Grover Cleveland & Civil Service Reform

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

President Grover Cleveland took office with the hope of removing a corrupt system of governmental hiring based on political favors. In this lesson, we will learn of Cleveland's efforts to improve the ethics of governmental employment.

No Nonsense in an Era of Corruption

In the early years of the United States, corruption among government jobs permeated Washington, D.C. By the time Grover Cleveland had won the presidency and entered office in 1885, the majority of the Americans had grown tired of the corruption and wanted governmental jobs granted on ability, not party affiliation.

Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland

Much to the dismay of his fellow Democrats, Cleveland assumed the role of the highest office in the land with the promise he would not remove all Republicans. Instead, he promised to keep officeholders in place if they were doing a good job. The decision would haunt his first term as president but eventually change the way federal government jobs are filled.


Winners of presidential elections in the early years of the United States granted jobs to their supporters regardless of their qualifications. The system became known as the spoils system, as in the thought the victorious party taking all the ''spoils.'' For the most part, the practice of new presidents awarding all governmental jobs to their faithful followers became commonplace for decades.

During the Civil War, however, the Federal Government expanded to previously unbelievable proportions. The number of available government jobs, also known as civil service positions, swelled, meaning incoming presidents wielded more power than ever before to hand out jobs to thousands of people. In fact, job seekers flooded the capital after an election in hopes of securing a plush government job.

Ulysses S. Grant

In the years following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant struggled with claims of corruption and sought some way to improve the civil service system. Unfortunately, it would take the assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled job seeker to encourage the government in 1883 to pass legislation in hopes of eliminating the spoils system.

President Garfield was killed by a disgruntled job seeker, prompting Congress to move toward civil service reform.

Known as the Civil Service Reform Act, or Pendleton Act, named after a politician sponsoring the proposal, the new legislation created a governmental body charged with administering a merit system for most federal jobs. One stipulation of the Pendleton Act gave outgoing presidents the power to place more jobs under the protection of civil service and away from the spoils system. As with most government reforms, the Pendleton Act took years to implement and destined civil service reform would be a divisive political issue for years to come.

President by a Slim Margin

Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated Republican Candidate James Blaine in 1884 by a razor thin margin. Cleveland's election marked the first time a Democrat had become president since the Civil War.

Cleveland's victory was based in part on the fact Republicans split on the issue of civil service reform. Some demanded it, while others felt the system should remain. As Cleveland took office, he planned on doing something Democrats did not expect.

Merit, Not Party

Democrat job seekers descending on Washington as Cleveland took office were disappointed to find out the new president had no intention of giving away jobs. If Republicans in office were doing a good job, he planned on leaving them in their positions.

Cleveland quickly trimmed departments with positions filled by people of political power and not ability. He began to appoint people to positions based on their talents, not their political beliefs. Of course, this decision infuriated Democrats.

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