Creating a Merit System for Pennsylvania: A Long and Winding Road

For this lesson, students will examine a series of documents that help to demonstrate the reasons that civil service reform became a significant cause during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They will also see the arguments that were used by civil service reformers to lobby in favor of adopting the merit system at the local, state, and federal levels of government. Finally, they will be asked to surmise why it took so long for the merit system to be implemented in Pennsylvania.

In a US History course, this lesson should come as the culmination of the class’s coverage of Gilded Age politics, patronage, and Garfield’s assassination. In a Civics or Government course, this lesson could be taught as part of a unit on federalism (showing how federal policies do not directly influence what goes on at the state level) or as part of a unit on political efficacy and interest groups, showing how persistent interest groups have to be as they lobby for reforms.

Essential Questions

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


Students will:

  • articulate the context of a historical event or action.
  • evaluate cause-and-result relationships bearing in mind multiple causations.
  • analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Distribute copies of the “Purposes of the Civil-Service Reform Association.”  Students should read the pamphlet in order to answer the following questions:
• How does the CSRA believe the civil service ought to be run?
• Which part of the civil service does it wish to reform?
• What are some specific statistics or examples cited that illustrate the “evils of patronage”?
• What is the “chief evil” of patronage, according to the pamphlet, if it is “not economical”?
• Summarize the four arguments in favor of civil service reform that conclude the pamphlet.
• Do you believe the Civil-Service Reform Association of Philadelphia presents a convincing case in favor of abandoning patronage in favor of the merit system?  Why or why not?
• Do you believe its argument was convincing to politicians at the time? Do you think its goals were likely to be met? Why or why not?
Students should read and respond on their own initially, then compare their findings and opinions with a partner in the class.  Finally, there should be a class discussion of these issues as a check for understanding.

2. Having read the pamphlet and gained an understanding of the problems of patronage and the goals of the CSRA of Philadelphia, students should then be given the letter from Wayne MacVeagh to Edward Sayres to read.  It is handwritten but legible—students should have fun deciphering the nineteenth-century script.  (A transcription is available against which students may check their transcription.) Students should be told that MacVeagh, who had been chosen to serve as the first president of the Civil-Service Reform Association of Philadelphia, was serving at the time as the attorney general of the United States—a member of President Garfield’s cabinet.  After reading the letter, ask students to speculate on what MacVeagh is referring to when he writes, “If I had never believed in the principles your Association avows before, my experience in the last thirty days would have assuredly converted me to them.” [Note the letter is dated April 14, 1881—Garfield was inaugurated and his cabinet confirmed in March].

3. Having gained a sense of the scale of the problem that was patronage politics in the 1880s, and having speculated about the likely success or failure of the CSRA of Philadelphia’s initial goals as laid out in its 1881 pamphlet, students should then be given a copy of “An Open Letter to President Harrison,” written by Henry Charles Lea in April 1890.  They should read the letter and answer the following questions:
• Based on your understanding of the letter from Henry C. Lea to President Benjamin Harrison, had the goals of the CSRA of Philadelphia been met by 1890, ten years after they had been published?
• Which offices in particular seem to have been highly competitive under the patronage system in Pennsylvania?  Be specific.
• What is Lea’s opinion of how effectively President Harrison has lived up to his promises of civil service reform?  What evidence does he cite?
• What are the parting pieces of advice that Lea offers to Harrison?
• Do you think that President Harrison, or political leaders in general, were likely to heed the advice of reformers like Lea?  Why or why not?

4. Finally, have students read the pamphlet “Pennsylvania’s Opportunity.”  They should read to answer the following questions:
• What reasons are offered to explain why Pennsylvania has not adopted civil service reforms, in contrast with neighboring states such as New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, and New York?
• What are some of the “advantages to be expected under a merit system”? Compare these ideas with those presented in the 1881 pamphlet from the Civil-Service Reform Association of Philadelphia.
• This pamphlet was produced fifty-six years after the original pamphlet from the CSRA of Philadelphia.  Comprehensive civil service legislation (the adoption of the merit system) was enacted in 1941.  What elements, if any, in this document seem to indicate an improved awareness of public relations?  In other words, what features (if any) made this a more effective means to support civil service reform?
• Based on your knowledge of American history, what factors (if any) help to explain why Pennsylvania adopted civil service reform legislation in 1941 after having resisted it for over sixty years?


  • Patronage: the control of or power to make appointments to government jobs or the power to grant other political favors; the distribution of jobs and favors on a political basis, as to those who have supported one's party or political campaign
  • Merit system: a system or policy whereby people are promoted or rewarded on the basis of ability and achievement rather than because of seniority, quotas, patronage, or the like
  • Spoils system: the system or practice in which public offices with their emoluments and advantages are at the disposal of the victorious party for its own purposes
  • Civil service: a system or method of appointing government employees on the basis of competitive examinations, rather than by political patronage
  • Special-interest group: a community with an interest in advancing a specific area of knowledge, learning or technology where members cooperate to effect or to produce solutions within their particular field, and may communicate, meet, and organize conferences. They may at times also advocate or lobby on a particular issue or on a range of issues
  • Reform: the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc
  • Gilded Age: the period in the U.S. c1870–98, characterized by a greatly expanding economy and the emergence of plutocratic influences in government and society.