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They Vote Only for the Spoils: Massachusetts Reformers, Suffrage Restriction, and the 1884 Civil Service Law1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Edward H. Miller
Boston College


This essay examines why Richard Henry Dana III and other Boston reformers supported the Massachusetts civil service law of 1884, an even stronger measure than the federal Pendleton Act of 1883. Historians have uncovered two purposes behind civil service reform. First, reform limited the “spoils system” and curtailed the power of political parties. Second, reform increased efficiency in government. This essay argues that restricting the suffrage of Irish laborers was another purpose. Therefore, the essay runs counter to prevailing historical opinion by demonstrating that support for suffrage restriction remained an undercurrent in the 1880s, even after the failure of the Tilden Commission to implement property qualifications in New York City in the late 1870s. This exploration of a neglected topic also reminds urban historians of the deep ethnic conflict that gripped Boston in the 1880s and of the crucial role of patronage and bossism in Boston and other cities, a reality that historians since the 1980s have tended to downplay.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2009

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97 Historians have several explanations for turnout decline in the early twentieth-century North. For a behavioral theory stressing the election of 1896, see Burnham, Walter Dean, “The Changing Shape of th e American Political Universe,” American Political Science Review 59 (March 1965): 728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For an interpretation emphasizing institutional factors, see Converse, Phillip E., “Change in the American Electorate” in The Human Meaning of Social Change, ed. Campbell, Angus and Converse, Phillip E. (New York, 1972): 263337;Google ScholarRusk, Jerrold G., “Comment: The American Electoral Universe: Speculation and Evidence,” American Political Science Review 68 (Sept. 1974): 1028–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For the interpretation that the rise of educational politics contributed to turnout decline, see , McGerr, Decline of Popular Politics, 3106. See alsoGoogle Scholar, Kleppner, Who Voted?, 5565;Google Scholar, McCormick, Realignment to Reform; Keller, Affairs of State, 533Google Scholar; , Connolly, Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism, 110–12;Google ScholarKornbluh, Mark Lawrence, Why America Stopped Voting. The Decline of Participatory Democracy and the Emergence of Modern American Politics (New York, 2000)Google Scholar.

98 , Blodgett, Gentle Reformers, 66.Google Scholar

99 , O'Connor, The Boston Irish, 169Google Scholar; , Schiesl, Politics of Efficiency, 104Google Scholar.

100 , Blodgett, Gentle Reformers, 67Google Scholar; , Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils, 260Google Scholar.

101 , Dana, “Laborers and the Civil Service Law.”Google Scholar

102 III, Richard Henry Dana, “Attack and Defense in the Massachusetts Legislature,” unpublished ms., 6, Dana Papers, box 54.Google Scholar

103 , Buenker, Urban Uberalism and Progressive Reform, 128.Google Scholar

104 , Keyssar, Out of Work, 261.Google Scholar

105 , Connolly, Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism, 135.Google Scholar

106 Quoted in , Connolly, Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism, 138.Google Scholar

107 Quoted in Beatty, Jack, The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (New York, 1992), 88.Google Scholar

108 , Keyssar, Right to Vote, 170.Google Scholar

109 To be sure, all patronage reformers did not subscribe to this view. In fact some argued that reform advanced democracy by removing urban boss rule and purifying democratic institutions. See , Stromquist, ReinventingThe People,” 4, 9Google Scholar; , Frie, Rainbow's End, 4Google Scholar; , Connolly, Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism, 1Google Scholar.