In 1777 during the Revolutionary War, George Clinton became New York’s first governor. In 1871, the civil service system was established in the United States. Federal Civil Service includes “all appointive positions in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, except positions in the uniformed services.” (5 U.S.C. § 2101). In 1829, President Andrew Jackson announced a policy that he termed “rotation in office,” which in effect meant that those in civil service would lose their jobs when a new president was elected as they would be replaced by those selected by the newly elected official. This became known as the “spoils system” and it was used on federal, state, and local levels of government.
Although the spoils system would remain in effect for decades to come reform came, albeit slowly. Throughout the 19th century, a federal civil service employee could be fired at any time. The states, including New York, mirrored this same system. George Plunkitt, a local leader of New York City’s Democratic Party, defended the spoils system. “You can’t keep an organization together without patronage,” he declared. “Men ain’t in politics for nothin’. They want to get somethin’ out of it.”
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 first addressed the subject and by 1909, approximately two-thirds of the federal work force was appointed based on merit. In 1884, New York became the first state to adopt a merit-based civil service system for state workers. In 1894, New York inserted the “merit and fitness” requirement into the State Constitution.
Merit was determined by measuring each person’s qualifications and ability through tests. The Hatch Act of 1939 was very important in separating political parties from civil service. Under this Act civil servants were prohibited from engaging in political activities while performing their duties. There are still certain positions that are appointed by the president and governors, such as cabinet positions, but for the most part on the federal level and in each State; a system exists for hiring civil service employees based on merit.