The Pendleton Act was a law passed by Congress, and signed by President Chester A. Arthur in January 1883, which reformed the federal government’s civil service system.
A persistent problem, going back to the earliest days of the United States, had been the dispensing of federal jobs. Thomas Jefferson, in the earliest years of the 19th century, replaced some Federalists in the government with people more attuned with his political views.
The system of political patronage became entrenched, and and as the government grew, the practice eventually became a major problem.
By the time of the Civil War, it was widely accepted that work for a political party entitled someone to a job on the public payroll. And there were often widespread reports of bribes being given to obtain jobs, and jobs being awarded to friends of politicians essentially as indirect bribes.
A movement to reform the system of dispensing jobs began in the years following the Civil War, and some progress was made in the 1870s. However, the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield by an office-seeker put the entire system into the spotlight and intensified calls for reform.
Drafting of the Pendleton Act
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was named for its primary sponsor, Senator George Pendleton, a Democrat from Ohio. But it was primarily written by a noted attorney and crusader for civil service reform, Dorman Bridgman Eaton (1823-1899).
During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Eaton had been the head of the first civil service commission, which was intended to curb abuses and regulate the civil service. But the commission was not very effective, and when Congress cut off its funds in 1875, after only a few years of operation, its purpose was thwarted.
In the 1870s Eaton had visited Britain and studied its civil service system. He returned to America and published a book on the British system which advocated that Americans adopt many of the same practices.
Garfield’s Assassination and Its Influence on the Law
Presidents for decades had been annoyed by office-seekers. For instance, so many people looking for government jobs visited the White House during the administration of Abraham Lincoln that he built a special hallway he could use to avoid encountering them.
The situation got far more serious when President James Garfield was stalked by Charles Guiteau, who had been rebuffed after aggressively seeking a government job. Guiteau had been ejected from the White House at one point. He eventually approached Garfield in a Washington train station, pulled out a revolver, and shot the president in the back.
The incident provoked outrage, of course. And it also pointed out the need to eliminate the nuisance, and potential danger, of political office-seekers.
The Civil Service Reformed
Under Eaton’s proposals, the civil service would award jobs based on merit examinations, and a civil service commission would oversee the process.
The new law, essentially as drafted by Eaton, passed the Congress and was signed by President Chester Alan Arthur on January 16, 1883. Arthur appointed Eaton as the first chairman of the three-man Civil Service Commission, and he served in that post until he resigned in 1886.
The role played by Dorman Bridgman Eaton was highly unusual: he was an advocate for civil service reform, drafted the law pertaining to it, and was ultimately given the job of seeing to its enforcement.
The new law originally affected about 10 percent of the federal workforce, and had no impact on state and local offices. But over time the Pendleton Act, as it became known, was expanded a number of times to cover more federal workers. And the success of the measure at the federal level also inspired reforms by state and city governments.