Pendleton Civil Service Act: An Effort to End the Spoils System

President Chester A. Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act into law on January 16, 1883.(1) The legislation was intended to guarantee the rights of all citizens to compete for federal jobs without preferential treatment given based on politics, race, religion or origin.

The issue of civil service reform was raised by citizens after the Civil War, when newspapers featured stories of widespread corruption and incompetence in federal departments. Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio sponsored a civil service bill in January 1883.(2) The bill called for the open selection of government employees, and created a Civil Service Commission. The bill also required that all job applicants pass a Civil Service Examination.

During President Wilson’s Administration, which marked the beginning of federal segregation, applicants were required to attach photographs of themselves to the application.(3)  This was an effort to further discriminate against African Americans attempting to obtain secure government jobs. The measure was later repealed.

While the bill attempted to provide an equal opportunity for all citizens to be hired for federal jobs, initially its successes were limited. After Arthur signed the bill into law only 10 percent of all federal positions were covered by the law. The scope of the law has increased steadily over the years, and by 1980 more than 90 percent of all federal employees were protected by the act.(4)

1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Pendleton Civil Service Act,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, (accessed August 7, 2007).

2) Ibid.

3) Kathleen L. Wolgemuth, “Woodrow Wilson and Federal Segregation’ Journal of Negro History 44 (1959): 161.

4) Encyclopaedia Britannica.