What Was the Purpose of the Spoils System?

The purpose of the spoils system in American politics of the 19th century was to ensure a partisan power base for office holders and reward political party allies, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. By purging political opponents and giving their jobs to supporters, a politician surrounded himself with loyal employees and expedited policy fulfillment.

After taking office in 1829, President Andrew Jackson initiated the practice as official policy. During a speech in the Senate defending the policy, Senator William L. Marcy of New York said, "To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy." Afterward, he became infamous as the person who devised the term. Presidents had hired those loyal to the administration in the past, but President Jackson created great controversy in his widespread practice of firing federal employees and replacing them with loyalists. Nineteenth century reports claim that President Jackson may have fired up to 700 workers in the first year of his presidency.

The incident that led to the reformation of the spoils system was the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a disgruntled office-seeker. This led to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which created a merit-based system for hiring federal employees. By the late 19th century, the spoils system at all levels of government was all but defunct.