The merit system principles are the fundamental precepts which guide the conduct of Federal personnel management. They are the philosophic essence of various pieces of Civil Service reform legislation developed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are implied in the laws, executive orders, rules, and regulations for administration of the Civil Service.
The history of the US Civil Service and the subsequent development of the merit system comprise many interesting "chapters" in the development of our nation. The most important milestone legislative act leading to the development of the merit system principles was the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
At the height of the "spoils era" (1829-1883), each change in national administration was the signal for the general removal of Government employees to provide jobs for the supporters of the new President, members of his party and party leaders, and sometimes for the leaders of a faction within the party. The struggles for jobs caused much bitterness and jobs were openly bought and sold. Incompetence, corruption, and outright theft were common. .
In 1881, President James A Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled job seeker while waiting to board a vacation train in Washington's old Baltimore and Potomac railroad station. Garfield's death gave new impetus to a Civil Service reform bill introduced six months earlier by Senator George Pendleton of Ohio and other powerful proponents of the merit system. Passed in 1883, this Act established procedures to assure that selections for certain Federal jobs would be open, competitive, and free of political coercion. Then, in the 1930's, the Social Security Administration required states that received Federal grants to meet certain merit standards in their employment practices.
It was not until 1970, though, that the Intergovernmental Personnel Act required States receiving Federal funds to follow six merit principles.