The History & Impact of Governmental Bureaucracy in the U.S.

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  • 0:38 The Bureaucracy's Early Days
  • 1:22 Spoils System
  • 2:47 Pendleton Act of 1883
  • 4:04 A New Deal and a New War
  • 5:15 A Great Society
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the history of the American bureaucracy. We will trace its development from its earliest days through its growth in the 19th and 20th centuries and up to the present.


These days, approximately four million people are employed in America's federal bureaucracy, the administrative organization that handles the day-to-day business of the government, but the bureaucracy wasn't always so large. In this lesson, we're going to take a little trip back in time to catch a glimpse of the bureaucracy at various points in America's history and to see how it has grown and changed over the years. Let's jump on board our time machine, buckle our seat belts, and get ready to meet the bureaucracy of the past.

The Bureaucracy's Early Days

Our first stop is 1789. George Washington and his fellow Founding Fathers are still busy setting up their new country's government. The bureaucracy is small in these early days. It has only three departments, State, War, and Treasury, staffed by a few men who help the president and Congress organize and perform daily tasks in foreign diplomacy, national security, and finance.

By 1800, however, the bureaucracy has already grown quite a bit. Approximately 3,000 bureaucrats serve the American people at this point, and most bureaucrats are responsible for many different tasks. They wouldn't even dream of limiting themselves to the specialized jobs of the modern bureaucracy.

Spoils System

We will now travel forward to 1828. Andrew Jackson has just been elected president, and he has a new philosophy about the bureaucracy. Government jobs, he thinks, are supposed to be for the common folks, especially those common folks who support him and his political party. Jackson quickly begins appointing bureaucrats based on their political loyalty and supportive membership in his party. Jackson's pet practice, called the spoils system, or patronage, tends to downplay talent and experience and often favors political groupies and flatterers over better qualified office seekers.

As our trip through time continues, we observe that as America expands, the bureaucracy expands with it. What's more, citizens are becoming more and more concerned that government jobs are not being performed properly by spoils system bureaucrats. Even presidents are annoyed by the long lines of fawning office seekers forming outside their doors.

In the 1860s, the Civil War brings another spike in bureaucratic growth as the government scrambles to organize, supplement, and supply the military. Thousands of new government jobs spring up, and President Abraham Lincoln even establishes the Department of Agriculture in 1862 to help feed the soldiers who are fighting to save the union.

Pendleton Act of 1883

As we make our next leap through time, we land in the midst of a dramatic scene. It's July 2, 1881, and President James Garfield is about to board a train in Washington, D.C., when a man steps out of the crowd and fires two shots at the president. The man is Charles Guiteau, a lawyer and salesman who became mentally-unhinged and violently revengeful after the president denied him a position in the diplomatic corps. The president dies a few months later on September 19th, and Guiteau is convicted of murder and hanged.

As a direct result of the incident, we watch as Congress passes the Pendleton Act of 1883, a law that replaces the spoils system with a selection process based on merit. Office seekers now have to prove that they are qualified for their desired jobs by taking examinations and demonstrating their skills and competence. Political loyalty doesn't quite count so much anymore.

As the 19th century turns into the 20th century, American industry flourishes, and the bureaucracy continues to grow as agencies, like the Departments of Commerce and Labor, spring up to regulate everything from working conditions to food safety.

A New Deal and a New War

One more bounce and our time machine touches down in the 1930s. By now, the bureaucracy has about a half a million employees, but it is about to take a big leap forward. As the country struggles to cope with the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implements his New Deal, a plan to put Americans back to work and steady the nation's financial situation.

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