spoils system

spoils system

spoils system, in U.S. history, the practice of giving appointive offices to loyal members of the party in power. The name supposedly derived from a speech by Senator William Learned Marcy in which he stated, "to the victor belong the spoils." On a national scale, the spoils system was inaugurated with the development of two political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, and was used by the earliest Presidents, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The system soon became entrenched in state politics and was practiced more extensively on a national scale during the administration of Andrew Jackson, who declared (1829) that the federal government would be bettered by having civil servants rotate in office. He replaced incumbent officeholders with members of his own party. Nevertheless, during Jackson's eight years in office not more than one fifth of officeholders were replaced. The dispensation of offices by strict party allegiance was followed in succeeding years and critical opposition grew. The corruption and inefficiency bred by the system reached staggering proportions in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, and reaction against this helped bring about civil service reform, which was inaugurated by creation of the Civil Service Commission in 1871. The spoils system has, however, continued for many federal offices and is even more prevalent in state and local governments.

See A. A. Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils (1968); W. d. Foulk, Fighting the Spoilsmen (1974).

In the politics of the United States, a spoils system is an informal practice where a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for working toward victory, and as an incentive to keep working for the party—as opposed to a system of awarding offices on the basis of some measure of merit independent of political activity.

The term was derived from the phrase "'to the victor go the spoils''."

Similar spoils systems are common in other nations that are struggling to transcend systemic clientage based on tribal organization or other kinship groups and localism in general.


After Andrew Jackson became President in 1828, he systematically rewarded his supporters by starting the Second Party System. He considered that popular election gave the victorious party a "mandate" to select officials from its own ranks. This is the credo of republicanism.

Peak and Reform

Presidents after Jackson continued the use of the spoils system. Abraham Lincoln used the system effectively to support both his Republican party and the Union war effort. But by the late 1860s, reformers began demanding a civil service system. Running as Liberal Republicans in 1872, they were harshly defeated by patronage-hungry Ulysses S. Grant.

The end of the spoils system at the federal level came with the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, which created a bipartisan Civil Service Commission to evaluate job candidates on a nonpartisan merit basis. While few jobs were covered under the law initially, the law allowed the President to transfer jobs (and their current holders) into the system, thus giving the holder a permanent job. The Pendleton Act's reach was expanded as the two main political parties alternated control of the White House in every election between 1884 and 1896. After each election the outgoing President applied the Pendleton Act to jobs held by his political supporters. By 1900, most federal jobs were handled through civil service and the spoils system was limited only to very senior positions.

The separation between political activity and the civil service was made stronger with the Hatch Act which prohibited federal employees from engaging in political activities.

The spoils system survived much longer in many states, counties and municipalities, such as the Tammany Hall ring, which survived well into the 1930s when New York City reformed its own civil service. Illinois modernized its bureaucracy in 1917 under Frank Lowden, but Chicago held on to patronage in city government until the city agreed to end the practice in the Shakman Decrees of 1972 and 1983.


  • Griffith; Ernest S. The Modern Development of City Government in the United Kingdom and the United States (1927)
  • Hoogenboom, Ari Arthur. Outlawing the Spoils: A history of the civil service reform movement, 1865-1883 (1961)
  • Ostrogorski; M. Democracy and the Party System in the United States (1910)
  • Rubio; Philip F. A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2000 University Press of Mississippi, 2001

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