The Pendleton Civil Service Act

Whitney Nyman, Andrea Stephenson
  • Author
    Whitney Nyman

    Whitney has taught 6th-12th grade social studies and language arts. She has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in social studies education from St. Mary's College of Maryland; she also holds a dual teaching certification in social studies and language arts in multiple states.

  • Instructor
    Andrea Stephenson

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

Learn all about the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Understand what the Pendleton Act does and its significance. Also, learn why the Pendleton Act was enacted. Updated: 01/31/2022

Table of Contents


What is the Pendleton Act?

The Pendleton Act is defined by its legacy of creating a more equitable system for hiring and retaining civil servants. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, as it was formally named, established an objective metric for hiring federal employees; passed in 1883, it ensured people were hired based on their scores on a civil service exam and prevented them from being discriminated against based on their political affiliation. Although the Act initially had a narrow application, future presidential administrations expanded its provisions.

Why Was the Act Enacted?

In 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by a man named Charles Guiteau. The newly-elected president Garfield had recently set in motion reform of the political appointment system, known as the spoils system. Guiteau believed he was owed a political appointment by Garfield and felt personally slighted by Garfield's efforts at reform; after Guiteau committed the assassination he expressed relief that Vice President Chester A. Arthur was now president, as he believed Arthur would appoint him to a political office.

President James A. Garfield

Although Guiteau was also mentally ill, his views of Garfield were certainly informed by the politics of the day, which held that supporters of a presidential candidate were owed patronage appointments if he was elected to office. Presidential campaigns had rested largely on the money contributed by people who were promised appointments in return. Negative attention to the spoils system grew after Garfield's assassination and many Americans became aware of how corrupt political appointments had become over the previous decades. The congressional election of 1882 also focused heavily on the spoils system and public opinion proved to be heavily in favor of reform. At best, the system of patronage was an inefficient and exclusionary practice; at worst, it allowed corruption and cronyism to flourish. As a result, Ohio Senator George H. Pendleton introduced the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act to dismantle the spoils system and patronage appointments. Newly-ascendant President Arthur signed the bill into law on January 16, 1883.

George H. Pendleton

What Did the Pendleton Act Do?

The Pendleton Act did several things to eliminate the spoils system that had been in place. Pendleton, a Democrat, faced opposition from members of his own party who were staunch supporters of the patronage system, believing it would ensure cooperation between the president and government employees. However, Pendleton and the other sponsors of the bill were eager to put an end to such a wasteful and contentious system. Under the spoils system, prior to the Pendleton Act's passage, federal appointees need not be qualified for appointments and could be fired without cause when a new political party won the Executive Branch.

Here are the most notable provisions of the Pendleton Act:

  • Federal employees were protected from being fired by future presidential administrations over political affiliations.
  • Civil service exams (tests that measured an applicant's knowledge about a specific office) were established for some government positions.
  • It became illegal for candidates to accept monetary donations on federal property.
  • Departing presidents could change their appointees' positions to require civil service exams in the future, thus expanding the number of protected jobs.
  • The United States Civil Service Commission was bolstered to oversee administration of the exams and prevent an undue burden (e.g. financial impositions) being placed on applicants.

Pendleton Act Significance

The Pendleton Act is both a significant piece of legislation and American history. The practice of patronage was not an uncommon one in the 1880s, but President Garfield's assassination forced American leaders to confront the issue, with which many had long been complicit. The solutions set forth in the Pendleton Act provided a lasting solution to abolishing the system that had spread to so many government offices.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is another name for the civil service act?

The civil service act is also known by its formal name, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. The act is named for one of its sponsors, George H. Pendleton.

What is the purpose of the Pendleton Act of 1883?

The purpose of the Pendleton Civil Service Act was to reform civil service appointments. Under the previous spoils system, presidents often appointed unqualified campaign donors to civil service positions.

What was the Pendleton Act and why was it passed?

The Pendleton Civil Service Act was passed in 1883. Its purpose was to dismantle the spoils system and ensure civil servants were hired for their merit instead of their political affiliation.

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