“ . . . a republican government, which many great writers assert to be incapable of subsisting long, except by the preservation of virtuous principles.”
—John Taylor of Caroline
On a summer morning in 1842, near the end of its session, the U.S. Senate was busy receiving committee reports. The Committee on the Judiciary reported favorably on a bill to pay the estate of William Hull, whose heirs had petitioned for compensation for his government service. Hull had held appointments as general in command of the Northwest and as governor of Michigan Territory at the beginning of the War of 1812.
Mr. Calhoun of South Carolina shattered the quiet routine of the Senate. He rose to express amazement at what he had just heard:
He was, in the first place, surprised that the representatives of General Hull could ever think of presenting this claim to Congress. He would not be more so, if the representatives of [Benedict] Arnold should present a claim for his pay as a general in our service, after he had committed his treason, on the ground that he had held the commission of a general, which had not been revoked.
The deep and universal public condemnation of General Hull had never been reversed and never would be, Calhoun said. It was a matter John C. Calhoun knew well, having at the time been a member of the House of Representatives who had been straining desperately to support the war effort: Hull had surrendered his troops and the Detroit fortifications on the first appearance of the British, without firing a shot in resistance. He had blamed his act on a lack of preparation and support by his superiors—something that might excuse defeat but could not excuse cowardice. Hull was court-martialed and ordered to be shot, though President Madison had granted a reprieve.
Mr. Calhoun asked the Senate:
How could his pay as Governor be allowed, when there was, for the time, no such Territory as Michigan? It had, by his own act, become a British Province and remained so till it was re-conquered by the army under General Harrison. With what show, then, of justice or equity, could he be paid for governing a territory that did not exist, and which had ceased to exist by his own act? The error of the committee consisted in supposing that the commission—the mere paper and wax—and not the service, gave the pay.
What a contrast, Calhoun continued, this situation presented with the conduct of Gen. Andrew Jackson. A federal judge had fined Jackson $1,000 for supposed damages to certain private property in preparing the defenses of New Orleans. Jackson had paid the fine from his own pocket and got on with the business of winning the battle and concluding the war with a great victory. Yet Jackson had never been compensated. “How strange that such unequal justice should be meted out by the committee to General Jackson, who terminated the war with glory, and General Hull, who commenced it with disgrace!”
Calhoun might well have expanded his examples from the history of American republican virtue. George Washington had stood in the Continental Congress in 1775 and acknowledged his acceptance of the perilous mission of taking command of the Continental forces already engaged in fighting with the world’s greatest power. He would accept no pay, Washington said, though he hoped that the Congress would repay his expenses in their service. And, at the end of the war, Washington, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, had disbanded his army and returned to his private life, though there was plenty of room for dissatisfaction at niggling and inadequate responses to his claims.
General Hull’s bill, among other things, demonstrates the difference between Southerners and people from lower New England. Hull was, not surprisingly, from Connecticut, which has supplied a vastly disproportionate share of bad examples in American history: Benedict Arnold, P.T. Barnum, John Brown, William O. Douglas, William F. Buckley, Lowell Weicker, the Bush family, etc. Senator Calhoun, a former secretary of war, was well aware that Massachusetts and Connecticut had more men receiving Revolutionary War pensions than they had ever had active soldiers, while Francis Marion’s veterans and the heroes of Kings Mountain, who had played a vital part in winning American independence, had never considered patriotism as a claim on the Treasury; even if they had, they would have lacked the proper paperwork. Everyone was aware that Massachusetts had, for a quarter-century, been presenting annually a demand to Congress to be paid for the nonservice of its militia in the War of 1812.
The incident of the bill to compensate the Hull heirs illustrates a late phase of the struggle in the American polity between office as an honor and a trust and office as a source of profit. Virtue was obviously already on the defensive in Calhoun’s day, though the founding generation had had a strong sense that the diminishing of virtue would spell doom for the noble experiment of self-government of the people. Though the need for virtue in the people and in their leaders was a given, the exact connotations of the concept could differ. From the beginning, the New England idea of republican virtue had a commercial, collectivist, government-as-engine-of-prosperity cast which harked back to the Puritan Commonwealth. The more idealistic version below the Susquehanna drew inspiration from the highest patriotism of republican Rome. (Whether the basis for this idea was historically accurate is another question.) It was no accident that Joseph Addison’s Cato was Washington’s favorite play and that Washington was often depicted in Roman garb, that officers of the War of Independence called their veterans group the Society of the Cincinnati, and that the seats of the American governments were called capitols. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson modeled the capitol of Virginia on a Roman building he had seen in France.
The idea was this: To lead the people was an obligation, an honor, and a trust, which, properly executed, was the highest example of patriotism. Office should not be a job, a source of profit, or an opportunity for self-promotion. Ambition for glory could be excused as the engine of patriotic effort, but ambition for money and power was defection from republican virtue and signaled a taste for usurpation and corruption. Difficult as it may be to believe today, in the Old Republic, public office often required a sacrifice of private interests. Many a good man found that his law practice, plantation, or commercial firm (not to mention health and disposition) had suffered from only a three-month session in the federal city amongst the demagogues, lobbyists, and mosquitoes. Things are rather different these days, when nobody is ever observed leaving Congress less affluent than when he entered. And, in the Old Republic, a former member of the government going on the payroll of a foreign concern or government—if it had even been possible to imagine it—would have been instantly and universally condemned as treason.
The history of national politics up to 1861 is largely the history of a holding action against the “American System”—essentially meaning the use of the government to promote private profit by bounties, grants, tariffs, public debt, bank charters, and other instruments of corporate welfare. A less-noticed aspect of the struggle against consolidated government that was lost in 1865, though it loomed large in the minds of contemporaries, was the “spoils of office”—the holding of office itself as a source of profit. As in most all matters, the South clung to older practices: Being chosen for public trust was a recognition of achievement and of already-existing status. Increasingly in the North, the office itself was sought as the source of status, and the pursuit of office was bound up in the power of political-party machines to buy votes with public money.
As the 19th century wore on, New Englanders increasingly and aggressively claimed virtue as their special possession, with an accompanying disdain for others. New England spokesmen, shortly after enacting a 40-percent tariff protection for their industries, rose in Congress to declare scornfully that the low price of cotton was caused by Southerners’ lack of Yankee enterprise. The sign of virtue increasingly became profit-making activity—through private enterprise, or rent seeking, or some combination of the two.
The belief in superior virtue and virtue-as-profit-making gathered power over Northern society until it achieved consolidation and institutionalization with Lincoln—the first president elected with no record of achievement or service to the commonwealth but solely through political management and the promise of payoffs (favorable legislation and public jobs and contracts). Lincoln’s victory was a coup for the American System, establishing a permanent structure of welfare for industrialists and bankers. It also brought on a revolutionary expansion of the spoils system.
Whether the Republicans started and kept up the war deliberately for the patronage is debatable, but there is no doubt that they embraced their opportunity with the greatest relish. Lincoln’s war was a source of profit for a vast array of Northern contractors (some of whom made killings that founded fortunes that still exist today) and beneficiaries of the public payroll. (The Confederate army took new recruits into veteran units from their home territories, whereas the U.S. Army, every time new recruits or conscripts were scraped together, created a new regiment of amateurs. It was not a good idea from a military standpoint, but it was great politics—you could buy a lot of support for the party with new officers’ commissions and supply contracts.)
The corruption of the Grant administrations and the Reconstruction state governments was simply a continuance of the same game, without the excuse of a shooting war. There followed rapidly a vast pension system for those who had fought to overcome “the rebellion.” For decades, one of the biggest items in the federal budget was Union Army pensions. It was the first great American entitlement cornucopia. Little distinction was made between men who had fought the whole war and those who had worn the uniform for three months of static service. The paper and wax was all.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pecksniffian do-gooders promoted “civil-service reform,” but about all that accomplished was to replace political hacks in government office with unremovable tin-pot tyrants determined to use the government to improve the citizens—whether the citizens wanted to be improved in that particular way or not. And so it has gone, down to our own day. Americans no longer have a concept of responsibility in public office. The press reports that Gen. Colin Powell is suffering from the “painful blot” on his (inflated) reputation that he earned because of his part in bringing on the Iraq debacle. Presumably, we are not supposed to condemn lies that are catastrophic for the country but only to commiserate with the general because his lies have damaged his reputation. Now, as after September 11, 2001, officeholders who fail catastrophically in their responsibilities to the people are rewarded with promotions, reelection, great increases of money and power, and presidential medals. It does not even occur to anybody to point out that the pay ought to be for service, not for the paper and wax.