The job seekers clogged the corridors and lined the White House staircases.
President Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War colossus who had vanquished Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy on the battlefield, now faced a far more indomitable foe: the relentless barrage of applicants storming 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for government jobs.
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“Remember, anyone could walk in the White House at that time,” said Ron Chernow, the Washington and Hamilton biographer who has just published a highly anticipated book on the 18th president. “The White House was a palace of patronage.”
Nepotism and dismal appointments tainted Grant’s presidency, Chernow writes in “Grant,” a book with so much buzz that President Bill Clinton reviewed it in the New York Times.
Requests came not only for Cabinet and ambassadorial posts, as remains the case today for the deep-pocketed and Goldman Sachs-connected, but also, Chernow writes, for jobs as seemingly quotidian as “revenue collectors, Indian agents, postmasters, marshals and custom collectors.”
Before Grant’s election, Harper’s Weekly observed that “the chief business of the executive has become the distribution of patronage.”
Grant had conquered the Confederate Army and his own battles with liquor, but now he was at a loss. The great military tactician seemed a patsy for every scoundrel and proved a woeful judge of character. (In the penultimate year of his life, Grant would lose his savings to the Bernie Madoff of his day. Grant’s posthumously published memoir, widely acclaimed as the finest written by a president, would ultimately yield a fortune for his widow.)
“I scarcely get one moment alone,” Grant wrote to his sister in 1869, less than a month into his presidency. “Office-seeking in this country … is getting to be one of the industries of the age. It gives me no peace.”
His grand ally Abraham Lincoln had been equally besieged.
During the war, a friend inquired if the 16th president seemed depressed by a Union military setback. “No, it isn’t the army,” Lincoln said. “It is the post office in Brownsville, Missouri.” It fell to the Great Emancipator to appoint the people who handled the mail.
Lincoln sought the theater as a refuge from the clamor. An officer who escorted him on one such outing inquired if the president was enjoying the entertainment.
“Oh, no, Colonel; I have not come for the play, but for the rest,” Lincoln responded. “I am being hounded to death by office-seekers, who pursue me early and late, and it is simply to get two or three hours’ relief that I am here.”
(Lincoln may have found solace in the theater but it ultimately cost him his life. And Grant’s life may have been spared, Chernow writes, because of Mary Todd Lincoln’s imperious nature. Grant’s wife, Julia, was so offended by the first lady’s behavior that they declined Lincoln’s offer to accompany them to Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination.)
The war’s end brought no cessation of requests. When it came to government jobs, Grant was accosted by strangers and relatives.
Julia’s family, the Dents, “guzzled freely at the patronage trough, [and] the president more or less willingly catered to their thirst,” Chernow writes. They were all rewarded. Grant could look across the country and locate in-laws ensconced in government posts: A bank examiner in Missouri, a marshal in the nation’s capital, a port collector in New Orleans, customs appraiser in San Francisco, an Indian trader in New Mexico, a presidential secretary in the White House.
Grant also made historic appointments, naming many African Americans, Native Americans and Jews to federal positions. During his presidency, Washington evolved from an “undeveloped wasteland” into a modern city with paved sidewalks, sewers, gas mains, streetlights and public parks, as well as government buildings — containing even more government workers.
The rise of the Gilded Age, the boom in “robber barons,” created a bigger, though not cleaner, government “providing fresh opportunities for graft to abound,” Chernow writes. “With the federal government bound up in new moneymaking activities, there arose a gigantic grab for filthy lucre” that “saturated the political system with corruption. Businesses bargained for tax breaks, government contracts, land grants and other favors, undermining democratic institutions that found it hard to withstand the assault.”
Before Grant’s presidency, the attorney general served as the chief executive’s legal adviser, operating from the Treasury Department building. In 1870, Congress established the Department of Justice to consolidate government lawyers, and also establish civil-service reform and curtail patronage. That same year, Congress also founded the Civil Service Commission with the hope of professionalizing government workers.
In his second annual 1870 address to Congress, Grant intoned, “There is no duty which so much embarrasses [the] Executive, and heads of departments, as that of appointments; nor is there [any such] arduous and thankless labor imposed on Senators and representatives as that of finding places for constituents.”
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