Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

1877: An Inaugural Agenda for Civil Service Reform

Torpedoes in His Path: Can he, with that load, get through without exploding them?

“Torpedoes in His Path: Can he, with that load, get through without exploding them?” By Joseph Keppler. Published in Puck Magazine: Centerfold; Vol. 1 No. 1, March 14, 1877. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes is perhaps one of the most underappreciated presidents (CSPAN Historians rank him 33rd). Although he ascended to the presidency in one of the most contested and controversial elections, “Rud” was an intelligent man and honest man who sought to reform the federal government even the face of a hostile Congress and in an era of Congressional dominance.

One of the priorities of President Hayes was to reform the system of civil service appointments, which had been based on a spoils system since the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Rather than doling out federal jobs to political supporters, Hayes called for awarding jobs based on merit. Hayes’ civil service reform success, even if it was limited, was significant for a couple reasons. First, Hayes’ efforts set  “a significant precedent as well as the political impetus for the Pendleton Act of 1883,” which was signed into law by none other than President Chestur A. Arthur. Second, in a period marked by Congressional dominance, Hayes restored the President’s constitutional power of appointments. While Congress could suggest those whom they thought should be nominated for federal jobs, by the end of the Hayes administration, senators and congressman no longer dictated these appointments to the president.

Hayes laid out his civil service reform agenda in his Inaugural Address on March 5, 1877:

I ask the attention of the public to the paramount necessity of reform in our civil service--a reform not merely as to certain abuses and practices of so-called official patronage which have come to have the sanction of usage in the several Departments of our Government, but a change in the system of appointment itself; a reform that shall be thorough, radical, and complete; a return to the principles and practices of the founders of the Government. They neither expected nor desired from public officers any partisan service. They meant that public officers should owe their whole service to the Government and to the people. They meant that the officer should be secure in his tenure as long as his personal character remained untarnished and the performance of his duties satisfactory. They held that appointments to office were not to be made nor expected merely as rewards for partisan services, nor merely on the nomination of members of Congress, as being entitled in any respect to the control of such appointments… 

The President of the United States of necessity owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party, the members of which cherish with ardor and regard as of essential importance the principles of their party organization; but he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best.