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Early Problems and Personalities
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Early Problems and Personalities

With its wide-ranging and diverse responsibilities, the Department of the Interior suffered in extreme form the administrative deficiencies of all executive branch departments in the 19th century. The system, sluggishly responsive to Congress and even more sluggishly responsive to the President, denied the department head the machinery for controlling his bureaus and shaping policy. Too many people reported directly to him, and too many routine matters reached his desk. Each year, in his annual report, he dutifully called attention to the annual reports of his bureau chiefs--who often retained full legal authority for their programs--and reiterated their recommendations. Each bureau justified its financial needs in elaborate itemized detail directly to congressional appropriation committees, a process in which the department participated erratically at best. (The White House had even less involvement.) Overextended and burdened with bothersome detail, the Secretary influenced chiefly those matters in which he was personally or politically interested or which had come under public scrutiny. More than any of his cabinet colleagues, the Secretary of the Interior was a victim of this system.

Of the 22 Secretaries who held the "trouble portfolio" in the 19th century, the leading authority on federal administrative history has written that, with one exception, "they were men of character and high integrity, although not particularly successful executives. All were caught in the machine and none seemed able to surmount it." [27] Reflecting the postwar Republican ascendancy, thirteen were Republicans, eight Democrats, and one Whig. Fifteen came from the Middle West, four from the South, two from the East, and one from the West.

Caleb B. Smith of Indiana, appointed by Abraham Lincoln in reward for his campaign support, had little interest in the job, suffered from declining health, and gladly delegated most administrative duties to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior after that post was created in March 1862 and filled by fellow-Hoosier John Palmer Usher. [28] When Smith resigned that December to accept a judgeship in his home state, Lincoln promoted Usher to the vacancy.

Usher is remembered as a genial and courteous administrator, somewhat lacking in force, who paled beside such domineering cabinet contemporaries as Edwin M. Stanton, William H. Seward, and Salmon P. Chase but who stubbornly resisted partisan efforts to transform his department into a bastion of radical Republicanism. One editor described Usher as "fair, florid, well-nourished and comfortable," and his biographers summed up his modest role: "Usher remained generally cautious and unobtrusive in the midst of those self-centered, truculent, and temperamental men who formed the Lincoln Cabinet." [29] Usher is also credited with discouraging a young acquaintance who wanted to enter public service with an Interior clerkship: "I advise you not to come to Washington until you can come in the right way"--i.e., by election. The petitioner took this advice, later came "the right way," and ultimately made his mark on history as "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the autocrat who ruled the House of Representatives as Speaker from 1903 to 1911. [30]

Usher's successor, James Harlan of Iowa, arrived with the announced intention of cleaning house. Among the victims of his economy drive was Walt Whitman, who had received a sinecure clerkship in the Indian Bureau in reward for his wartime services to sick and wounded soldiers. Whitman's supporters charged that his dismissal was prompted by his controversial Leaves of Grass, stirring sympathy for the poet and a storm of criticism against the Secretary, whose 15-month tenure (1865-66) was otherwise undistinguished. [31]

Ulysses S. Grant was served by one of the best and the worst of the lot. The former, Jacob D. Cox, ranks among the Renaissance men in cabinet history. He achieved distinction as a lawyer and law professor, major general in the Civil War, governor of Ohio, businessman, scientist, and military historian. As Interior Secretary, Cox was an effective advocate of civil service reform and introduced the merit system for appointees during his 20 months in office (1869-70). He resigned when Grant failed to back him against party politicians seeking to undermine his reforms. [32]

Cox's opposite, Columbus Delano of Ohio, lasted longer than any other 19th-century incumbent (1870-75); but consistent with the prevalent tone of the Grant administration, corruption in the Indian Service rose to new heights during his tenure. Press reaction to the scandal finally forced his departure. Commented The Nation of Delano: "He succeeded an honest and capable Secretary of the Interior, who resigned because he would not allow politicians to meddle with the affairs of the Department, and he in turn resigned long after it was evident that he was not capable, and at a time when his going, unlike Secretary Cox's, added strength to the Administration by removing a burden." [33] Grant's appointee to succeed Delano, former Senator and Republican Party boss Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, had fought Cox on political patronage and had no known reform tendencies; thus he surprised observers by moving vigorously to uncover fraud and dismiss malefactors during the remaining 16 months of Grant's second term (1875-77).

Carl Schurz--German revolutionary, American patriot, journalist, soldier, senator, orator, diplomat--was President Rutherford B. Hayes's choice to head Interior. The quintessential political reformer of his generation, Schurz is the department's most memorable 19th-century leader. During his four years as Secretary (1877-81) he crusaded to banish corruption, introduce "business principles," advance the civil service merit system, infuse Indian relations with honesty and justice, and lay the groundwork for the conservation of timber and other natural resources.

Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz (1877-1881)

Schurz's lean physique, tonsorial embellishment, and thick spectacles invited a caricature that political cartoonists such as Thomas Nast were not slow to appreciate. His foreign origins made him all the more distinctive. "If I should live a hundred years, my enemies would still call me a Dutch man!" he complained. An "aggressive and undaunted controversialist," his biographer concluded, "to the end of his days he could not get over his astonishment that he should be opposed when he was so thoroughly sincere." [34] Schurz was an uncommon shaft of light in an era of murky political morality.

President Grover Cleveland's appointment of a former Confederate diplomat and army officer to the Interior post in 1885 precipitated controversy but also acclaim, for as a senator from Mississippi Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar had earned wide admiration and respect for his efforts in behalf of national reunion. As part of the first Democratic administration in 24 years, this distinguished personification of the South's Bourbon leadership was besieged by that party's hungry seekers of offices and favors. "One day a gentleman who was not a caller for office was shown into Mr. Lamar's inner apartment," the New York Times later reported. "In the outer room were several prominent Democrats, including a high judicial officer, several Senators, and any number of members of the House. Mr. Lamar waved his visitor to a chair without saying a word.... By and by his visitor said that he would go away and return at some other time, as he feared that he was keeping the people outside. 'Pray sit still,' requested Mr. Lamar. 'You rest me. I can look at you, and you do not ask me for anything; and you keep those people out as long as you stay in.'" [35] As an economy move, Lamar reduced the department's fleet of carriages for its high officials and personally used only a small one-horse rockaway that he bought and maintained himself. [36] He served ably for nearly three years until Cleveland appointed him to the Supreme Court--the only Interior Secretary so honored.

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