When the president began handing out appointments, William Merriam was a strong candidate for many positions. In business, he had recently been touted as the right man to head the Northern Pacific Railroad, of which he was already a director. In politics, he was mentioned as the front-runner for many very important positions: Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War, ambassador to Germany, and ambassador to Russia. He was widely considered very capable of filling any of those positions, and had another thing going for him: no skeletons in the closet, and no scandals for the opposition to resurrect.
And it’s true: the rival party well knew of Merriam’s qualifications, his intelligence, and affability. His only problem came from within his own party’s ranks—yet it had nothing to do with politics, and little to do with Merriam himself.
As the story goes, Laura Merriam ruled society life in St. Paul, and at one point, Senator Cushman Davis and his wife were not included on the invitation list. Some said it was an oversight by a careless secretary, but that did not placate Mrs. Davis. The perception was that Laura Merriam had been born to wealth and the better things in life, while Mrs. Davis had risen in class by marrying. Davis was thus inferior—not a worthy member of entitled society.
Whether intentional or not, snubbing of the Davises bore consequences, for Cushman held power. He had preceded William Merriam to the governor’s seat by more than a decade, and with seething resentment for the disrespectful treatment of his wife, Davis stood firmly against anything in Minnesota politics that benefited the Merriams.
Worse yet—when William was being considered for many prominent positions by McKinley, Cushman was now Senator Davis in Washington, DC. (Merriam had not supported Davis in his senate re-election bid in 1893, further widening the rift.) Each time McKinley proposed Merriam’s name for a post, Senator Davis informed the president he would block the nomination. (By odd coincidence, Davis was also a native of northern New York.)
It was an embarrassment to the party and damaging to Merriam. Finally, reports came in that Mrs. Merriam attended a reception for Mrs. Davis and greeted her warmly. Shortly after the thaw, William’s name was floated once more for an important position, that of Census Director. Davis informed McKinley he would not oppose, and Merriam was appointed in short order.
It was noted in the media that Davis may have inadvertently done Merriam a favor, as the position paid $1000 more per year than the senator’s salary (equal to $30,000 more in 2014).
While Director of the Census might on the surface have seemed a less than glamorous position, it was anything but, and highly coveted by many. After all the recent setbacks, Merriam was now celebrated in major newspapers with headlines touting him as “the most popular man in Washington.” Why was that? There were several compelling reasons.
First, William was delegated the task of hiring 45,000 employees. All congressmen lined up: as a basic tenet of the spoils system, they sought favors (prized jobs) for choice constituents.
Second, the census counted not only people, but industries, jobs, farms, and the like, providing detailed information and analyses that would drive government policy for the next decade.
Third, the previous census (1890) had been widely characterized as a debacle. The spoils system had been used to fill appointments, producing results that were excoriated by the media.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer indeed dealt with it plainly: “It has been generally agreed that the conduct of the last census was a national scandal, and the president was determined that the present one should not be likewise if he could prevent it. The utter ignorance of many of the employees of the last census is even yet not properly appreciated by the country at large. Literally dozens of men and women carried on the rolls as high-grade clerks were not fit to sweep out an office—clerks who could neither spell, nor calculate, nor even write the English language with any degree of accuracy…. It was a shameful condition of affairs.”
Worse yet, a bureau of 70 clerks had been appointed to deal with the resulting mess, and their work was so incompetent that much of it had to be redone. McKinley needed a director who, said the Plain Dealer, “Would not have his work clogged by deadwood. He found just the man he wanted in Merriam.”
After the appointment, William returned briefly to St. Paul to tie up some loose ends. On returning to Washington, he found a tidy “gift” awaiting: more than 2000 applications from congressmen on behalf of constituents, even though Merriam currently had only 200 jobs to fill.
Previously, civil service tests were used to narrow the field of applicants, but a bypass system had long been in place. Congressmen simply appointed whomever they wished, and after a few months, the job became permanent without the employee having to endure a test.
Routinely, those jobs, like postal appointments, had been used as political payoff. Thus the pending 1900 census had congressmen salivating at the prospects of doling out jobs in exchange for the vigorous backing of supporters.
But a battle in Congress over the upcoming census ended with an agreement that the new director would make his own appointments (wink, wink)—the assumption being that he would be aided extensively by the Civil Service Board in so complex an undertaking. In other words, it would be business as usual.
But Merriam soon came out with a stunning announcement: since Congress had not directed him to use the Civil Service Board, he would be remiss in doing so. Thus, he would be making all appointment decisions “on his own responsibility, just as Congress had directed.”
There was a general uproar, but things calmed a bit when Merriam later revealed the input he sought from legislators: each Republican congressman was entitled to list 6 applicants, and each senator could list 12. Each Democratic congressman could select 2. All candidates would then need to pass a test approved by Merriam before acceptance into the bureau.
The new director emphasized his guidelines: “Each state will have its quota of appointments, and the recommendations of its congressmen will certainly have influence in the selections. But no political influence will be sufficient to put an employee on the rolls of whose competency I am not satisfied, nor to keep on there after he has been found to be incapable. The examinations will be germane to the needs of the bureau. No copyist will be employed who cannot write and spell, and no calculator who cannot calculate.”
Newspaper headlines erupted with lawmakers’ protests in response to another Merriam pronouncement: the vast majority of workers hired for the census would be women. They were, he said, better qualified, more accurate, and faster.
Behind the congressional reaction, described as “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” was the unspoken truth: Merriam was spoiling the spoils system by giving valued jobs to non-voting citizens. Women had yet to win the vote. To sitting congressmen, providing them with choice jobs was a senseless waste of power.
Next week, the conclusion: A census that makes sense is a very good thing.
Photos: William Rush Merriam; Laura Hancock Merriam; headline (1899); headline (1900)