Buchanan letter is example of "spoils system"

September 30, 2000

Buchanan letter is example of "spoils system"

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - A letter written in 1848 by then-Secretary of State James Buchanan to an acquaintance who was seeking a government job for a friend gives a glimpse of how the "spoils system" worked in that period of American history.

The letter is being donated to Mercersburg's Fendrick Library by local residents George and Clara Nalley. The couple bought the letter from a Chambersburg, Pa., area antiques dealer for $1,250.

George Nalley and Lannie Gordon, another Mercersburg resident, led the effort to raise more than $25,000 for a bronze statue of the 15th president that was installed near the town's public square this summer.

Buchanan's professionally framed letter will hang in the newly opened James Buchanan Room on the library's second floor. The room, which will hold other Buchanan memorabilia, will be dedicated later this fall, said Virginia Smith, vice president of the library board.


"We always thought that we needed something special for President Buchanan. After all, Mercersburg was his boyhood home," Smith said.

She said the library had a few things that pertained to Buchanan and wanted a room to bring them all together. She said the library hopes to acquire more Buchanan-related items through bequests, donations or loans.

Smith said a marble-topped table that was in the White House when Buchanan was president will soon be given to the library.

The room has been painted the same shade of green that shows up in the Buchanan family tartan, Smith said.

Buchanan wrote to Moses McClean on Feb. 11, 1848, in response to McClean's request to Buchanan to find a clerk's job for George Lowry in President James K. Polk's administration. Buchanan was Polk's secretary of state.

Lowry was a Whig. Polk was a Democrat. It was the final year of Polk's presidency, and Democrats had replaced most Whig workers in government, a common practice in those days known as the "spoils system."

Buchanan wrote in his letter that many Whig clerks had already been removed by Polk's administration and that the only ones being discharged were being removed for cause. He also wrote that 20 "extra" Democratic clerks working in the land office were about to be discharged and that they, too, would be seeking government jobs.

"Under these circumstances I cannot hold out much hope of Mr. Lowry's success," Buchanan wrote.

He said while he knew Lowry to be "a worthy and respectable man ... I believe he has always been a Whig."

"It was the last year of the Polk administration and there was no way a Whig was going to get a job in Washington, especially when they were laying off 20 Democratic clerks," said Tom Steiger, president of the Fendrick Library board. "The letter is a prime example of how the spoils system worked."

Steiger was the first to learn of the existence of the Buchanan letter from Maurice L. Marotte Jr., a Chambersburg, Pa., antiques dealer. Marotte knew Steiger and called to say he had the letter and that it was for sale.

Steiger said he was trying to think of ways the town could raise money to buy the letter when the Nalleys stepped forward.

"My wife and I talked it over and decided to buy the letter and donate it to the library," George Nalley said.

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