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Cleveland Administration - First Term

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

GROVER CLEVELAND made a good beginning as Chief Executive. He was a devoted advocate of Civil Service Reform, and I have no doubt that at first he thought his administration capable of making his theory and practice harmonize. The keynote of his avowed policy in that particular was embraced in the following sentence from his letter of acceptance for the first term: "The selection and retention of subordinates in government employment should depend upon their ascertained fitness and the value of their work." The whole gravamen of Civil Service Reform is contained in this sentence, and the merit system is clearly set forth. But Mr. Cleveland did not think that this expression of his views and intentions was quite strong enough to make clear his hatred of official bossism and political corruption, and, in a speech made some time afterward, he put himself on record in a way that could leave no doubt in any candid mind that, so far as he was concerned, the mere office seeker should have no show in his administration and the political trickster no "pull"; and that the time-honored Jacksonian doctrine, " To the victors belong the spoils," should henceforth be regarded as a relic of semi-barbarism, having no place in an enlightened political system. Mr. Cleveland said: "Let there be an opportunity offered to the people for a change of parties of such a kind that the victors must give up all idea of a general distribution of offices among their adherents, and the people will joyfully agree to it." "A Daniel come to judgment," or words to that effect, cried many who heard or read that speech. "Here is a man," they said, " for the first time since the days of Lincoln who has the courage to combat the spoils system." The post-office was the place where the first test came, in the attempt to work out Civil Service Reform practice in accordance with the theory; and it must be admitted that the test proved a failure, though Civil Service Reform rules and principles were respected in some cases by virtue of what is known as the fouryears' rule. For instance, Mr. Pearson remained postmaster at New York. The main pretext for displacing post-office officials was "offensive partisanship," a phrase which has become universally applicable to cases of prejudice in politics. Then from the post-office department a system of espionage spread all over the country, until politics and political patronage in this country sank to a low condition of degeneracy. The office-seeking politicians bore down upon the administrative forces, which were unequal to successful resistance. Whole departments were demoralized and broken up to serve the rapacity of the office seekers; and even a large number of the employees of the railway mail service were discharged through the secret espionage plan, and their places filled by others. A prominent Southern senator and his following constituted one of the strongest forces with which the President had to contend, in their interference with his nominations and in various irritating ways known only to the trickery of professional politics. This Southern faction had great influence throughout the entire term, and exercised their power for mischief in tying the President's hands by interfering with some of the most important functions of his office. We can now see that there were many extenuating circumstances surrounding some of his actions, where a superficial observer might imagine the President was blameworthy. This was notably the case in dealing with the Southern faction, which took great pride in its influential power, and whose methods must have been very irritating to Mr. Cleveland. The theory of the Cleveland administration in its official appointments was Jeffersonian, its motto being, "Is he honest, is he capable?" The practice, however, was largely Jacksonian, its motto being, "To the victors belong the spoils." Let us now glance at Mr. Cleveland's famous tariff message of December, 1887, for which it is claimed he was personally responsible. When that document appeared it gave rise to a flood of criticism, both favorable and hostile. It was considered one of Mr. Cleveland's best literary efforts, and some of its sharp hits have had a wonderful currency in the newspapers, particularly the saying, "It is a condition which confronts us -not a theory." The condition was too much money in the Treasury. That condition has not given any trouble since a short time after that message. The great difficulty for a few years past has been a deficit in the Treasury, and the problem has been how to meet it. It was reserved for the McKinley administration to solve that problem. The burden of the tariff message was an overflowing Treasury, which was constantly becoming more plethoric, and, like the Augean stables, filling up twice as fast as it was emptied. Our presidential Hercules, as stated in the message, did all that was in his power to remedy the situation. He bought bonds, and did everything in that line which the law allowed. Still the currency surplus would not down, but kept accumulating until it had reached the dangerous figure of $I40,000,000, when Mr. Cleveland scented panic in the air. There would surely be a commercial smash-up, he soliloquized, if that Treasury were not depleted or at least a vein opened somewhere to relieve the congestion. The Treasury's great need was really gold and not currency at this time. The trouble lay in a redundancy of the former and a dearth of the latter. A high tariff, in Mr. Cleveland's opinion, was responsible for the desperate condition of affairs, and, according to the message, the country was on the very brink of commercial ruin. This was the honest theory of the President, and, irrespective of politics, he had a host of followers of the same financial belief. That message was, as I have suggested, more remarkable for its literary excellences than for the soundness of its economic views. It is partly as a literary and partly as a historic documentary reminiscence that it seems worth analyzing now, for its economic views are somewhat unique, and show how much Mr. Cleveland had to learn upon the tariff question. No doubt he has profited by the two great object lessons, the McKinley Bill and the Wilson Bill, which he has in some measure been forced to study since then. To show how mistaken his notions were regarding the practical result of tariff laws, I quote the following from the message: " These laws, as their primary and plain effect, raise the price to consumers of all articles imported and subject to duty, by precisely the sum paid for such duties. Thus the amount of the duty measures the tax paid by those who purchase for use those imported articles." Mr. Cleveland could have had this argument answered practically and refuted by the simple operation of purchasing a yard of calico at 5 cents, and then looking in the list of tariff prices, and finding that the tariff upon a yard of calico was 6 cents. Of course Mr. Cleveland would say he must pay I cents for it. "Oh, no," the dry-goods man would answer, "we don't charge two prices. This is a one-price house." The dry-goods man might further reply: " It is a condition that confronts us - not a theory. Your theory is 1 cents; our price is 5." The same rule applies in the majority of instances. Mr. Cleveland made a mistake in thinking that the consumer pays the tariff tax, when it is really the producer or the seller who pays it, or it may be divided between producer and consumer. But it would be much more difficult to make Mr. Cleveland or any free-trader understand this than the calico transaction, which is simple and easily demonstrable. Here is another point on which Mr.Cleveland required enlightenment. He said: "Nor can the worker in manufactures fail to understand that while a high tariff is claimed to be necessary to allow the payment of remunerative wages, it certainly results in a very large increase in the price of nearly all sorts of manufactures, which, in almost countless forms, he needs for the use of himself and family." This is another instance in which the "condition" is at variance with the theory. There may be a few instances in which " the tariff results in an increase in price," but the rule is by no means general, and the increase is not " large," and where it does exist, the higher wages cover it several times over. Under any approach to free trade, the "increase" in the foreign goods would soon be twice as much. This has been often demonstrated, and was first clearly explained to the people of this country by Horace Greeley more than fifty years ago. Mr. Cleveland seemed to have got it into his head that our manufacturers are grinding monopolists, and that they corral very large profits, quite forgetting, apparently, that foreign manufacturers are not better than they in this respect, and perhaps not so good. Under his system of "reduced taxation," as he called it then, we would permit the British manufacturer to take the profits instead of our own manufacturer. It is easy to see the great difference it makes to us as a people in having the money we pay for clothing and many other necessities spent in this country instead of its being spent abroad. The money spent here goes to enrich us all permanently, and we get what we need for it besides; but what goes abroad we derive no further benefit from, and it impoverishes our country to the extent of that sum. The most unpatriotic people, therefore, are those who purchase foreign goods (except upon reciprocity principles), provided they can get what they want at home. The theory and ideas of tariff reform, according to the free traders, would munificently bestow our home markets, which take 90 per cent. of our products, upon the competing foreigner, without any compensation, except, perhaps, a cheaper suit of clothes once a year or so, which the impoverished laborer would hardly be able to purchase, as all his surplus wages would be divided between the foreign manufacturer and the pauper employees of this foreign prot6gd of our free-traders. I know that Mr. Cleveland would never admit that he is in favor of free trade out and out, and he may honestly believe that he is not; but no fair-minded person can read his messages, his severe criticisms against protection, and his bitter denunciations of its adherents, without being forced to the conclusion that he is one of the most uncompromising free-traders. His saving remnant of protection suggests the Kentucky colonel's mixture of water with his whiskey. The Kentuckian had a deep seated prejudice against taking his whiskey straight, or at least of being considered to do so, and when he would fill his glass of Bourbon to the very brim, he would say to the waiter, "Now, John, take that glass, keep a steady hand, mind you, and just pour in one drop of water, just one drop." Mr. Cleveland's alleged remnant of protection, whatever it is, is like the Kentuckian's drop of water, which he mixed with his Bourbon in order to preserve the consistency of his prejudice.

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