This essay examines why Richard Henry Dana III and other Boston reformers supported the Massachusetts civil service law of 1884, an even stronger measure than the federal Pendleton Act of 1883. Historians have uncovered two purposes behind civil service reform. First, reform limited the “spoils system” and curtailed the power of political parties. Second, reform increased efficiency in government. This essay argues that restricting the suffrage of Irish laborers was another purpose. Therefore, the essay runs counter to prevailing historical opinion by demonstrating that support for suffrage restriction remained an undercurrent in the 1880s, even after the failure of the Tilden Commission to implement property qualifications in New York City in the late 1870s. This exploration of a neglected topic also reminds urban historians of the deep ethnic conflict that gripped Boston in the 1880s and of the crucial role of patronage and bossism in Boston and other cities, a reality that historians since the 1980s have tended to downplay.
Edward H. Miller is a doctoral candidate at Boston College. He was previously research director of the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on Public Service, the same committee that passed the state civil service law back in 1884.
1 I want to thank my friends, colleagues, and professors at Boston College, including Michael Chapman, Ian Delahanty, Hidetaka Hirota, Darren McDonald, Jeffrey Penny, Gráinne McEvoy, Seth Meehan, John Spiers, Clayton Trutor, Robert Niebuhr, Seth Jacobs, James O'Toole, and Mark Gelfand. I want to thank as well my Providence College professors, Richard J. Grace and Margaret M. Manchester. The staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society, especially Peter Drummey, Jeremy Dibbell, and Tracy Potter, was very helpful, as were James Feeney, Stephen Nonack, and Mary Warnement at the Boston Athenaeum. Kevin Kenny, David Quigley, and the two anonymous peer reviewers deserve special thanks for reading multiple versions of the manuscript. I also wish to thank my parents and dedicate this essay to my loving wife, Katie and my cousin, Jim Carnell, an Irish American workingman in Boston.