From Watergate to Whitewater: The Public Integrity War

By Robert N. Roberts; Marion T. Doss Jr. | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Barbarians at the Gate: 1828-1883

The period 1828 through 1883 saw a collapse in public service ethics.1 Large numbers of federal, state and local public officials seemed willing to trade their honor for an opportunity to line their pockets. Powerful private interests found they had little trouble buying the loyalty of public officials. The flood of corruption scandals, however, had little impact on the political landscape of the nation. Instead of there being a grassroots public uprising against corrupt government, the public adapted remarkably well to rampant graft and influence peddling by a significant cross-section of government employees and officials. It took decades for various reform movements to build sufficient power and permanence to begin restoring public service as an honorable profession and to put into place administrative reforms vital to reducing the ability of officials to use their positions to supplement their salaries.

No single factor adequately explains the collapse of public service ethics during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The growth of national political parties, fed by millions of immigrants, blurred the line between public and political service. Political parties could purchase the political loyalty of millions of new arrivals simply by helping them to find housing and jobs and to obtain their citizenship papers. Congress, at the urging of special interests and the public, expanded the responsibilities of federal departments. The more money Congress appropriated as federal revenues increased, the more opportunities multiplied for unscrupulous public servants and private citizens to line their pockets with public funds.

Societal changes also contributed to the development of a more permis-

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