Civil Service Reform: Campaign Contributions 

by Tara L. Dirst



  • Students will discuss the 19th-century spoils system.
  • Students will discuss the 1990s licenses for bribes campaign contribution scandal that occurred under George Ryan's (Illinois's then-Secretary of State) tenure.
  • Students will compare and contrast the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act with the current Illinois State Statute regarding civil service employees and solicitation of campaign contributions.
  • Students will propose their own civil service law.

Materials Required:

  • Overhead projector
  • Create transparencies of the following resources for use in the classroom (or use Internet access):
  • Andrew Jackson "To the Victors Belong the Spoils" cartoon
  • Side-by-side sheet with selected portions of the Illinois State Employees Political Activity Act and the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
  • Student Preparation:

Students should read the textbook's section on the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This should be in a section relating to politics in the Gilded Age.

Sample texts are:

  • Danzer, Gerald A., et al. The Americans. "Civil Service Replaces Patronage." Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. 476-477.
  • Boyer, Paul. The American Nation. "Restoring Honest Government." Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1998. 486-489.

I. Introduction (5 minutes)

Put the Andrew Jackson spoils cartoon on the overhead projector. Ask the students what the phrase "To the victors go the spoils" means and what the imagery infers about the spoils system.

II. Lecture/Discussion (15 minutes)

Lead a lecture/discussion on what the textbook says about the spoils system, James A. Garfield's assassination, the desire for reform, the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, and other issues related to political reform.

Discussion questions:

  • Why do you think people would have been against reform? Think beyond the obvious desire for appointed jobs. (Democratization of government, desire to give power to the average citizen, anti-elitism)
  • Do you think turnover in government positions is a good or bad thing?
  • Are there certain jobs that should have rotation more frequently than others?
  • Are there certain jobs that people should have to take examinations for? Ones that they should not?

II. Lecture/Discussion (10 minutes)

Ask the class if anyone has heard of the "licenses for bribes" scandal, or of any of the scandals that plagued Governor George Ryan. Lead a lecture/discussion surrounding the case of state drivers' license facility employees selling driver's licenses for monies that were used to purchase Republican party fundraising tickets. Discussion questions:

Do you have an expectation that civil service personnel should be apolitical?

The personnel involved said that they were "pressured" to purchase fundraising tickets. This is difficult to prove. Do you have any ideas for how to eliminate this possible "pressure"?

III. Lecture/Discussion (15 minutes)

Put the side-by-side sheet with the selected portions of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act and Illinois State Employees Political Activity Act that deal specifically with campaign contribution and solicitation. Note for the students that the federal act applies only to federal employees. Note that the Pendleton law is not exactly the same as the federal law is written now (but there still are similar rules governing campaign contribution and solicitation.) Each state has their own regulations. Give them time to read the sections. Discussion questions:

What differences do you notice between the 1883 federal law and the current Illinois law?

In particular, notice the differences between the penalties. What do you think the penalties should be for violation of the law?

IV. Wrap-up (5 minutes)

Ask the class if they currently see examples of corruption that could be corrected by law, or if they see problems with current civil service rules (as they understand them.) Assign homework.

V. Assignment

Students will write their own civil service law specifically related to one issue. The issue cannot be campaign contributions. Think of the issues brought up in the discussions (hiring, firing, testing.) Another possible idea might be nepotism (hiring of family members.) A specific issue should be outlined in detail and the penalty for violating the law should be addressed. Length: 1-2 paragraphs. Due: the following class period.

State Standards Addressed:

  • 16.B.4 (US) Identify political ideas that have dominated United States historical eras (e.g., Federalist, Jacksonian, Progressivist, New Deal, New Conservative).
  • 16.B.5b (US) Analyze how United States political history has been influenced by the nation's economic, social and environmental history.


We would like to thank The Dirksen Congressional Center for their generous support in the creation of this lesson plan.