The term "spoils system" refers to the corrupt practice of giving jobs to political friends and allies following an election. The system is also referred to as the patronage system. In either case, it means that those who worked to help elect a candidate were rewarded with government jobs. The winning party was free to dismiss workers and to put their own friends and political allies in those positions instead.
The term is usually attributed to Senator William Marcy, who claimed that, "To the victor belong the spoils." Marcy was referring to high-level positions such as ambassadorships and cabinet offices.
History of the spoils system
The practice in the United States officially began in the 1820s following the election of President Andrew Jackson. It was intended to be a reform measure, a way of removing those who stood in the way of implementing some of Jackson's policies. Those who supported Jackson saw it as a way of rewarding loyal workers.
Jackson intended to use the system to bring everyday people into government, and as a way to punish his political opponents. He saw the spoils system as a method of "ridding government of the services of those who represented the financial interests of New England." During his two terms Jackson replaced about as many federal workers as those who held the presidency before him. However, Jackson's were "clearly more politically motivated."
Many people felt the spoils system would encourage a more efficient government. Those in favor of the spoils system said that bringing on board loyal employees would help carry out the policies of elected officials. These workers were seen as natural supporters of those in power.
In 1881, a disappointed job seeker, who had been passed over for an appointment, assassinated President James Garfield. The assassination prompted the public to denouce the spoils system and call for reform. The Pendleton Federal Civil Service Act of 1883 was the beginning of the modern system of selecting federal workers based on their abilities rather than their political leanings and activities.
The Federal Civil Service Act was updated in 1970 when it became known as the Merit System Principles. Less than a decade later, in 1978, it was again modernized and became known as the Civil Service Reform Act. The latest version was enacted in 1998.
Opposition to the system
Many saw the spoils system as a way of selecting workers strictly based on partisan politics. They argued that the spoils system put people in positions that they were not really qualified for. Further, since people were routinely dismissed following every election, experienced people with skill and knowledge were fired. This often led to disruption and inefficiency. One famous example was when President Benjamin Harrison changed 31,000 postmasters in a single year.
The spoils system flourished at a time known as the Gilded Age, a time of widespread corruption and graft.
The current system of hiring and firing federal workers protects conscientious workers from arbitrary dismissal following an election. It also protects the public by assuring continuity. Experienced and knowledgeable workers remain in the workforce. The Merit System also prohibits federal workers from exerting political influence during the course of carrying out their duties.