Dorman Bridgman Eaton

Dorman Bridgman Eaton (1823-1899), American lawyer and author, was a strong advocate of civil service reform and wrote the draft on which the Civil Service Act of 1883 was based.

Dorman Eaton was born in Hardwick, Vt., on June 27, 1823. After graduation from the University of Vermont and Harvard Law School, he practiced law in New York City. He distinguished himself as a legal scholar by editing a new edition of James Kent's Commentaries and other works, and as a practicing attorney, especially as counsel for the Erie Railroad. In connection with some of the bitter controversies involving the railroad, he was attacked and seriously injured by unidentified assailants.

Meanwhile, Eaton began his lifelong interest in governmental reform, assisting in the creation of a New York City municipal board of health and a professional fire department and in the reorganization of the police courts. In 1856 he married Annie Foster.

In 1870 Eaton gave up his private practice to devote full time to the cause of national civil service reform. George William Curtis, Carl Schurz, and Eaton were among the earliest advocates of ending the spoils system in national politics. Under president U.S. Grant, Eaton succeeded Curtis as chairman of the first civil service commission, serving from 1873 to 1875, when the commission became ineffectual after. Congress cut off its funds.

In the early 1870s Eaton had toured Europe to study civil service reform, and in the late 1870s, at the request of President Rutherford B. Hayes, he revisited England to make a formal report on its merit system. The result, published as The Civil Service in Great Britain: A History of Abuses and Reforms and Their Bearing upon American Politics (1880), was influential in the movement for reform in the United States. In the meantime, the New York Civil Service Reform Association, the nucleus of the powerful National Civil Service Reform League, had been founded in Eaton's home.

The assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office seeker gave impetus to the reform movement, which culminated in the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. The final bill was based on Eaton's draft. President Chester A. Arthur appointed Eaton chairman of the three-man Civil Service Commission established under the new law, a post he held until his resignation in 1886.

Renewing his interest in city government, Eaton wrote The Government of Municipalities (1899), one of the first such studies. He died on Dec. 23, 1899. In his will he endowed chairs at Columbia and Harvard universities to continue the study of national and municipal government.

Further Reading on Dorman Bridgman Eaton

The work of Eaton and his fellow reformers is covered in Frank Mann Stewart, The National Civil Service Reform League (1929); Paul P. Van Riper, History of the United States Civil Service, 1789-1957 (1958); and Leonard D. White, The Republican Era, 1869-1901: A Study in Administrative History (1958).