George Hunt Pendleton

George Hunt Pendleton (1825-1889), American politician and a leader of the Democratic party, sponsored the first civil service reform law in 1883.

George Pendleton was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 29, 1825. He graduated from Cincinnati College in 1841 and, in 1844, traveled extensively in Europe and the Near East. He married into an aristocratic Southern family, studied law, and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1847.

After 3 years in the Ohio Senate, Pendleton was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1856. He succeeded Stephen Douglas as a leader of Midwestern Democrats when Douglas died. At the time of the Civil War, southern Ohio was a center of antiwar sentiment in the Union, and Pendleton became the head of a group of Democrats who opposed President Abraham Lincoln's policies at every turn.

After the war Pendleton became a harsh critic of Republican Reconstruction measures, but he increasingly emphasized currency questions in his political deliverances. The "Ohio Idea, " which Pendleton traded on as his own, called for the redemption of the government's war bonds in paper money rather than gold, thereby establishing "greenbacks" as the permanent legal tender. Sentiment in favor of the "Idea" was high, and Pendleton remained in the public spotlight. But conservative financiers were still framing Federal fiscal policy, and deflation held the day.

After he was defeated by Rutherford B. Hayes for governor in 1869, Pendleton became president of the Kentucky Central Railroad, a position he held for 10 years. In 1878, however, he was elected to the Senate for a single term. At this time, all government appointments—down to clerkships—were at the disposition of the party in power. Despite reformers' disgust with the spoils system, it was impossible to put together a majority in favor of civil service reform until, in 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated by a mentally ill office seeker. The public furor could not be ignored. In 1883, Pendleton introduced an act establishing the Civil Service Commission, and it was passed by huge congressional majorities. By the end of the century the spoils system in politics was fairly well ended. The Pendleton Act earned Pendleton an immortality that his otherwise lackluster career would not have.

In 1884 Pendleton was defeated for renomination. In compensation for his long party services, President Grover Cleveland named him minister to Germany, where he served until his death. A dashing political leader, Pendleton was known as "Gentleman George" and is perhaps more charitably remembered for his fashionable haberdashery in an age of drab clothing than for any significant contributions to American political life.


Further Reading on George Hunt Pendleton

Except for virtually worthless campaign tracts, there is no biography of Pendleton. Howard Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley (1969), provides a conveniently secured backdrop of Pendleton's political world; and Matthew Josephson, The Politicos, 1865-1896 (1938), includes a sympathetic but brief account.