The Curse of Civil Service Reform
George Washington Plunkitt
Citation Information: George Washington Plunkitt, “The Curse of Civil Service Reform,” Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. Riordon, William L. New York: 1903.
This civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age. It is the curse of the nation. There can’t be no real patriotism while it lasts. How are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them when they work for their party? Just look at things in this city today. There are ten thousand good offices, but we can’t get at more than a few hundred of them. How are we goin’ to provide for the thousands of men who worked for the Tammany ticket? It can’t be done. These men were full of patriotism a short time ago. They expected to be servin’ their city, but when we tell them that we can’t place them, do you think their patriotism is goin’ to last? Not much. They say: “What’s the use of workin’ for your country anyhow? There’s nothin’ in the game.” And what can they do? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what I do know.I know more than one young man in past years who worked for the ticket and was just overflowin’ with patriotism, but when he was knocked out by the civil service humbug he got to hate his country and became an Anarchist.
This ain’t no exaggeration. I have good reason for sayin’ that most of the Anarchists in this city today are men who ran up against civil service examinations. Isn’t it enough to make a man sour on his country when he wants to serve it and won’t be allowed unless he answers a lot of fool questions about the number of cubic inches of water in the Atlantic and the quality of sand in the Sahara desert? There was once a bright young man in my district who tackled one of these examinations. The next I heard of him he had settled won in Herr Most’s saloon smokin’ and drinkin’ beer and talkin’ socialism all day. Before that time he had never drank anything but whisky. I knew what was comin’ when a young Irishman drops whisky and takes to beer and long pipes in a German saloon. That young man is today one of the wildest Anarchists in town. And just to think! He might be a patriot but for that cussed civil service.
Say, did you hear about that Civil Service Reform Association kickin’ because the tax commissioners want to put their fifty-five deputies on the exempt list, and fire the outfit left to them by Low? That’s civil service for you. Just think! Fifty-five Republicans and mugwumps holdin’ $3000 and $4000 and $5000 jobs in the tax department when 1555 good Tammany men are ready and willin’ to take their places! It’s an outrage! What did the people mean when they voted for Tammany? What is representative government of the people, by the people and for the people? If it isn’t a fake, then why isn’t the people’s voice obeyed and Tammany men put in all the offices?
When the people elected Tammany, they knew just what they were doin’. We didn’t put up any false pretenses. We didn’t go in for humbug civil service and all that rot. We stood as we have always stood, for rewardin’ the men that won the victory. They call that the spoils system. All right; Tammany is for the spoils system, and when we go in we fire every anti-Tammany man form office that can be fired under the law. It’s an elastic sort of law and you can bet it will be stretched to the limit. Of course the Republican State Civil Service Board will stand in the way of our local Civil Service Commission all it can; but say!-suppose we carry the State sometime, won’t we fire the upstate Board all right? Or we’ll make it work in harmony with the local board, and that means that Tammany will get everything in sight. I know that the civil service humbug is stuck into the constitution, too, but, as Tim Campbell said: “What’s the constitution among friends?”
Say, the people’s voice is smothered by the cursed civil service law; it is the root of all evil in our government. You hear of this thing or that thing goin’ wrong in the nation, the State or the city. Look down beneath the surface and you can trace everything wrong to civil service. I have studied the subject and I know. the civil service humbug is underminin’ our institutions and if a halt ain’t called soon this great republic will tumble down like a Park Avenue house when they were buildin’ the subway, and on its ruins will rise another Russian government.
This is an awful serious proposition. Free silver and the tariff and imperialism and the Panama Canal are triflin’ issues when compared to it. We could worry along without any of these things, but civil service is sappin’ the foundation of the whole shootin’ match. Let me argue it out for you. I ain’t up on sillygisms, but I can give you some arguments that nobody can answer.
First, this great and glorious country was built up by political parties; second, parties can’t hold together if their workers don’t get the offices when they win; third, if the parties go to pieces, the government thy built up must go to pieces, too; fourth, then there’ll be h—— to pay.
Could anything be clearer than that? Say, honest now; can you answer that argument? Of course you won’t deny that the government was built up by the great parties. That’s history, and you can’t go back of the returns. As to my second propostion, you can’t deny that either. When parties can’t get offices, they’ll bust. They ain’t far from the bustin’ point now, with all this civil service business keepin’ most of the good things from them. How are you goin’ to keep up patriotism if this thing goes on? You can’t do it. Let me tell you that patriotism has been dying out fast for the last twenty years. Before then when a party won, its workers got everything in sight. That was somethin’ to make a man patriotic. Now, when a party wins and its men come forward and ask for their rewards, the reply is, “Nothin’ doin’, unless you can answer a list of questions about Egyptian mummies and how many years it will take for a bird to wear out a mass of iron as big as the earth by steppin’ on its once in a century?”
I have studied politics and men for forty-five years, and I see how things are driftin’. Sad indeed is the change that has come over the young men, even in my district, where I try to keep up the fire of patriotism by getting’ a lot of jobs for my constituents, whether Tammany is in our out. The boys and men don’t get excited any more when they see a United States flag or hear “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They don’t care no more for firecrackers on the Fourth of July. And why should they? What is there in it for them? They know that no matter how hard they work for their country in a campaign, the jobs will go to fellows who can tell about the mummies and the bird steppin’ on the iron. Are you surprised then that the young men of the country are beginnin’ to look coldly on the flag and don’t care to put up a nickel for firecrackers?
Say, let me tell of one case. After the battle of San Juan Hill, the Americans found a dead man with a light complexion, red hair and blue eyes. They could see he wasn’t a Spaniard, although he had on a Spanish uniform. Several officers looked him over, and then a private of the Seventy-first Regiment saw him and yelled, “Good Lord, that is Flaherty.” That man grew up in my district, and he was once the most patriotic American boy on the West Side. He couldn’t see a flag without yellin’ himself hoarse.
Now, how did he come to be lying dead with a Spanish uniform on? I found out all about it, and I’ll vouch for the story. Well, in the municipal campaign of 1897, that young man, chockful of patriotism, worked day and night for the Tammany ticket. Tammany won, and the young man determined to devote his life to the service of the city. He picked out a place that would suit him, and sent in his application to the head of department. He got a reply that he must take a civil service examination to get the place. He didn’t know what these examinations were, so he went, all lighthearted, to the Civil Service Board. He read the questions about the mummies, the bird on the iron, and all the other fool questions-and he left that office an enemy of the country that he had loved so well. The mummies and the bird blasted his patriotism. He went to Cuba, enlisted in the Spanish army at the breakin’ out of the war, and died fightin’ his country.
That is but one victim of the infamous civil service. If that young man had not run up against the civil examination, but had been allowed to serve his country as he wished, he would be in a good office today, drawin’ a good salary. Ah, how many young men have had their patriotism blasted in the same way!
Now, what is goin’ to happen when civil service crushes out patriotism? Only one thing can happen: the republic will go to pieces. Then a czar or a sultan will turn up, which brings me to the fourthly of my argument-that is, there will be h— to pay. And that ain’t no lie.