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President James A. Garfield and the Pendleton Act

James Abraham Garfield was the last President to be born in a log cabin. Nobody knows what kind of President he would have been because he was assassinated only a few months after taking office. Garfield, a Republican, was the fourth President to die in office and the second to be assassinated (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). Possibly, Garfield accomplished more by his death than if he had lived to complete his term. A major characteristic of national politics in his day was the so – called spoils system, in which thousands of government employees were fired every time a new President took office.

Garfield spent most of his short time as President filling these jobs with his political supporters. The assassination of Garfield by a disappointed job – seeker shocked the nation into action. Two years later, Congress began civil service reform with the Pendleton Civil Service Act (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). Garfield was a big, athletic, handsome man with blond hair and beard. Before becoming President, he was successful as professor, college president, Civil War general, and U. S. congressman. He spoke and wrote well, read widely and even composed poetry.

He occasionally entertained his friends, by writing Latin with the other. Warmhearted and genial, Garfield wanted to be well liked and generally was. But his eagerness to please everybody sometimes led him into questionable dealings with unscrupulous people (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). James Abraham Garfield was born in Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio on November 19, 1831. He was the youngest of five children. His parents, Abram and Eliza Ballou Garfield, were pioneers from the East. His father died before James was 2 years old. Mrs.

Garfield managed to make a fair living on their 30 – acre (12 – hectare) farm. She became the first woman to attend a son’s inauguration as President (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). In his early teens, James began to do odd jobs during his vacations from the district school. At 16, inspired by reading adventure stories, he left home with the romantic idea of becoming a sailor on the Great Lakes. He gave up the notion when a ship captain cursed him and drove him away. A cousin then hired him to drive a team of horses that towed a barge along the Ohio Canal (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006).

Soon, James returned home, ill with malaria. When he recovered, he entered Geauga Academy in the nearby town of Chester. Following his first term, he supported himself by teaching in the district school. At 20, he enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio, near Cleveland. He studied there for three years, then, attended Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. , for two years. Under the guidance of the president of Williams College, Mark Hopkins, Garfield matured greatly and broadened his interests (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006).

After graduation from Williams in 1856, Garfield returned to Hiram College as a professor of ancient languages and literature. The next year, at the age of 26, he was chosen president of the college. While president, Garfield studied law and occasionally preached sermons for the Disciples of Christ. He had joined that church as a youthful convert (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). Garfield had shown an interest in politics as early as 1856, when he campaigned for John C. Fremont, the Republican candidate for President. He was elected to the Ohio state senate three years later.

In 1862, while still in the army, Garfield was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. However, Garfield did not resign his commission until December 1863 (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). Garfield won reelection to the house eight times. He served as chairman of the appropriations committee and as a member of the committees on military affairs, ways and means, and banking and currency. He supported the harsh Reconstruction measures of the Radical Republicans, and voted for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006).

In 1872, Garfield was one of several congressmen accused of accepting gifts of stock from the Credit Mobilier, a corporation seeking favors from the government. He denied the charge, and it was never proved. Garfield was also criticized for accepting a $5,000 fee from a company trying to get a paving contract from the city of Washington, D. C. He admitted taking the fee but contended that his services were not improper (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). The Ohio legislature elected Garfield to the U. S. Senate in 1880.

But before he could take his seat there, he led his state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. The Half – Breeds tried to nominate Blaine for President. The Stalwarts insisted on former President Ulysses S. Grant (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). Neither Blaine nor Grant could gather enough votes for the nomination. The Half – Breeds then swung to Garfield, who was a “dark horse,” or little known candidate. The convention finally chose Garfield on the 36th ballot. For Vice President, the convention selected Chester A. Arthur, a Stalwart and Conkling’s lieutenant in the New York Republican machine.

Garfield defeated his Democratic Party opponent, Winfield Scoot Hancock , by 1,898 votes (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). On July 2, 1881, Garfield was about to leave Washington to attend the 25th reunion of his class at Williams College. He was walking through a reception room in the railroad station when a stranger fired two pistol shots at him. The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was arrested immediately. He held a grudge because Garfield had refused to appoint him as the United States consul in Paris. At his trial, Guiteau acted like a madman.

His attorney argued that he was innocent by reason of insanity, but a jury convicted him. He was hanged in 1882 (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). Garfield lay near death for 80 days. Although one of the assassin’s bullets had merely grazed his arms, the other had lodged in his back. Surgeons could not find it. Alexander Graham Bell tried unsuccessfully to locate the bullet with an electrical device (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). He performed only one official act, the signing of an extradition paper. Arthur did not step in for fear of disturbing Garfield and creating a major political controversy.

The Cabinet supported his decision (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). If the X – ray and modern antiseptics had existed at that time, Garfield’s life might have been saved. But infection set in. After being moved to a seaside cottage in Elberon, N. J. , he died on September 19, 1881. He was buried in Cleveland (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006). The earliest Presidents generally sought qualified individuals for jobs, though they tend to favor their own political supporters. By the mid – 1820’s, government jobs were commonly used as political rewards.

As incoming President would dismiss a large number of government workers originally hired by the opposition party and replace them with members of his own party. This practice was done to enhance the President’s control of the bureaucracy. It was based on the ideas that government work was not complicated, and that all people in a democracy should be eligible for it. It led to much corruption and was called the spoils system (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). Many people hired through the spoils system had little or no training for their work and no interest in it.

Many were dishonest. As government activities grew, a serious need for qualified workers developed. The government passed laws in 1853 and 1855 requiring clerk examinations to make sure that new employees would be qualified to do the work. In 1871, Congress gave the President authority to establish tests for people seeking government jobs. But this merit – system trial ended in 1875, because Congress failed to fund the system (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). Garfield’s death brought public demands for civil service reforms and led to a bill introduced by Senator George H.

Pendleton of Ohio. The bill became the Civil Service Act of 1883. About the same time, New York and Massachusetts began merit programs (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). The Civil Service Act called for examinations open to all citizens. It provided for selection of new workers from among those making the highest grades on these examinations. It banned the firing or demoting of workers for political reasons. The law also relieved government workers from any obligation to give political service or payments.

The act established the United States Civil Service Commission to enforce the law (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005). At first, the Civil Service Act covered only about 10 per cent of the federal positions. By 1940, 90% of all federal jobs were covered. Additional laws have sought to make civil service a true career service. They have authorized advancement based on merit and similar benefits to those offered by progressive private employers. For example, the Retirement Act of 1920 set up a pension system for civil service workers. The Classification Act pt 1923 provided that all executive department jobs in Washington D.

C. be analyzed and classified so that workers would be paid according to the requirements of their jobs. A law passed in 1940 extended the provision of the Classification Act to many federal positions outside Washington D. C (Peskin, 1978; Rutkow, 2006; Theriault, 2005).


Peskin, A. (1978). Garfield: A Biography. Ohio: Kent State University Press. Rutkow, I. M. (2006). James A. Garfield. Los Angeles: Times Books. Theriault, S. M. (2005). The Power of the People: Congressional Competition, Public Attention, and Voter Retribution. Ohio. Ohio State University Press.

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