May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act

2 min read
George Hunt Pendleton

Whether you go to the United States Post Office, the city public library, or the DMV there is always a high level of ineffectiveness–a lot of standing around, waiting, and jibber-jabbing. Would you say that these people are inept and incapable? Maybe; however, I can say that because of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, it is less likely that they are there because of cronyism or loyalty.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act–also referred to as just the Pendleton Act–was set as a law on January 16, 1883. This law stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit. This act, authored by George Hunt Pendleton, stood to change the way that government was run, the current system of “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” This quote, by Marcy William Learned, would be used to coin the political term spoils system, or the patronage system. A spoils system is defined as:

“a practice where a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for working toward victory, and as an incentive to keep working for the party.” (Wikipedia)

The structure of the American government was not originally setup this way. President Washington was known for routinely not selecting men that had stood by his side for years. In fact, he once refused to give his nephew government employment because he wasn’t fit for the job.

As the years progressed–specifically with Thomas Jefferson as president–the system started to become flawed. Jefferson didn’t go as far as removing people from office, but new positions went to friends and political alliances. Spoils systems did not become a problem until the presidency of Andrew Jackson. With Jackson in the White House, many unfit received government jobs.

spoils-system From the passing of the Pendleton Act, America has tried to ensure that the best suited applicants receive government jobs. In a perfect world, all jobs would be based on merit.

For the actual transcript of the Pendleton Act.