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The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (ch. 27, 22 Stat. 403) of United States is a federal law established in 1883 that stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit. The act provided selection of government employees competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons.
A spoils system (also known as a patronage system) is a practice where a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for their support and as an incentive to keep working for the party (as opposed to a system of awarding offices on the basis of merit independent of political activity). Civil Service Reform in the U.S. was a major national issue in the late 1800s a major state issue in the early 1900s. Proponents denounced the spoils system as corrupt and inefficient. After the assassination of James A. Garfield by a rejected office-seeker in 1881, the call for civil service reform intensified. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in ended the spoils system at the federal level in 1883 and created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission to evaluate job candidates on a nonpartisan merit basis. While few jobs were initially covered under the law, it allowed the President to transfer jobs and their current holders into the system, thus giving the holder a permanent job.
The new law prohibited mandatory campaign contributions, or "assessments," which amounted to 50-75% of party financing in the Gilded Age. Second, it required entrance exams for aspiring bureaucrats. At first it covered very few jobs, but there was a ratchet provision whereby outgoing presidents could lock in their own appointees by converting their jobs to civil service. After a series of party reversals at the presidential level (1884, 1888, 1892, 1896), the result was that most federal jobs were under civil service, which allowed for more expertise and less politics. An unintended result was that parties began to rely on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls.
The 1883 law only applied to federal jobs, not to the state and local jobs that were the main basis for political machines (which was not addressed until the Progressive Era). The Progressive Era political reforms led to structural changes in administrative departments and changes in the way the government managed public affairs. The 1978 Ethics in Government Act codified standards of government ethics for the executive branch. In 1989, the act was expanded in its applicability to the legislative and judicial branches.