Civil Service Reform: Creating a Merit System for Pennsylvania

The Gilded Age of the late 19th century is not typically recalled as an age of reform. Characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and rapid population growth, it was an era of remarkable economic expansion. The Gilded Age also saw a dramatic expansion in the size and scope of government—the federal government employed just 53,000 people in 1871, but numbered 256,00 employees by 1900. Patronage politics was the norm, at every level of government. This was the age of the political machine, typified by such notorious operations as Boss Tweed’s “Tammany Hall” ring in New York City and the Cameron/Quay machine in Pennsylvania. Patronage was a bipartisan institution, as these examples illustrate (Tammany Hall was a Democratic machine, while the Camerons and Quay were Republicans).
While the “spoils system” had gained widespread acceptance as early as the 1820s under President Andrew Jackson, with the explosive growth of government after the Civil War patronage politics often determined nominations and elections and was the most divisive factor in party politics, with the Republican Party of the 1870s and 1880s divided into two hostile wings, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, entirely over the question of patronage. The Stalwarts, led by New York politicians Roscoe Conkling, Thomas Platt, and Chester Arthur, believed in traditional machine politics and opposed civil service reform, including the adoption of the merit system that was advocated by Half-Breeds, led by Senator James G. Blaine of Maine. The issue might have remained a relatively obscure matter for reformers and party insiders to wrangle over had it not exploded into the national consciousness in 1881 with the assassination of President James Garfield, who was killed just months into his presidency by Charles Guiteau, a “disgruntled office seeker” (and madman). Guiteau was a Stalwart who has unsuccessfully sought a position in the Foreign Service and apparently blamed Garfield, a Half-Breed, for the snub.
Garfield’s assassination elevated his vice president, Chester Arthur, into the White House. Despite his former tenure as customs collector of the Port of New York, a choice patronage posting and his reputation as a staunch Stalwart and defender of the spoils system, Arthur shocked his critics and the political pundits of the day by becoming an outspoken advocate for civil service reform. It was Arthur who signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act into law in 1883.
While it was cheered by reformers as a major step towards eliminating the scourge of patronage politics, the Pendleton Act proved to be only a small step in that direction. It only applied to federal positions, not the state and local jobs that were the lifeblood of the entrenched political machines. Nonetheless, its passage was expected to usher in a new era of civil service reforms at the state and local levels, including in Pennsylvania. However, despite these high hopes, reformers in Pennsylvania were unsuccessful in bringing a comprehensive civil service reform law to the state until 1941—more than a half century after similar laws had been crafted in states such as New York and Massachusetts. This lesson traces reform efforts by the Civil-Service Reform Association of Philadelphia from its founding in 1881 until passage of the Pennsylvania Civil Service Act (Merit System Law) of 1941.


Government and civics

Big Ideas

Historical Context
Pennsylvania History
Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.
  • Historical causation involves motives, reasons, and consequences that result in events and actions. Some consequences may be impacted by forces of the irrational or the accidental.


  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.
  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

Background Material for Teacher

Ari Hoogenboom, “Pennsylvania in the Civil Service Reform Movement,” Pennsylvania History 28 (1961): 268-78.

End of Unit Assessment

A variety of standard assessment activities could be used at the end of this lesson, such as a multiple-choice or short-answer quiz; a brief paper; or class presentations. More ambitious assessment activities could include a role-playing simulation, in which students adopted a variety of personas related to this topic (for example, members of the Civil-Service Reform Association, members of the Pennsylvania legislature, reporters, politicians, office-seekers, etc.) and held a debate or legislative hearing on proposals for civil service reform, or the class could produce a newspaper with articles and editorials about the history of civil service reform in Pennsylvania, “dated” when the comprehensive merit system bill was passed in 1941.