Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
ASSESSMENTS, Political. This is a general term used to designate the pecuniary contributions levied by congressional, state and municipal political committees, upon the office-holders and candidates belonging to their several parties, for the stated purpose of defraying the expenses of the political canvass conducted by them respectively. The assessment embraces in each case the office-holders and candidates within the field of such canvass. With office-holders it usually takes the form of a request for a specific sum, amounting to a certain percentage of the salary of the contributor. In the case of candidates the practice is not yet systematized except in the larger cities, and not completely except in New York. There it becomes a contribution, the amount of which varies with the closeness of the election, the salary of the prospective office, and the circumstances of the candidate. The amount of this assessment, however, is not fixed by the candidate as if it were a purely voluntary contribution, but is determined by a political committee, to which the candidate is often compelled to give security for its payment, as a prerequisite to obtaining the nomination. An action has been brought against a judge in New York, to recover a portion of the assessment thus levied upon him as a candidate, and it is a matter of common belief that, in the autumn of 1880, a judicial candidate mortgaged his prospective salary to secure the payment of an assessment of $17,000.
—The beginning and growth of political assessments are involved in great obscurity, the only data for the history of the practice being preserved in the memory of men who have levied assessments, or who have paid them. Obviously, however, it is an outgrowth of the "spoils" system, which conceives political office to be a species of valuable property, belonging with its profits to the party in power, and out of which has grown the later conception, that as an occupant of an office holds it not in trust, but in fee of his party, he may have in it a right of individual property, and consequently, a tenure of office which is irrespective of his efficiency or his behavior. The first specific instance of an assessment which has been found, is in the testimony taken in the Swartwout investigation to be found in the report of a house committee of the twenty-fifth congress. During that investigation a former deputy collector of New York testified as follows. "I have frequently been called on to contribute to political objects while I was deputy collector, as an officer of the custom house. The amount was from $20 to $100. The tax was pro rata according to salary. It bore a proportion of from one to six per cent. I believe nearly all the officers of the custom house in doors and out, and the clerks were similarly taxed, and generally paid what they were assessed. It was assessed by the general committee of the Tammany hall party, and for the support of the Tammany hall party. If the individual did not pay the amount he was taxed with, the collector would remark, 'You will be reported to the general committee,' and everybody well understood proscription would follow. The collector of the general committee has an alphabetical book containing the names of persons taxed, and the amount each individual is requested to pay."
—The next instance was in 1842 or 43, and was levied from Washington upon the employés of the New York postoffice. Ten dollars were demanded from each clerk, and twenty dollars from each carrier, both classes being also required to subscribe for the Madisonian, the organ of president Tyler, and for a copy of his portrait. From that time until the present, despite the occasional endeavors of far-seeing officers to check it, (Gen. Dix, for instance, while postmaster in New York, ordered the collectors out of the postoffice) the practice of political assessments seems to have developed without serious interruption. From information obtained from the older men in the great public offices, it appears that since then, pecuniary "contributions" have been solicited in every presidential campaign. It appeared from the Covode investigation that the democratic party of that day collected its campaign funds from office-holders and contractors, and an abortive endeavor was made in the interior department, at about the same time, to compel the patent solicitors to contribute to the funds of that party and to render to it political allegiance.
—In 1866 the republican party established its congressional committee for the special purpose of watching its interests in congressional elections, and the present practice of addressing to all persons whose names appear in the official register of the United States a request for the "voluntary contribution" of a sum which is specified, appears to have originated with this committee, although the present practice may have reached its completed form gradually. The existing system will be best described by a statement of what was done in 1880. On April 19, the republican congressional committee addressed to all persons (except the heads of executive offices) drawing a salary from the national government, a letter containing these words: "Under the circumstances in which the country finds itself placed, the committee believes that you will esteem it both a privilege and a pleasure to make to its fund a contribution, which, it is hoped, may not be less than—. The committee is authorized to state that such voluntary contribution from persons employed in the service of the United States will not be objected to in any official quarter." The blank was filled by writing in a sum which was equal to two per cent. of the salary of the person thus solicited for a "voluntary contribution." On Oct. 14th, the committee addressed to the same persons a second appeal: "to promptly contribute to its funds an additional one per cent. of your salary." There are no means of ascertaining what number of persons thus addressed actually contributed, nor what was the total amount received, and probably not more than one or two persons know the precise sum realized; but there is the highest authority for stating that it was at least $100,000. In addition to this assessment, the federal office-holders were further assessed by the republican state committees in their respective states. This assessment varied in different states, but it was larger and more rigidly collected in Pennsylvania and New York than elsewhere. In New York it amounted to a second three per cent. of the office-holder's salary, and no effort was spared to extort the whole amount. Repeated letters were sent to delinquents requesting more or less imperatively the payment of the contribution, and finally a list of such delinquents in each office or department with the amounts "due" from each, was sent to its chief, with a request to attend to the matter. Of three of these letters the following are copies:
SIR: Under instructions from this committee on the 26th of August last a circular was mailed to you with the expectation that you would respond before Sept. 3rd.
The republican state committee respectfully invite your immediate attention to this matter, and hope to hear from you without further delay.
SIR: This committee instructs me to call your attention to the circular sent you Aug. 27th, asking you to contribute $15 (in two monthly payments, the first one before Sept. 3rd) toward the necessary expenses of the presidential campaign in New York State, and to say that, as you have not yet paid the first installment, it is important that the whole sum asked be paid before Oct. 3rd, in one payment.
Checks or postal orders should be made payable to the order of
MY DEAR SIR: Below you will find a schedule of your subordinates who have several times been asked to contribute the sums set opposite their respective names toward the expenses of the campaign in this state.
You will find opposite each name the amount yet due. The total unpaid at this date and due from the employés of your office, therefore appears to be $—. Your immediate attention to this matter is very important By order of the executive committee.
No one employed by the national government in New York seems to have been omitted from the lists of this committee. Three per cent. of a weekly stipend of $2 was requested from an office boy in a rural postoffice, and one of the most insolent letters was received by a custom house messenger whose salary is $500 per annum. As in the case of the congressional committee, the exact amount raised can not be computed, but it is best estimated at between $90,000 and $125,000. No accounts are kept or rendered; the receipts and expenditures are in the hands of a small executive committee, whose accounts are presumed to be audited by the character of its members.
—The system of political assessments in the city of New York, as the end toward which the practice elsewhere is tending, deserves special notice. In that city in 1880 the members of the police force were assessed, and the proceeds divided between the parties; the firemen and even the school teachers have been requested for "voluntary contributions" and in all the other departments, without exception, the salaried employés of the city government are called upon to assist in keeping the party, under which they hold, in power, by means of "voluntary contributions." The assessment of candidates is so complete as to amount to a fixed price upon a nomination for every elective office. A judgeship costs about $15,000; the district attorneyship the same; a nomination for coroner, $2,000; for a nomination to congress the price is about $4,000, though this is more variable than any of the other assessments; an aldermanic nomination is worth $1,500, and that for the assembly from $600 to $1,500. While these prices fluctuate, they represent the average cost of the nominations named. The amount realized from these assessments, as in the previous cases, can not be exactly estimated, but the amount raised by Tammany hall, which is the most complete political organization, may be fixed very nearly at $125,000. As in the previous cases also, this amount is collected and expended by a small executive committee, who keep no accounts and who are responsible only to each other. A certain amount of corruption in the handling of the funds would, under such circumstances, seem to be inevitable, and the fact that a considerable number of persons, without property and without occupation, find a means of livelihood in the pursuit of "politics," demonstrates the truth of that supposition.
—The main motive for the payment of assessments is the fear of losing office and means of livelihood through the success of the opposite party. But it is also true, that many office-holders contribute because they fear that their refusal will be punished by removal by their own party.. Great stress is laid by most politicians upon the statement that the contributions of office-holders are all "voluntary." A United States senator of the largest experience in levying assessments, has assured this writer that he never knew an office-holder to be dismissed or to lose his place in consequence of refusal to pay his assessment. It is probably, nevertheless, the fact that many persons have been so punished, and the slightest intercourse with the holders of minor offices shows that the fear of this punishment is the sole inducement for many contributions; numbers of cases might be cited to show that the payment of this assessment has been made only at a sacrifice and that it has worked actual hardship. The terms in which the request for "voluntary contributions" are made, as in the letters above, are certainly calculated to convey the impression that refusal will be punished, and it is unquestionable that many office-holders suppose themselves to have no other volition in the matter than that of choosing between paying and losing their places.
—The effect of the practice of political assessments has already been, in New York, as it must ultimately be elsewhere, to directly increase the salaries of the persons subjected to them. Mr. John Kelly, of Tammany hall, for instance, defended the payment of exorbitant salaries to the city aldermen before a legislative committee in 1880, on the ground that it was necessary to enable them to meet the large political demands that were made upon them. The remote effect of the practice, by causing the sum of the salaries of public servants to be regarded as a fund to which there is easy and secret access, is to increase the unnecessary expenses of elections and to encourage the corrupt use of money in influencing their results, and, by seeming to provide that the expenses of one party shall be paid out of the public treasury, and that the means of support of government employés shall depend upon the issue of an election, to introduce into contests between parties an exasperation and rancor which is properly foreign to them.
—Many of those by whom the practice is carried on regret it, and very few defend it, except on the ground that it is necessary. It is not said to be wise or to be just, but simply a necessity which can be obviated only through a compact between parties. There have been two other remedies proposed: first, the absolute prohibition of assessments; second, reform of the existing systems of civil service. The first of these remedies was attempted in an executive order made by president Hayes at the beginning of his administration, which prohibited the participation of office-holders in politics and forbade political assessments, but this order was soon allowed to become a dead letter. Bills have also been introduced into congress with the same object; most of them make the levying of assessments a misdemeanor; but, with the exception of a bill introduced in 1881, and entitled "a bill to prevent extortion from persons in the public service, and bribery and coercion by such persons," all of them by proposing to prohibit all contributions, repeat the mistake made by president Hayes in his order, in seeming to restrict the individual liberty of the office-holder. The radical remedy for political assessments is a reformed system of civil service, which by substituting fitness, ascertained by competitive examinations for political services, as the basis for appointments, shall secure to all citizens an equal right to be admitted to the public service; and which by providing that all persons shall be appointed to the business positions in the service, not for four years or for any other definite period, but for such time as they shall be found by their superiors to be efficient and well behaved, shall secure the same permanency of tenure in the public services of the United States which exist in private business and in the civil service of other civilized countries. Under a system so reformed there will be no special sense of obligation to any political organization for procuring appointments, and no consequent readiness to discharge it by pecuniary contributions or by political services. Under such a system also, the office-holder will feel as in private life, that his income depends upon his efficiency and his conduct, not on the results of an election; he will have no stronger motive for making political contributions to one party or the other than any good citizen; and if he does make it, it will be on the footing of his other expenditures, and in fact voluntary, and not under actual or fancied duress. Until such a reform is made, all government employés will be compelled to consider the members of the political party opposed to that under which they hold, as persons who are engaged in an endeavor to deprive them of their means of subsistence, and they will pay political assessments to an amount and with an eagerness which has convinced thoughtful men of both parties, even in the present dimensions of the practice, that it is, together with the "spoils" system, out of which it has grown, a mighty and unpalliated evil.
FREDERICK W. WHITRIDGE.
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