Civil Service Reform: Senate Debates

by Tara L. Dirst


 

Objectives

 

  • Students will outline civil service reform proposals/criticisms made by Senators during the debates on the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.
  • Students will defend their agreement/disagreement with the civil service reform proposals/criticisms made by the Senators.
  • Students will evaluate the arguments of the Senators.
  • Students will interpret the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act to see if it incorporated the Senators' proposals or resolved their criticisms.

 

Materials:

 

  • Overhead projector
  • Andrew Jackson spoils cartoon: copy/print onto transparency sheet
  • Student groups will need copies of the following reading materials:
  • Each member of class needs a copy of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
  • Each group will need one worksheet for summarizing their findings.
  • Each member of every group will need a copy of the group's assigned reading:

 

Group 1: Speech of Senator Hawley, December 13, 1882

Group 2: Debate between Senator Beck and Senator Hoar, December 13, 1882

Group 3: Speech of Senator Logan, December 13, 1882

Group 4: Speech of Senator Hoar, December 14, 1882

Group 5: Speech of Senator Brown, December 14, 1882

Group 6: Speech of Senator Brown, December 14, 1882

Group 7: Speech of Senator Miller, December 15, 1882

Group 8: Speech of Senator McPherson, December 15, 1882

Group 9: Speech of Senator Miller, December 14, 1882

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 (Day 1)

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. 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. (Day 1)

Sample 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?

 

III. Introduce the assignment: students will be examining rationales for reform and criticisms of the proposed reforms. Break students into 9 groups and hand out reading materials and worksheets. Students should read the given speech, then the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, then in a group discuss the questions on the worksheet and fill it out. (Day 1-Day 2)

Each member of every group will need a copy of the worksheet for summarizing their findings, a copy of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, and a copy of the group's assigned reading:

Group 1: Speech of Senator Hawley, December 13, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Hawley stressed the need for a civil service system to limit the effects of influence in politics, increase efficiency, and cut costs.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? In theory, the creation of an application and examination system could create a system that reduces the effect of influence in politics. As for efficiency, it removed the unwieldy requirement of the President from appointing persons to so many positions. It offered a graded system of employment which addressed the concern of cost, although it also institutes a series of new positions to oversee the civil service system which are quite costly.

Group 2: Debate between Senator Beck and Senator Hoar, December 13, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Beck questioned the use of open, competitive examinations when a person who may be quite capable and skilled may not have an adequate formal education to pass the examination. Senator Hoar argued that the law does not cover offices that can be held by persons who cannot read or write.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? It is relatively unclear from this document if what Senator Hoar says is true. Competitive examinations apply to "applicants for the public service now classified or to be classified here-under." One would need to also look at the classification of certain clerks "now existing under the one hundred and sixty-third section of the Revised Statues," which involves customs officers.

Group 3: Speech of Senator Logan, December 13, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Logan argued that the examinations should be practical and specifically related to the position at hand.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? The clause that Senator Logan proposed is in the final act.

Group 4: Speech of Senator Hoar, December 14, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Hoar described the need for reform because of unjust removals of qualified individuals and placement of others because of undue "attention."

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? In theory, the bill does place many positions under a system of employment due to qualifying examinations instead of by presidential appointment.

Group 5: Speech of Senator Brown, December 14, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Brown argued that the Pendleton Act would enable Democrats to compete for only the lowest positions. In his view, this bill was an attempt to firmly establish the control of the Republicans past their executive power.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? While it is unclear from this bill alone who would be subject to competitive examinations for civil service positions (one would need to see the Revised Statutes), it does not specify that examinations are only for the lowest positions. Section 7 expressly prohibits promotions without examinations, so competition for positions should be fair regardless of party affiliation. Senator Brown was totally opposed to the idea of a civil service. The students should note that he made a completely partisan argument here by stating that the Pendleton Act was a Republican bill aimed toward getting Republicans into positions and then, because of the new civil service laws, keeping them there.

Group 6: Speech of Senator Brown, December 14, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Brown argued that establishing positions of lifetime tenure within the Executive Departments would create a privileged, powerful, aristocratic class.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? Not really. Senator Brown was opposed to the whole idea of a civil service.

Group 7: Speech of Senator Miller, December 15, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Miller argued that government should be run like a business…people should qualify for positions through competitive examinations, not because of a political recommendation. Removal should not occur with every new election.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? Yes. Competitive examinations for civil service positions are at the root of this bill.

Group 8: Speech of Senator McPherson, December 15, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator McPherson expressed his opposition to the Pendleton Act because he believed it was a tool for keeping Republicans in power and Democrats out. He believed that the patronage system is appropriate for a party government. He believed that a legislative commission to govern the civil service system, without oversight, would be against democratic principles of party (and voter) rule.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? The law's provisions regarding the appointment of persons to the U.S. Civil Service Commission (3 persons appointed by the President, only 2 of whom could be from the same party, could be removed by the President at any time) could be construed as an attempt to keep the patronage system alive, as opposed to a system to keep the Republicans in office past their control over the presidency. Senator McPherson's argument could also hold true, though, since it would be effective beginning in a Republican administration.

Group 9: Speech of Senator Miller, December 14, 1882

Notes for the instructor on this reading, for use in evaluating the students' summary:

Short Description/Rationale: Senator Miller disagreed with the sentiments promulgated by Democratic senators like Senator Brown (see groups 5 and 6). He said that the spoils system is what created an aristocratic office-holding class and that the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act would alleviate this problem within a generation because of shifts in party power.

Did the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act address the specific proposal(s)/criticism(s)? It seems as though the act could have accomplished what Senator Miller stated, over time. The question would be, however, how long would it take?

IV. Report findings to the class (Day 3)

A spokesperson for each group should explain their findings as described in the worksheet. Each group should hand in their worksheet. Evaluation of their worksheets can be based on above descriptions. Each group should be given approximately 5 minutes to report.

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.

Notes for the Instructor

This lesson should take approximately 3 days in order to allow the students enough time to read all of the materials, summarize their findings, and report them to the class.

Group 4's reading is substantially shorter than the others, so this might be good for a slower readers' group.

Each group should have 2-4 persons to be most effective for group work. For a smaller class, groups can be 2-3, or some groups can be eliminated (like Group 6). For a larger class, give the same group readings to multiple sets of students. This will make the reporting period longer.

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