George Hunt Pendleton was born on July 19, 1825, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of Jane Frances (Hunt) and Nathaniel Greene Pendleton. The Pendleton family had a long record of distinguished public service. Pendleton’s grandfather was a brevet major in the Revolutionary War who severed as aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene. Pendleton’s father was an attorney who served as a United States Congressman from Ohio.
As a youth, Pendleton attended local schools in Cincinnati. In 1841, he graduated from Cincinnati College and then traveled to Europe, where he studied at Heidelberg University in Germany. Known for his handsome looks and dashing clothing, people often referred to Pendleton as “Gentleman George” throughout his life.
In 1846, after returning from Europe, Pendleton married Alice Key, the daughter of Francis Scott Key and niece of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. A year later, Pendleton joined the Ohio bar and began practicing law in Cincinnati.
In 1853, Pendleton entered the political arena and voters elected him to the Ohio Senate, where he served from 1854 to 1856. He was an unsuccessful candidate for a congressional seat in 1854, but voters from Ohio’s First Congressional District elected him to the first of four successive terms in the House of Representatives in 1856. During his tenure, Pendleton served on the House Judiciary Committee and on the Ways and Means Committee. A member of the Democratic Party, Pendleton opposed measures to ban slavery in the West during the 1850s. In 1860, he supported the presidential candidacy of fellow Democrat Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
When the American Civil War began, Pendleton became a leading member of the Peace Democrats. Also known as Copperheads, Peace Democrats made up a large bloc of the Democratic Party who opposed the war and the Lincoln Administration.
In 1864, Democrats selected Pendleton as George McClellan’s vice-presidential running-mate in their party’s unsuccessful bid to unseat President Lincoln. In the same election, Pendleton also lost his House seat to Republican Benjamin Eggleston.
Radical Reconstruction Opponent
After the war, Pendleton became an outspoken critic of Republican Reconstruction measures. He supported the “Ohio Idea,” which proposed paying off war debts with paper money, called greenbacks, instead of gold or silver. In 1868, Pendleton sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but his support of paper money was unpopular with many members of his party. Democrats instead chose New Yorker Horatio Seymour as their presidential candidate.
Pendleton’s national prominence waned after the Civil War, but he remained a political force in Ohio. In 1869, Democrats nominated Pendleton as their candidate for governor, but he lost the election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Pendleton then retired from politics and became president of the Kentucky Central Railroad. He held that position until January 1878, when the Ohio legislature elected him to a seat in the United States Senate. Pendleton served six years in the Senate from March 4, 1879 to March 3, 1885. During his tenure, he was most noted for sponsoring civil service reform.
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 helped curtail the spoils system commonly used by elected officials to reward friends and political supporters with government jobs. Pendleton’s legislation established minimum job qualifications and required appointees to pass civil service tests before being appointed to federal positions. President Chester Arthur signed the measure into law on January 16, 1883.
The Pendleton Act reformed civil service, but it did not help its sponsor’s political career. Pendleton lost the support of politicians who favored the spoils system. Although the Democratic Party controlled the Ohio legislature, the General Assembly selected Henry B. Payne to replace Pendleton in the U.S. Senate when Pendleton’s term expired in 1885. In 1886, three U.S. Senate committees conducted investigations into charges of bribery and corruption involved in Payne’s election. Reports from two of the committees concluded that there was no need for an investigation by the full Senate. The third committee recommended a Senate investigation, but most members disagreed. The full Senate dropped the matter after a forty-four to seventeen vote on July 23, 1886.
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany
Pendleton’s public service did not end with his senatorial term. In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed him as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Germany. Pendleton served four years as Minister to Germany.
In September 1889, a debilitating stomach ailment struck Pendleton in Brussels, Belgium, as he was returning to the United States. Pendleton lingered on there for two months, before succumbing to the illness on November 24. Funeral services were held in Brussels, and Pendleton was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.