Nathaniel Hawthorne’s take on the spoils system

His preface to ‘The Scarlet Letter’ reminds us of what’s in store now

“TO THE VICTORS belong the spoils.”  So clucked a happy supporter of President Andrew Jackson in 1831, but the divvying of spoils after some kind of victory probably dates to ancient times.  Perhaps the most famous (and certainly the most literary) local political sacking was that of Nathaniel Hawthorne from his post as surveyor of the United States Custom House in Salem in 1849.  As Team Biden rewards its flock and directs Team Trump to the curb, we recall Hawthorne’s demise and his quasi-autobiographical sketch, The Custom-House, which paints federal “transitions” with the brushstrokes of a master.

In 1846, Hawthorne was appointed the surveyor of revenue at the Custom House by President James Polk. Hawthorne had some qualifications:  in 1839, he was a weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House, supervising the unloading of coal and lumber. In 1846, he turned down the job of clerk at the Charlestown Navy Yard and naval storekeeper in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to seek the surveyorship in his native Salem.

In Hawthorne’s era, such posts often went to literary figures, in order to promote American letters and add luster to the party dispensing the offices.  Hawthorne and other writers needed these public appointments to pad their meager income from writing.  By the time of his appointment, Hawthorne had gained notice for his stories, including Twice-Told Tales, and had strong ties to leading New England Democrats, including his Bowdoin College friend Franklin Pierce, then a general and later president of the United States.

Hawthorne served as surveyor in Salem from 1846 into 1849.  Customs posts were important offices in an era without a federal income tax:  customs duties were a principal source of income for the United States. Hawthorne’s duties as surveyor included the oversight of his staff at the port and the inspection of the vessels and cargoes that arrived.

Storm clouds gathered over Derby Wharf in Salem, however, with the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848. Taylor was a Whig and local Whigs wanted Hawthorne’s seat.  In June 1849, Taylor moved to remove Hawthorne from his job, which sparked a spirited campaign for and against the sacking, as Hawthorne clung to his post.

Even weighty Massachusetts Whigs such as Edward Everett, Charles Sumner, Rufus Choate, and Daniel Webster vouched for Hawthorne. Choate protested that Hawthorne’s initial appointment was “given as a compliment to letters and genius.”  But local politics ruled and Hawthorne fell, largely at the hand of his local Whig nemesis, Charles W. Upham, who charged that Hawthorne was “an obnoxious partisan” who – Upham claimed — paid his Democratic inspectors more than Whigs so that the former could contribute to the party coffers.

Fortunately for us, Hawthorne’s 1849 exile from Salem to Lenox gave him time to write his masterpiece, The Scarlet LetterThe Custom-House is the sketch that precedes and introduces the novel.  It adds a light preface to a dark tale, describing the author-surveyor’s discovery of a cloth scarlet letter “A” between dusty old papers in his office.  The sketch also stands as a timeless – and hilarious – guide to “transition” time in government.

For several years, the author notes, the Custom House had kept “out of the whirlpool of political vicissitudes which makes the tenure of office generally so fragile.”  The quietude had allowed many an “ancient sea-captain” to “drift into a quiet nook” as a custom inspector, “with little to disturb [him], except the periodical terrors of a Presidential election.”

The author-surveyor claims that he, “though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither received nor held his office with any reference to political services.”  His benevolent administration of his office allowed older inspectors to stay, whatever their party affiliation; he is no “exterminating angel” placing the “white heads under the axe of the guillotine.”

Donald Pease has written that these lines show that Hawthorne, though a beneficiary of the spoils system in 1846, sought in his writings to recover a pre-Revolutionary, Puritan past and to create a collective memory of a time in which people acted from civic duty, not personal gain.

Whatever the author’s good intentions, however, grim reminders of the dangers of a presidential transition haunt him.  He gazes upon the “enormous specimen” of a gold American eagle affixed to the entrance of the building, “with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and . . . a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw.”  The author supposes that “many people seek . . . to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle,” but also notes that “she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and sooner or later — often sooner than late — is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound of her barbed arrows.”

The avenging American eagle arrives in Salem in 1849 in the person of the newly-elected President Taylor.  The surveyor now gets to “experience the incoming of a hostile administration,” when his “interests are within the control of individuals who neither love nor understand him.”

For a political novice, it is “strange . . . to observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in an hour of triumph and to be conscious that he himself is among its objects!” Hawthorne wrote. Even with his foreknowledge, the author fears an “unceremonious ejectment,” yet he keeps his hopes alive as “the press takes up [his] affair.” But the lobbying effort merely postpones the day of reckoning, leaving him “longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought.”

Hawthorne deadpans: “The moment when a man’s head drops off is seldom or never . . . precisely the most agreeable of his life.”

Yet, as James M. Cox has noted, the author “knows in his self-critical way that he entered the Custom House by choice” and that, “since his was a political appointment of the party which had inaugurated the spoils system, his expulsion from office is but the just working of the law of politics which got him the job.”

Hawthorne knew that he bore, in effect, a “Scarlet ‘D.’”  Resigned to his fate, the surveyor arrives at the “comfortable conclusion that everything was for the best; and, making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, [he] opened his long disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man.”

Now we enter a new season of “transition” in 2020, one that will confer on the incumbents what Churchill called the “Order of the Boot.”  Here Hawthorne would urge caution to the victors:  he described The Scarlet Letter as “a story of revenge, diabolizing him who indulges in it.”  Most, however, would grant a newly-elected leader the freedom to assemble his own loyal team, to follow Machiavelli’s dictum in The Prince: “The man who holds a prince’s kingdom in his hand should think, not of himself, but of the prince; he should not be aware of anything but his master’s business.”

Under federal law, there are generally no barriers to dismissals and appointments at high levels.  The executive power in Article II of the Constitution provides that “the executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States.”

Today there is spirited debate about how “unitary” is the “unitary Executive” contemplated by Article II.   Whatever the answer, most higher-ranking officials – those in Washington and their New England representatives in the regional offices of federal agencies — serve “at the pleasure” (a phrase not appearing in the Constitution, traceable to the Latin phrase durante bene placito regis) of the president.

Former acting US attorney general Sally Yates and FBI director James Comey know the import of the phrase all too well.  Article II power is real, and recent concerns about presidential “interference” with the alleged “independence” of federal officials will likely fade as the same officials now walk the plank, undefended and un-mourned.

Meet the Author

Thomas A. Barnico

Teacher, Boston College Law School
All is not lost for the castoffs, though.  As John Franzosa has written, “through a fortuitous decapitation,” Hawthorne left the surveyor’s job and wrote The Scarlet Letter, becoming “central to Salem, and totally untouchable.” The castoffs of today can take a cue from Hawthorne and revive long-dormant writing projects. By all means, they should inspect their offices upon exit:  who knows what embroidered cloth letters may lie around?

Thomas A. Barnico teaches at Boston College Law School.  He “served at the pleasure” as a Massachusetts assistant attorney general from 1981 to 2010.