[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 20

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p204  Chapter XIX
Patronage and Merit System

Began by declining to see any applicant for office — Always asked: "Is he the best man for the place?" — Firm in support of civil service reform — Would have no coalition cabinet — Called prominent Republicans to important service

"If our predecessors have played politics with the diplomatic service, is that any reason why we should do likewise?" — Wilson

On March 5, the day after his inauguration, with many "deserving Democrats" in Washington wishing to see the new President and present their claims for appointment to office, Mr. Wilson almost took away their breath by this statement:

The President regrets that he is obliged to announce that he deems it his duty to decline to see applicants for office in person, except when he himself invites the interview. It is his purpose and desire to devote his attention very earnestly and very constantly to the business of the Government and the large questions of policy affecting the whole nation, and he knows from his experience as Governor of New Jersey — where it fell to him to make innumerable appointments — that the greater part both of his time and of his energy will be spent in personal interviews with candidates unless he sets an invariable rule in the matter. It is his intention to deal with appointments through the heads of the several executive departments.

 p205  To that policy Wilson adhered throughout his two terms. Patronage did not interest him. He needed his time for policies. He trusted the members of his Cabinet to make appointments and recommendations. The course he had pursued in the selection of his Cabinet indicated his policy of selecting officials of the United States Government. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the country the Cabinet contained no member from New England, an omission which later cost Mr. Wilson support he might otherwise have received. The great pivotal Middle West was not represented. He paid no heed to the criticism that "the South was over-favored," made by those fond of seeing sectionalism where none exists. McReynolds, Burleson, Daniels and Houston were from the South. McAdoo was born in Georgia, but had long lived in New York. President Wilson was little influenced by place of residence. He would have named all his Cabinet from one state if he had found what he regarded as the fittest and most suitable men in one commonwealth. He had no bias in favor of or against any man because of race, place of residence or creed. "There is neither Jew nor Catholic in the cabinet," was a criticism. He had wished to invite Brandeis, a Jew, but yielded his wishes to Massachusetts opposition. Later he made him Supreme Court Justice, and named such Jews as Baruch, Morgenthau and Elkus to high position. As Private Secretary he chose Joseph Tumulty; Frederic C. Penfield, Ambassador to Austria-Hungary; John Burke, Treasurer of the United States, and assigned hundreds of other Catholics to places of trust. But he never named any one for office, or refrained from naming any one, because he was or was not Protestant, Jew, Catholic, native or foreign- p206 born. He was wholly free from race or religious prejudice. He held that the right to the freedom he claimed for himself must be enjoyed equally by every other American, and that it was impaired if any were either denied or given preference because of their convictions. It did not matter to him where a man lived or what was his religion. The question he made paramount was: "Is he the best man for the place?" It was upon that principle that he acted.

President Wilson's mistakes in appointments to office — and he was not free from them — were mostly mainly due to his absorption in "the large questions of policy." He had no interest in finding "places" for men desirous of public service. In most cases, except as to Ambassadors, Judges, and like positions, he left the selection of appointees to the head of each department. But he was quick to make an exception if there seemed a principle involved. He removed all diplomatic officials, except Ambassadors and Ministers, from appointment otherwise than by certification through the Civil Service Commission. Even as to those, distinguished service led to preferment. He stood firmly for promotion on merit. When he came to the Presidency most places in the diplomatic service were filled by Republicans appointed by previous administrations upon recommendations by Congressman or politicians. Urged to make enough changes to give Democrats equal representation, he declined: "If our press have played politics with the diplomatic service, is that any reason why we should do likewise? Moreover, unless somebody ends making such service a matter of party reward how will the merit system ever be secured?" This was not popular with many men "on the Hill," who had constituents they  p207 wished to see appointed, particularly in the early days of his administration. He believed in the long run that his policy would demonstrate its wisdom. He was not even deterred from it when Ambassadors reported that some of the under officials in the embassies were disloyal and were fond of criticizing Wilson's policies. It is to their discredit that men he retained in positions of trust, particularly abroad, abused his confidence, and were disloyal to the policy of their country.

The most signal proof Wilson gave of his devotion to the merit system and the exclusion of political consideration in making appointments was with reference to naming postmasters. Postmasters had almost always been appointed, since Jackson's day, on the principle "to the victors belong the spoils." There had been, of course, many exceptions and in parts of the country Roosevelt had put into effect the civil service method in selecting postmasters in small places. Wilson introduced the plan of selecting all by civil service examinations. The practice in 1913 was for the Civil Service Commission to send the three highest names to the Postmaster General, who would confer often with the Democratic Congressman for that district and usually recommend for appointment the one the Congressman favored. That method required the appointee to pass an approved examination, but still left the selection to political considerations. Mr. Wilson sent consternation into the ranks of those who believed political service should have controlling weight in naming postmasters when he directed the Postmaster General to send to him the name only of the applicant who had passed the best examination. "But," said Congressmen, "this will in many cases give Republicans postmaster­ships under a Democratic administration." Wilson's reply was that  p208 if the Republican applicant showed most proficiency the merit system required that he be given the appointment.

President Wilson stood like a stone wall against the attempt to force a Coalition Cabinet when war came. This was not because he was unwilling to call Republicans to places of trust. It was because he was convinced that unity in the inner council was as essential as unity on the field. He resented the spirit in Washington behind the Coalition advocacy, as expressed by Senator New, appointed Postmaster General by President Harding after his defeat for re-election to the Senate. "This is the war of no political party. This is the country's war," said New, "and we charge and deplore that the party in power is guilty of practicing petty partisan politics." The selection of Republicans to high station disproved New's calumny. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing was given supreme command. If he had any politics, it was believed Republican, but considerations of that kind had no weight with Wilson in his vigorous prosecution of the war. Among the many (Democratic leaders thought too many) Republicans in high place were Herbert Hoover, Charles Schwab, Charles B. Warren, Harry A. Garfield, Frank A. Vanderlip, Benedict Crowell, E. R. Stettinius, Julius Rosenwald, Howard E. Coffin, Edward A. Deeds, to mention only a few of many. In the diplomatic service like recognition was given, and at the Peace Conference on the various important boards many Republicans were chosen.

Grover Cleveland won fame by the utterance "public office is a public trust."

Woodrow Wilson practiced that doctrine and elevated the merit system to a place higher than it had been given by any of his predecessors.

Fitness the test.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 8 Sep 14