Politics in the Gilded Age: The Reform of the Spoils System

By Robert M. Warner

Volume IV, Number 3
Spring, 1984


In the sixty-seven years since its opening, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center has become a major resource for the study of American history in the period between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century. Because one of the major issues during this period was Civil Service reform, it is entirely appropriate for the Hayes Center to sponsor a major symposium on the reform of the spoils system. Indeed the Center is to be congratulated on producing the most comprehensive commemoration of this major legislative action.

The fervor with which proponents of Federal legislation to protect the Civil Service presented their case, and the passion of the political establishment's resistence [sic] to this pressure, is hard for us to imagine today. Nonetheless, because of a number of factors, the reformers finally won, and their movement peaked with the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act (the Pendleton Act) exactly 100 years ago.

The National Archives and Records Service, which is charged by law to identify, preserve, and make available for use the records of the U.S. Government that have been determined to have sufficient historical or other value to warrant continued preservation, was particularly honored to join with the Hayes Center as a co-sponsor of the symposium. The joining together of these two institutions in the promotion of historical study was long overdue.

Both the Hayes Center and the National Archives have, as the core of their holdings, unique documentary materials. Both make these available to researchers of all kinds and from all parts of the world. Both believe that the promotion of an understanding of our national history is a major duty. Both agree that symposia and publication of the scholarly papers delivered at these gatherings are effective ways to educate and encourage the use of their collections.

Beyond this, the National Archives is indirectly indebted to the Hayes Center. Twenty years after the Hayes Center opened, the legislation establishing the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library was approved. The Presidential Library, the first of the National Archives' current network of seven Presidential Libraries, reflected the experiences and practices of the Hayes model.

In the excellent papers that follow, each historian focuses his discussion and evaluation on the term of one of the Presidents during this period. Together they show how America changed in this time; how the legacy of the Civil War continued to divide the country and the major political parties, and even created sections within the parties themselves. They also show how the emergence of the city as a dominant force in politics set the tone for the age.

These distinguished historians, all experts in the history of the period, examine presidential attitudes toward Civil Service as well as the realities of the political environment at the time. They point out both the personal and the political motivations behind each President's actions as America began to know about and be concerned with the Civil Service and its essential role in the effective functioning of our democracy.

In recent years the Civil Service has again become the subject of political debate and planned revision by many parties. As the debate continues, these papers provide an important and useful perspective for all serious students of Civil Service reform. The Hayes Presidential Center is to be commended for holding the symposium and for publishing these papers. There is much here to instruct us all as we continue to deepen our knowledge of the Gilded Age.