James A. Garfield's Presidency

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What was the significance of the Pendelton Civil Service Reform Act?

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The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 professionalized the United States civil service. From then on, being a civil servant would be seen as a public duty rather than as a reward for services rendered to the governing political party. To that end, government appointments would be based on merit, not political reliability.

The act was largely a response to widespread corruption in the existing system, under which the civil service was crammed full of political hacks who lacked the necessary skills and experience for the job. Senator Pendleton, one of the act's co-sponsors, wanted to establish a thoroughly modern, professional, and impartial civil service that would help clean up a political system mired in graft and corruption.

For many years, the spoils system had ensured that the award of civil service appointments was all too often seen as an opportunity to help out political friends and acquaintances. As well as leading to widespread corruption, this generated additional bureaucracy, as most of the civil service posts created under the spoils system were completely unnecessary. One tragic, unforeseen consequence of the system was the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, murdered by a man who believed that the president owed him patronage for his assistance in getting him elected.

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The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was important because it changed the way that people were able to get some government jobs. For many years, government jobs were awarded based on the spoils system. With this system, people got government jobs based on whom they knew or which candidate they supported instead of being based on the merit of the person seeking the job. After a person who was unhappy he didn’t get a government job assassinated James Garfield, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed.

This law required that some government jobs be awarded to people based on merit. These people had to take a test to determine if they were capable of doing the job. It also made it illegal to remove a federal worker from a civil service job for political reasons. It is also illegal to require a federal employee to give contributions to a political campaign. When this law was passed, it covered about ten percent of the federal government’s jobs. Now, civil service covers about ninety percent of the federal government’s jobs.

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How did the Pendleton Civil Service Act reform the civil service in America?

The basic way in which the Pendleton Act did this was by removing politics from the civil service.  In the time before the Pendleton Act, government jobs were simply given out based on political consideration.  Government workers were hired not for their abilities and skills but because of their political affiliations and connections.  What the Pendleton Act did was to stop this practice.  After the Act was passed, government officials were to be hired based on merit.  The way to determine who actually was qualified for a job was to require all applicants to take examinations in which they would be competing for the highest scores.  The highest scores would get the jobs.

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