In U.S. politics, the practice by political parties of rewarding partisans and workers after winning an election. Proponents claim it helps maintain an active party organization by offering supporters jobs and contracts. Critics charge that it awards appointments to the unqualified and is inefficient because even jobs unrelated to public policy change hands after an election. In the U.S., the Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883) was the first step in introducing the merit system in the hiring of government workers. The merit system has almost completely replaced the spoils system. Seealso civil service.
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In some countries the term is often used to describe the corrupt use of state resources to advance the interests of groups, families, ethnicities or races in exchange for electoral support. These patronage systems have different characteristics depending on the area in which they are practiced.
Rulers, nobles, and very wealthy people used patronage of the arts to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. That is, patrons operated as sponsors. Some languages still use the term mecenate, derived from the name of Gaius Maecenas, generous friend and adviser to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Some patrons, such as the Medici of Florence, used artistic patronage to "cleanse" wealth that was perceived as ill-gotten through usury. Art patronage was especially important in the creation of religious art. The Roman Catholic Church and later Protestant groups sponsored art and architecture, as seen in churchs, cathedrals, painting, sculpture, and handicrafts.
While sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artwork is the best-known aspect of the patronage system, other disciplines also benefitted from patronage including those who studied natural philosophy (pre-modern science), musicians, writers, philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, and other scholars. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons. Figures as late as Mozart and Beethoven also participated in the system to some degree; it was only with the rise of bourgeois and capitalist social forms in the 19th century that European culture moved away from its patronage system to the more publicly-supported system of museums, theatres, mass audiences and mass consumption that is familiar in the contemporary world.
This kind of system continues across many fields of the arts. Though the nature of the sponsors has changed—from churches to charitable foundations, and from aristocrats to plutocrats—the term patronage has a more neutral connotation than in politics. It may simply refer to direct support (often financial) of an artist, for example by grants.
In the later part of the 20th century the academic sub-discipline of patronage studies began to evolve, in recognition of the important and often neglected role that the phenomenon of patronage had played in the cultural life of previous centuries.
Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York became a powerful political figure by determining who in the party would be given certain lucrative positions. Conkling and his supporters were known as Stalwarts. The Republican reformers who opposed patronage and advocated a civil service system were known as Mugwumps—their lack of party loyalty seen as having their "mug" on one side of the fence, their "wump" on the other. Between the two were the Halfbreeds, who were less patronage-oriented than the Stalwarts, but not as reform-minded as the Mugwumps.
When James Garfield became president, he appointed Halfbreeds to most offices (despite the appointment of Stalwart Chester A. Arthur to the role of Vice President, which represented a compromise within the Republican Party). This provoked the ire of the Stalwarts. Charles J. Guiteau, a Stalwart, assassinated Garfield in 1881, six months after he became President.
To prevent further political violence and to assuage public outrage, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in 1883, which set up the Civil Service Commission. Henceforth, applicants for most federal government jobs would have to pass an examination. Federal politicians' influence over bureaucratic appointments waned, and patronage declined as a national political issue.
In polo, a "patron" is a person who puts together a team by hiring one or more professionals. The rest of the team may be amateurs, often including the patron himself (or, increasingly, herself). Some patrons are extremely skillful and serious players; others are more lighthearted and in it just for the fun.