NOAA History Banner
gold bar divider
home - takes you to index page
about the site
noaa - takes you to the noaa home page
search this site
white divider
arrow NOAA Legacy
arrow Historical Documents

Library Introduction to:

Upon the principles of the determination of Salaries, or Compensations in a Republican Government.

An Essay by
Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler,
Founder and First Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey

The following essay on the principles of compensating civil servants was written by Ferdinand Hassler in late January of 1836. The essay, although written in January, apparently was attached to a letter written to Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury upon the occasion of the Coast Survey being transferred back to the Treasury Department on March 27, 1836, from the Navy Department. In informing Secretary Woodbury of his philosophy concerning compensation for a permanent civil service work force, Hassler was fighting for a decent salary for employees of the Coast Survey, adequate payment for his own services, and for the recognition by the government and the general public that the professions of scientist and engineer were deserving of society’s respect.

Although the terminology used by Hassler is quaint and somewhat peculiar by today’s standards, his message is quite clear. In reading the essay, also recall that English was Hassler’s third language as his native tongue was German and he also spoke French fluently. Hassler made the point that to attract and retain qualified individuals for government service, adequate remuneration must be paid to assure competent, honorable public servants. He further suggested that to assure the smooth running of government agencies, the spoils system of hiring and firing personnel based on political affiliation and the concept of “rotation” in office must cease. Hassler pointed out that this system was detrimental to the smooth operation of the government, had vast potential for corruption and mismanagement, and also had an adverse effect on maintaining economical government services. The spoils system was particularly harmful to an organization such as the Coast Survey that required trained engineers and scientists to perform its mission. Hassler even went so far in this essay as to suggest that compensation for travel (today’s per diem rates) be adjusted to reflect changes in expenses both as the result of changes in modes of transportation and the circumstances of travel as well as to reflect the changes in costs for similar goods and services (inflation in today’s terms) over time.

The surprisingly modern concepts espoused in this essay mark it as a pioneering work in the establishment of a modern professional civil service work force. Ferdinand Hassler was successful in attaining most of his goals in this battle and also managed to protect his force of scientists and engineers from the abuses of the spoils system. These policies continued under the second superintendent of the Coast Survey, Alexander Dallas Bache, who publicly proclaimed that compensation and promotion in the Coast Survey were based solely on merit. As such, it becomes apparent that the Coast Survey under both Hassler and Bache was a pioneer in the reform of the American civil service. It was not until 1883 with the passage of the Pendleton Act that the American Civil Service as a whole was placed firmly on a merit foundation. The Coast Survey was a pioneer agency, if not the pioneer Federal agency, in establishing a personnel system on the merit principle, retaining qualified personnel, and making no appointments or removals based on political affiliation. A careful reading of this essay also makes it apparent that many of the concepts espoused by Hassler have become the cornerstone of the American civil service system.

Upon the principles of the determination of Salaries, or Compensations in a Republican Government.

1 The offices, or functions, to be performed in the administration of a Republican Government, divide very strikingly in two distinct classes.

2 The first of such offices [elected offices], as are the gift of the people, the appointment to which is therefore grounded upon the credit of a man in his nation, and the confidence which is placed in his intellectual capacities, moral character, fitness, and strength, for the high trust committed to him.

3 Such a man in no case be a man, who has need to, or should, or would, seek an office as a means of living, as such capacities will always enable him to provide for himself and family, he can safely build upon the broad base of the public, and the credit which he is able to procure to himself, the same evidently, which fixed the eyes of his fellow citizens upon him, for the election to a high trust.

4 In most cases even the very position in society which enabled him to attain the intellectual improvements for which he is distinguished, had determined his independence before, and his merit consists principally in having made proper use of these means, already in youth, for which he is so much more commendable, as there are more temptations in the way of youth in that case. And if he is entirely the builder of his high standing in society, no man will dispute his merit.

5 In both cases he must have acquired liberal feelings, such as would not allow him to seek for any office of high trust in the nation, for the sake of pecuniary gain, nor to refuse it, if liberally offered by his fellow citizens. He will consider his exertions in the cause of the public good, as a return due from him for the confidence which he has received.

6 Thus the distinction received from his fellow citizens, is the principal remuneration which he receives, and the satisfaction which he may give in the execution of his trust, will not fail to place him in such a situation, as to make his life happy and easy, if no ambition for glory does intermix.

7 However, this man must be also compensated for his services, for the public, as little as any man, has a right to his services, without remuneration. His salary however shall be moderate, not with any allowance for rank, otherwise but what is absolutely required; the numerical amount is entirely dependent upon the habits of life in the society, and varies therefore also with the time. It has generally been considered, that it should be equal to the mean of a man’s earning in the liberal professions, that is such as depend upon intellectual means, and exertions; the highest and lowest results of such professions, are actually the results of chance, which shall not come into consideration in this determination.

8 It is further to be considered, that all such offices of high trust, must necessarily in republics, be temporary, limited by law, and that therefore the tacit contract made by the appointment between the nation and the individual, has its predetermined limits, and the individual is not kept under too long an obligation, if it should prove too detrimental to him in economical respects.

9 To this class of public officers, belong all members of legislatures, all higher executive or administrative offices, under whatever denomination they may be habitual in a country, state, or union of states; only with such dispositions, these bodies, or single men, can be expected to act with that freedom, independence, and liberality, which is the first element of the good which a government can, and shall do, in a country. This is certainly too evident to need detailed deduction, or demonstration, to count up the innumerable evils, which must necessarily be the consequences of an opposite state of things, is certainly as needless, as it would be too long.

10 None but a king may wish for high paid ministers. In some measure it is necessary in that form of government, and just therefore it is so highly to be deprecated in the republican form of government.

11 The second class of officers in a republican government, are, for what might be called the work, which must be done for the government, in all the varied parts of the administration of a country. The persons engaged in them are seldom if ever elected by the people. These works must be entrusted to such men as can be considered as deserving respect, in proportion of the value of the services they are able to perform, for which their qualifications, acquirements, and moral character must render them desirable; but at the same time as working for the government, like for every other man, for such an adequate remuneration, as will secure to them and their family the same result of independence, which they would have a right to expect in their pursuits from the public generally; that is, they must be liberally paid in proportion to their services; in fact the government should in each branch procure the best services, therefore pay the best.

12 The highest class of these offices, are the judiciary officers, in importance and respectability equal to the government itself; they are seldom elected by the people at large, but always should emanate directly from its representatives. (The so called prerogative of the king, or executive government, to elect judges, which does not exist in any of the old republican governments of Europe, is still a remaining proof of the origin of the governments. A man distinguishing himself in allaying the difficulties of misunderstanding between his neighbors, came habitually to be called upon in his capacity of superior judgment; and the trust laid in him gave him the means to govern his neighbors; thus arose gradually governments, which circumstances extended, modified, and ever after rendered obnoxious.)

13 The position of a judge must necessarily be entirely independant, in intellectual, moral, and pecuniary respects; his income which must be a regular salary, no fees, must place him in a respectable rank in the society in which he has to move. This is in every respect and in all countries so fully acknowledged, that no doubt can exist upon it, but only to be lamented that it is so often disregarded, and particularly where the executive authority of any kind, has the election, by which it is led into the mistake of considering this prerogative as an acknowledgment of its superiority.

14 All other offices are to be paid in proportion to the quality, and as often as ever possible, also to the quantity of the work performed. Thence for instance it is proper in all cases where public revenues or expenditures are to be administered, so as to actually in some way or other, be under the disposition or responsibility of an officer accountable for it; he should be paid by percentage, calculated as well in proportion to the labor required of him, as the weight of his responsibility, and its possible chances. No officer in such a case must be considered as simply engaged for services, whatever the position may be; in fact, the universal habit in all social transactions of the kind proves sufficiently the necessity of this principle.

15 It is most generally, and with propriety, habitual, to request in such cases a certain additional security from the officer thus entrusted, the amount of which is based upon the probable amount for which he may be liable at a time; no right can exist to request that, unless the compensation be also based upon the same principle, that is, a percentage; and no officer can be loaded with an additional duty of accountability without that percentage, in whatever way he may be otherwise engaged with the government.

16 In the case of the last two sections are all collectorships of public money of any kind, and all disbursing officers of any kind, postmasters, land office receivers, &c.

17 There are a great many of the services needed by the government, which can be rated by the quantity of work that is performed, particularly such as are in this respect variable, and dependent of incidental circumstances and positions: in all such cases the only just, therefore the most proper mode of compensation is by the quantity, after the unit (as it might be called) of the work, has been properly estimated. Such are for instance, surveying of public lands; in the custom houses, weighers, measurers, guagers, discharging and boarding inspectors, (which are by mistake not distinguished from the inspectors used to go about as guards against smuggling, who cannot be paid but by the day,) while the discharging officer would with greater advantage to the merchant and to the government, be paid by the ton.

18 In all cases where the services rendered, imply necessarily others than the mere domestic life of a man with his family, who working a certain number of hours in a day, has time given to him to attend to his domestic economy; the difference between such a life, and that which the appointed man, or officer has to lead, is to be compensated in full, and the best way to do it is, by an estimate upon the whole, liberally calculated; for it must be observed, that in the manner of living, which particularly in that case, a man cannot escape to partake in, will gradually diminish the real value of such an estimate, made at any time, and it will have to be augmented after a certain time. In this predicament come all travelling expenses, mileages, and such like, which are most likely now by no means adequate, for having been determined some time ago; for it must be observed, that with the increase of the facility of travelling the expenses do not decrease, often rather the inverse if the case, and circumstances even momentaneous, decide more in the case than is calculated upon.

19 Mere salary officers can only be clerkships, military and naval service, in their common course of business. All extra office hours, or special charge given to an officer, it is proper in justice to pay to the respective man thus charged, as in justice they are only bound to do that work, which is rated as comprehending their duty; if not regarded in this way, it reduces them to a situation too much approaching menial services, that the government could expect to keep men of respectability satisfied in its services, the hard feelings arising from such a state, are extremely detrimental to the works, for no man works successfully if he does not work cheerfully, and such ways taking away the satisfaction in the work, destroy also its cheerful execution. That such a state of things is a direct loss for the nation, and contrary to all economy, is evident.

20 In general in giving any office whatsoever, either civil, military or naval, the government enters into a positive contract with the man appointed; it is positively stated, or tacitly understood, what shall be the services performed; more cannot be expected with justice, and if exacted, the breach of contract on the part of the government is so hard felt, that its service loses all respect, and officers, whom their situation forces to submit to it, lose their respectability among their fellow citizens, their own self esteem, and all attachment to the government.

21 There are also such works needed by the government, which cannot be made otherwise but by positive contract; in that case it is evident that the government and the person contracting with it, stand exactly level upon an equal footing, as any two citizens would in any case of common life; every stipulation is equally binding on both sides, the government must grant all that is stipulated in the detail arrangements, as well as what relates to compensation, and even it is proper, nay necessary, that the government give to every part the most liberal explanation; it will always be to the advantage of the work, by tacitly prescribing to the contracting individual equal liberality on his part, besides that, as it must be supposed that the contracting individual has used the proper delicacy of expression towards the government in his stipulations, equal delicacy is to be returned in the application of the expressions.

22 The principles of a republican government prescribe that the high offices forming the first class quoted, be not attached to the persons, but changing according to regular laws; the details how that is to be done in the most advantageous manner, would be too long to discuss here, and has besides a great deal that is local and and [sic] individual to every country, and even different parts of the same country.

23 But for all officers of the second class, the case is different entirely. The removal of an officer rendering good services in the second class of offices, and without cause of dissatisfaction, under, suppose, an idea of rotation in office, like in the offices of the first class, can never be done without injustice and real damage to the regular course of business; it is therefore highly uneconomical. It has a greater disadvantage still, namely, the apprehension of the officer of being removed from his situation unexpectedly, and unprepared, cuts off in the most direct and full manner, all free intercourse with his superior, to the evident detriment of the public business.

24 As for the amount of compensation for all the officers of the second class, who are, as stated, to ground their whole living, or at least the principal part of it upon this compensation, it must be deeply impressed in a republican government, wishing to remain republican, that the compensation must all be in due proportion liberal. It may fit to a king, an aspirant at despotism, to have a number of low and menial dependants at a cheap rate, just as well as ministers of a high pay; but the republican government must keep up its respectability in all its appointments; and considering the class of society in which, or over which it places an officer, it must place that officer in his proper rank to secure his respectability, otherwise the officer is put in the impossibility to execute his duty with propriety; (as for instance that the most of the customhouse officers in the main parts, are now in pay below the habitual earnings of a cartman; while their position obliges them often to try to take the command over them, which of course becomes difficult for them with such men, feeling their oats, as the expression is.)

25 The bad effect of the monarchical habits, of employing cheap menial officers, is the most strikingly exemplified by the customhouse officers on the Rhine, Holland, France, England, of which examples are to superabundance; (when three officers board a barge, ask one french crown toll, and three for themselves, when upon baggage the clerk’s fees being considered regular, without a duty being paid. When in France the word “gapian” means equally a customhouse officer, and good-for-nothing fellow, &c.) On this point this country has always been a favorable comparison, as the customhouse business was transacted hitherto honestly, but if once spoiled, once the respectable officer driven out, and the door opened to connivance with merchants, revenue and smuggling will have a widely different proportion. The example of the customhouses is here adduced, both because they are just now in danger, and because in this part the comparison with other countries lies nearest, and is the most apparent.

26 It must yet be observed, that the patronage in appointments, in reference to its influence upon elections, of which much complaint is made, does not depend upon the amount of emoluments thus distributed, but is entirely regulated by the number of appointments; for, a small salary purchases a cheap vote, just as well as a large one, under equal venality, and all votes count equal; the reduction of salaries, and necessarily consequent increase of numbers, gives the effect evident; and above all the unfortunate law, limiting the duration of offices, so as to place every one at least once, often twice, at the disposal of the executive in each administration, render it actually a powerful engine, of which any king might be jealous; it enlists the incumbent by fear, and all applicants by expectation.

27 Not only for this special purpose, but also for many others, it is necessary to render men employed in a republican government, more independent in their public situation; the attachment to the business, the regularity, which habit and time can alone establish, with proper knowledge of the duties of an office, render an officer more efficient, and keep up regularity and system; of which much of the respectability of an office depends. The low salaries which of course only such people accept as can do no better, will always purchase low, personal attachment, never good services for a republic, which must be a general government free from personal devotion. Such a course would soon collect around the distributors of offices a numerous low class, ready to any thing, and leadable without principles, as the French republic has experienced at a certain time, with the most unfortunate consequences.

28 It has appeared proper to dwell more upon the consequences of an unfortunate management of the second class of public officers, than of those of the first class; because it rather can be the object of legislative action, and can be less known in its details and ramification of influence. To remedy the evils that may be apprehended in the first class, would need treating the principles of constitutional questions, which was not the intention here.

Washington City, January 28, 1836.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

Privacy Policy | Disclaimer