Throughout a large portion of the 19th century political parties largely dictated government employment, or civil service. Politicians thwarted attempts at reform for years, until a major change finally occurred in the 1880s. Just what is the Pendleton Act of 1883 and how did it change civil service in the United States?
Historians largely credit the presidency of Andrew Jackson in 1828 with creating the so-called “spoils system” in American politics. The spoils system was derived from the phrase “to the victors belong the spoils” referring to the ability of the winning political party to take the “spoils”—or in this case, government positions.
Jackson’s supporters were essential in his 1828 victory following the controversial election of 1824. In return for their support, Jackson promised them federal government jobs. In doing so, he fired nearly 10% of existing federal workers, despite many of them having excellent service records.
Each subsequent president utilized the spoils system as a way to garner popular support, extract political contributions, and reward followers. By the 1860s Congressional legislators attempted several times to reform the civil service system, though all failed. No party in power was willing to depart from a system that rewarded those in power.
However, by the early 1880s popular support for civil service reform intensified. A series of government corruption scandals and the assassination of President James Garfield by a deranged political office-seeker turned the tide on public opinion. Congress was forced to act.
The result was the Pendleton Act of 1883 that drastically changed civil service in the United States. Its legacy of changing the spoils system to a merit-based process is largely seen as a positive change that enhanced the federal government and gave rise to the modern United States bureaucracy.
Background of the Spoils System
The spoils system played a large role in politics throughout the 1800s and was a major reason why the Jacksonian Democrats and post-Civil War Republicans were able to maintain power.1
The explanation behind this is threefold: firstly, the possibility of a federal position in exchange for promoting and campaigning for a candidate was enticing to many. In this case, intense loyalty could pay off, but only if that candidate won. This partly explains why voter turnout was so high in this era as people were literally campaigning for their future jobs
Secondly, the party in power had access to large numbers of cheap labor. Many of these people campaigned for their party while on the federal payroll. The federal workforce rapidly expanded from 20,000 workers in the 1820s to nearly 131,000 positions by 1883, showcasing the sheer number of people involved.2
Lastly, these appointees served as a critical source of campaign fundraising. The federal positions granted would often come with a price: a 2-7% local, state, and/or federal assessment on their salary given to their politician or political party. The assessment was not law, but should workers refuse to participate, they were unlikely to retain their jobs.
The spoils system was unique in that it also presented an enticing opportunity for minority parties to win their own elections and positions with campaign workers that were offered the same promise of federal positions.
Such an environment was not conducive to reform. Thus, Congress passed no meaningful legislation reforming civil service despite dozens of attempts at reform in the 1860s-1870s.
It would take the national tragedy of the assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled federal office-seeker, as well as the tireless work of the Civil Service Reform League to rouse enough public support to finally pass civil service reform. The result was the Pendleton Act of 1883.
What is the Pendleton Act of 1883?
The Pendleton Act of 1883 is a landmark bill that drastically reformed civil service in the United States. Ohio Senator George H. Pendleton introduced and championed the act, helping the bill to make its way into legislation.
The Pendleton Act helped to bring an end to the spoils system by mandating that federal government positions were awarded on a basis of merit rather than political allegiances.
Public support for civil service reform was essential in the eventual passage of the bill. Neither major party truly wanted reform, but in the aftermath of Garfield’s assassination, the minority Democratic party finally latched on to the idea in the hopes that they could utilize the support to defeat the Republicans.
Republicans refused to listen to their constituents and paid dearly for it in the 1882 midterm elections. Thirty-nine Republicans lost their seats as voters overwhelmingly shunned those who did not support civil service reform.
The Pendleton Act consisted of fifteen sections, though there were five primary provisions:3
- The creation of the Civil Service Commission consisting of three members (only a maximum of two from one party). Appointments to federal employment must be awarded on the basis of merit via open, competitive examinations that the commission oversaw.
- Appointments apportioned among the various states and District of Columbia on the basis of population.
- Banned the practice of politicians soliciting or receiving assessments from federal employees as a “price” for their appointments
- Outlawed the practice of firing, demoting, or promoting on the basis of political reasons or affiliation.
- If two or more members of the same family were already in federal positions covered under this act, no further members were eligible for appointment.
What did the Pendleton Act Establish?
The Pendleton Act effectively dismantled the spoils system, though not immediately. Only 11% of federal positions were covered under the Pendleton Act in 1883.2
Initially the positions that qualified under the Pendleton Act were reserved for higher-level positions that held greater importance and were involved in policy-making. Pay for qualified employees was at much higher rates than their non-qualified counterparts.
This number drastically increased in the subsequent years as presidents sought to lock in their civil service appointments by expanding the number of qualified employees under the Pendleton Act.
For instance, after his defeat in the 1888 election, President Grover Cleveland sought to tie the hands of his successor by firing employees in the Railway Mail Service and filling the positions with incompetent supporters. He then subsequently placed these positions under the merit system so they could not be removed.2
Through these actions the number of qualified employees had more than quadrupled to 46% of the federal workforce under the merit system by 1900.
The one area where the spoils system remained at large was in the fourth-class postmaster division. This area consisted of nearly 70% of the non-qualified employees in 1888 and was typically where politicians would fill positions to pay political debts.
It was also often the place where flagrant violations of the Pendleton Act occurred. Future President Teddy Roosevelt, and then one of three Civil Service Commissioners, detailed his many attempts at holding dozens of violators in the postal service accountable.4
Though the Pendleton Act established the merit system in the civil service of the United States, it took many years for the number of qualified employees to eclipse those that still operated under the spoils system.
The Significance of the Pendleton Act
The historical significance of the Pendleton Act of 1883 lies in how it radically altered civil service in the United States and helped shift loyalties from political party to the nation. The act proved to be a landmark reform measure that left a long-standing legacy in the United States’ civil service.
The Northcote-Trevelyan reforms to civil service in England served as the model for the Pendleton Act. One key difference between the two systems is that the US never fully eliminated political appointments as the English did.5
The incoming president still has the ability to appoint senior level executives to positions that are essential in policy creation. The influx of new ideas to government and commitment to specific policy agendas has served the United States well over the years.
One other interesting legacy of the Pendleton Act is that it resulted in increased employee morale throughout the federal government.
Prior to the law, morale was often extremely low due to the short term duration of the positions and the lack of advancement opportunities. After passage of the Pendleton Act, morale spiked given the increased job security. Federal employment could now be a career choice rather than a short-term position.2
A potential drawback from the Pendleton Act is that it helped give rise to the now outsized influence that businesses have on policy-making.2
Before civil service reform, political assessments from appointees under the spoils system accounted for nearly 75% of campaign contributions. The Pendleton Act outlawed these assessments, meaning that politicians now had to find new sources from which to raise campaign money.
Businesses increasingly stepped in to fill the gap along with wealthy donors. In exchange, of course, was the ability to help dictate policies favorable to their own interests.
Lastly, the Pendleton Act helped to create a nationalistic sentiment in the United States. Whereas federal employees formerly were loyal to the politician that secured them their appointment, under the merit system their loyalty transferred to their agency or department, along with the federal government itself.
While the transformation of the civil service following the Pendleton Act was not immediate, the reforms had a tremendous impact on American society and politics in the years to come.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Theriault, Sean M. “Patronage, the Pendleton Act, and the Power of the People.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 65, no. 1, [The University of Chicago Press, Southern Political Science Association], 2003, pp. 50–68, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2508.t01-1-00003.
2) Hoogenboom, Ari. “The Pendleton Act and the Civil Service.” The American Historical Review, vol. 64, no. 2, [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association], 1959, pp. 301–18, https://doi.org/10.2307/1845445.
4) White, Richard D. “Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner: Linking the Influence and Development of a Modern Administrative President.” Administrative Theory & Praxis, vol. 22, no. 4, Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2000, pp. 696–713, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25611471.
5) Hetzner, Candace. “Lessons for America One Hundred Years after Pendleton.” Public Productivity Review, vol. 11, no. 1, Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1987, pp. 15–30, https://doi.org/10.2307/3379963.