When Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in the late 1840s to write his greatest novel, The Scarlet Letter, he didn’t think about slavery, railroads and canals, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, or any other wonder or excitement of his time. He journeyed two hundred years earlier to a time and a people who could hardly differ more from the expansionism, capitalism, and Free Soil politicking of the United States in its sixth decade—the Puritans of Boston. Why dig back into the narrow and gray Puritan life of the 1640s when the present offered so much drama and controversy?

Hawthorne provides a reason: public employment at the time. His judgment appears in a little-read introduction to The Scarlet Letter, called “The Custom-House,” and it takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne was born and where he worked for three years as a tax surveyor in the late 1840s. Ships arrived from abroad carrying goods and Hawthorne met them at the dock to charge a federal tax on the imports. He obtained the position because of influential friends in the Democratic Party, whose leader James K. Polk became president in 1845 and placed hundreds of party operatives and supporters in federal posts around the country and abroad. One friend from his undergraduate days at Bowdoin College, Franklin Pierce, would win the presidency in 1852.

Hawthorne realized from the start that he had joined a small army of political appointments, part of the regular turnover every four years, and the job required but a few hours of work each morning. It was a plum position, bringing $1,200 a year to an impoverished 40-year-old author with a wife and two small children, and it might free up abundant time to write. But as Hawthorne recounts in the preface, he approached his task with the stern voices of Puritan ancestors in his ear. Salem brought back memories of childhood and forebears, particularly the moral example they upheld. Their devotion to God and community set a standard of selflessness and the public good, not the usual job-seeking that goes with the spoils system.

Indeed, Hawthorne imagines himself their inferior precisely because he has spent his adulthood on authorship, writing short stories instead of laboring for the benefit of his community. “No aim, that I have ever cherished,” he admits, “would they recognize as laudable.” He even imagines them in Heaven (or in Hell—one of his forebears was one of the three judges in the Salem witch trials) discussing his case, one “gray shadow” grumbling to another, “What is he? A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!”

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That the tales “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and other classics still commonplace in the American literature classroom should evoke their scorn is a whimsical comic moment, but a serious point underlies it. Every vocation is a “business in life,” and we judge each one by how well it serves God and mankind. Hawthorne applies it to his new job, which, in a small way, might meet his ancestors’ requirement. Yes, Hawthorne acknowledges, they were ruthless and lacked compassion, and perhaps they now suffer in “another state of being”; but whatever their vices and infamy, they possessed that cardinal trait proper to public service: civic virtue. They subordinated personal interest to the city upon a hill.

What a contrast to those strict and dutiful figures of the past does Hawthorne find working in the custom-house:

. . . a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Often times they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or any thing else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom-House officers.

These are federal workers in lesser positions, people Hawthorne must direct and look to for assistance. They have no job security, for a new surveyor can fire them at will, but most of them have managed to survive several changes of administration.

They certainly haven’t done so on the basis of competence. All of them are aged, and a few on the payroll never even bother to show up for work. They resist change of any kind, too, and their only concern arises with “the periodic terrors of a Presidential election.” They were soldiers and seamen in their youth, strong and brave, but years of federal employment have extended their bellies and dimmed their memories. In Hawthorne’s diagnosis, government service means “monopolized labor,” and it turns even heroes into self-seekers. Monopolized labor makes workers think less about the quality of their work and more about the external, political conditions that ensure their place. When employment depends upon a political outcome, when federal posts become a monopoly, an election-winner-take-all system, people inevitably adjust. Civic duty subsides and personal protection and comfort take over. Hawthorne’s fellows focus on themselves and their next meal. They perform their tasks ostentatiously but inefficiently, and Hawthorne even accuses them of corruption:

Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers! Whenever such a mischance occurred—when a wagon-load of valuable merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath their unsuspicious noses—nothing could exceed the vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel.

If Hawthorne were a staunch partisan, he says, “hardly a man of the old corps would have drawn the breath of official life,” and it would be “nothing short of duty, in a politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the axe of the guillotine.”

Hawthorne can’t do it, though, and after a period of trepidation, the officers return to their afternoon naps and “mouldy jokes.” But Hawthorne has no wish to mingle with them, sensing, perhaps, that he might compromise his own slight virtue. Instead, he climbs up into the attic, spending hours alone beneath the rafters and poking around. It’s musty and disorganized, with old barrels and crates filled with faded papers and bundles. They contain legal matters from decades before, commerce statistics and family lineages, things “not altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history,” Hawthorne notes. One day, digging inside one barrel, Hawthorne makes a fateful discovery. One yellowed package catches his eye, and when he undoes the red tape around it, he finds records and writings by a former surveyor, including a rag of red cloth with some gold embroidery in the shape of a letter “A” together with a chronicle by the surveyor of one Hester Prynne.

The attic turns into his salvation from the corruptions below. The papers there excite his imagination, which the custom-house, he says, had sunk under a “wretched numbness.” They restore the reality of the past, and he begins to contemplate the imaginary world that would become The Scarlet Letter. The contrast between upstairs and downstairs, along with the effect each one has upon him, amplifies the depredations of monopolized labor. Monopolized labor not only erodes civic virtue, but it dulls the imagination and kills the sense of the past. Hawthorne even lets his Puritan characters rebuke him with that contrast: “What have you to do with us? . . . The little power you might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!”

Hence one of the classics of American literature, still studied by eleventh-graders everywhere, starts with the indolent, self-interested government employee. Hawthorne’s experience is worth remembering as battles over public employee benefits and salaries continue in California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and elsewhere. The Puritan fathers vs. the custom-house officers, the spoils system vs. the American history in the attic, self-interest vs. civic virtue—these contraries lay a needed moral and civic yardstick alongside the words and deeds of people who occupy the state house in Madison, collect six-figure pensions in Newport Beach, and intimidate local politicians. Last June, the New York Times ran a long cover story on the situation in Orange County, California, and it contained one civic abomination after another. For instance, in the town of Costa Mesa, the police chief makes $298,000 a year, the former deputy fire chief enjoys a pension of $182,000, and the city manager retired in March with a pension of $190,000 per year.

With Hawthorne’s story in mind, we might ask them, “Are you not embarrassed?” When the president of the Laguna Beach Municipal Employees’ Association tells the reporter, “We fight for our pensions and paychecks the same way CEOs fight for theirs,” we can reply, “Do you believe that public service is no different from corporate boardrooms?” When local unions spend $200,000 to defeat a candidate for City Council (normally, these are $10,000 campaigns), and when public-sector unions spent $77,000,000 dollars on state elections and ballot initiatives in the early 2000s, we may charge, “Is it good for the state for the public unions to operate so aggressively as a special interest?”

Hawthorne’s work, and its inspiration, highlights the gap between public employment and civic motives, and it adds a standard that is, sadly, lost in the current debate. Think of the custom-house and we won’t be astonished when government workers react to the slightest changes in salaries and benefits with outrage, even when those changes appear to be modest accommodations to revenue dips. They have been conditioned to act this way. It’s a psychology that people who have never entered the government job world can’t understand, and that one of our great writers recognized and recoiled from.