Congress demonetized silver i.e., the federal government no longer accepted silver as legal tender for public and private debts. That left gold and fiat greenbacks as the circulating media of exchange.

The economic depression of 1873-1879 gained adherents for the Greenback movement. Followers labeled the demonetization of silver as the "Crime of '73," and Congress passed an "inflation" bill in 1874 to increase the number of greenbacks in circulation, only to have it vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant. The gold forces, though, were still strong. In January 1875, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act which stipulated that beginning in January 1879 the federal government would redeem (legally exchange) greenbacks with gold. That meant the United States would return to the gold standard. The four-year span before implementation was to allow time for the U.S. Treasury to build up an adequate reserve of gold and for the public to adjust to the policy. When the law went into effect, few asked for redemption of their greenbacks.

Dissatisfied with the positions of the two major parties, a Greenback Party was organized in the 1870s to push for an inflationary monetary policy. It joined forces with the small Labor Party to nominate presidential candidates on a Greenback-Labor ticket in 1880 (James Weaver) and 1884 (Benjamin Butler). Their percentages of the national vote were tiny (3.4 and 1.8, respectively), but of some importance in those two very close elections.

In 1878, Congress enacted the Bland-Allison Act, a compromise bill which specified a limited amount of silver to be coined annually. The new law, along with the return of economic prosperity, put the money question on the back burner until the 1890s. Although the rhetoric and actions of both sides remained adamantly divisive, there was a general movement toward the ideological middle. Hard-money advocates moved from mono-metallism (gold) toward bi-metallism (gold and silver), while soft-money supporters shifted from greenbacks to free silver.

In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which superseded the Bland-Allison Act by slightly raising the amount of silver coined and circulated. In 1892, the Populist (or "People's") Party featured the issue of free-silver in its reform platform. Their presidential nominee, the former Greenback candidate James Weaver, received 8 percent of the vote. When the U.S. Treasury's gold reserve became depleted in 1893, President Grover Cleveland convinced Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.

The repeal in the context of an economic depression (1893-1897) allowed the free-silver wing of the Democratic Party to nominate William Jennings Bryan for president. A passionate crusader, Bryan pleaded that the country must not be crucified on a cross of gold. The electorate, however, voted his hard-money Republican opponent, William McKinley, into office. In 1900, Congress passed the Gold Standard Act, which formally made all American legal tender redeemable only in gold. In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the United States left the gold standard and returned to fiat money.

Sources: Wallace Farnham, The Gilded Age course lectures, History Department, University of Illinois; Walter Nugent, Money and American Society, 1865-1880; Gretchen Ritter, Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America, 1865-1896.

 
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