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
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
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.
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
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 8½ 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,