Lincoln And The Patronage, by Carl Russell Fish
One of the more unfortunate aspects of government jobs is the way that many people idealize the civil service as if the bureaucracy that we have right now is a good thing. There is a reason why the swamp got to be full of a lot of monsters, and a large part of that came from the way that the civil service allowed people to remain working for the government for decades and seeking to pervert the government’s behavior without being held accountable the way that they were before during the spoils system. That said, the spoils system was by no means ideal in that it forced presidents, including those who had a lot they needed to do like Lincoln, to spend a lot of time choosing people for specific positions and balancing the various states of the Union as well as the various factions within the Republican party. The author is obviously in favor of the civil service reforms that have led to our contemporary entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy, but at the same time he recognizes that Lincoln did not do a bad job with the hand that he was given with regards to choosing people for offices.
This particular paper is a short one at about twenty pages or so and it seeks to provide a discussion of Lincoln dealing with the patronage system that took place during the period between the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the establishment of the civil service reforms starting in the 1880’s. If books about Abraham Lincoln have always involved a large number of agendas, this one is no different, as the author is at pains to show how someone who basically accepted the spoils system and knew how to use it adeptly and skillfully was somehow a precursor to the reforms that took place later and that the author admits were just beginning during his time in the presidency. The author’s commitment to the civil service ideal and his need to make Lincoln be on the right side of history as far as he is concerned does lead to some speculations that are not borne out by the evidence. All too often, the author seems to be more interested in writing about what he wants to believe about Lincoln than how Lincoln actually behaved. And what is so bad about holding civil servants accountable for their political worldviews when such matters are viewed extremely seriously by everyone involved?
One of the more telling aspects of this short book is the way that the author unintentionally points out the way that Lincoln’s election was not too dissimilar to that of Trump in 2016, where a large body of people working for the government were demoralized by the drastic change of philosophy that the new government involved. As a result both Lincoln and Trump have faced difficulties finding loyal people to work in the face of divided government and a feeling of crisis. If the author is obviously not aware of what has happened in the more than a century since the book was written and published in the early 1900’s, the wise and discerning contemporary reader can ponder the fact that neither the spoils system nor the civil service have been able to successful provide government with decent and upstanding civil servants who can be faithfully relied upon to act in the best interests of the nation at large. One wonders if government can be trusted at all beyond that which is absolutely necessary, as the author clearly has rose-colored glasses about the civil service reforms and does not see their dark side yet which is more obvious to us today.