Indian Agents and the Spoils System

Third session,
Thursday morning, October 17.

Hon. William Dudley Foulke was then introduced as the next speaker.

Indian Agents And The Spoils System
By Hon. William Dudley Foulke.

I cannot conceive of any time more favorable for effective work than the present. There is now at the head of the Indian Bureau a man whom you know well, and in whom you have confidence. There is at the head of the Interior Department a man whom I know to be conscientiously desirous of doing his duty, whether to his own advantage or disadvantage, in regard to the red man as well as the white; and there is at the head of our Government the Chief Executive of the United States a man who has appeared at previous conferences, and shown his interest in the Indians; a man whose name stands as the synonym for civic righteousness. So this is the time for work.

The spoils system has been the lion in the way. I had occasion not long ago to look over the list of changes of Indian agents made during the past three or four administrations, and I found that in Mr. Cleveland’s first administration, among 60 agents, all were changed but 2; in Mr. Harrison’s administration there were 76 changes, and only 8 were suffered to remain; during Mr. Cleveland’s second term there were 81 changes, and only 4 were suffered to remain; in Mr. McKinley’s first administration, among 88 agencies, there were 79 changes, only 9 being suffered to remain and only 1 reappointed. That would indicate that Indian agents were a pretty bad set of men to require so many changes, and many of them have been bad men, but once in a while a good man was turned out to make way for a bad man.

The reason is, that under the spoils system of distributing offices the fitness of the man for the place is hardly considered. The thing that is considered is the number of votes his influence can secure for the Senator or Member of Congress who secures his appointment. That is a very bad system. Mr. Garrett spoke of the desirability of doing away with Indian agents, but you can not do away with them now. No law for that purpose would pass, for the reason that members of Congress desire to keep the patronage, and would vote against a law for abolishing agencies.

These numerous changes of agents have an evil effect upon the Indians. If the Indians are to respect the Government, they should have men representing the Government permanently, who are worthy of their respect. Moreover, any scheme for the amelioration of the condition of the Indian are certain to come to naught if the agent who plans them is dismissed before they can be carried out. You can not do any good thing while the spoils system remains. There are bad agents now who perhaps will be removed, but other bad agents may take their places. It is the system that is wrong.

How, then, shall we get a better system? I would not apply to Congress, because I do not think we would get the result we desire. Congress is the bulwark of the spoils system. But the President of the United States does not desire patronage. I think I can say that the Secretary of the Interior does not care for patronage. Such men are above it. It is through their instrumentality that the reform must take place. How can it be done? The Constitution provides that Indian agents are to be nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. You cannot escape that. But the President has the right, in conjunction with the Civil Service Commission, to provide rules for his own guidance, and to say that he will nominate no man unless that man has proved his qualifications for the office by prescribed tests. If the President will adopt rules of this description it will practically eliminate patronage appointments. If the office were a consulship he could provide that a candidate should be appointed only after a competitive examination, showing that he understood the duties of the place better that any of his competitors; but the office of Indian agent is one where the qualifications are different. An agent should have tact and business capacity, qualities which can not so well be shown by competitive examinations. They can be shown, however, by long experience in the service; and it seems to me that if the rules adopted should provide that Indian agents could only be appointed by promotion from superintendents of schools, and from the higher grades of the classified service, or detailed from the Army, it would exclude all others, and patronage would be extinct. Senators could no longer recommend their henchmen, because they are not in those places. We might not always get the best men, but we would get men of experience whose positions was a guaranty of good character. But even if we did not get any better men than at present, still, if we could destroy patronage, and thus eliminate the motive which Congressmen have for opposing good legislation, we would do a great deal. I have reason to think this may be accomplished. I had a conversation last week with the President regarding the importance of applying civil service reform principles to the appointment of Indian agents. I am not authorized to speak for him, but I am sure his mind is not inhospitable to a plan something like that suggested.

I remember that once out in Indiana a man and his wife were crossing a rapid stream. They had a strong horse and a little horse. They were in danger of floating down the river, and the man was whipping the small horse, but his wife cried, “John, whip the strong horse.” He did so, and they got safely over the stream. The thing for the friends of the Indian to do is to whip the strong horse to establish the merit system and destroy the spoils system. If you can do that, a good deal of the work for the Indian will have been done.



Board Of Indian Commissioners. Thirty-Third Annual Report Of The Board Of Indian Commissioners. Government Printing Office. 1901.

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