PATRONAGE, POLITICAL, is often defined as public office awarded in payment for political support. Examples abound: John Adams famously appointed the midnight judges to continue Federalist policies and thwart the Republicans. Democrat William Clinton appointed Republican William Cohen secretary of defense to lessen opposition from the Republican Congress. And politicians who need votes appoint someone who can bring them in, as did John F. Kennedy when he chose Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate. However, this narrow definition of patronage fails to capture its essence in U.S. history. American patronage politics can be best understood as a distinct organizational form of government.
Politicians must promise benefits to the voting public in order to win elections. In theory, those who promise the most benefits at the least cost (to the public) garner the most votes. For some governments (whether local, state, or federal) it is most efficient to provide general benefits—such as roads or schools—that are equally available to all members of a constituency; civil service governments tend to dominate in this circumstance. For other governments, particularly when the population of voters is heterogeneous and isolated (that is, different voters want different things), it works better to provide specific benefits to individuals; this is most conducive to patronage governments.
Whatever their formal job description (trash collector in Richard Daley's Chicago, land office manager on Andrew Jackson's frontier), patronage workers are appointed to government payrolls by elected officials primarily to design, effect, and monitor exchanges between voters and government. Patronage workers interview voters to determine what governmental promises appeal, relay their patron's message to influence votes, and deliver direct, personally tailored benefits in payment for votes. Civil service workers, in contrast, are hired based on merit and paid to produce or provide general benefits (such as housing for those formulaically prequalified). The political tasks of interviewing voters and relaying politicians' messages are accomplished outside of and paid for independently of government, using polling firms, think tanks, and impersonal media (broadcast, news, and mail).
This distinctive American patronage came to state and then to federal government before it came to cities. Voters who moved west began to want government's help keyed to their new locations, such as the removal of Indians or cheap water transport. Sending patronage workers to find out what these scattered voters wanted and to relay candidates' messages proved a winning campaign strategy for gubernatorial candidate Martin Van Buren as settlement spread west in New York, and then for presidential candidate Andrew Jackson as population spread west in the nation. The federal government adopted patronage with the election of Jackson in 1828, and it only began to abandon it for a bureaucratic form of government mass-producing goods and services when faster mail, the telegraph, and railroads promised speeded commerce. Patronage employees lost value to federal politicians as newspapers' growing circulation let politicians communicate directly with the public. While patronage waned at the federal level (by 1901, 44 percent of federal employees were civil servants), it waxed in large old cities rapidly filling with immigrants with heterogeneous wants and needs. Urban political regimes that efficiently insured the poor against the hardships of the new industrial life (for example, matching relief to individual family size and circumstance) ruled the large industrial cities, while scientific city managers administered smaller, homogeneous midwestern farm cities. With the halt to immigration in World War I, the heterogeneity of the industrial urban electorate diminished. At the same time, the Progressives began to worry that the immigrants' excesses would endanger the cities' brave new manufacturing world. These developments and the sudden jump in the perceived need for governmental largesse with the coming of the Depression empowered the federal government in 1933 to supplant (patronage) city welfare with (general) federal assistance programs. To block any return to patronage, Progressives allied with the federal government to demand qualifications tests for state and local governmental jobs. Now, all large cities and most states claim to hire on merit.
Breton, Albert. Competitive Governments: An Economic Theory of Politics and Public Finance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Johnson, Ronald N., and Gary D. Libecap. The Federal Civil Service System and the Problem of Bureaucracy: The Economics and Politics of Institutional Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.