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Digital History ID 3115

 

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 patronage jobs.

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 for reform.

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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