What if I were to tell you that the IRS tea-party-targeting scandal all started with the great 19th-century railroads? Or with the conscience of a largely inconsequential, ornately mustachioed Gilded Age president? Or with a deranged petty thief from Illinois who thought he ought to be the consul to France?
Let me explain. In 1883, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Pendleton Act, doing away with the “spoils system” of political patronage for government jobs that had been in place since Andrew Jackson had perfected it, and replacing it with a nominally merit-based civil service resembling the one we have today. Arthur had previously been a “Stalwart” — a defender of the Republican party’s patronage system against the moderate “Half-Breeds,” who advocated reform — and was himself a past beneficiary of the machine, having secured in 1871 what the New York Times some years later called “the prize plum of Federal patronage” jobs as collector for the Port of New York. But shortly after Arthur saw his predecessor, James Garfield, die of complications from the .44-caliber bullet lodged in him by the mentally deformed would-be consul, Charles Guiteau, he had a change of heart.