Pendleton Civil Service Act: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:02 Reforming Civil Service
  • 0:39 Pendleton Civil Service Act
  • 1:11 Why Was the Act Enacted?
  • 2:30 Why Is the Act Important?
  • 3:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

This lesson will discuss the Pendleton Civil Service Act. You'll learn why the act was adopted, how it continues to be renewed, and how it impacts the appointment of individuals to federal jobs.

Reforming Civil Service

Imagine what would happen if all jobs in the federal government were staffed with individuals solely based upon their political affiliations? Would it be fair if you were qualified for a particular federal job but were not employed because your political affiliation was in direct conflict with the president at the time? Citizens did not think that the practice was fair following the Civil War, which led to the adoption of the Pendleton Civil Service Act, or the Pendleton Act for short.

What Is the Pendleton Civil Service Act?

The Pendleton Civil Service Act was adopted in 1883. It required government jobs to be awarded to individuals based upon merit and not political affiliation. The Pendleton Act also made it illegal to fire government workers solely for political reasons. Further, in order to be appointed to certain government jobs, the Pendleton Act requires that applicants take the Civil Service examinations.

Why Was the Act Enacted?

Before the Pendleton Act was passed, the government operated on what was referred to as the spoils system. The spoils system, was a practice of filling government positions with supporters and friends of the winning political party. As a result of this practice, the president could easily fire those individuals who would oppose him and fill such positions with individuals who would politically support him.

The downfall of the spoils system came as a consequence of President James Garfield's term. Charles J. Guiteau wrote speeches for President Garfield that he used during his election campaign, and Guiteau expected in return to be appointed as U.S. Ambassador to France. When President Garfield refused to appoint him under the spoils system, Guiteau decided to take matters into his own hands - and assassinated him.

President Garfield's assassination brought the spoils system to light and initiated public controversy. The sitting vice president, Chester Arthur, succeeded Garfield as president. Because the spoils system had contributed to the death of Garfield, Arthur made it a point to get rid of the spoils system. Because of Arthur's efforts, the Pendleton Act was enacted into law in 1833.

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