1883 - 1983: One Hundred Years of the Civil Service Act

By Thomas A. Smith

Volume IV, Number 3
Spring, 1984

Without much fanfare America marked another centennial in 1983. It was a hundred years ago on January 16, 1883 that Congress enacted the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Written by Dorman B. Eaton and sponsored by Ohio Senator George H. Pendleton, the legislation exempted public officials from political assessments as well as creating the bi-partisan Civil Service Commission. The newly forged law required competitive examinations rather than "political spoils" to determine the qualifications of applicants for government positions. Unlike patronage practices of the past, appointments were to be apportioned among the states according to population.

The Pendleton Act was a direct response to decades of abuse of the federal civil service system since its inception in 1789. These abuses ultimately reached unprecedented proportions from the Jacksonian era to the years immediately following the Civil War, when reform groups began to champion the civil service cause and equate public service with merit. However, it was not until public outcry over the assassination of President James A. Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker that Congress passed a civil service act of any consequence. Since January 1883 the original act has been amended and supplemented to encompass virtually all positions below that of cabinet or agency head rank. Even with its numerous amendments, the basic statute still remains intact.

There is little room for doubt that the adoption of the 1883 Civil Service Reform Act has initiated some profound changes in government over the last one hundred years. The promulgators of civil service reform and the originators of the Pendleton Act could not have possibly envisioned the consequences of their actions. Today's civil service workforce has grown to include some 13,000,000 employees from state, county and municipal governments as well as the nearly 3 million individuals who make up the federal civil service. While there are those who sing the praises of civil service, critics charge that the system has become too unmanageable, burdensome and unresponsive to the real needs of government. Amidst all this clatter and rhetoric, it is important for us not to lose sight of the historical significance of the genesis of the Civil Service Act.

It is more than coincidental that the Pendleton Act came to fruition in the period commonly referred to as the Gilded Age. The loose political morals which helped to characterize the post-Civil War years made civil service reform seem inevitable. The men who served as President during this era were constantly tugged and pulled by the reform-minded factions of their respective political parties. Many party loyalists, however, viewed the reformation of the nation's civil service as a threat to the political system itself. Democratic and Republican machinery was based upon the long established custom of party patronage, the non-merit political appointment of party supporters to civil service positions. Of particular interest are the years 1869 to 1889. During these twenty years, civil service reform not only came to the forefront of the political arena, but was molded into law and implemented. In differing ways, the administrations of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland wrestled with this burning issue, not always to the liking of party members or civil service reform advocates.

To help shed some light on the historical importance of civil service reform during the Gilded Age and celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, in conjunction with the National Archives and Records Service, sponsored a symposium last November focusing on the topic, "Politics In the Gilded Age: The Reform of the Spoils System." Five noted historians were invited to participate in the conference held November 18-19, 1983 at the Hayes Presidential Center in Spiegel Grove, the former estate of President Rutherford B. Hayes. The panel included John Y. Simon of Southern Illinois University, Brooklyn College's Ari Hoogenboom, Allan Peskin of Cleveland State, Thomas Reeves from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and Justus Doenecke of the University of South Florida.

The papers generated at this symposium contain some interesting revelations on the reform of the spoils system and Gilded Age politics in general. As editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, Simon deals with civil service reform during Grant's two administrations. Hoogenboom, who is currently completing a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes, traces the nineteenth President's involvement with civil service reform from the 1876 campaign through his tenure in the White House. President Garfield's brief, but important, presidential career is reviewed by one of his recent biographers, Allan Peskin. The paradoxical political career of Chester A. Arthur is examined by Wisconsin's Thomas Reeves, a biographer of the twenty-first President. Doenecke, who has written biographies on both Garfield and Arthur, discusses civil service

reform as it related to the first administration of Grover Cleveland and his career in New York politics. Of the five U.S. Presidents, Cleveland was the only Democrat. Robert M. Warner, Archivist of the United States and former director of the Bentley Library, Michigan Historical Collection, at the University of Michigan, served as symposium moderator. John W. Macy, Jr., former chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, used his noteworthy career in government service as a basis to evaluate the experience of the civil service statute after one hundred years and its future prospects.