The spoils system is the political practice of playing favorites. Used throughout U.S. history, it commonly takes the form of filling appointive offices with loyal supporters. Among the nation's early presidents Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) made particular use of the practice to place his allies in influential civil service posts.
By the time President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) took office in 1829, this method of rewarding one's political allies was an integral part of the workings of government. Jackson's friend, Senator William Marcy (1786–1857) of New York, coined the phrase "spoils system" in 1832, when he stated, "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy."
The spoils system grew in size as a result of the bitter competition that characterized the two party system during Jackson's presidency. During his first term of office (1829–1833) he assembled a group of unofficial advisers who reportedly met in the White House kitchen, earning them the nickname Kitchen Cabinet. Members included then-Secretary of State Martin Van Buren (1782–1862), who later served as Jackson's vice president and then as president (1837–1841); Francis P. Blair (1791–1876), editor of the Washington Post, and an active participant in politics who would help Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) during his presidential campaign (1860); and Amos Kendall (1789–1869), a journalist and Jackson administration speech writer who later became U.S. Postmaster General. The informality of the Kitchen Cabinet invited the mixing of politics and special interests. It operated outside the official institutions of government and yet was influential in formulating policy during the Jackson administration. Jackson drew harsh criticism for relying on his cronies in this way, and when he reorganized the federal Cabinet in 1831, the informal Kitchen Cabinet was disbanded.
The Kitchen Cabinet closed its doors, but the spoils system continued to influence policy when Martin Van Buren succeeded Jackson as president. Van Buren had been a leader of the Albany Regency which was the Democratic Party machine in New York state. This group of New York Democratic party leaders used the spoils systems to reward members and to maintain strict party discipline.
After the Civil War, the spoils system became an obstruction to good government. Placing political allies in important public service positions often failed to involve a determination of whether or not the person in question was qualified to hold the job. The practice bred corruption and inefficiency and reached staggering proportions by the time Ulysses Grant (1869–1877) became president. His administration was notoriously prone to graft-ridden awards of government contracts.
The failure of the spoils system brought on tragic consequences when in 1881 a frustrated office-seeker shot President James Garfield (1881) in a train station. Garfield's successor, Chester Arthur (1881–1885), though himself a creature of the spoils system, worked to dismantle it. The Pendleton Act of 1883 initiated reform of the system by establishing a federal Civil Service Commission and creating a class of government workers (14,000 out of a total of 100,000) who now had to take an examination to be awarded a government job. Though limited in size, the Civil Service Commission grew in later years.
The system was further refined in the twentieth century. To further separate civil service from politics, the Hatch Act (1940) forbid civil servants from political campaigning. The Hatch Act was revised in 1993 to allow most civil servants to participate in political activity on their personal time. Measures like the Civil Service Commission and the Hatch Act have been successful in limiting the use of the spoils system in the political process, but they haven't eradicated the practice. The spoils system is still (unofficially) practiced in some federal, state, and local government offices.
SPOILS SYSTEM. The "spoils system" of distributing government jobs as a reward for political services takes its name from an 1832 speech by the Democratic senator William L. Marcy of New York. Defending President Andrew Jackson's partisan dismissals from office, Marcy avowed that he and his fellows saw "nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy."
Although Jackson is usually credited with inaugurating the system, he never justified it on Marcy's blunt grounds. Under the long reign of Virginia Democratic-Republican presidents, permanent tenure had become the de facto rule in many federal offices. Honoring tradition, Jackson's predecessor John Quincy Adams refused to remove even overt political opponents. Despite this, Jackson accused the federal establishment of opposing his election in 1828. He proclaimed a policy of "rotation in office" to curb official arrogance and corruption and democratize opportunities for public service. Disclaiming anyone's inherent right to continue in office, Jackson dismissed political foes along with some career bureaucrats, replacing them with partisan newspaper editors and other active supporters.
Opponents condemned Jackson for introducing political "proscription," but soon learned to follow his example. By the 1840s both Jackson's Democrats and the opposing Whigs routinely wielded patronage to inspire and discipline party workers. Partisan removals grew ever more extensive, reaching down from Washington bureau chiefs and clerks to land and customs and territorial officials to village postmasters. Thousands of eager supplicants besieged each new administration, making the redistribution of offices every four years a major undertaking.
By the 1850s the spoils system was thoroughly entrenched as an instrument of political warfare both between the parties and among factions within them. Calls for reform surfaced before the Civil War and gathered impetus during Reconstruction from Andrew Johnson's attempted purge of Republican office holders and the scandals of the Grant administration. Chastising the system for promoting official incompetence and corruption and for adulterating the purity of elections, critics demanded that federal employment be removed from party politics and grounded on merit as determined by competitive examination.
Eradicating the spoils system became a major crusade in the 1870s, championed by good-government reformers, cautiously advanced by presidents, and vehemently opposed by congressional party chieftains. President James Garfield's assassination by a "disappointed office-seeker" undermined resistance and led to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. The act inaugurated a merit system of employment for certain classes of federal employees under the supervision of a bipartisan Civil Service Commission and banned the common practice of dunning office holders for contributions to party coffers.
In the remainder of the century, presidents put more offices under civil service protection, largely replacing the spoils system with a career bureaucracy. Political patronage survives in some federal as well as state and municipal appointments, but its range has been drastically curtailed. Scholars disagree whether politicizing government service improved or damaged its efficiency, integrity, and responsiveness. For good or ill, the spoils system certainly opened office to a broader range of citizens. It also buttressed the operations of mass political parties, and rose and declined in tandem with them.
Hoogenboom, Ari. Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961.
White, Leonard D. The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829–1861. New York: Macmillan, 1954.
———. The Republican Era: 1869–1901, A Study in Administrative History. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
See alsoCivil Service .
spoils sys·tem • n. the practice of a successful political party giving public office to its supporters.