The federal bureaucracy in the years after the Civil War was generally undistinguished, because the system of selecting officials and supervising their work was irrational. That system had evolved in the early nineteenth century, and relied on the well-known political adage, "to the victor belong the spoils". That did not necessarily mean that bad people were appointed; many government officials were quite good, but the system itself was ill-suited to efficiency.
The idea of rotation in office, however, was thought to be "democratic."
Andrew Jackson in 1829 had declared: "No man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another... The duties of all public officers are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance."
This had not been true in 1829, and was certainly not true fifty years later. The constant turnover provided no institutional memory; government workers panicked at every election and had little sense of loyalty to their jobs, because their tenure was often of such short duration. As Henry Clay put it, government officials after an election are "like the inhabitants of Cairo when the plague breaks out; no one knows who is next to encounter the stroke of death."
Over the years, the flaws became more serious and obvious. Political leaders required their patronage appointees to devote time and money to party affairs. After each election winners were besieged by hungry office-seekers, and wrangling between the president and Congress over patronage became endemic. By the 1880s, one could open a Washington newspaper after an election and find many advertisements like this one:
"WANTED -- A GOVERNMENT CLERKSHIP at a salary of not less than $1,000 per annum. Will give $100 to any one securing me such a position."
The situation was compounded by the growth of the federal bureaucracy. In Jackson's time there had been 20,000 persons on the federal payroll. By end of the Civil War the number had increased to 53,000; by 1884, 131,000; and by 1891, 166,000. Presidents were hounded by office- seekers. When James Garfield became president he discovered hungry office-seekers "lying in wait" for him "like vultures for a wounded bison."
Moreover, new government jobs required special skills. The use of typewriters, introduced in the early 1880s, meant that mere literacy and decent penmanship were no longer enough for a clerk's job. With the creation of administrative agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and specialized agricultural bureaus, one needed scientific expertise. The spoils system was not the way to get them.
A civil service movement started in New York in 1877, and although it developed considerable public support, the politicians refused to go along. Then came the assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.
The Pendleton Act classified certain jobs, removed them from the patronage ranks, and set up a Civil Service Commission to administer a system based on merit rather than political connections. As the classified list was expanded over the years, it provided the American people with a competent and permanent government bureaucracy. In 1883 fewer than 15,000 jobs were classified; by the time McKinley became president in 1897, 86,000 -- almost half of all federal employees -- were in classified positions. Today, with the exception of a few thousand policy-level appointments, nearly all federal jobs are handled within the civil service system.
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