Pendleton Act (1883)
Following the assassination of President James A. Garfield by a disgruntled
job seeker, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in January of 1883. The act was
steered through Congress by long-time reformer Senator George Hunt Pendleton
of Ohio. The act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, who had
become an ardent reformer after Garfield’s assassination. The Pendleton
Act provided that Federal Government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit and
that Government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also
made it unlawful to fire or demote for political reasons employees who were
covered by the law. The law further forbids requiring employees to give political
service or contributions. The Civil Service Commission was established to enforce
Although President George Washington made most of his Federal appointments
based on merit, subsequent Presidents began to deviate from this policy. By
the time Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828, the "spoils system,"
in which political friends and supporters were rewarded with Government positions,
was in full force. The term "spoils system" was derived from the phrase
“to the victor go the spoils.” In the years after Jackson’s
Presidency, the flaws and abuses in this system were serious. Political appointees
were required to spend more and more time and money on political activities.
As the Federal bureaucracy grew, Presidents were increasingly hounded by job
seekers. In Jackson’s time there were approximately 20,000 Federal employees.
By 1884 there were over 130,000. Additionally, with the industrialization of
America, Federal jobs became more specialized and required special and specific
The Pendleton Act transformed the nature of public service. Today many well-educated
and well-trained professionals have found a rewarding career in Federal service.
When the Pendleton Act went into effect, only 10 percent of the Government’s
132,000 employees were covered. Today, more than 90 percent of the 2.7 million
Federal employees are covered.