Pendleton Act of 1883

The Pendleton Act of 1883 is a federal law enacted by the United States, which established that federal government positions should be awarded to candidates based on their merit, not based on with which party their political affiliations lie. To that end, the Act set up a system of civil service exams, in order to limit considerations of political affiliations or support. Similarly, the Act made it illegal for government officials to be fired or demoted for political reasons, and it prohibits campaign donations from being solicited on any property that is deemed to belong to the Federal government. To explore this concept, consider the following Pendleton Act of 1883 definition.

Definition of Pendleton Act of 1883


  1. A law passed by Congress in 1883 to improve upon the federal government’s civil service system.


1883    U.S. Legislation

What is the Pendleton Act

The Pendleton Act is a measure that was put into effect to ensure that all United States government employees should be hired based on their skills, knowledge, and abilities, not for politically charged reasons. The Act was put into effect after James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, was assassinated in 1881, at the age of 50, by a disgruntled job seeker.

Before the creation of the Pendleton Act, it was common practice for government employees to be selected based on who they knew, what favors they were owed or could supply, or which political party they aligned themselves with. This legislation sought to reform the hiring system by requiring job seekers to take written tests, referred to as Civil Service Exams, and prove their worth in order to be hired for a government job.

In addition to these hiring requirements, the Act made it illegal for a government employee to be fired or demoted for these reasons. The Act established the United States Civil Service Commission, which was charged with enforcing this innovative merit system.

George Washington began the making of governmental appointments by hiring employees based on their merit, promising to only hire people “as shall be the best qualified.” Few would argue that this is how hiring should have been carried out across successive presidencies. However, by the time Andrew Jackson took over the role in 1828, most of the government’s positions were being filled by friends of the president, as well as by those who politically supported him.

After Jackson left office, the flaws within the system, as well as individuals’ abuses of it, truly came to light due to a significant uptick in the number of government jobs that were made available, and the skills that were required in order to perform more of the specialized positions that were being created. Today, the Pendleton Act affects about 90 percent of the nearly 3 million employees working for the federal government.

The Assassination of President Garfield

President Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. Garfield passed away in Elberon, New Jersey, after eleven weeks of intensive care, making him the second of four Presidents to be assassinated (the first was Abraham Lincoln). The man who shot him, Charles J. Guiteau, was angry over not being given a government position after contributing something he thought was a significant aid to Garfield’s election.

Guiteau had decided he wanted to be appointed to a federal position, and threw his efforts into supporting what he thought was going to be the winning Republican ticket. Guiteau stalwartly worked throughout the campaign, even writing a speech titled “Garfield vs. Hancock,” which was published by the Republican National Committee. He felt that his efforts toward helping Garfield achieve victory more than qualified him for a position in the consul in Paris, despite the fact that he did not speak French. In fact, Guiteau felt that Garfield owed him this job.

Guiteau was not even considered for the position, in part because Garfield’s Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, had no intention of awarding a position to Guiteau that he had not earned, and for which he was not qualified. Guiteau blamed what he considered to be his loss of the position he sought on conflict between factions of the Republican party, and he thought that the only way it could be brought to an end was through the assassination of President Garfield. This is a perfect example of the Pendleton Act’s necessity, as the deadly incident would not have occurred had these provisions been in place from the beginning. On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield twice in the back.

Civil Service Reform Act

Many people who are employed by the government, whether federal, state, or local, are considered to be “civil service employees.” People who fill these positions are chosen based on their fitness for the job, through written testing and other means set forth by the jurisdiction’s laws. This prevents people being given such jobs by family members or friends, which was the point of the Pendleton Act. There are positions that are exceptions to this rule, such as military servicemen; and those positions for which elections can be held, like judicial positions, and seats in public office.

The Pendleton Act was not perfect, however, and by the 1970s, dissatisfaction with the country’s civil service system was at an all-time high. Many people believed that the Civil Service Commission wasn’t doing enough to protect governmental employees’ rights, especially when allegations of discrimination were brought to the appropriate authorities. As unions became more popular, federal employees began to question why there wasn’t a similar organization to advocate for their benefit.

In response, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which established that only qualified individuals should be recruited for open federal positions. This meant that they must only be selected and promoted based solely on their abilities, knowledge, and skills, which were determined by fair competition with other applicants, in order to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity for employment.

The Civil Service Reform Act prevents supervisors from showing preference to friends or family members when hiring for federal positions, as people who have not taken the required test, and scored well, could not be considered. The Act also established rules for how and when employees should be disciplined or fired for poor performance, and specifies how employees can address problems, or appeal discipline issues.

Under the Civil Service Reform Act, certain types of federal employee, such as veterans, can take matters up with the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”) if they disagree with an action has been taken against them. The MSPB serves as a sort of administrative “court” that is responsible for hearing and deciding on such matters. If the MSPB determines that an employee has been the victim of a prohibited action, such as being denied a position in favor of another employee’s family member, it can send the matter up to the Office of Special Counsel. The Office of Special Counsel then investigates the case, and prosecutes it, or otherwise resolves the issue.

Further Reform with the Hatch Act

In 1939, the Hatch Act was established, which is a federal law that prohibits employees of executive offices in the federal government – save for the president, vice-president, and certain other officials – from participating in political activities, such as publicly supporting political candidates. Amendments to the Act have since restricted the making of donations to federal campaigns or political committees, placing an annual limit of $5,000. The Hatch Act is, in a way, an example of the Pendleton Act being expanded, because it keeps those in office from “throwing their names around” by supporting, or refusing to support, a particular candidate.

Pendleton Act Example in Modern Campaigns

What the Pendleton Act seeks to prevent is solicitation and receipt of campaign contributions on federal property, and many politicians have gotten themselves into trouble by violating this provision. In September, 1906, Texas Republican state committee, E.S. Thayer, was prosecuted for violating the Pendleton Act when he did this very thing. Specifically, Thayer wrote a letter to a U.S. tax official who was working out of the Dallas post office, demanding that the official donate five percent of his salary to Thayer’s campaign. He even went so far as to enclose a payment coupon with the letter, for the tax official to send in with his donation.

While this event took place over 100 years ago, the issue again rose to prominence in recent years, when reports came in that Vice President Al Gore, and perhaps even President Bill Clinton himself, made fund-raising phone calls from their official offices in the White House. This provided an example of the Pendleton Act being tested in a more modern setting, though it is difficult to prosecute such a case, as there have only been four reported court cases in U.S. history, the most recent dating back to 1954.

Questions raised after the Gore incident included whether or not the law applies only to federal workers, leaving the president and vice president exempt? Does the law apply in cases where a telephone call is placed from a federal office, even if the person on the other end of the phone is not standing on government property? Does the law apply when the people being solicited aren’t federal employees, or does it only apply in cases where federal employees are being pressured to contribute to political campaigns? And finally, does the law apply only to federal employees, or does it apply to employees of state and local governments as well? The law is broad on these points.

The Thayer case is, thus far, the only Pendleton Act case that made it to the Supreme Court, making this the only precedent on which modern cases can rely. Here, the Court found that the solicitation took place the moment the federal worker received the letter, and the tax official worked within the government post office building. This distinction became important when Al Gore’s phone calls came into question. He argued that, while he was in a federal office as he made the calls, the people he contacted were not.

It has been noted, however, that when Thayer sent his letter, telephones were not widely available, and had not been installed in the White House. The Court’s holding that “an offer is nothing until it is communicated to the party to whom it is made,” can certainly be interpreted differently in a modern world in which telephone and electronic communications are an everyday norm.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Collective Bargaining – The negotiation of wages and other conditions affecting employment by an organized group of employees (a union).
  • Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.
  • Solicitation – A request for something, usually money in the form of a donation; to seek something by persuasion or entreaty.
  • Stalwart – A faction of the Republican party that stood in opposition to Rutherford B. Hayes’ civil service reform.