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Spoils System

Spoils System

"To the victor go the spoils" is a saying that comes down to us today. Where did it come from? Our minds may imagine scenes of war or foreign imperialism, but the saying was originally regarding domestic politics in the United States. How did service-oriented positions that were supposed to serve the public good become spoils to the victors?

Spoils System political cartoon about the spoils system StudySmarterFig. 1: Spoils System Political Cartoon.

Spoils System Meaning

The Spoils System is when a victorious political party gives government jobs to its political supporters. Traditionally, a newly elected official may appoint some of their own direct staff or other high-level positions in order to support their agenda. The Spoils System differs in that the political party hires and fires down to the lowest levels of government service. Jobs that were usually apolitical, such as performing the basic work and administration of government, became rewards for supporting a political party instead of being career positions for civil servants based on merit.

Apolitical: not a part of politics. The prefix "a" means "not" or "without."

Spoils system political cartoon about the spoils system StudySmarterFig. 2: Spoils System Political Cartoon.

Pros and Cons of the Spoils System

Is the Spoils System an abuse of power? To Americans today, the system may seem counter to how government is supposed to operate. To politicians of the nineteenth century, however, the Spoils System was not a hidden form of corruption but an openly discussed method of government administration. While there was resistance, some politicians even made public arguments in favor of the system.

Pro-Spoils System Arguments

The Spoils System was argued to be a necessary method of keeping party members engaged in the political process by presenting more tangible rewards for their support. Once the candidate was in office, they needed support to turn their campaign promises into policy. It was argued that by appointing supporters to all levels of government work, there would be vigorous implementation of those policies. Conversely, it was feared that leaving in place supporters of an opposing party would lead to government workers who had an incentive to undermine the policies of the current office holder.

Senator William L. Macy said that "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy" in a famous speech defending the Spoils System.

Anti-Spoils System Arguments

Despite the arguments in favor of the Spoils System, there was a major issue with it. Under the Soils System, appointments became so political that many people were appointed to positions for which they were unqualified. In addition to lack of qualification, constant turnover in even local level positions as a result of national presidential elections created extreme inefficiency. When outsiders were put into place to manage government offices about which they had little knowledge, the system began to show its limitations.

Spoils System political cartoon linking Andrew Jackson and the Spoils System StudySmarterFig. 3: Andrew Jackson Spoils System Political Cartoon.

Spoils System Examples

When Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency in 1829, the presidency changed from one party to another for the first time in 28 years. Many supporters of the Democratic Party, which had come together around the Jackson campaign, had been promised government jobs in exchange for support of the new party. The Jackson administration quickly replaced ten percent of the federal workforce with Spoils System appointments.

Post Office and the Spoils System

The Post Office was the largest federal agency during the time of the Spoils System. The Jackson administration removed 423 postmasters from service. The Spoils System would ultimately award thousands of Postal Service positions due to political connections. The frequent changes in organizational leadership which were not based on job performance created great inefficiencies in the system.

Additionally, many of the local postmasters had been editors of local newspapers that had supported the winning political party. While they were supposed to quit the journalism profession, corruption was common as they used their insider access to secure new government printing contracts.

Spoils System as Reform

When Jackson came to office, he represented an anti-elitist sentiment that believed voters were able to make the best choice for themselves. As such, he held a dim view of institutions such as the Supreme Court, whose members were not elected and served beyond the term of those who appointed them. By changing those who performed the work of government, Jackson sought to create a chain of command in the federal government that supported the agenda he had been elected to enact.

Corruption and ineffectiveness quickly reigned in this system of political handouts. One of the most notorious figures appointed under the Jackson administration was Samuel Swartwout. While Collector of the Port of New York, Swartwout managed to embezzle over one million dollars before fleeing the country.

Spoils System Political Cartoon About Civil Service Reform StudySmarterFig. 4: Civil Service Reform Political Cartoon.

Spoils System Civil Service

After the Civil War, calls grew to address the increasing corruption and ineffectiveness of government bureaucracy under the spoils system. In the 1870s, President Grant made some progress but his administration was rocked by several corruption scandals of its own. In his 1877 to 1781 term, President Rutherford B. Hayes was also unable to get Congressional support for Civil Service reform but did manage to address the issue with executive orders. It was until not Charles Guiteau assassinated President James Garfield in 1881, over not receiving an appointment Guitau imagined he was owed for his political support, that reform finally came.

Pendleton Civil Service Act

After the assassination of President Garfield, civil service reform became a popular issue and dominated the 1882 midterm elections. In January 1883 the first civil service legislation passed when the Pendleton Civil Service Act sponsored by Senator George H. Pendleton was approved by Congress. Not just the political party, but the race, religion, and national origin of federal job applicants were protected by the new law. To enforce the new law, the Civil Service Commission was created to ensure that federal job candidates were selected on the basis of merit alone. The original act only covered about 10% of the jobs in the federal government but later administrations would continue empowering the law until it covered 90% of federal jobs.

President Chester A. Arthur, who signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, had himself been removed from a position due to the civil service reform executive order of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Spoils System - Key takeaways

  • The Spoils System was a system where government jobs down to the lowest levels were given to political supporters.
  • The system began with the Andrew Jackson administration.
  • Proponents argued that it was more effective to replace government workers with individuals who supported the goals of the administration.
  • Opponents pointed to the ineffectiveness and corruption of politically appointed federal workers and managers.
  • The Pendleton Civil Service Act began the end of the system.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spoils System

The spoils system was a system where government jobs down to the lowest levels were given to political supporters.

The spoils system kept political parties in power and eventually its abuses led to civil service reform.

The patronage and spoils systems are synonyms. 

The spoils system led to individual placed into positions for which they were unqualified or uninterested and to corruption. 

An advantage of the spoils system was that it allowed a party to consolidate power and ensured that government workers favored the party in power's agenda. 

Final Spoils System Quiz

Question

The Spoils System was universally condemned. 

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Answer

False 

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Question

The Spoils System resulted in __________.

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Answer

Corruption.

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Question

Which US president began the spoils system?


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Answer

Andrew Jackson 

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Question

What movement sought to end the spoils system?

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Answer

Civil service reform

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Question

What government office was notorious for the spoils system?


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Answer

Post office 

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Question

What legislation put an end to the spoils system?

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Answer

Pendleton Act 

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Question

How was the assassination of President Garfield connected to civil service reform?

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Answer

His assassin's grudge was over not recieving a spoils system position 

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Question

Who recieved jobs under the spoils system?


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Answer

Political supporters of the party in power 

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Question

What does "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy" mean?

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Answer

The winner gets everything 

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Question

What was a major issue with the spoils system?


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Answer

Those in positions were not always qualified or interested in them 

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