Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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PROMOTION, in the political sense, is the advancing of a person in official service to a higher grade, and generally to a higher salary. In the departments there is a nomination for promotion, as for an original appointment, and each promotion is in law an appointment. The authority for promotion is, in fact, a part of the appointing power, and should be exercised with a sense of the same moral and legal obligations which attend any other exercise of that power. But, on the part of those who exercise it and of those who are affected by it, it is not infrequently regarded as a mere matter of official favor. Yet every conscientious public official possessing it must, on reflection, feel it to be a high trust, in the performance of which no other considerations should have influence except the interests of the public and the merits of the applicant. Every omission to promote the most worthy, hardly less than every promotion of the unworthy, is a breach of that trust; the first being a special injustice to the meritorious officer, and the act and the omission alike being a wrong to the whole people.


—The authority to make promotions is also an important part of the means of discipline and subordination in the great offices. Indeed, the incidental effects of the enforcement of just rules of promotion upon discipline, and all the conditions of order and efficiency on the part of numerous officials serving together in the same office, are so great that these effects, as well as the character and capacity of the individual seeking advancement, should be taken into account in the regulation and ordering of all promotions. If within certain limits, promotions should be based solely upon personal worth and efficiency, yet a wise system for promotions, especially for large offices, must look beyond the individual promoted, to the effect of the principle governing them upon the subordinates as a body. It is of great advantage to the public service, that those who have become most expert and accurate through experience in doing the public business, though not the most talented of officials, should be encouraged to remain. In order to give that encouragement, it may often be a gain to the public service to promote a man of long experience even in preference to a man of more natural capacity who is new to the service. The belief that long tried fidelity, united with fair capacity, is considered in making promotions may even enable the government to secure competent service at lower salaries than would be accepted were promotions hopeless or but accidental, except on the part of the brightest minds in its ranks. And experience has amply shown, in the older countries, that the same persuasion is sufficient to induce a better class of young men and women to entter, than could be secured without such reasonable assurance of the higher honors and salaries being awarded with some reference to seniority or long experience. It is easy, on the other hand, to go to an extreme in favoring mere seniority. Superannuated officials and dullards may be kept too long. The bright and aspiring, having talents to lead and direct, may be thus prevented from entering, or they may withdraw in disgust, by reason of such obstacles in the way of their promotion. It requires great wisdom to avoid both extremes.


—It needs no argument or experience to make it plain that the public service must seem far more honest and respectable, and hence far more attractive, to all worthy young men or women, when its higher grades and salaries are presented as so many rewards to be secured either by fidelity or competency alone, or by good character united with mental superiority, than when they are known to be the good luck of favorites, the recompense of subserviency, or the bribes of partisan influence.


—But exactly in what degree either of those meritorious claims should prevail; how seniority should be weighed against ability, and experience against quickness of mind—when good character is in both scales—is not easy to decide. It should be made a fundamental rule, however, from which there should be very few exceptions, that the higher places and salaries in every bureau, office and department, are to be bestowed as the honors and rewards for which every subordinate, with a confidence proportioned to his just claims, may justly aspire, and which in conformity to a sound principle, his superior merits may surely gain. Thus hope is kept alive; an honorable ambition is aroused; and constant fidelity and studious preparations for higher functions are stimulated and rewarded.


—Every worthy subordinate justly feels insulted, and wronged, every useful quality in the public service is discouraged, and the public interests are grossly disregarded, whenever a favorite of a great official or politician—perhaps ignorant of the duties he is to perform—is arbitrarily appointed or promoted, over those who have been continually faithful and efficient, to the head of an office. Nothing on the part of those relying on their own merits in the public service can be more discouraging or debasing than the conviction that years of faithful performance of duty and of studious preparation for higher functions are unavailing as against those who have the favor of great officials or the influence of party chieftains to advance them. Toiling on hopelessly, and seeing fortunate dunces and favorite flunkies of party lords and great officers take the higher places and salaries, the faithful veteran in the public service feels a natural resentment, if not a spirit of retaliation, against a government which allows such injustice, and cares not to honor those who worthily serve it. Why should he make any special effort for economy or efficiency in the public service, when he sees the government neglect those most competent for securing such results, making them the underlings of novices and favourites? Certainly, the government which allows such injustice and folly does not deserve, and is not likely to secure, the most worthy which its salaries, under wise and just regulations, might be made to draw into its service. To deny or defeat in practice the claim of the most meritorious to promotion, is as disastrous to the people as it is offensive to the common sense of right and duty on the part of all fair-minded men.


—In framing a system of promotion, few points have been found more perplexing than the claims of seniority. In some positions, plodding fidelity and accuracy are the highest merit; in others, prompt conceptions, tact for business, and genius for leadership. In the practical exercise of the power of promotion, those diverse claims have not been less embarrassing than they are in theory.


—It is one of the difficult problems of administration to so regulate promotions that the hope of them shall be a salutary stimulant of all subordinates, while the government is left free to select those for the higher places who are the most competent to lead and to command. Nor is this the whole problem; for, in some cases, as, for example, where capacity is lacking in the lower grades, or a vicious method has become chronic in a bureau, the government must be allowed to seek the suitable person outside the bureau or department, or even outside public service altogether. But this necessity, always humiliating to subordinates, would be greatly diminished, if not well-nigh excluded, by establishing adequate tests of merit (of which the best are competitive examinations) for original entry to the service.


—These observations have no reference to the selection of heads of departments, who, being in a sense political officers, and the constitutional advisers of the president should, for that reason, be selected with due reference to their political opinions. They are members of the political household of the president, whose advice he takes upon important questions of policy.


—In aristocratic and despotic countries, it was almost a matter of course that promotions would be very generally made by reason of birth, wealth and influence, rather than by reason of superior capacity and character. In fact, a monarchy or aristocracy may be in part described as a form of government under which the higher offices and salaries as well as pensions, titles and decorations, are by intention bestowed on the basis of birth, favor and influence; and a republic as a form of government in the spirit of which all appointments and promotions alike should be made by reason of merit alone. How great in later years has been the departure from intrinsic theory in the practice of each, has been noticed under the head of REMOVALS.


—It has been found possible under republics for partisan influence and the politician class to secure a monopoly and enforce a proscription, in the matter of promotions as well as removals, almost as complete as were ever developed in feudal times under an aristocracy; while, on the other hand, some of the leading monarchies now base their promotions almost wholly upon merit alone.


—In the military and naval services of the leading states of Europe, if in practice favours are still accorded to the aristocratic class, yet, in general, merit is quite as much tested by rigid examinations, and is quite as surely honored and encouraged by promotions, as in our army and navy; for, with us, mere political influence is more potential than in those states. The influence of promotions based on merit, and the high capacity thus secured, have greatly contributed to the efficiency of European armies and navies in later years.


—It is nearly a century since (in an act of 1784 relating to British India) the government of Great Britain found it needful to make laws in aid of promoting the most worthy in her civil service. To defeat favoritism and corrupt bargains, that statute gave great consideration to seniority, and required records and public reports concerning the grounds of promotions. In 1820 Lord Liverpool, at the head of the treasury, with a view of arresting the pernicious patronage of members of parliament, laid down and enforced the principle that "all superior officers in the customs service should be supplied by the promotions from the inferior ranks." In 1830 the rule was formally reaffirmed by Lord Grey, and it has been enforced in Great Britain ever since. Promotions in her customs service, as in nearly every part of her administration, are now made on the basis of experience and merit alone. Mere patronage, favor or partisan influence in making promotions, are thus almost excluded. To a considerable extent, merit, as the ground of promotions, is tested by competitive comparisons. And everywhere careful records are kept, which show the fidelity and efficiency of candidates. Even in the act for creating the metropolitan police force, sir Robert Peel caused a provision to be inserted that "no one should be an inspector or superintendent who had not been trained by actual service in each subordinate rank" (See "Eaton on Civil Service in Great Britain," pp. 140, 156, 301, 302, 382, 383, 446.) These conditions of promotion all British statesmen, and the British people as well, now recognize as not only just and invaluable in their practical effects upon the public servants, but as having largely contributed to the economy, purity and vigor of every branch of the administration. The placing of mere politicians or manipulators, or , indeed, of any person not experienced for its administration, at the head of a revenue office or a large postoffice, in Great Britain, would be as impossible, without serious damage to a party, as it is disastrous in practice and absurd in point of theory and principle. We tolerate such pernicious trifling with the public interests only because we have been blinded by long familiarity with partisan theories and usages.


—Not even a trained subordinate is promoted to the head of the larger British custom houses, unless he has had charge of every branch of the customs service at a port of entry. All recommendations for promotion by outsiders are interdicted; and when made, they are treated, until the contrary is proved, as having originated with the person recommended. It is the enforcement of these principles for promotion , which, untied with competitive examinations of merit for original appointment, have so effectually excluded party politics and official favoritism from British administration.


—In the British service, much attention has been given to the relative advantages of awarding promotions largely on the basis of competitive examinations, or solely on that of carefully kept records of work done. There are advantages in both forms of tests. If competition for promotion be made exclusive and supreme, there is a danger that discipline may be impaired and mere memory and attainments may be too much regarded. The best administrative capacity may not be secured. Sufficient authority and discretion may not be allowed to the superior officer. The result has been that, in one office, the rule has been established that one-half the promotions are to be made upon each basis: that of competitive examinations alone, and that of records of efficiency and good conduct alone. That competitive examinations for promotion under suitable restrictions are of great advantages to some parts of the public service, has been shown in that service , as it has been also in the limited trials of them in the public service of the United States; but it is by no means clear that they should be the sole tests for promotion.


—Soon after the adoption of the civil service rules under President Grant, treasury regulations were promulgated (in 1874), under which, (articles 1036 to 1038), promotions in the customs service were, in general terms, required to be made on the basis of merit, length of service, however, being taken into account. No examinations were provided for in the regulations, though the president's civil service rules required them for promotions.


—These regulations, feebly as they were generally enforced, unquestionably in some degree, within their limited range, secured justice and higher qualifications in making promotions. But the refusal of congress to make any appropriation, in 1875, for the enforcement of the civil service rules, caused the rules and regulations alike to be disregarded.


—Promotions, with some marked exceptions (especially in the New York naval office, custom house and postoffice, and in the interior department under Secretary Schurz), like original appointments, have since very generally been affected by favoritism, patronage and influence. (See CIVIL SERVICE REFORM, REMOVALS.)


—The importance of making promotions in the civil service in the public interest has yet received but the slightest attention from congress or the writers of text books. An act of 1879 provides that promotions from the lower to the higher grade of letter carriers shall be made on the basis of "the efficiency and faithfulness of lthe candidate during the preceding year." Beyond this, congress has made no provision (except in the civil service act passes Jan. 16, 1883) for promoting the civil servants of the people by reason of their merits. Congressmen boldly push their favorites for the higher places and salaries; and executive officers stand against them and for the public interests and common justice at the peril of calling down upon themselves the revenge of all patronage-mongering legislators.


—The regulations of the postoffice department provide that promotions in the railway mail service shall be based on "good conduct, faithful service and efficiency," and this requirement has doubtless much improved that branch of the postal service. The civil service rules promulgated by the president in 1883, declare that there shall be competitive examinations for promotion, but reserve the preparation of special rules on the subject for the future. These meagre provisions, confined to such narrow limits—in aid of a better system for promotion—but make the more conspicuous the facts that the legislators and administrators of other enlightened states have been more disinterested and sagacious than our own in dealing with the subject, and their experience, rich and abundant, is now open and plain before us. It will certainly require some self-denial on the part of our congressman and politicians, as it did many years ago on the part of British legislators and nobleman, to enforce a just and wise system of promotions, which does not allow members, by pleading , promising and bullying in the departments, to advance their favorites and henchmen over the heads of the most meritorious of those who serve the people. "Senators and representatives," said the late President Garfield in a speech in 1870, "throng the offices and bureaus until the public business is obstructed and the patience of officers is worn out ; * * they at last give way and appoint, not because the applicant is fit, but because we ask it."


—For the army and navy of the United States a system of promotions has been established for more extensively based upon character, capacity and seniority than any enforced in the civil administration. Cadets, after passing successfully the rigid tests of the military academy at West Point, are promoted (by appointment) to be second lieutenants in the regular army. Any vacancies left, after exhausting such graduates, are filled by promoting those shown to be sufficiently meritorious from among the non-commissioned officers of the army; and if there are still vacancies unfilled, appointments to them may be made from civil life. But neither the promotion nor appointment last named can be made until after detailed reports as to merits and an examination of the qualifications of the candidates by a board of five officers. The age of the candidate must be between twenty and thirty years. No officer of the corps of engineers, below the grade of field officer, can be promoted until he shall have been examined and approved by a board of three engineers, senior to him in rank; and very nearly the same rule of promotion in prevails in the ordnance department.


—Promotions to the rank of captain are made regimentally on the basis of seniority. Promotions in established regiments and corps are also made according to seniority. But seniority does not prevail in the selection of a brigadier general or of any officer above that grade. And when, anywhere in the army , an officer in the line of promotion is retired, the next officer in rank must be promoted to his place, according to the rules of the service. Promotions from the army to be an ordance officer are based on examinations.


—General officers appoint their own aides de camp ; and here, therefore, is a kind of promotion hardly otherwise regulated than by the discretion of the general making it. Vacancies in the places of commissioned officers are filled by promotion through a nomination by the president in his discretion, subject to confirmation by the senate. Promotions in the navy stand upon principles closely analogous to those enforced in the army. Appointments to active service are made from the naval cadets graduated from the academy at Annapolis. No naval officer can be promoted to a higher grade, in the active list, until he has been examined by a board of naval surgeons and found physically qualified; and no line officer below the grade of commodore, and no officer not of the line, can be promoted on the active list until his mental, moral and professional fitness to perform all his duties at sea have been established to the satisfaction of a board of examining officers of not less than three senior officers appointed by the president. In time of peace the condition of a satisfactory examination applies even to a commodore seeking promotion to the grade of admiral on the active list. The examining board is authorized to take testimony under oath, and to examine the files and records of the navy department. These, with other provisions for which we have not space, seem to require in some particulars a more rigid test of merit for promotion in the navy than is required in the army.


—Our limits will not allow us to set forth the rigid tests of promotion enforced in the naval and military service of the European states.


—There can be no doubt that the higher public respect and social position enjoyed by officers of the army and navy, and warranted by their superior qualifications, and infrequency of their misconduct, as compared with the civil servants of the government, are largely a consequence of such wise and just conditions of appointment and promotion. Every advance in the official scale thus made proclaims, not a triumph of political influence, but a manly victory won in one of those examinations, in which the official record and the personal merits of the candidate are investigated and adjudged. That the effects of the vicious methods and the selfish and partisan influences which have so largely prevailed in making promotions in the civil service, have made themselves felt to a considerable degree in the execution of the army and navy systems for promotions—causing pernicious exceptions and evasions in their enforcement—can hardly be doubted. To arrest those influences, to remove political forces and favoritism more completely, as the means of securing promotions and privileges in the army and navy, are duties which congress can not too promptly perform. Every meritorious officer would welcome such a reform, and all others would hope for less advantage from neglecting their duties and studies in order to secure political influence and the interposition of congressmen and politicians in their favor.


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