Spoils System: A Sixty-Year Saga of Connections over Merit

Table of Contents

spoils system

What is the Spoils System? 

DEFINITION

A spoils system or patronage system refers to when the elected political party rewards campaign workers, active supporters, and loyalists with government posts. The spoils system often involves a complete overhaul where high-ranking officials to routine/subordinate workers get replaced. 

From Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration in 1829 to the Pendleton Act of 1883, the spoils system very much dictated who got to work in the U.S. government. 

Favors, loyalty, and nepotism. That’s what got you a government position during that 60 year period. Not merit and experience (unsurprisingly). 

But just to clarify, a newly elected political party will appoint campaign workers and active supporters. That should not surprise anyone.

A patronage system is in place when government workers have done little to merit the positions they hold. For example, let’s say a fictional Secretary of Defense has never had any military experience whatsoever. Word gets out, though, that the appointed official has long donated millions of dollars to a fictional POTUS reelection campaign. In this case, there’s a little question whether the SecDef has the requisite knowledge and experience to effectively perform their role. 

High-ranking officials have the kind of power that has grave, nationwide consequences. That’s why it is all the more important they have proven they can handle the job. Political patronage is not only evidence of political corruption and cronyism, but also a source of poor policy-making/oversight that harms the public. 

‘Spoils system’ has also been used to refer to other abuses of political power. For example, the ruling party could siphon funds by giving public project contracts at inflated rates to party contributors. Political favoritism shown to party supporters, from tax breaks to the prosecution of law cases, can be included under the definition of a spoils system. Essentially, it allows for complete and unabashed pork barrels, earmarks, and then some. 

In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will cover the history of the spoils system in the U.S. and how you can fight against ongoing political and economic corruption that might have rigged the economy against the public.

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See what the Zero Theft community has discovered about dark pools… 

“To the Victor Belong the Spoils,” William H. Marcy’s Famous Speech on the Spoils System

While the term had existed early on in the 1800s, it wasn’t until New York Senator William H. Marcy made his famous speech in defense of Martin Van Buren that the term ‘spoils system’ caught on. The opposition believed Van Buren had received the nomination for Minister to England due to his “Albany Regency” (a.k.a. “Holy Alliance”). Marcy stated:

“If [politicians] are defeated, they expect to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” 

DID YOU KNOW?

‘Spoils,’ in the 19th century, actually referred to political appointments controlled by an elected official (e.g. cabinet offices).

Since we often liken U.S. politics to sports, Marcy’s statement conveys a belief that can be summed in the aphorism: winner takes all. 

Andrew Jackson and the Origins of the Patronage System in U.S. Politics

The spoils system statue of Andrew Jackson

Thomas Nast’s cartoon depicting Andres Jackson riding a pig. Included in Harper’s Weekly on 28 April 1877, p. 325.

When President Andrew Jackson began his term in 1829, he came in with the mission to reform the government. What would eventually prove ironic, Jackson hoped to rid the ineptitude and complacency of the civil service John Quincey Adams’ administration. Probably due to a lack of oversight some government workers employed by George Washington still held their positions, barely able to keep up. The prestige of government jobs (closer to infamy now) encouraged employees to linger on as long as possible.  

Jackson rightfully wanted reform, but his methods probably worsened matters.

More than anything else, ‘Old Hickory’ valued loyalty. Jackson believed replacing government workers with his supporters would create a cooperative and industrious civil service dedicated to seeing through his causes. In essence, a crucial part of his presidential campaign was promising government positions to those who supported him. Jackson honored his promises by replacing 919 government officials (10% of all government postings) with his followers, at the beginning of his presidency.

DID YOU KNOW?

At the time, the post office was the largest department in the federal government. Jackson let go of 423 postmasters, even when most had long records of good service.

The Incompetence and Corruption of Jackson’s Political Patronage

Of course, loyalty alone doesn’t make for a winning formula. You need honesty AND expertise as well to have any chance of building an effective workforce.

Unsurprisingly, the spoils system not only perpetuated the incompetence of the past civil service but also led to corruption. 

The Post Office Purge

Postmaster General John McLean, throughout the 1828 presidential election, insisted on remaining neutral. Editor at the United States Telegraph and Jacksonian ally Duffy Green questioned McLean’s loyalty to the new president. Nevertheless, the Postmaster General and Green had close ties to the vice president, complicating the situation for Old Hickory. Jackson ultimately decided to shift McLean to the Supreme Court and appoint his friend William Barry, someone with no experience working in the post office, as Postmaster General.

Historian Daniel Walker Howe, in his Pulitzer-prize winning book What Hath God Wrought, writes: “Barry allowed the quality of the postal office to deteriorate while a clique of Jacksonian journalists led by Amos Kendall divvied up the spoils in his department.” 

Suffice it to say, the Barry appointment not only typifies how appointing officials based on friendship alone doesn’t work out but also shows how corruption proves much easier when everyone is ‘on the same team.’

John McLean
John McLean, photographed by Mathew Brady. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library, Yale University.

Port of New York Embezzlement

Jackson appointed his staunch supporter Samuel Swartwout as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, one of the major sources of income of the Federal government. Despite then-Secretary of State Van Buren’s protests, Old Hickory stayed true to Swartwout, even going as far as to reward his followers with another four-year term. 

Allegedly, Swartwout repaid Jackson’s confidences by embezzling $1,277,705.09 and fleeing before he could be arraigned. 

The infamous Big Dig, one of the biggest public works projects in U.S. history, started in the early 90s and was supposed to finish in 1998, with a total price tag of $2.56 billion ($7.4 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020). The project ended in 2007, costing $14.8 billion ($25 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020). That’s more than five times the original estimate. Was this just one big waste of money? Find out what citizens have found out about the Big Dig.

The Bloody (Supposed) Reformation of the Spoils System

The patronage system, while it started facing pushback in the late 1860s, thrived from Andrew Jackson’s presidency until after the Civil War. 

The patronage system, while it started facing pushback in the late 1860s, thrived from Andrew Jackson’s presidency until after the Civil War. 

Historical records suggest that President Abraham Lincoln, for example, did adhere to the patronage system, at least during his first term. Carl Russell Fish, a long-deceased historian for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, chronicled Lincoln’s connection to ‘the patronage’ in the following essay. Fish discusses how Lincoln proved something of a product of Jackson’s system, hiring friends and extended family to civil service positions based on an assumption that many could perform these jobs well. 

Fish writes, “Many instances are given of his appointing old friends, generally for friendship’s sake, and sometimes against advice. Mrs. Lincoln’s “numerous cousins were occasionally aided in securing favors. He was always fond of artists, and wrote to Seward in regard to two who had painted his portrait at Springfield, that he had ‘some wish’ that they might have some of those moderate-sized consulates which facilitate artists a little in their profession.”

It bears noting that Lincoln did not appoint anyone for the purpose of “self-aggrandizement,” to use FIsh’s own term. If he appointed a friend or family member, he apparently placed them in (relatively) inconsequential positions.

Political patronage would, however, end violently with the 1881 assassination of the 20th President of the U.S., James A. Garfield, by a rejected and deranged office seeker. The tragic affair inspired serious federal reform, resulting in the passing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. A promising initiative intended to establish a meritocratic government, the legislation deterred politically motivated hirings and firings. By the late 1900s, the merit system had nearly completely replaced political patronage at all levels of the government.

Moving on from the Patronage System 

While it took a while, the spoils system ended and meritocracy prevailed. The emphasis shifted back to appointing officials based on how well they can serve the public rather than personal connections. 

For all the good reform brought, crony capitalists have potentially created a plutocracy. Moneyed interests, above all else, continue to receive priority over Americans. The wealthy and well-connected can rig the economy against all of us, the citizenry, by unethically capitalizing on the Pay to Play system we have in place today.

Potentially, trillions of dollars of our money could be going to these bad actors. ZTM needs you to play your part in fighting the rigged economy. 

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you.

Explore the Problem Hierarchy

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Beyond the spoils system…

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on ZeroTheft.net. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.