President Grover Cleveland Expands the Coverage of the Civil Service Act, In a Letter to His Postmaster General

It shows Cleveland in action to expand the civil service, manifesting the anti-corruption attitude that was the hallmark of his presidency

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“Pursuant to Paragraph Third of Section Six of an act passed January 16, 1883, entitled ‘An Act to Regulate and Inform the Civil Service of the United States’, you are hereby directed to revise the present classification of the employees in the Postal Service in such measure as to include in one...

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President Grover Cleveland Expands the Coverage of the Civil Service Act, In a Letter to His Postmaster General

It shows Cleveland in action to expand the civil service, manifesting the anti-corruption attitude that was the hallmark of his presidency

“Pursuant to Paragraph Third of Section Six of an act passed January 16, 1883, entitled ‘An Act to Regulate and Inform the Civil Service of the United States’, you are hereby directed to revise the present classification of the employees in the Postal Service in such measure as to include in one of those classes those persons employed in the Railway Mail Service.”

The Post Office was historically the largest source of federal patronage, which had always been so important in American politics. Then in 1883, after the corruption of the Gilded Age led to calls for reform, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed with the active support of President Chester A. Arthur. This act established that positions within the Federal government would be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation. It provided for selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government officials for political reasons and prohibited soliciting campaign donations on Federal government property. Needless to say, party organizations were less than happy with the new situation.

Democrat Grover Cleveland won the 1884 election, the first Democrat to be elected since 1856. The change from Republican to Democratic control of the government meant that Cleveland was subjected to enormous pressures from members of his party seeking government posts. Yet his campaign promises had encouraged Americans to expect him to expand the scope of the new Pendleton Civil Service Act and refrain from discharging Republicans merely to make places for his own supporters. The President found it impossible to satisfy both points of view, but announced that no one would be fired without cause and that only properly qualified people would replace those who were discharged. Moreover, at least initially, he did his best to expand civil service reform.

In 1887, Donald M. Dickinson accepted the appointment as U.S. Postmaster General, serving from January 6, 1888 until the end of Cleveland’s first term in 1889. A railroad strike soon after Dickinson took office interrupted postal service in the nation. Dickinson refused to use federal forces to break the strike and instead modified the distribution routes so that postal deliveries could continue. At Cleveland’s request, Dickinson applied civil service reforms to hiring practices to minimize the effect of patronage on the postal service.

In this letter, we see President Cleveland doing just that – instructing Dickinson to expand the coverage of the Pendleton Act to additional employees of the Postal Department. Autograph letter signed, as President and on Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, December 5, 1888, to Dickinson. “Pursuant to Paragraph Third of Section Six of an act passed January 16, 1883, entitled ‘An Act to Regulate and Inform the Civil Service of the United States’, you are hereby directed to revise the present classification of the employees in the Postal Service in such measure as to include in one of those classes those persons employed in the Railway Mail Service.

This is an uncommon letter of a sitting president to a sitting member of his cabinet. But even more significantly, it shows Cleveland in action to expand the civil service, manifesting the anti-corruption attitude that was the hallmark of his presidency.

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