Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pendleton Act created the U.S. Civil Service Commission in order to do away with the political spoils system and replace it with a merit-based system of employment by the federal government.

Summary of Event

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;assassination of prepared to leave Washington for a vacation in New York State. As the presidential party neared the waiting train, Garfield was shot in the back by Charles Julius Guiteau, an unsuccessful aspirant to the office of consul to Paris. He shouted, “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is president now!” Even in an age of widespread graft, Chester A. Arthur, the vice president, had been well known as the head of the New York Customs House, a classically corrupt government agency, and as a spoilsman in Roscoe Conkling’s New York Republican political machine. Few expected him to change when he became president at Garfield’s death on September 19, but he exhibited an unanticipated coolness toward the Stalwarts (professional machine Republicans) in selecting cabinet replacements and insisted on continuing the prosecution of the “Star Route” mail fraud case. These actions are credited with costing Arthur the presidential nomination in 1884, as well as with providing the Democrats with numerous victories in the elections of fall, 1882. As a result, the outgoing Republican Congress was impelled to adopt civil service reform legislation in 1883. Pendleton Act of 1883 Civil Service Commission, U.S. [kw]Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service (Jan. 16, 1883) [kw]Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service, Pendleton (Jan. 16, 1883) [kw]Reforms the Federal Civil Service, Pendleton Act (Jan. 16, 1883) [kw]Federal Civil Service, Pendleton Act Reforms the (Jan. 16, 1883) [kw]Civil Service, Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal (Jan. 16, 1883) Pendleton Act of 1883 Civil Service Commission, U.S. [g]United States;Jan. 16, 1883: Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service[5280] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 16, 1883: Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service[5280] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 16, 1883: Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service[5280] [c]Terrorism and political assassination;Jan. 16, 1883: Pendleton Act Reforms the Federal Civil Service[5280] Pendleton, George Hunt Eaton, Dorman Bridgman Arthur, Chester A. [p]Arthur, Chester A.;and civil service[Civil service] Guiteau, Charles Julius

In the end, however, a confluence of factors was responsible for civil service reform. George Washington, when he was president, had initiated the idea that persons of high competence and integrity should be sought to fill public service jobs. This approach resulted in a stable and fairly skilled workforce but contributed to its elite quality. When Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, he operated under the belief that the “common man” had as much right to a government job as the wealthy and that most government jobs could be done by people without special training. He democratized the civil service but also helped justify the spoils system.

By the 1880’s, the number of public jobs had greatly increased, and the quality of those serving in them had declined. Several reform attempts failed. The first serious attempt to reform the system was led by Thomas Allen Jenckes Jenckes, Thomas Allen , a Republican congressman from Rhode Island. Jenckes was a patent lawyer by profession and also had financial interests in several companies. In both activities he had to rely on the federal mail service, which was inefficient and corrupt. In 1865 he introduced his first civil service reform bill covering all federal agencies, including the U.S. Post Office Post Office, U.S.;and civil service reform[Civil service reform] . His proposal was patterned after the British system and would have covered all federal officials except those appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. A decade later a number of organized reform groups around the country, concerned first with local and then with national corruption, were formed. A national reform movement was spearheaded by the National Civil Service Reform League, presided over by George William Curtis.

The assassination of Garfield Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;assassination of was the spark that lit the smoldering coals not only of the reformers’ attempts but also of elected officials’ weariness with long lines of people seeking jobs and patronage appointees’ weariness with blatant assessments of percentages of their salaries for political party support. The Republican Congress’s assessment that its power might be about to end in the wake of Arthur’s Arthur, Chester A. [p]Arthur, Chester A.;and civil service[Civil service] presidency also contributed an impetus to reform, since its party would no longer be the one to benefit from the patronage system. Therefore, after the midterm elections, the outgoing Republican Congress passed an act drafted by Dorman Bridgman Eaton Eaton, Dorman Bridgman , secretary of the National Civil Service Reform League, and sponsored by Democratic senator George Hunt Pendleton Pendleton, George Hunt of Ohio. Passed on January 16, 1883, the National Civil Service Act was commonly known as the Pendleton Act, after its sponsor.

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a frustrated office seeker. He lived until September 19. During the intervening eighty days, he lay gravely ill and the office of the presidency virtually ceased to function.

(Library of Congress)

The act had two purposes: to eliminate political influence from administrative agencies and to ensure more competent government employees. It established a three-member bipartisan Civil Service Commission appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate for indefinite terms. Eaton became the first chairman of the Civil Service Commission. About 10 percent of the government positions were included initially, but other positions, to be designated by the president, could be “covered in”; that is, current patronage appointees could remain in their positions when those positions were included under the act. This provision gave outgoing presidents an incentive to “cover in” increasing numbers of positions over time, which is in fact what happened. The act provided that civil service positions were to be filled through open and competitive examinations; lateral entry was encouraged, and employees were assured tenure regardless of political changes at the tops of the organizations. Employees were also protected against political pressures such as assessments and required participation in campaign activities.


The adoption of a merit system at the federal level was followed immediately by similar adoptions in some of the states. Widespread coverage at the state and local levels was subsequently brought about through requirements attached to most federal grant moneys. The spoils system gradually disappeared—at least as an acknowledged or accepted practice—at all levels of American governance.

Over the years, legislation was added to improve the civil service system. The Classification Act of 1923 Classification Act of 1923 established a system for classifying jobs according to qualifications needed to carry them out and tying them to various pay grades, thus providing uniformity throughout the federal system. The Hatch Political Activities Act of 1939 prohibited national civil service workers from taking an active part in politics, and later amendments extended the ban to state and local employees whose programs were financed fully or in part by federal funds. In 1978 the Civil Service Reform Act Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 reassigned the Civil Service Commission’s often contradictory functions to two agencies: a new Office of Personnel Management, responsible for policy leadership, and a Merit Systems Protection Board, to handle investigations and appeals. A Senior Executive Service was also established, creating a separate personnel system for the highest-ranking civil service officials in an attempt to provide greater flexibility in assignments and incentives for top senior personnel.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. Focuses on the battling among Republicans for patronage and spoils, describing how this fighting resulted in Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed patronage seeker.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cayer, N. Joseph. Public Personnel Administration in the United States. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A good survey of the U.S. civil service to date.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emmerich, Herbert. Federal Organization and Administrative Management. University: University of Alabama Press, 1971. A classic in the field, useful for coverage through the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoogenboom, Ari. Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865-1883. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961. Attacks the stereotypes of the “evil” spoilsmen and the “noble” reformers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ingraham, Patricia, and Carolyn Ban, eds. Legislating Bureaucratic Change: The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. An account of the act’s provisions and an analysis of their implementation.

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Categories: History