Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 38: Who Should Choose a Civil Service Career? (1946)

Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, appointed only those they thought were qualified for the positions to be filled. Washington turned down his own nephew and many of his old soldiers because he felt they weren’t fit for the jobs they wanted. John Adams was almost as firm.

When Thomas Jefferson succeeded to the presidency, the incoming Democratic-Republican party turned some Federalist job-holders out of office. The number fired was comparatively small, however, because Jefferson also believed in the principle of fitness for office. But this “changing of the guard” started the practice of rotation in office—sometimes excused on the theory that public jobs in a democracy should be passed around so more people become educated in government.

Jefferson himself did not go to extremes. He opposed removing qualified men just to make room for new ones. Madison and Monroe shared his views and followed his example especially as to removals from office.

John Quincy Adams carried his refusal to appoint or remove anyone for party reasons to the extreme of leaving persons in who were actively against his program. In fact, he removed only twelve presidential officers during his term.


But what about Congress?

Congress had not been so high-minded as the presidents. Beginning with George Washington, the Congress began to muscle in on the business of appointments. This practice was started with the best of intentions. President Washington naturally consulted members of Congress before making appointments because they knew the local people and conditions. Pretty soon Congressmen began volunteering their own ideas. Over the years, Congressmen, and especially Senators, got to expect their “ideas” would be accepted.

The spoils situation had become so bad by 1811 that it was proposed to limit the patronage of Congress by Constitutional amendment. Needless to say, this did not pass. On the contrary, Congress carried spoils still further in 1811 by passing the Four Year Tenure of Office Act. This made sweeping changes in jobs possible without the trouble of removing the officeholders. Their terms automatically ran out!

A Senate investigation in 1826 made quite clear how dangerous the spoils system was to democratic government. But apparently it had to get worse before it could be better.

Jacksonian democracy

The presidential elections of 1828 were probably the most savage of our history Not only was there a major party change when Andrew Jackson became president, but the nature of politics itself seemed to change. Up to his time, politics had been more or less the affair of the “aristocrats” of the Eastern seaboard. Jackson’s strength lay with the voters of the rising West and those of the East who were able to vote for the first time because the old property qualifications for voting had been abolished. The “new rich” might be added, industrialists and businessmen who were in politics for business. They furnished the core for many of the country’s political machines. To them government jobs were “ammunition for party warfare.”

It was during Jackson’s presidency that Senator Marcy, schooled in the sharp politics of New York State, applied to politics the phrase, “to the victor belong, the spoils.” Also Jackson appointed the man who became the symbol of government degradation. He named Samuel Swartout as collector of customs for the Port of New York. Swartout was $200,000 short on his books when his term ended, but nevertheless his political connections were strong enough for him to be reappointed and to run his take up to around $1,250,000 before he made his getaway to Europe. Swartout was only one among many. Corruption reached a point where it was apparently profitable, to cite at least one case, to pay as much as $5,000 for influence to secure a $1,500-a-year job.

It is doubtful whether President Jackson himself was an out-and-out “spoils man.” In the actual number of removals and patronage appointments he made, he certainly was not as bad as his reputation. He was rather a “frontier democrat” who viewed government as a simple business which almost anyone could handle. He regarded holdovers in office as potential threats. He said so in his first annual message to Congress:

“The duties of all public offices are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance; and I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally gained by their experience.”

Perhaps the President was right, in terms of the kind of town and state government he had experienced. But he was dead wrong in applying this simple view to the national government. The generation just before his term had seen the country really begin to expand and grow rich. This meant the government would have to administer new territories, dispose of public lands, and take care of the Indians. Scientific research in agriculture was just beginning. Rising industry called for care in granting patents consistent with law and science.

Practical problems were demanding that trained men be brought into government and kept there long enough to develop skill and efficiency. The citizens of the United States were really beginning to need competent and impartial government employees. But at that very time the spoils system was most rampant. It had degenerated into corruption and outright theft. A country less blessed with riches than the U.S.A. might not have pulled through.

What did Lincoln do?

Had the merit system and not the spoils system been in operation in 1860, the Civil War might have been much shortened. As it was, both the civil departments mid the military services were loaded with unfit personnel and officers, often more interested in their own partisan advancement than in the successful prosecution of the war.

Not only did President Lincoln make more removals than any of his predecessors, he made more than twice as many as any before him. But it must be remembered that Lincoln came into office with a brand new political party, whose members could not be denied the rewards which from past practice they assumed to be theirs. He paid off, but he realized fully the great danger of doing so. “There,” he said one time in talking, about the spoils system, “you see something which in the course of time will become a greater danger to the Republic than the rebellion itself.” At another time, he added, “I am afraid this thing is going to ruin republican government.”

It was another twenty years before the dangers of the spoils system became apparent to enough people to bring about permanent improvement. But all through the period, even during the feverish years of Civil War, hardly a year passed without some proposal of reform. The inefficiency, not to say corruption, of the government service was so notorious that it could no longer be overlooked. But every year, just as regularly, the proposed legislation and the investigations came to little or nothing.

General Grant’s reforms

The most progress was made under President Grant. His bills for civil service reform failed too, at first. But at least two of his cabinet members instituted written entrance examinations and other merit provisions in their own departments. Finally, on the last day of the Congressional session, March 3, 1871, a “rider” to the last appropriation act granted the president power to prescribe rules as to the admittance of persons into the civil service.

Under this authority, President Grant appointed an “Advisory Board of the Civil Service.” This board went right to work. It made a report as early as December 1871. The first civil service rules were promulgated in January and the first written examinations given in April of 1872.

But, despite this remarkably active—although unpaid—civil service board, despite the fact, that civil service reform was one of the central issues of the campaign in which Grant was re-elected, and despite President Grant’s repeated pleas and threats, Congress did not keep the Civil Service Commission, as it came to be known, alive. In fact, the $25,000 appropriation made in the original act of 1871 was the only one granted.

Thus the first merit system of the U.S.A. lasted just three years—from 1871 to 1874. But it was the beginning.

Even Guiteau couldn’t do it alone

Not even the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, disgruntled job-seeker under the spoils system, brought immediate action. Civil service reform petitions flooded Congress. Congress held hearings on a number of bills and dawdled. Chester A. Arthur came out strongly for the merit system when he succeeded Garfield to the presidency. The Congressional elections of 1882 were won, or lost, on the civil service issue.

A number of civil service reform groups had been formed. In 1881 they were amalgamated into the National Civil Service Reform League. Without this organization, it is doubtful that a merit system would have been achieved for the federal service even as late as 1883.

One of the bills before Congress had been worked out by members of the National Civil Service Reform League and introduced by Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. It became the Pendleton or Civil Service Act of 1883 which Congress passed without enthusiasm, certainly without sweeping majorities. The vote was not ‘along party lines. It was a popular vote in the sense that it was not the vote of any particular group but the reflection of a general moral pressure unusual in American politics.

What were the provisions of the Pendleton Act?

The Civil Service Act of 1883 provided the basic system as it is today—an extension of that of 1871. The president was made the central authority. A civil service commission of three members, no more than two to be of the same political party, was set up. The president was to determine the coverage of the act, make the civil service rules, and appoint the civil service commissioners, subject to Senate confirmation. The commissioners were to serve without term at the pleasure of the president.

The spoils system was prohibited. No employee was to be removed or demoted for political reasons nor was any apolitical assessment to be levied on him. Recommendations of applicants by members of Congress were not acceptable.

A merit system was established. Open competitive examinations were required for eligibility to the public service. Appointments were to be made only from among those scoring highest in the examinations. Removals could be made only for “just cause” and not for political, racial, or religious reasons.

Certain prescriptions and restrictions were included: l. Probationary period. A period of test on the job was required before the appointment became final—usually six months. 2. Apportionment in Washington. People from any state could be appointed to the departments at Washington, D. C., only in the ratio of that state’s population to the total population of the United States. 3. Family limit. The appointment of more than two members of one family was prohibited. 4. Veterans preference. Preference for veterans of military service was another provision in the act.

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