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Chester Arthur may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of major figures in the rise of campaign finance law. But despite his obscurity, he deserves to be ranked among the leading reformers in American history. As President, he signed into law a reform that cleared the way for the modern system of campaign finance to take root.

This Article puts the current debate over money in politics in historical context by examining the first major campaign finance reform in American history. The 1883 Pendleton Act is remembered today for establishing a professional, nonpartisan civil service. But equally important, it banned the use of political assessments (that is, mandatory dues imposed on federal and state officeholders by the political parties) to fund federal election campaigns.

President Arthur played an important role in the Pendleton Act’s success. After signing the bill into law, he supported efforts to enforce the new rules and reform the major parties’ campaign finance practices. In the long run, Arthur and the reformers achieved their goal of ending the parties’ use of political assessments to fund campaigns. At the same time, however, the Pendleton Act shifted election financing from the political parties to corporate America and wealthy donors. Thus, instead of reducing the influence of money in politics, the Pendleton Act ushered in a new and even more controversial era in campaign finance law, one that continues to haunt our politics today.

The story of the Pendleton Act is thus of much more than just historical interest. It demonstrates how deeply rooted the problem of money in politics is in American history. Long before the Supreme Court of the United States heard cases like Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money played a highly controversial role in American elections. As the story of the Pendleton Act demonstrates, campaign finance reforms have had unintended— and sometimes quite unwelcome—consequences from the very beginning.

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