Paul Petrick writes for Issues and Insights about the long-term significance of a 19th-century presidential assassination.

Of the four presidential assassinations in American history, James A. Garfield’s carries the most significance for Americans today.

In office only four months before being shot in a Washington train station, Garfield clung to life for an additional two months, earning him the dubious distinction of being the slain American president with the shortest tenure in office and the longest period in agony.

Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an unknown and insignificant supporter of Garfield’s during the 1880 presidential campaign with the delusional notion that his unknown and insignificant support entitled him to employment in the new administration. When his expectations went unrealized, Guiteau turned to violence.

Reformers led by Sen. George H. Pendleton, D-Ohio, sought to prevent future Guiteaus by eliminating Guiteau’s motive for the killing, namely the “spoils system” whereby every presidential administration saturated the federal bureaucracy with party loyalists, a presidential prerogative that critics condemned as antithetical to good government.

Disgust with the spoils system reached a critical mass in the wake of Garfield’s murder, prompting Congress to pass the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur 140 years ago this month, the Pendleton Act was a “Nixon to China” moment nearly a century before that term entered the lexicon. Arthur had once been the spoils system’s foremost apologist, having once occupied the plum patronage post of chief customs collector in New York City.

Initially, the Pendleton Act was only a modest victory for those who believed that the executive branch should be as meritocratic as it was bureaucratic. While the new law introduced hiring via competitive examination and prohibited politically-motivated demotions and dismissals, it originally only applied to 10% of what was then a federal workforce of 130,000.

Nevertheless, Congress had planted the seed of civil service reform and like every seed, it contained the potential for growth. Specifically, that potential lay in a provision of the Pendleton Act that permitted the president to increase the number of federal employees subject to civil service protection.