January 16, 2020

IT SEEMED LIKE  A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME:  On this day in 1883, President Chester Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, thus abolishing the federal “spoils” system and creating a civil service based on … uh … merit.

Just three years prior to becoming President, Arthur had been Collector of the Port of New York, which made him NYC’s grand poobah of political patronage.  He was the last person on Earth one would expect to be the angel of death for the old way of doing things.

But Arthur had ascended to the Presidency after a disappointed job seeker assassinated President James Garfield.  Americans were hellbent on getting civil service reform and feared Arthur would stand in their way. Arthur, ever the politician, enjoyed pleasantly surprising them.

The “spoils” system (called that by its detractors) had a lot of faults.  But its virtue was that job holders tended to actually believe in President’s agenda.  And if they didn’t or weren’t doing a good job, it was easy to get rid of them.  The system that replaced it has both virtues and vices too.  But as time goes by, its vices are increasingly on display.




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