The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHARLES G. FINNEY
To The Oberlin Weekly News
24 March 1874
[Published in The Oberlin Weekly News, 26 March 1874, p. 2.]
The editor of The Oberlin Weekly News wrote a column in the issue for March 19, 1874, (p. 2) under the heading "The Post-Office", in which he stated:
We did not deem it important to begin a discussion of the post-office question as far back as the struggle among the candidates was inaugurated. With the relative claims of the candidates in the field, or questions, other than the political principles involved, we do not feel called upon to deal.
There are, in all, seven candidates, who have openly expressed a willing[n]ess to serve their country in the capacity of postmaster. The fact that one of this number is the present incumbent , who has held the office for nine consecutive years, involves a political principle, which should not be violated.
Rotation in office is a cardinal principle in American politics. Destroy this principle and our government sinks back, to permit its public offices to be inherited like estates, rather than what they now are&emdash;a temporary gift of the people. It is under the system of rotation that our elective offices are conducted, and the public good demands that appointed offices be governed by the same principles. It is sometimes urged that the principle of rotation conflicts with the spirit and interest of the Civil Service reform, and should therefore be abandoned. This theory is not only a mistaken one, but is fatally an inconsistent one. That would be a melancholy failure at reform, which would seek to clothe the systems of our government in the offensive habiliments, which she cast off and trampled under foot a century ago. We interpret the functions of the Civil Service rule to protect offices from invasion by political tricksters during the term for which an incumbent was appointed; and during that time the pretext for a change must be on the ground of disability. The conditions out of which the Civil Service grew, and its operations since, favor this interpretation. Again, the very fact that the appointment expires by limitation, shows that a change may be anticipated at the expiration of a term.
These offices are a part of the patronage of the government, which its friends and supporters have a right to contest for at reasonable intervals. The same argument use to continue a present incumbent is equally forcible, if applied to the claims of another equally qualified aspirant. If the office is a desirable one there is no reason why one citizen should always enjoy it; and on the other hand, if it is a burden, the affliction should certainly be distributed
Now, as to the application of this principle to the office of postmaster in the case now being agitated. The office is a remunerative one, and the present incumbent has enjoyed the fruits of it for almost a decade. During all this time the affairs of the office have been conducted with care and thoroughness; the interests of the government have been carefully guarded, and the patrons of the office faithfully served. The government has also performed its part faithfully, and liberally; the service has been abundantly remunerated. We regret that the present incumbent, by seeking for a still longer continuance in office, places us in a position which opposes him, but we believe that the principle stated is an important one, and should not be so grossly violated as it would be, in keeping a valuable office for the exclusive benefit of one citizen.
Experience is always valuable, yet the nature of the service to be rendered is not such as to require uncommon business sagacity or skill. The country is full of men who are thoroughly competent for such a position. The nature of this contest is such that it does not come within our province to discuss the claims of each, or any, of the candidates who are striving for the office. The political principle involved in this issue is one that has provoked a good deal of informa[l] discussion, and its consideration should take the precedence of personal friendship or preference.
The next week a letter from Finney was published:
Andrew Jackson introduced into our politics a new, and corruptive principle announced in these words, "to the victers belong the spoils." Up to that time, the civil servants of the government were appointed to office, and kept in it, with sole reference to their capacity and faithfulness in the discharge of their official duties. None of the Presidents before Jackson, proceeded upon the corrupt principle which he announced, but suffered competent and faithful servants to remain undisturbed through all political changes. Mr. Russell, if I remember right, held the post-office in Buffalo, thirty for years, and this was in consequence of the principle then acted upon by the President, of not allowing politics to throw faithful and efficient servants of the government out of their positions. Andrew Jackson, under the opposite principle, changed the whole civil service, and gave the offices to the Democrats, thus introducing new and untried and inexperienced officials into every station. The opposing party, by way of reprisals, has followed up this example, and innumerable evils, and frauds and rascalities have been the results. But another principle has crept in, which has helped to further debauch the civil service. I mean the doctrine of rotation in office. The working of this principle has virtually given the offices, or the appointments into the hands of the most unscrupulous politicians. The question has been with the Presidents since the introduction of this principle, not who will render the public the most effectual service, but who will work, or has worked most effectually for the party. Not who is most honest and capable, but, who can command the most votes! Who is the shrewdest, and most successful politician? Now, these two principles introduced into politics are at the foundation of all the corruption in the civil service. Under, or in conformity to the first, all the offices must be given to the dominant party. Under the second, the offices must be given to the most successful politicians themselves, or to those whom they shall nominate. We have experienced the results of the working of these principles in the rottenness of our civil service. The civil service goes on slipshod, and the unscrupulous politicians have everything their own way. Almost every community in the nation, is constantly agitated by a strife for office. Against these principles, President Grant and the Republican party, have committed themselves. The reform of the civil service, repudiating these principles, and making fitness for office, and the faithfulness in the discharge of its duty, irrespective of political opinions the consideration of appointments to offices, or of continuance in them, is the policy to which they stand committed. Unless this policy can be carried out, the reform of the civil service is plainly impossible. A resort to competitive examinations irrespective of political opinions, and also irrespective of political wire-pulling influence, not only shows what the reformation proposed by President Grant is, but also his sincerity in his endeavors to abide by the pledge of the party, to reform the civil service. This is a plank in the Republican platform. Republicans in Oberlin stand committed to the carrying out of this policy. In voting for President Grant we adopted the platform on which he was elected. Can we afford to repudiate our pledge to sustain this policy? Can we afford to appear before all the world as the opponents of this most needed reform? I know that many Republicans repudiate this policy of reform. But shall we do it? Shall President Grant be told, that even Oberlin will not stand by him in carrying out his policy? No question now before the government is of so grave importance as that of the reform of the civil service. And how shall this reform ever be accomplished if the Republican party repudiate and refuse to carry out General Grant's policy? Can this community, or any other, afford to be torn by division and political squabbles every little while to secure a change in a civil service already well performed?
C. G. FINNEY.
OBERLIN, March 24th 1874.
On the same page, there was an editorial, as follows:
Rotation in Office
An article from the pen of ex-President Finney, which appears in another column, condemns the system of rotation in office and pronounces it to be a violation of the spirit of the Civil Service Reform. We discussed this question briefly, last week. The arguments against rotation of office lose very much of their force from being based upon a wrong assumption. They assume that corruption exists in our civil service because, civil servants are frequently changed at the expiration of the term, to which, they are appointed. It is further urged, that the intent of our civil service policy is to guard against this change at the expiration of a term. We regard the first premises as incorrect, and believe that experience has shown that the species of corruption referred to, has been due to the practice of molesting an incumbent during his term, and many times, ejecting a faithful office and substituting therefore a person unfit for the position.
We understand the intent of the civil service policy to be, that a civil servant shall not be molested during the continuance of a term except for disability; but does not interfere with a change at the expiration of a term if a preponderance of the sentiment is in favor of some person other than the incumbent. Now as to its operations: Since this policy has been in existence, not less than six changes, precisely the same as we propose to make here, have been made within a hundred miles of Oberlin, besides the hundreds of others elsewhere. These were sanctioned and endorsed. A change has recently been made in the office of Post-master at Toledo, but that was an instance of direct violation of the civil service policy and belongs to the system which Mr. Finney charges to rotation in office.
The confused and wretched condition of our civil service which preceeded the incoming of the present administration, was wholly due, not to changes at the end of terms of appointment, but to the malicious and corruptive proceedings of kicking faithful and efficient servants out of office, during their term, for purely personal reasons.
So far as the general principle of making our government offices life estates is concerned, it is a principle that hardly needs to be discussed at this day. The same principle which would apply to an under servant of the Government would apply, as well, to the Chief Magistrate. Now a President of the United States who can only be removed when charges of disability are sustained, becomes at once a King in fact, and we return, with a single step, to colonial times and their benighted systems. This is the inevitable result of pursuing a policy which invests any citizen with a life estate in an office.
The present incumbent of our Post-office has enjoyed the position and its fruits for nine years; his present term is about to expire. Under the practice of referring the question to the Republican voters for their advice, the Civil Service grants him no claim to the office, which it does not as well extend to other candidates. And in the light of reason and equity, his claims are destroyed, by the fact of having already enjoyed the patronage of the government for nearly a decade.
The proof that this position is correct, exists in the only possible construction of the Civil Service System, and the one recognized by authorities at Washington, in its application to the instances to which we have alluded, and hundreds of others; in the very fact that the question of making a change is referred to the people for an expression of their judgment, and, in the fact that there is nothing in the whole nature of our government, or its operations, which suggest the safety or propriety of vouchsafing an unlimited continuance of power or position to any citizen under the government.
In view of these facts we must differ materially from Mr. Finney in our interpretation of the duty of Republicans in voting for post-master. If the administration is prevented, by any adopted policy, from making a change, it is surely imposing upon the credulity of voters to refer to them for their opinion.
At the first ballot for postmaster, held on Saturday, March 28th, out of 537 votes, Harmon received only 83. He withdrew his name before the second ballot, when "popular Civil War veteran William O. Allen won by 67 votes over the college and business interests of the town." (William E. Bigglestone, Oberlin: From War to Jubilee, 1866-1883 [Grady Publishing Co., 1983], p. 106; "The Ballot for Postmaster." The Oberlin Weekly News [April 2, 1874], p.3; and "Correction." ibid. [April 9, 1874], p. 3)
This word in the original is "willingdess".
J. Francis Harmon.
This word in the original is "informan".
The Oberlin Weekly News, 26 March 1874, p. 2.
Perhaps Finney had written here: "for thirty years".