Pendleton Act

A President's Murder By an Office Seeker Inspired Major Change to Government

Photograph of Chester Alan Arthur
Chester Alan Arthur. Getty Images

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, who had attained their government jobs during the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, with people more closely aligned to his own political views.

Such replacements of government officials increasingly became standard practice under what became known as the Spoils System. In the era of Andrew Jackson, jobs in the federal government were routinely given to political supporters. And changes in administration could bring about widespread changes in federal personnel.

This system of political patronage became entrenched, 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. President Abraham Lincoln routinely complained about office seekers who made demands on his time.

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 a frustrated 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 about the British system which argued 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. And there are many stories about Lincoln complaining that he had to spend so much of his time, even at the height of the Civil War, dealing with people who traveled to Washington specifically to lobby for jobs.

The situation got far more serious in 1881, when newly inaugurated President James Garfield was stalked by Charles Guiteau, who had been rebuffed after aggressively seeking a government job. Guiteau had even been ejected from the White House at one point when his attempts to lobby Garfield for a job became too aggressive.

Guiteau, who appeared to suffer from mental illness, eventually approached Garfield in a Washington train station. He pulled out a revolver and shot the president in the back.

The shooting of Garfield, which would eventually prove fatal, shocked the nation, of course. It was the second time in 20 years that a president had been murdered. And what seemed particularly outrageous was the idea that Guiteau had been motivated, at least in part, by his frustration at not obtaining a coveted job through the patronage system.

The idea that the federal government had to eliminate the nuisance, and potential danger, of political office-seekers became an urgent matter.

The Civil Service Reformed

Proposals such as those put forward by Dorman Eaton were suddenly taken much more seriously. 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.

One unexpected feature of the new law was President Arthur's involvement with it. Prior to running for vice president on the ticket with Garfield in 1880, Arthur had never run for public office. Yet he had held political jobs for decades, obtained through the patronage system in his native New York. So a product of the patronage system took a major role in seeking to end it.

The role played by Dorman 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.

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McNamara, Robert. "Pendleton Act." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Pendleton Act. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Pendleton Act." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).