The United States was more than ever a tangled invertebrate society
as it moved into the latter half of the century. From the
Civil War and for two political generations, the United States
endured clashes of forces that were separatist and others that were
unifying and centralizing. Some worked inside the
formal structure of the government, others from without, and
interactions between the two were many.
Some country-wide situations would be resolved by the will of
several men in New York or Washington, other "national" problems
could only be resolved by countless local groups in their own way.
The nation that had passed from imperial colonialism into
confederation, then into federalism, then into weak federalism, then
into tight unionism briefly, now moved into an entangled
federalism, that would evolve into a more and more collaborative
and rationalized federalism, until as the year 2000 approached, the
system would be on the verge of a nationalized federalism.
Between the Civil War and the end of the century, Washington was a
growing city. It had grand public buildings, but was in large part also a
slum where servants and underpaid employees and would-be
employees lived, where saloons were frequent, loose women were
numerously available, footpads commonly prowled, lobbyists were few
only because government functions were few, seekers of individual
favors were innumerable, and highly moral remnants of the
reconstruction radicals suffered indignantly in a
humid atmosphere of corruption.
Still, swamps were being drained, parks laid out, pigs and chickens
were forbidden to venture upon the streets, and in the '70's the
Secretary of the Navy procured a telephone into which he could
shout to the Navy Yard three miles away.
Several years later plans were made to replace the gas lighting of the
streets with electric lighting. Politicians' wives sought to create a social
milieu capable of snobbery. Maryland and Virginia ladies were
reconstructing their own society under the noses of the Radical
Republicans. African-Americans supplied the logistical
underpinnings, but there were always a few around with the status
of confidantes and as agitators for Black causes.
The Civil War did much to centralize and nationalize the American
federal system. It settled seemingly forever the issue over whether a
state could constitutionally secede from the Union. More than that, the
huge central army, the far-reaching national income tax,
invasions of civil liberties, Presidential power extensions,
Supreme Court restrictions upon State powers,
wartime conscription, and other laws and practices
coming out of the war gave precedent for more such laws,
even if they were repealed afterwards.
Events seemed indeed to give the lie to
fine political philosophy about virtues of federalism.
The Federal government gave practically
nothing of a positive sort to the States,
save some land to be used for educational purposes,
although it did end slavery in some of them.
The northern and western States infrequently tried social reforms,
which usually failed or were nullified by the Federal judiciary.
The Southern States governments, we have witnessed ad nauseam,
showed how viciously States rights could be used
against their own people and the Union. Not until
another memorial generation had passed would a few of
the States, all Northern, begin to shape up a plausible
political system and a functional social apparatus.
The war psychology stayed with people of the North and West; it
imprinted immigrants: the myth and feeling that there was only one
United Sates, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The civil
service grew, the armed forces expanded and
stayed comfortably large.
The habit of looking to Washington became more widespread. The
Presidential office acquired new powers as commander-in-chief that
it never gave up; precedents could be cited when issuing civil and
military orders. The President as the sole representative of all the
nation became more prominent, even though the theory that
congress represented truly the people and was responsible for
legislating held on strongly for the rest of the century,
after which the ideas of Theodore Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson became popular.
Young Professor Woodrow Wilson (he was at this time) published a
shrewd analysis of the functioning of the Congress, in which he showed
how Congress (and therefore in major part the United States
Government) was in effect an oligarchy of the Chairmen and their
coteries of 47 standing committees and a few special committees
created on occasion. The Speaker kept the machinery running but did
not concentrate the powers of the committees any further. He was the
Party leader of the majority party of the House. He had much to do
with designating the leaders of the Committees, the Chairmen, but
after that they progressed more or less beyond his control.
Once a Chairman took office, he would be there for a long time, usually
until he left the House or died. He was coming more and more
to be the most senior member of the committee,
in terms of longevity in the chamber.
The choice of committee posts themselves were
the function of seniority.
So the thousands of bills that piled up in each session of Congress
were parceled out to the committees; there certain favorite bills were
dressed up properly and prepared to take a brief run of a few minutes
on the floor of the "full House" in session (actually, a small fraction of
the House was normally present), with no more than a few words
controlled by the Committee's manager and authors of the bill - -
allowing a couple of opposition voices to be raised briefly, rebutted by
the manager's side and then voted up or down.
If up, it had to pass through the Committee on Appropriations to
determine whether the funds it called for were to be had, whereupon
the bill might pass and go to the Senate, there to be voted upon, and
accommodated, in a conference committee, to any discrepancies of
thought between the House and Senate.
This Committee and the Ways and Means Committee were the only
ones that permitted a larger participation by members of the House,
especially by other committee chairmen, because to give to one might
take from the other, and to raise a tax, say, might mean more money
for everybody to spend.
Congressmen spent most of their time not on legislation, but upon
getting favors and jobs for their constituents and supporters -
two-thirds would be a close estimate of the proportion of their long
workdays spent on these matters This, as well as the committee-ruler
system and the relations between the two houses contradicted the
expectations of the Framers of 1787. They had believed that the
House would be closest to the people, not the Senate, that the
House, too, would be subject to popular passions of the day, to
which the Senate would counterpoise a
reasoned conservative defense.
In this period, the Houses was the ruling body of the nation, the
Senate still under the state legislatures for the most part, and
renowned for being a body where a senator could orate at length, a
privilege denied in the House; so on record are thousands of pages
of guff on currency, tariffs, land policies, railroads, race
differences, and the peerless virtues of the United States and its
People. The most banal and trivial subjects were blown into great
hot-air balloons. Bombast was ever more of a substitute for
passion after Reconstruction.
The Radical Republicans lost their radicalism after two decades and
turned to other less hopeless issues than the reconstruction of the
South. Still, the country and the Congress as well as the Presidency
remained dominated by Republicans. Only the two administrations of
Grover Cleveland - with an intervening term out of office, then only
Woodrow Wilson - by a fluke - for two administrations, were
Democratic before 1933. Wilson was
elected in 1912 as a result of a three-way
race, in which Theodore Roosevelt decided to
come back and try for a third term of office,
rationalizing that his first term did not
count, since he actually took office from the newly
re-elected but assassinated McKinley.
Teddy Roosevelt's Party was called the Bullmoose
faction of the Republican Party. It drew enough votes from
Charles Evans Hughes, the regular Republican candidate that the
election went narrowly to Wilson. Hughes went to bed
believing himself elected President, but the vote from
California, coming in tardily, turned against him,
and gave its electoral votes to Wilson.
The Presidents of the period were no better than those of the first part
of the century. All except Grant and Cleveland escaped
personal scandal and kept their nearest associates out of trouble.
(Grant had so many scandals going on about him that one might well
wonder how he could ever have controlled a huge army.) Cleveland
was embarrassed by a nationwide smear campaign to defeat him
because he fathered a child out of marriage - he supported mother
and child. Lincoln, a special case, we have placed in the middle.
Hayes we have said a word about.
Garfield came next, of long legislative experience in the Congress,
an honest and thoughtful exception to the run-of-the-mill politician.
He was a thoroughgoing anti-welfare specimen, however, believing,
it would appear, that federal funds should go to anything but welfare.
He was unfortunately assassinated and succeeded by Chester
Arthur, who, like Polk, did not live up to expectations: in his case,
he became honest.
Cleveland was a remarkable man who put the Democrats on the
national map again. He was defeated by the vagaries of the Electoral
College more than anything else, and then came back for a second try
and won. Harrison was the intervenor, and there is little to be said of
his tenure. In 1884, Republicans marched to the chant of "Ma, Ma,
Where's my Pa?" in reference to the illegitimate child of Cleveland; his
victorious partisans chanted
"Gone to the White House, Ha-Ha-Ha!"
Typical thoughtful campaign discussion.
McKinley liked high tariffs and led the country into an easy war, the
Spanish American War, from which the country emerged with
numerous problems, all of them badly handled. He was assassinated,
and Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the White House, and of him
we have spoken and will say more later on.
All of the men had their very rich supporters; their ideas and
outlook were most conventional, practically stupid. Mark Hanna, a
rich Pennsylvania businessman and political manager, was the angel
of McKinley; steel magnate Wharton Barker underwrote Harrison,
Amasa Stone, industrialist, carried along James Garfield. The
Presidents were one and all troglodytes on welfare matters.
When President Grant wondered incautiously whether some public
works laborers' jobs ought to be created for the starving in the
depression year of 1874, he was quickly subdued. Wrote future
President James Garfield to a friend, "We had somewhat of a
struggle to keep him from drifting into that foolish notion ... But the
Secretary of the Treasury and I united our forces in dissuading him
from the scheme, insisting that the true remedy for the finances at
present was economy and retrenchment, until
business restored itself."
Political parties in these years could not do much more than stretch
slogans to the point of nonsense, then crow that they appealed to
everyone. They gave an indifferent and large, widespread electorate a
few hints upon which to base a vote. A reading of the record of a
congressional legislative session would see no coherence, and
what went for Congress went for the state legislatures and
city and town councils for the most part.
Law as a general command to a large population seemed destined, in
some jurisdictions some of the time, to be descending into directed
messages authorizing individuals to pick up a pension, move to an
office across the street, buy a wagon, build a railroad, take up a
million acres of land, etc. ad infinitum.
Parties were independent in the smallest types of local jurisdictions -
townships and towns. Loyalty was like the wind working from a
personality through a windmill (then beginning to dot the larger part of
the USA) onto some part of the voting public which, having
sensed the breeze from a new turn of the mill would follow the
wind as an authentic voice of the Democratic or Republican party.
Throughout American history, grounds for forming a party,
such as the Greenback Party that split from and rejoined later on the
Democratic Party, seemed to be that, if granted power, it would
print more and therefore cheaper money so that debtors could evade
grasping creditors or get more for their farm produce and livestock.
Greenbackers, Populists and the like could throw the nation
into panic, fearing the dissolution of the bonds of
society represented by the gold dollar. These were the national
issues: cheap money, cheap land, big business busting, high tariffs,
and, with luck, some foreign enemy to provoke excited debate. I am
being generous: these composed the grist of the talk-mills; the real
issues, defined as whatever activated people and politicians to
behave as they did, were the aforementioned scrambling for
jobs, favors, and subsidies.
Civil service reform, too, was a big issue, recognized by a few
thoughtful citizens like George Curtis and Carl Schurz, who organized the
National Civil Service Reform League in 1881. The issue was blown
out of the cellar by Garfield's assassination and
some tests of merit were prescribed for some jobs: it is remarkable
how agitated the American people repeatedly became on the heels of an
assassination of the President. It originates from their believing him
"washed clean in the blood of the lamb" by popular election.
It derives also from wishing, after having deprived him of many
powers, he might right all evils nevertheless, from imagining him as
a champion of the country against the world, and from
feeling him for these reasons invincible.
There has been a rush of guilt, too,
because more than half the people would have been indifferent to
him until the deadly moment, or scornful and opposed. It is
normal public psychopathology.
The city political machines came to fruition in this period. For
example, Tammany Hall, the most famous of them all, was in
existence, but not in control of the Democratic Party or New York
City until 1890. Boss Tweed had to treat individually - buying
them, making deals - with many men in the post-Civil War period.
His successor as leader of Tammany was John Kelly, during whose
chiefdom factions squabbled incessantly. During the '80's half the
members of the Board of Aldermen were non-Tammany Democrats.
In 1886, even the labor unions got in a crack at the mayoralty,
putting up Henry George, whose famous book proposed
all government finance be based upon a single tax of real property, and
purporting to show that this would greatly expedite social and
physical development of the society. He came in a close second to
the alliance of Tammany and New York County Democrats'
From 1890 on, Tammany monopolized the political power of New
York City (County), with exceptional victorious but short-lived
intruders, until finally catastrophe struck the Hall in the person of
Fiorello La Guardia.
New York's experience was common among the cities around the
country, South as well as North, it should be pointed out. These cities,
full-blown now, grotesquely wealthy, stinking of poverty, constituted
in themselves a set of republics, indirectly federated through national
and state governments. However, they had almost no relations with
one another except through harboring common business, criminal, and
national civic associations. They fought against the states in the name
of urban rights and against the federal government in the name of
local self-rule. The political parties of the nation were not
able to unite either the state or local parties
on matters that counted for much.
Lincoln was enabled in a single term to appoint five Supreme Court
justices, a majority of the Court as it turned out, for an earlier
increase to ten justices was reduced to nine before long. He
appointed men who appeared to be unionist and anti-slavery, but
behaved as often as not as if they did not deserve the labels. Still,
like Lincoln, they were conservative in both economic and social
affairs. On the whole, they did not add to Lincoln's credit as a judge
of men's character and opinions.
The Court did little to help African-Americans during these years; in
fact, their view of the Fourteenth Amendment was so restricted that
people as individuals and groups might exercise whatever evil they
fancied upon race relations and the lives of Black people. The Court
assumed a role of self-restraint and often declined to interfere with
the asserted rights of the legislature, the President, and the
The Court took up the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment,
particularly the wording: "No State shall make or enforce any law
which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the
United States.." This was adjudged to mean that only rights which
Americans possessed as national citizens would be protected, not
those held as State citizens. The States could now play hob with civil
and property rights, which they did for some time to come. The Court
had divided 5 to 4 on this matter, and the ever stronger adherence of
the Court to the doctrine of stare decisis meant that it would be stuck
with this constitutional interpretation.
Not only did Blacks and the poor generally, that is, most of the people,
suffer from this ruling, but for a time the large economic
interests - railroad companies, grain storage operators -also could
complain. For, under the influence of farmers and consumers
generally, the states began to pass a spate of laws regulating
economic activity, until one could foresee a return to the condition
of interstate commerce before the Constitution, when each state
managed to interfere with the commerce of every other state.
Now the Court found in the Fourteenth Amendment a clause
forbidding the States from depriving any person of life, liberty, and
property without due process of law, and injected into the concept
two features, the first that corporations should be considered as
persons under the law, "persons," like you and me,
and the second, that "due process of law" affected
not only certain procedures like the right to obtain a lawyer
and have a fair trial, but also the right to be free of
onerous obligations and discrimination in connection with
the ownership and management of property great and small.
The turnaround came in 1886 and for the
next half century the Court served as a dike against
State regulation of economic affairs, while the
Court simultaneously used the Constitution to keep the federal
government from involving itself in all but explicitly permitted
governance of business. An extreme laissez-faire view of liberty of
contract dominated the court (totally unreal when some of the
unequally drawn and unfairly one-sided contracts were examined -
such as between the great railroad company and the individual
passenger). Thus the Court contributed, without planning to do so,
to the growth of a national sentiment and centralization, by
forbidding the states' entry to important socio-economic areas,
while simultaneously frustrating the Federal government.
The federal government had escaped for some years
the court's clutches in regard to an income tax that
it had levied during the Civil War to raise new funds.
In an especially messy case, decided on a tied
vote and with a switch of a justice's opinion in the middle of the
proceedings, the court held in Pollock vs. Farmer's Loan and
Trust Company, that a federal income tax could not be
constitutionally levied, even if called an indirect tax,
because it was really a direct tax.
A wave of opprobrium washed over the court, the heaviest since the
Dred Scott case. Eighteen years passed, however, before the
Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution enabled the federal
government to levy a tax directly upon incomes. The tax was then
considered more useful than experience has shown it to be for
equalizing the incomes of the rich and poor, whether by
proportionate or progressive [exponential] rates.
Power elites typically retroject new burdens
upon the powerless.
The Court also knocked out the Erdman Act of 1898 that had tried to
assign to the federal government the task of regulating labor
relations: the Act had required employers to bargain to some extent with
unions before engaging in riotous provocations and heavy police and
dismissal tactics. The Court held to this ruling until
1930, for a full political generation.
In 1913 a federal law (the Mann Act) prohibited and punished the
transportation of a woman across State lines for immoral purposes.
It was also popularly called the "white slave" Act (as if Black and Asian
women were not being transported for fun and money). The Act
turned out to inconvenience a great many gentlemen who were
taking their mistresses across state lines, like from Newark New
Jersey, to Coney Island in New York. The Court thought this
measure constitutional, but when,
five years later, Congress reached into the states,
saying that the products of child labor could not be shipped
interstate, the court declared the act unconstitutional!
Is this the place to pass judgement on the Court,
with another hundred years to go?
I am tempted, but... No.
In 1881, after a paranoid office-seeker killed President Garfield,
Vice-President Chester Arthur, who succeeded him,
quickly mended his evil ways as a New York spoilsman,
and signed a bill thrust upon him by an aroused public and
gung-ho Congress. It was a great step forward,
although for many years it was only partially carried to its
logical conclusion, a Civil Service system totally
recruited by considerations of merit.
Before 1883 and for some time afterward in the federal government
and for a long time in most states and localities of the country, whether
urban or rural, public administration in America was one of
the most backward in the west, back of China and Japan, ahead of
Russia only because the American civil servants were more restless
and mobile, It was a century behind the thoroughly
reformed administration of France.
The federal and the other services were expanding rapidly. The
federal service neared collapse as it extended.
53,000 in 1871,
107,000 in 1881,
166,000 in 1891,
256,000 in 1901
(five-fold in 30 years). There were few new agencies:
Departments of Justice and Agriculture, the Civil Service Commission,
the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Bureau of Labor.
Inefficiency, politics, and rapid population growth
brought on the exponential increase in personnel.
Auditing and personnel were now services
tendered to all agencies.
Congress intervened in administration at every turn, and
controlled the President's office meticulously.
In 1871, President Grant
was permitted a private secretary, a stenographer,
a couple of executive assistants, a steward, and a messenger -
for a total allowance of $13,800.00.
The Civil Service Act and its subsequent expanded coverage by
Presidential Order reduced the patronage available to national, state
and local politicians around the country. This was universally lauded
and still is, but one of the unforeseen results was that fewer
Americans gained first-hand experience of public office, and
another was that the politicians made up the deficiency of sources
of financing by becoming more dependent upon business
and special interests. (Practically in all jurisdictions,
kickbacks of part of a new appointee's or contractor's receipts
from the government went to the sponsoring politician.)
Special interest politics, which came to characterize politics in the
twentieth century, was given a push in these years, the golden age of
the uncontrolled lobbyists. With more civil servants, lobbyists
turned their attention to influencing the executive branch more
A Civil Service Commission, to be appointed by the President,
was created to form and administer the system, and to set up a
classification of federal jobs, some of which were promptly placed
under civil service rules. Examinations or other proof of merit had to
be supplied before appointment to the federal service.
Once a person was hired for a position in the classified system,
he would have permanent tenure.
He could not be forced into helping a political cause.
Presidents gained in power over time by the Act, because they could
demand the undivided loyalty of the large body of permanent
civil servants. Despite the fact that all the Presidents expanded the
number of classified jobs (except McKinley), the number of exempt
or patronage positions only increased. Whereas in 1884 federal
patronage positions numbered 118,000, in 1901 they amounted to
about 150,000. The service as a whole was growing, and the merit
system was falling behind, but only relatively.
A considerable debate ensued over where to draw the line between the
administrator and the policy-maker, who presumably should be fully
responsive to the President's will. Over a century later, the debate
would not be ended. The Cabinet members who were Department
heads argued usually that their assistants, bureau chiefs, division chiefs
and chief clerks should be exempt from the permanent Civil Service.
The Civil Service Commission believed (1890-1) there to be
"very few of the many offices in the gift of the Government
which are really political in character, after we pass below
the highest, such as the members of the Cabinet and
the ministers to foreign countries."
What seemed to be a technical determination has turned out to be
resolvable only by a full theory of society and politics,
setting forth what jobs require popularism,
broadness of experience and education, and wide
connections with non-governmental elites.
The Western States and territories were large factors in the
centralizing of American federalism. They owed to Washington
their existence. While still territories, their governors were
appointed by the President with Senate approval; they and their gang
of appointees looked naturally to Washington for
opportunities and favors.
The largest concerns of the West for a long time to come would be
Indian relations, national transportation networks, mining, and land
distribution. (Most of the land remained in Federal hands even after
many million acres were sold or bargained away.)
Westerners were acculturated and trained in the West.
Out of sheer laziness, if for no other reason,
they tried to bring in the things that they knew,
the law codes, the political routines. (The belief that, when
politicians know nothing of the past or have no past they will
innovate, is as mistaken as its contrary.)
They were content to be as uniform in their government,
and social practices as were the geometric lines of their boundaries,
external and intra-state. They lacked traditions and history,
except Indian and Hispanic ones, which they tried to reject
as substantially as possible.
The telegraph and the railroad permitted them now to be in
close touch with Washington, too.
There were other institutions creating their own federalisms
in these years. State and Federal constitutions helped,
in that they granted the needed liberty of association and press.
They, the governments, also had very little on their minds.
So there was a lot of room to occupy.
More detail will be supplied upon them later, but here it is
well to remark that distinct trends toward nationalizing associations
and activities through national organizations became apparent and
strong. Practically every considerable occupation and activity -
medical, business, academic, athletic, hotel,
educational, press, and so on -
began to sprout federal organisms.
These would continue to grow exponentially as the society
became specialized in its every manifestation.
More and more their attention turned
to what was being done or might be done
through federal government activity.
We speak of what can be called "functional federalism,"
primarily of the corporations that stretched their tentacles
far and wide and of investment bankers whose
interests in many large ventures ramified,
and of voluntary non-profit organizations -
farmers' groups such as the Grange,
religious associations such as the YMCA,
labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World
(the IWW, also known as the "Wobblies."),
and the Knights of Labor, together with a variety
of fraternal and religious groups, whose communications were
intensified along with the expansion of railroad and telegraph, so
that even if their intent were to decentralize,
they would end up by centralizing.
The National Association of Manufacturers was now formed to
agitate, propagandize and lobby for measures deemed to aid the
largest firms of the country, descending into the smaller ones; it was
oligarchic, with but a few leaders.
Even lawyers were part of the centralizing picture,
although they were dependent usually upon local opportunities,
and had a special interest in local and state legislation.
They were tied into the development of constitutional
and national law, and even from the beginning
they tried to practice law in the state from
which they came, and before that and afterwards they tried to use
precedents from various jurisdictions to win local cases.
Since their most powerful clients were involved in inter-state
problems, lawyers, too, had to become nationalized in their thought
and in their expectations of uniform standards around the country.
The larger the industrial concentration the more influence directly
on Washington was needed, until many a congressman and high
official had specific business backers for whom it was understood
that they would work while in Congress and office.
As for the state legislators and city and county officials, they went
directly to work for business interests. Only a minority, enlarging or
shrinking with the degree of popular indignation, were free of
corporate control and the local elite generally. All other interests
that they may have had - religious, conservation, welfare - had to
realize that they must take back seats.
In the severe depression of the nineties, 40% of all American
railroads went into forced or voluntary bankruptcy and had their
affairs straightened out by a group of profiteers led by the bankers;
it was an improvement on the old system. (They pared the bonded
debt and converted it to stock shares.) J. P. Morgan sometimes
played a positive role in stabilizing agglomerations of business,
in the process gouging enormous profits,
taking control of them, and
creating monopolies damaging to the interests of
smaller concerns and the public.
A great Centennial Exhibition opened in Philadelphia in 1876 of a
century of progress and industry since the Declaration of
Independence. In the two decades thereafter there were more strikes
and more people killed or injured in labor disputes than in any other
country in the world, even after taking into account that
the USA had a larger population than most.
There was a paralyzing railroad strike in 1877, only nine years after
the first transcontinental junction. Chicago had the Haymarket Riot,
a police-killing bomb incident.
The Civil War ended with hundreds of thousands of veterans of the
Grand Army of the Republic, all of whom, from unscathed
drummer boy to severely disabled riflemen to widows and orphan,
learned soon enough to feel that they had a claim upon the
government which the Radical Republicans in the Congress were
willing enough to support, especially since these would form a
voting body in their favor and there was precious little else to spend
money on in a nation without a large conception of welfare and with
high tariffs that brought in large sums to the treasury.
The pensions went on and on, shaping a privileged aggregate among the
Northern poor and middle classes, such that still in 1910 one-quarter
of all men over 65 were pensioned veterans and hundreds of
thousands of widows and orphans were drawing stipends. Not since
the Roman Republic pensioned its veterans and sent them off to the
far corners of the empire to take over seized lands and celebrate the
Senate and later the Emperor, were veterans so incorporated into the
political patronage system. Naturally all of their eyes were turned to
Washington over the whole period of time, from the
first enlistment onwards.
An unanticipated effect, possibly so uncomfortable that it has gone
unrecognized, was that welfare to veterans arbitrated against welfare
for others. Several psychic mechanisms were at work:
First, sheer greed made many holders of pension rights wish to
keep these to themselves.
Second, pensions were rationalized as something owed them by the
grateful nation for saving the Union.
Third, other people who needed help were deemed less worthy and
should be kept in that position - other old people, aliens,
immigrants, sick, disabled, unemployed, and so forth. A division
was impressed between those who had immigrated to the US before
1845 and those who had come in later, marking more sharply
ethnic, economic, respect, and power distinctions between the two
categories. It was a way of being a Know-Nothing,
wrapped in the flag.
Fourth, potential reform groups and crusading editors,
appalled by the epidemic corruption in most other
government activities, resisted starting up new activities
in the welfare field, even were the Supreme Court to allow such,
believing that these, too, would shortly succumb to
corrupt influences. The veteran crowd did not
press the point.
Civil service reformers were dismayed at the heavy preference given to
veterans under the classified "merit" system, a feature that was
continued to the Twenty-first century for all wars.
In the Treasury Department, over 50% of all appointments
between 1887-1882 were veterans, their widows, or orphans.
In the Department of the Interior, one-third were, in the
War Department from 1865-1882, 60% were.
Southerners might well feel resentful,
because confederate veterans were barred from preference
even after receiving amnesty for having worn the grey uniform.
Moreover, Southerners had withdrawn from Washington
during the war. So it took some time before the South
could return in force. Meanwhile the North and
West largely filled the ranks of the civil service, both
before and after the Pendleton
Civil Service Act of 1883.
When they did return, under the protecting wings of their
congressional representatives, they reversed the flow and were
over-represented proportionate to the Southern population
by the time of World War I. The more depressed the South, the
more the desperation there to get a job in the federal service.
The Civil War veteran and the huge aggregate of people subtending
from him became a nationalistic preternaturally proud possessor of a
role as well as an income that would be periodically reaffirmed by
Congress, and publicized upon every Fourth of July celebration. Until
the last veterans of the Civil War expired, they were trundled out and
mounted upon the speakers' stands on
every patriotic occasion.
It was to their interest, too, to carry on the traditions of the Civil
War, so that it became an ever grander feature of the American
popular and historian's memory, to which the South responded with
intensified, if less compensated, recollecting in their own right.
In consequence, there occurred a media bloat.
Welfare principles were scarcely tolerated anywhere. National, state,
local governments - all were largely unfriendly to the needy of all
kinds. No attention was given to the first paragraph (preamble it came
to be called) to the Constitution which spoke of providing for the
general welfare, and when a surplus would threaten the federal
treasury, Congress tried to think of how to give it away otherwise,
ending up with the idea of giving it to the states, or, more usually, of
fashioning ever-larger pork-barrels. The surplus of 1836-7, the $37
millions surplus accumulated, was handed over to the 26
States, which usually spent the funds upon
schools or general expenses and debts.
Appropriation measures were handled like Christmas gift lists, but
were much lengthier. Tariff schedules had little underlying
rationale; once a tariff in principle overall was accepted, which the
Republicans always did, the Democrats much less, then every
congressman tried to get his own friends' business into the schedule
to be subsidized by a customs duty on his
foreign competitors' incoming products.
There was little of the humane in dealing with humans in their
generality. Militarism came to mind immediately as the preferred
method of handling labor disputes. " A crack on the head," not a
benefit, was the due of a complaining worker.
All over the country there was a sameness of government, which
helped Americans feel comfortable as a single nation. People
expected little and asked little of their governments. Administration
was incompetent generally, so that what was legislated upon was
rarely what was acted upon to ensure conformity.
But power was widely distributed, too, more than anywhere in the
world except among "primitive" tribes. Russia, a second giant empire of
the times, possessed a highly centralized czarist regime stretching
over two continents, and its people were in worse shape than the
Americans - with neither bread nor liberty, and corruption
everywhere. Given that the number of positions in Russia subject to
corrupt potential, was much smaller than in the United States, the
volume of corruption in America was much
greater and of course decentralized.
According to Charles Francis Adams, writing in 1876, "All political
systems, no doubt, have some tendency, greater or less, towards
corruption. The peculiarity of ours is that it moves, and for fifty years
has moved, in that direction with accelerating pace..." He placed the
blame, in true Federalist tradition, upon political parties.
The election system of the United States, now taken over by
political parties as agents of and pressures upon the local, state and
national governments, had been from the beginning usually
tainted by corruption and manipulation; it may have reached its
acme of corruption now. The ballot had come to replace the viva
voce voting of pre-Civil War days, but since the ballots were
privately printed by candidates and sponsors, they
lent themselves to more devious corruption.
From two to thirty dollars a vote would be paid in numerous
elections, depending upon the closeness of the contest and the
availability of slush funds from contract peddling, favors granted,
appointments obtained, and honors dispensed. Often employers
drove their workers to the polls in company carriages, and then
watched them as they held high the properly identifiable ballot and
dropped it into the ballot box.
A great reform came with the importation from Australia of the
officially printed ballot obtainable only at the time of voting,
marked in secret, and therefore held aside for only a few minutes
before being cast. Massachusetts initiated this reform in 1888, and
within four years most States had adopted the method. Given the
widespread will to cheat, the perquisites of the successful cheat, and
the problems of corruption in the election process still to be solved,
the reform, one may guess, carried American elections only a fourth
of the way to pure elections by the beginning of World War I.
The role of business in corruption, first fouling its own nest and then
spreading all over the government could not be denied.
E.L.Godkin, editor of The Nation, wrote of the "..immorality which
pervades the commercial world, and taints nearly every branch of
business,...moral anarchy...." The scientist, Simon Newcomb,
granted not only the wide extent of corruption in politics, but
decried also "the decay in the public sense of delicacy and
When Benjamin Bristow was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in
1874 he was told by a private party that a large network of tax evaders
was operating with the connivance of internal revenue
collectors. He infiltrated secret agents and soon had evidence
enabling him to seize sixteen of the largest distilleries and sixteen
rectifying houses in a single day's raids, then more, implicating
collectors in numerous great cities - St. Louis, Chicago,
Milwaukee, Boston, and Galveston. Some 230 persons were indicted
(although only 20 were convicted).
No one could be trusted in the Department, it appeared, and the trail
of the Whiskey Ring led directly to the indictment of President
Grant's assistant, General Babcock. This was too much for Grant,
who, as soon as Babcock could be acquitted (with the help of
Grant), forced Bristow's resignation, along with that of most of the
honest men in the Department, who had worked with Bristow.
Congressman Hoar, who became for many years an enlightened voice
in House and Senate, wrote in 1876 feelingly of the situation he found
himself in: "My own public life has been a very brief and insignificant
one, extending little beyond the duration of a single term of senatorial
office. But in that brief period I have seen five judges of a high court
of the United States driven from office by threat of impeachment for
corruption or maladministration. I have heard the taunt from
friendliest lips, that when the United States presented herself in the
East (at the Philadelphia Exposition) to take part with the civilized
world in generous competition in the arts of life, the only product of
her institutions in which she surpassed all others beyond question was
her corruption... When the greatest railroad of the world, binding
together the continent and uniting the two great seas which wash our
shores, was finished, I have seen our national triumph and exultation
turned to bitterness and shame by the unanimous reports of three
committees of Congress - two of the House and one here - that every
step of that mighty enterprise had been taken in fraud.... [the Credit
Mobilier scandal]" His other examples were also impressive: the court
system of New York State and the government of New York City;
the sale of nominations of cadets to West Point by four congressmen.
Throughout the period was developing a class that had best be called
liberals for that is what they were and would always be - developed
out of old Yankee Eastern strata. They were nationalist, middle class,
Republican, intellectuals, perfunctory Protestants (stamped
unconsciously with the ideology), soon to be joined by large new
immigrant elements and grass-roots self-selectees from here there and
everywhere, having in spirit moved from anti-slavery into government
reform, especially vis a vis corruption, and strong for the civil service
merit system everywhere.
Partly because of the Civil Service act and partly because of the liberal
thrust that could sometimes penetrate the system of sloth and
corruption, the federal government experienced an influx of pioneers
deeply involved in some subject matter.
For instance, the first steps toward the rescue and conservation of
the environment -land, waters, forests - were taken in the 1870's.
In 1864 George Marsh published an account of how human
occupancy ravaged nature; he appealed to America's romantic
nature myth and its engineering myth to combine in a restoration of
a civilized natural world; he could be called
America's first ecologist.
In 1889 John Wesley Powell envisioned a great network of water
power works to generate electricity, just then coming into use; he
also proposed that local democratic communities should properly
own and develop irrigation farming in the West (the old Hispanic
system). Prussian-born-and-trained Bernhard Fernow
worked his way into the direction of the Forestry Service and
devoted himself to raising the level of professionalism in the
care of natural resources.
Sociologist Lester Ward, termed by some admirers the American
Aristotle, called in 1893 for human reconstruction of nature by a corps
of trained experts on the environment. Gifford Pinchot, most famous
of the group here, largely because of his association with Theodore
Roosevelt, stressed, in a puzzling fashion, conservation for
development, which could materialize in terms warming the cockles of
a timber-cutter's heart.
Scot-born John Muir was more concerned about enjoying nature as
she lay, and had to fight for many years to preserve most of
Yosemite Park, founding the Sierra Club on the way.
For environmentalism, the impetus for reform and honest
administration was almost entirely federal; state governments and
territorial governments were the stooges and dupes of western
economic, banking, railroad and mining company interests. When
the nation's liberals practically induced public panic over fear of loss of
its domain, President Theodore Roosevelt called all the
governors to Washington in 1908 to lecture them on their moral
responsibility; his effect was not electric, unless he shocked some of
them to go back and get their piece of the pie before conservation
became serious. Conservation became part of the liberal creed
forever after, expanding into general environmentalism only in the
latter half of the twentieth century.
All the above, and much more, brought on the shift from weak
federalism to the tangled, invertebrate, but stronger federalism of the
late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Small town and
country images still gassed the minds of Americans on all levels of
society. They lived in one world and imagined another: pastoral
(peaceful, sometimes, but usually the rugged cowboy world) and
agricultural, for the most part, destructive of realistic attentive and
calm consideration of the present and future of the nation.
Aborning was a new centralized, bureaucratic, managerial,
technocratic, urban nation, but the attending doctors thought that
they were helping to give birth to another bucolic type of world, nor
could they be persuaded otherwise even after the baby was born.
Popular culture and some of the sophisticated dwelled upon the myths
of the explorers and cowboys of the Wild West, the rural
heroes of the wars, the virtues of the small town and the lost warmth
of relations between master and slave. Not that exceptions were
lacking: Hamlin Garland and others were beginning to write
realistically about country life, which was still nasty, brutish and
short for most country folk; Horatio Alger was beginning to sell his
millions of novels about poor boys making good in the business
world: at least he wrote of cities.
Along with the centralized federalism was coming a new kind of
nationalism - some of it progressive and some of it racism among
elements of the would-be United States elite that foresaw themselves
part of an Anglo-Saxon master race, after the contemporary English
fad, connecting this with Darwin's theory and that of Herbert Spencer
even more, the survival of the fittest.)
Perhaps it was a sign of the centralizing of great wealth and the
backlash by older wealth, that much publicity attended a book that
clustered the social elite into Four Hundred, shaping into a pyramid the
countless small and jealous local elites seeking to add respect to
their modest wealth and uncertain ancestry. Progressive nationalism
had its own problems, veering crazily toward imperialism and
performing other feats, more often bad than good.
But there are later chapters allocated to these developments.