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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Civil Service Examinations

By Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)

[Sixth Report of the U. S. Civil Service Commission. 1889.]

IT is not contended that the system is ideally perfect; no governmental methods are. From time to time there have been shown certain defects in the working of the civil service law and rules, though most of these defects already have been, and it is believed that the majority of the remainder soon will be, remedied. But it is most emphatically contended that the merit system shows to very great advantage when compared with any other, whether actual or proposed; and this is especially the case when the comparison is made with the patronage system, which it is now slowly but surely supplanting. The fundamental proposition of the new system is that every American citizen has a right to serve the public (provided that his services are needed) if on his merits he is able to show that he is the man most capable of filling the position he seeks, and all he is required to do is to show this superior capacity in fair competition with other American citizens. In other words, the system is one of common honesty and of fair play for all, and therefore it is essentially American and essentially democratic. The object of the law is to give to the average American citizen what it takes away from the professional politician. How little this object is understood by some men in public life may be gathered from recent proposals to parcel out all the offices among the different Congressional districts according to the political faith of the Congressmen representing them. This would, of course, simply mean a revival of the patronage system, with an added touch of chaos. It is apparently brought forward in the simple faith that all that is needed is to divide the offices among the politicians of both parties instead of among those of only one, and ignores the very common-sense view, which insists that the offices are not the property of the politicians at all, whether of one party or of the other or of both; but, on the contrary, that they belong to the people, and should be filled only with reference to the needs of the public service.

It seems worth while to answer one or two of the accusations often brought against the merit system by its opponents. These accusations have been so incessantly repeated that many people have finally come to believe them.

One of these accusations is that the examinations are of such a character as to favor “boys fresh from school” at the expense of men of maturer age, experience, and capacity. This is simply incorrect. In the last report of the Commission full tables bearing on the subject are given. By these it is shown that nearly two thirds of the applicants for examination succeeded in passing, and that of those passing about two fifths are appointed, the figures proving, by the way, that those that have had a good common-school education do about as well as those who have graduated from college. A glance at these tables shows that the average age of those passing the examinations for the ordinary governmental positions, such as clerk, copyist, letter-carrier, and the like, is about twenty-eight years. In other words, the examinations for these positions are especially suited, not to school-boys, but to men in the prime of life, with experience of the world, who have left school for at least ten years. The most common accusation, however, is that the examinations are “scholastic,” or of an “impractical” character; that, as is often asserted, the Commission does not give practical tests, but asks questions “about the sciences,” or, at least, on irrelevant subjects. All such statements as these are without foundation; and if those who make them do so in good faith it is only because they have not taken the trouble to ascertain the facts. As a matter of fact, special care is taken to have the examinations as practical in character as possible, and to test each candidate on precisely those subjects demanded by the character of the work in the branch of the service to which he is seeking admission. The Commission strongly objects to irrelevant questions, and surely there can be no questions more irrelevant to a man’s duties as clerk or letter-carrier than are inquiries as to how he voted at the last election and how strong his political backing is; and these are precisely the questions that many of the men who thus object to the examinations as “impractical” are in reality desirous of asking.

Examinations are held for scores of different places, and for each place appropriate tests are provided. Thus, it is necessary for an assistant chemist to know something of chemistry, and for an assistant astronomer to know something of astronomy; and applicants for such positions are questioned accordingly. A would-be stenographer and type-writer is examined in stenography and type-writing. But the great bulk of applicants—probably over 90 per cent.—apply for positions as clerk, copyist, letter-carrier, and the like; and the examinations for these positions are those by which the system can best be tested. For each of these positions there is a plain, practical, common-sense examination, such as would appear to the average intelligence to be best suited to find out the men who possess in the highest degree the qualities needed. A copyist is examined on but four subjects—spelling, penmanship, elementary arithmetic, and copying from dictation, from plain copy, and from a rough draft. His duties as a copyist make it necessary for him to spell well, to write a good legible hand, to solve simple problems in arithmetic, and to make a clear, neat-looking copy of a first draft of a letter which is filled with interlineations and erasures; and accordingly these four points are the very ones on which he is examined. A clerk’s examination is a little harder, for besides the above-mentioned subjects he is required to show that he can write an intelligent letter on some given topic, that he can turn ungrammatical sentences into good English, that he knows how to keep accounts, and finally that he knows something of United States geography, government, and history. Every question, except the last, has a direct bearing upon the duties to which the clerk will be put as soon as he has been appointed. The only objection that can possibly be made is to the questions about the geography and history of the United States (and no other questions are asked in history and geography); but these combined never count for more than 5 per cent. in the examination, so that an applicant need not answer them at all, and may yet attain an average of 90 per cent. Moreover, these questions are a test of a man’s general intelligence. Every good American citizen ought to possess a rudimentary knowledge of his country’s history, geography, and government.

Examinations for all the ordinary minor positions are based upon the two for clerk and copyist, some of the questions being dropped and others substituted in each case, according to the character of the work in the special place applied for. Thus, a letter-carrier has to show good knowledge of the local geography of his vicinity—its railway stations, big commercial buildings, and the like. Or, again, a railway mail-clerk has to show acquaintance with the railway systems of his State and section, and to make it evident that he can read off a large number of addresses with speed and accuracy.

Such are fair samples of the tests applied to the great majority of the candidates who come before the examining boards; and if questions on the points indicated above are not practical and pertinent to the duties of the position sought for, then it would be hard to know what questions are.