A Woman vs. the Patronage System, 1881


Chester A. Arthur freely dispenses the patronage favors –jobs and contracts –said to have won his appointment as Vice President. Arthur became President upon the death of  James Garfield (by assassination) six weeks after Caroline McMaster wrote the last letter below. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler.


I’ve been spending my research time in the MHS Institutional Archives culling sources for my next book. As always, I encounter stray stories like this one, just too interesting to leave shut up in cool, dark storage.

I don’t know who Caroline McMaster was, but she had immaculate handwriting and the sense to number the pages in her letters –neither feature common in 19th-century correspondence. And, it seems by the time she wrote J. Fletcher Williams in August of 1881, asking about the prospects of getting a job as a clerk in state government in Minnesota, Caroline was a widow.

On February 4, 1880, Caroline wrote to Williams,  in St. Paul, Minnesota, from her home in Norwell, Michigan:


I received this week’s Lake City papers to-day, containing the resolutions adopted by the Editorial Association on the death of my husband. Were the eulogies of Messrs. Leonard, Hall and Cartle reported, and if so, in what paper? I would be very much pleased to read them. With much sincere thanks to the association for their kind words, I am,

Caroline B. McMaster

There are no copies of correspondence outgoing from MHS in this period, so we don’t know if Williams was able to provide the memorials Caroline sought. But a year and a half later,  she wrote Williams again, this time inquiring about the prospects of a woman like herself finding a job in Minnesota.

Norwell, Michigan August 1st 1881

Dear Sir,

I would like to learn something of the number of clerks in the employment of the state government at St. Paul, which department has most, and if there are any ladies. I do not know where to look for the information I ask, but it occurred to me, that from your having been a long time engaged about the capitol, as Secretary of the Historical Society, you would undoubtedly know about it. So, although you are a stranger to me, knowing my husband counted you among his friends, I come to you with my query.

It is hardly necessary for me to explain the object of my inquiry, for you will readily guess it. I have had some thought of trying for a clerkship in one of the departments, if the nominations and elections turn out favorably this fall, but have not decided to do so, and cannot until I know more of the positions to be had, and if there are any attainable by ladies. I am encouraged to push my investigations from the fact that of about one hundred and fifty appointed officers and clerks, regularly employed by the Michigan state government at Lansing, a large number are women, and, possibly similar conditions prevail in St. Paul.

This field –office-seeking –is not an attractive one, especially for any lady, and only the strongest incentives could bring one to even think of entering it. But I can hope to meet the demands of the future for myself and child only through my own efforts, and the rebuffs and discouragements I have met in other directions, have led me to look upon the possibilities of this.

I have had considerable business experience  understand book-keeping, am a good accountant, and write rapidly. So I trust any qualifications for this work are not wholly wanting.

My letter has outgrown the proportions I intended for it when I began writing. Please excuse its length.

Trusting my request for information may find favor in your sight, I am, Yours Respectfully,

Caroline B. McMaster

It seems that Williams reported that Caroline’s prospects were dim for out-competing male office-seekers in Minnesota. She replied:

Norwell, Michigan August 8, 1881

Dear Sir,

I merely write to-day to express my thanks for your kind and prompt reply to my letter of the 2nd [sic] inst. It settles my mind most emphatically on the question involved. One sentence alone would have done it. With only six or eight places to be had I shall most assuredly not enter the lists for official employment. I had no thought of doing so in any event until after the fall elections and not then unless there was to be some decided change in the state administration.

Again thanking you for kindness, I am, Yours Respectfully,

Caroline B. McMaster


Image credit: The Library of Congress via history.com

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