The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations

By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson | Go to book overview
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8
The Origins of Social Policy in the United States: A Polity-Centered Analysis

THEDA SKOCPOL

In October of 1889, President Charles Eliot of Harvard University -- a prominent Mugwump located in the very heartland of that status-conscious movement for good government reform -- delivered a speech to the Bay State Club of Boston. The speech explained why he, formerly a loyal Republican, was switching his allegiance to the Democratic party. Eliot's preference for the Democratic stand on tariffs and his great respect for the efforts of Democratic President Grover Cleveland on behalf of civil service reform were cited as two reasons for the shift. The third reason was Eliot's sense that patronage-oriented Republican politicians were leading the way in "prostituting and degrading" the Civil War pension system into what was becoming, in effect, America's first large-scale nationally funded old age and disability system. Eliot explained that as "things are, Gentlemen, one cannot tell whether a pensioner of the United States received an honorable wound in battle or contracted a chronic catarrh twenty years after the war. One cannot tell whether a pensioner of the United States is a disabled soldier or sailor or a perjured pauper who has foisted himself upon the public treasury. I say that to put the pension system of the United States into this condition is a crime... against Republican Institutions" (quoted in McMurry, 1922:34-35).

Eliot knew whereof he spoke. By the time the elected politicians -- especially Republicans -- had finished liberalizing eligibility for Civil War pensions, over a third of all the elderly men living in the North, along with quite a few elderly men in other parts of the country and many widows and dependents across the nation, were receiving quarterly payments from the United States Pension Bureau. In terms of the large share of the federal budget spent, the hefty proportion of citizens covered, and the relative generosity of the disability and old-age benefits offered, the United

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