George Plunkitt, a local leader of New York City's Democratic
Party, defended the spoils system. "You can't keep an organization
together without patronage," he declared. "Men ain't
in politics for nothin'. They want to get somethin' out of it."
But in one of the most significant political reforms of the
late 19th century, Congress adopted the Pendleton Act, creating
a federal civil service system, partly eliminating political patronage.
Andrew Jackson introduced the spoils system to the federal
government. The practice, epitomized by the saying "to the
victory belong the spoils," involved placing party supporters
into government positions. An incoming president would dismiss
thousands of government workers and replace them with members
of his own party. Scandals under the Grant administration generated
a mounting demand for reform.
Ironically, the president who led the successful campaign for
civil service, Chester Arthur, a Republican, was linked to a party
faction from New York that was known for its abuse of the spoils
of office. In fact, in 1878, Arthur had been fired from his post
at New York Federal Custom's Collection for giving away too many
In 1880, Arthur had been elected vice president on a ticket
headed by James A. Garfield. Garfield's assassination in 1881
by a mentally disturbed man, Charles J. Guiteau, who thought
he deserved appointment to a government job, led to a public outcry
As president, Arthur became an ardent reformer. He insisted
that high ranking members of his own party be prosecuted for their
part in a Post Office scandal. He vetoed a law to improve rivers
and harbors. In 1883, he helped push through the Pendleton Act.
Failing to please either machine politicians or reformers, Arthur
was the last incumbent president to be denied renomination for
a second term by his own party.
The Pendleton Act stipulated that government jobs should be
awarded on the basis of merit. It provided for selection of government
employees through competitive examinations. It also made it unlawful
to fire or demote covered employees for political reasons or to
require them to give political service or payment, and it set
up a Civil Service Commission to enforce the law.
When the Pendleton Act went into effect, only 10 percent of
the government's 132,000 civilian employees were placed under
civil service. The rest remained at the disposal of the party
power, which could distribute for patronage, payoffs, or purchase.
Today, more than 90 percent of the 2.7 million federal civilian
employees are covered by merit systems.
In 1884, New York became the first state to adopt a civil service
system for state workers. Massachusetts became the second state
when it started a merit system in 1885.
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