Saturday, July 20, 2013

To The Victors Belong the Spoils

If you have been following the turmoil raging in the background of Fort Wayne resident John Kelly Stevens’ appointment to the city’s police force in 1896, perhaps you were left as puzzled as I was at the conclusion of yesterday’s post.

What we know for sure is that an unnamed reporter at the Fort Wayne Gazette had enough editorial liberties to publicly chastise the members of the city’s Board of Public Safety for summarily dismissing qualified employees simply on account of allegiance to the wrong political party.

Not that that was a rare occurrence. Apparently, a long history of what has been called “the patronage system” or the “political spoils” system was a characteristic which Fort Wayne shared with many an American city. While the Tammany Hall ring of New York City is an example more widely recognized from American history, Fort Wayne apparently had its own issues.

Take, for instance, this one splinter from Fort Wayne political history: Postmaster W. W. Rockhill of the Fort Wayne Post Office. Appointed to his position in 1893, only a few years prior to the time John Kelly was appointed to his lowly position, Postmaster Rockhill found his office to be functioning “under the civil service rules.” With the passage of time, however, he apparently had made such changes as to cause “repeated complaints of partisan manipulation” to reach the ears of the Indiana Civil Service Reform Association.

Investigating the source of the furor, a committee from the Association found that Mr. Rockhill was
One of those officers, plenty enough now but becoming less numerous, who think that the ordinary rules of fair dealing do not apply in politics. His mind was corrupted with the view that he must make places for partisans, and to accomplish this he resorted to slyness, trickery and deceit.
What is interesting about this particular W. W. Rockhill, besides his example of partisanship managerial style, is that he was also a part owner of the Fort Wayne Journal, another newspaper of John Kelly Stevens' time. Would you suppose that philosophy with which Postmaster Rockhill operated the city’s post office might have also found place in any of the Journal's editorial expressions?

Now, granted, the Fort Wayne Journal was not the newspaper in which the histrionic version of John Kelly Stevens’ appointment was reported. But an interesting twist of events followed that date not long afterwards.

Both the Journal and the Gazette have a long history in the city of Fort Wayne. In fact, much of the history of each newspaper is intertwined with that of the other. The Gazette—that outspoken mouthpiece raging against the unjust dismissal of the four policemen precipitating John Kelly’s hiring—was founded in 1863. Perhaps it was once as pro-Republican a publication as I had struggled to assume yesterday.

The key to my confusion, however, must lie with whatever story was behind an event occurring just three years after that diatribe. In 1899, for whatever reason, the Fort Wayne Gazette merged with the Journal to form the city’s morning newspaper—still in existence today—known as The Journal Gazette.

Whatever outspoken affinity for the Republican party the original Gazette might have harbored, with this merger, every shred of such advocacy disappeared. It was as if the newspaper of Rockhill had swallowed up the very essence of the Gazette’s editorial slant.

In its new iteration, for instance, the Journal Gazette later boasted as one of its longtime partners none other than Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt—incidentally, a Democrat. In fact, the Journal Gazette was known for its alignment with the Democrat party from its merger until 1973.

So let’s go back and revisit that scenario, on the eve of the newspaper merger, when the Gazette had issued its outcry against the firing of those voting for “Oakley.” Who was Oakley, anyhow?

In a timeline listing all the mayors who had ever served the City of Fort Wayne, entry number twenty one named Chauncey B. Oakley as a Republican who served from 1894 through 1897. Interestingly, his term in office was sandwiched between two sequences served by Democrat Henry P. Scherer, the first of those lasting only one year.

Here’s the story behind that one year, from a report written within the next two decades after the fact:
Upon the death of Col. C. A. Zollinger, while an incumbent of the mayor’s chair, the city council in 1894 appointed Henry P. Scherer to serve until the voters at the subsequent election could select a successor. Then came the memorable contest in which all factions fought warmly for preference, resulting in the choice of Chauncey B. Oakley, independent, for mayor, over William H. Shambaugh, democrat. Mayor Oakley was known as the “Reform” candidate and his administration is remembered because of the rigid enforcement of the laws.  
Whatever “reforms” Mayor Oakley sought to institute, he evidently was not able to reach deep within the city’s Board of Public Safety. Whether a Republican, as he was reported to be in that recent online listing, or an Independent, as his contemporary, the author quoted above, held him to be, Oakley was actually still in office when the Board began its retaliatory firings. Apparently, whatever strategy was used, despite Oakley’s administrative goals, the “contest in which all factions fought warmly for preference” continued raging until the opposition succeeded in ousting him from office in the next election cycle.

This, of course, calls for me to re-examine the family tradition that John Kelly Stevens later was handed a demotion for that very same reason: political patronage. Why, then, would a Democrat man be appointed to office during the tenure of a Republican, then removed from his position during the reign of his own political party?

But larger than this personal question looms that of what was behind the merger between a decidedly pro-Democrat newspaper and one championing the cause of the Republicans. Whatever the reason for the two newspapers combining their forces, the result was that one of those two voices was, from that point onward, silenced.

The political cartoon, above left, first appeared in Harper's Weekly on April 28, 1877, entitled, "In Memoriam--our Civil Service As It Was." The cartoon, created by Thomas Nast, showed a statue of Andrew Jackson riding upon a pig, with the caption, "To the Victors Belong the Spoils." Image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. That's a whole lot of context! :)

    1. Yeah...I couldn't help myself, but I did almost get in over my head...

      Still, it's an eye opener to see what job hunting was like back then...

  2. The cartoon is wonderful! Jackson riding on a pig! Love it.

    All this political infighting is such a familiar story, and yet it's like a labyrinth. More than that, it's a labyrinth that shifts with time, depending on what political deals are cut. When we see how tangled and hard to follow our politics are today -- well, just imagine trying to follow those shifting sands in the past! Very brave of you to ask these questions!!!

    1. Thank you, Mariann! I don't suppose I would have been willing to tackle it, except for wanting to understand what went into shaping the life circumstances facing family members.


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