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Theodore Roosevelt

"Government jobs belong to the American people, not politicians and shall be filled only with regard to public service."

Theodore Roosevelt

Our History

The history of civil service is inextricably intertwined with that of the American ideals of democracy, The idea that dedicated and hardworking individuals with morals and character would come to work for the United States government has been an important concern from the very first days of the Republic.

The Constitution (Article II, Section 2, paragraph 2) clearly states that the method for appointment of higher officials, namely "Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for" shall be Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.

The appointment of officers of lesser rank, however, is not as clearly defined. Congress has vested the authority to appoint such officers in the President, Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. 

The history of the United States' civil service can be divided into four distinct phases:

The United States has officially been committed to the establishment of a fair and effective Federal government for the people of the country. The values of civil service and the merit concept are inherently present in the ideals of democracy and representative government. These basic principles of a fair and democratic Federal government have stood the test of time and the transition of the United States from a pioneer society to one of the most complex in the world.

The Federalist "Fitness Test" Era

President George Washington (1789-1797) set a high standard in political appointments in selecting his nominees. As he had prophesied in his preinaguration writings, "the most difficult and delicate part" of his work was balancing the political appointments made. He set about selecting diverse, deserving and qualified men from all over the country. Honesty, efficiency and adherence to the Constitution were his paramount considerations, with the underlying assumption being that the potential appointee was a Federalist.

President John Adams (1797-1801), for the most part, continued the policies of his predecessor, demanding demonstrable ability in a candidate for political appointment. Adams' "Midnight Appointments" at the end of his term marked the beginning of the political parties' struggle to maintain some control when they had lost the election.

A political appointee's politics came to be an important factor in his qualification during President Thomas Jefferson's administration (1801-1809). In coming into his term, Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, found most government posts filled with Federalists and felt compelled to "redress the balance." Redressing the balance meant that while he would maintain high standards of qualifications, he would only appoint Democrat-Republicans until a balance between his party and the Federalist party had been attained.

Presidents James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825), being of the same political party as Thomas Jefferson, saw no need to modify the "redress the balance" civil service policy of their predecessor. Under President Monroe's term, the Tenure of Office Act of 1820 was passed, marking the beginning of the spoils system. Under the Tenure of Office Act, the terms of many officials were limited to four years, to correspond with that of the President. This was in contrast to the practice of permitting administrative and executive officials, except Cabinet officers, to serve during good behavior, as distinct from elective officers who served fixed terms. The purpose of the bill was to compel a regular submission of accounts from officials handling public monies and a convenient way to remove unsatisfactory officials. The Tenure of Office Act, however, would make the removal of all incumbents, whether satisfactory or not, customary for the incoming President.

Despite the passage of the Tenure of Office Act, President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) refused to remove officials for political reasons. Carrying out his policy of "no changes for political reasons," he removed only 12 Presidential officers in 4 years. President Adams would be the last to make conservative use of the powers of appointment and removal.

These early years of civil service were marked by a period of high standards and expectations of public officials.  The Federal government was still only a small portion of the size it would come to be, with the majority of jobs being clerical and administrative positions in the cities of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.    

The Spoils Era

"They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy." - Senator William L. Marcy, in 1832 debate with Senator Henry Clay over President Andrew Jackson's nominatin of Martin Van Buren as Minister to Great Britain.

At the height of the patronage system, each change in administration was marked by massive removals of officials working for the departing administration. It had become routine for the incoming President, his Cabinet, and the head of agencies to put aside all other business in order to concentrate on settling the aggressive claims of office seekers who came to Washington, DC in search of a political appointment.

Political sympathy and partisan activity were now required as a condition of appointment. Fitness for office was given far less consideration and thus, the quality of public service was seriously affected.

President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837 ) is widely considered to be the strongest supporter of the rotation system of government. Jackson stated that the trained officials in Washington constituted a dangerous bureacracy, and that continuance in an office would lead to the establishment of a proprietary right to that office. He also believed, and stated so in his first annual message, that the "duties of all public offices are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance." He added: "I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally gained by their experience."

By this time, government services had become relatively complex. The country had expanded, population had grown, wealth had increased, public lands had been acquired and needed to be maintained, trade increased, etc. The rotation system, however, placed men with little or no experience in specialized positions, creating inefficiency, corruption and outright theft in the different government posts.

By the mid 1800s the effects of the spoils system became increasinly apparent. Defaulters in public office were frequently discovered, including the notorious Samual Swartwout, Collector of the Port of New York, whose funds had been found $210,000 short during his first term of office under Jackson. Nevertheless, he was reappointed by President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), absconding to Europe with over $1,250,000 of public funds.

The spoils system had also been extended into the Army and Navy, and impaired the effectiveness of our forces not only in the Mexican War (1848) but also in many Civil War (1861-1865) campaigns.

In 1851, Congress passed a resolution requesting Cabinet officers to formulate: ...some plan of classifying the clerks in the several departments; for apportioning their salaries according to their services; also, some plan to provide for a fair and impartial examination of the qualifications of clerks and for promoting them from one grade to another, upon due regard to their qualifications and services.

The resolution was clearly designed to remedy some of the worst defects of the spoils system of civil service. It was the first Federal attempt to secure the appointment of qualified employees in a systematic method. The major departments were required to establish examining boards to hold "pass examinations" for applicants in the four clerical grades in the Washington service.

"Pass examinations," however, proved to be of little value in terms of reform. The "examinating board" usually consisted on one person and the requirements for identical positions varied according to the person giving and taking the "exam."

While pass examination were not an effective means of reform, the 1853 legislation indicated that there was increasing disenchanted with the spoils system. The public had become disgusted with the scandals and costs of the Federal government under the existing practices.

By 1870 the movement to reform the civil service system was well under way. During the next 20 years, at least one civil service reform bill was introduced in each session of Congress.

President Gen. Ulysses Grant (1869-1877) was elected on a platform which included a promise of civil service reform. Grant took his campaign promise seriously and endeavored to gain legislative cooperation.

In March 1871, Congress passed an appropriations bill reading:

The President is authorized to prescribe such regulations for the admission of presons into the vicil services of the United States as may best promote the efficiency thereof, and to ascertain the fitness of each candidate in respect to age, health, character, knowledge, and ability...and for this purpose [the President] may employ suitable persons to conduct such inquiries, and may prescribe their duties , and establish regulations for the conduct of persons who may receive appointments in the civil service.

Under the Act, President Grant appointed an "Advisory Board of the Civil Service." The Board attempted to examine and solve the issues of competitive examinations for entrance, position classification, competitive promotion and efficiency ratings. The Board recommended the following rules for reforming the civil service system:

  • classification of all positions into groups according to the duties to be performed, and into grades for purposes of promotion.
  • competitive examinations for appointment to all positions within the lowest grade of each group
  • competition promotion examinations to fill positions in grades above the lowest
  • a 6-month probationary period following appointments
  • boards of examiners in each department to do the actual work of examining candidates and maintaining lists of qualified applicants

Under Grant's presidency, directives stating that appointments for the Treasury Department, Patent Office, the Census Bureau and the Indian Affairs Office were to be made on the basis of competitive examinations were ordered. In April 1872, the first competitive examination under the Commission's rules were held for appointments in civil service positions in the cities of New York and Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, the Grant Commission was dissolved in 1873 when Congress, influenced by the still strong forces favoring patronage, refused to appropriate further funds for it. As Congress continued to remain unresponsive to President Grant's and his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), pleas for more funds, reforms were maintained and implemented by the use of executive orders.

This might have continued unless a shocking event had not acted as a sudden catalyst.

In 1881, James A. Garfield was elected as the fourth consecutive Republican President. Garfield, like his immediate predecessors, had the support of the reform movement. During his campaign, he had attacked political influence in appointments and supported measures to continue appropriations to Grant's Civil Service Commission.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, as the President was waiting in a Washington train station, Charles J. Guiteau, a dissapointed office seeker, fired two revolver shots at him, which eventually proved to be fatal.

"That cruel shot," wrote historians Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, in The Rise of American Civilization, "rang throughout the land, driving into the heads of the most hardened political henchmen the idea that there was something disgraceful in reducing the Chief Executive of the United States to the level of a petty job broker."

President Garfield's death aroused more public indignation than there had ever been before. The fall elections of 1882 demonstrated that the people wanted change. If Congress had underestimated the strength of the popular sentiment, they stood in attention now. In several congressional districts, the issue of civil service reform decided the election. In the important state of New York, Grover Cleveland, was elected Governor and civil service reform advocate Theodore Roosevelt was elected to the State Assembly.

On the first day of the new session of Congress, December 12, 1882, debate began on a bill introduced by Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885), President since Garfield's death, declared that he would give his "earnest support" to whatever civil service legislation Congress should enact.

The Pendleton Act, "An Act to Regulate and Improve the Civil Service of the United States," provided for a Civil Service Commission of three members (appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate), not more than two of who could be adherents of the same political party. Recommendation of applicants for career jobs by Members of Congress on matters other than character and residence could not be considered. Veteran preference provisions already on the statute books were reaffirmed by the act, and employees were protected from political removals, demotions and assessments. Appointments were to be made from those graded highest in practical examinations. Women were not restricted from taking the exam and being appointed to a post.

This epoch-making legislation was signed into law by President Arthur on January 16, 1883, marking the beginning of the merit system in Federal service.

The Early Years of Competitive Civil Service

"The spoils system was more fruitful of degradation in our political life than any other that could have possibly been invented. The spoils monger, the man who peddled patronage, inevitably bred the vote-buyer, the vote-seller, and the man guilty of misfeasance in office."
-- Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, in a letter dated February 8, 1895.

The passage of the Civil Service Act of 1883 marked the beginning of the merit system in Federal service, creating the U.S. Civil Service Commission. For the first time, certain federal jobs were now to be filled through competitive examinations opened to all citizens and selection of the best qualified applicants were made without regard to political considerations. Merit, as basis for hiring, was guaranteed by law.

Shortly after President Arthur signed the Act into law, the first members of the Commission - Dorman B. Eaton, chairman, John M. Gregory and Judge Leroy D. Thoman - met to draft the original civil service guidelines.

The first rules divided the competitive service into three branches: the departmental service in Washington, DC; the postal service; and the customs service. Minimum-maximum age limits for postal service candidates were set at 16 and 35; in the other services 18 and 45. Four names to be considered for each vacancy by appointing officers were to be certified from the top of the register of eligibles.

The Commission prepared application forms, established registers of eligibles, and toured the country setting up boards of examiners at post offices and custom houses.

At the outset only some 13,900 positions - clerkships ranging in salary from $900 to $1,800 a year -- were placed in the competitive civil service system. This represented only 10.5 percent of the 132,800 positions of civil service of the time.

The first person appointed under the merit law was Ovington E. Weller of Maryland. On August 29, 1883, he was appointed to a post office clerkship at a salary of $1,000 a year. Miss Mary F. Hoyt of Connecticut was the second appointee and the first woman appointee. On September 5, 1883, she was appointed to the Treasury Department as a clerk in the Bank Redemption Agency at salary of $900 a year.

President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897) was a strong advocate of the Civil Service Act. As Governor of New York State, he signed the state's first civil service law to be enacted, which had been introduced by Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt. The New York State Civil Service Act of 1883 was the first state civil service acts and gave a young Theodore Roosevelt national attention with his bold reforms that directly challenged the corrupt machine politics of New York.

Roosevelt's enthusiastic efforts on behalf of civil service reform led President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) to appoint him as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner in 1889.

Cleveland had increased the number of positions in the classified service by one-third by placing the 5,320 Railway Mail Service positions under the civil service rules during his first term. Eventually, Cleveland would double the size of the merit civil service by adding 32,000 positions in 1896 by one executive order alone.

Theodore Roosevelt (1889-1895) began his term as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner by petitioning Congress for appropriations for a bigger staff to meet the demands of the growing federal government. By 1896, a total of 87,000 positions out of 205,000 civil service jobs were under the competitive civil service rules, approximately 42 percent of the federal government workforce.

Roosevelt used his extensive background working on civil service issues, as well as his strong personality, to considerably improve the merit system during his terms as U.S. Civil Service Commissioner and as President of the United States. Serving under Presidents Harrison and Cleveland, Commissioner Roosevelt fought the entrenched spoils system and encouraged the prosecution of numerous corrupt federal officials.

Commissioner Roosevelt eventually left the U.S. Civil Service Commission to take the post of Police Commissioner in New York City, where he continued to strive for reform

With the assassination of President William McKinley (1897-1901) in 1901, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) became the 26th President at the age of 42, becoming the youngest man to ever serve as President of the United States (John F. Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected to the office of the President).

A strong advocate of civil service reform, President Roosevelt set about to expand, modernize and reform the federal government, based on his philosophy that opportunity be made equal for all citizens; that only those who had merit be appointed to federal jobs; and that public servants should not suffer for their political beliefs. Roosevelt's reforms set the foundation of the modern merit system of the United States. Today, President Theodore Roosevelt is considered to be the "father" of the modern merit civil service system.

Modern Civil Service

The early 1900s was a period of major governmental expansion. Under Roosevelt's administration, a Department of Commerce and Labor was created in 1903. The Pure Food and Drugs Act and a Federal Meat Inspection Act were passed in 1906 and Roosevelt added almost 150,000,000 acres of public lands as public conservation areas. This expansion increased the necessity of obtaining more efficient organization and administration of functions of the executive branch. With the addition of the new government positions, the competitive service was increased from 110,000 to 235,000, approximately 63.9 percent of the whole executive civil service. For the first time, the merit system had surpassed the spoils system in numbers of jobs in the executive service.

As part of Roosevelt's reforms, the Commission drafted and implemented:

  • definitions for "just cause" for which an employee could be dismissed.
  • requirements for stricter compliance of the restrictions against political activity by federal officials.
  • regulations forbidding disbursing officers from paying the salaries of persons illegally appointed to civil service positions.
  • establishment of the modern job survey in the Federal service.
  • a position-classification plan based on duties.

Growing modernization of the Federal system was aided in 1906 by the various Civil Service Commissions of the States and cities that met in Washington, DC. The 1906 conference formed a permanent organization originally named the Civil Service Assembly of the United States and Canada. Today it is called the International Personnel Management Association.

As a continuation of Roosevelt's policies, President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) created a provision for a Federal training program to increase the efficiency of Federal employees and to prepare them for more responsible work.

Under Taft the Commission also made studies of areas previously not covered: the problems of retirement; the need for a position classification system; the level of Government salaries. The Commission also established a Division of Efficiency to set up a system of uniform efficiency ratings for the departmental service, for use as a basis for promotions, demotions, and dismissals.

 The President's Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1978 and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 abolished the Civil Service Commission and divided its functions among the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Special Counsel, and the Office of Personnel Management.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Today, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is an independent agency of the U.S. government, established by President James Carter's executive order in 1978. It is responsible for administering a nationwide merit system for federal employment, including recruitment, examination, and training programs.

The Office of Personnel Management operates out of the Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building as its central office and eight regional offices as well as various federal job information and testing centers.

Its activities involve administering examinations for positions in the competitive service and establishing qualifications for promotion of federal employees; classifying federal positions according to duties and responsibilities; conducting investigations as to the loyalty, character, and background of applicants for positions; handling insurance, leave, retirement, and incentive-award benefits; coordinating and promoting training activities; carrying out a program for equal opportunity employment in the federal government without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or age; and operating the Senior Executive Service for classification, qualification, and appointment determinations of persons in the three highest civil service levels.