Spoils System

c. 1832–c. 1922

The Spoils System was a process where Political Machines gave government jobs to their supporters, in return for helping run political campaigns and earn votes. The Spoils System is most closely associated with Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, and led to several scandals during Grant’s presidency, including the Credit Mobilier Scandal and the Whiskey Ring Scandal.

Spoils System, Civil Service Reform, Political Cartoon, Gilded Age, Puck

This 1887 political cartoon depicts President Grover Cleveland removing a dead tree labeled “Spoils System,” while George William Curtis watches. Image Source: Art Institute of Chicago.

What was the Spoils System?

Spoils System Summary

The Spoils System — also known as the Patronage System — was prevalent in 19th Century politics and was a process where political party bosses rewarded loyal supporters with government jobs, positions, and contracts. This often led to political instability and several well-known incidents of corruption. Over time, Progressives sought to reform and reduce the Spoils System, which contributed to the development of professional government employees and expanded government bureaucracies.

Spoils System Facts

These facts provide a summary overview of the Spoils System, which played significant roles in the Federal government from the Jacksonian Era through the Gilded Age.

Origin of the Spoils System

The term “Spoils System” originates from a phrase used by Senator William Learned Marcy in 1832. Marcy was defending President Andrew Jackson and his nomination of Martin Van Buren as Minister to the United Kingdom when he said, “…to the victor belong the spoils.” What Macy meant was that Jackson, who had been elected President, was the victor and he had the right to appoint a key political supporter, Van Buren, if he chose to do so.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
President Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Political Patronage, Civil Service, and the Spoils System

  • Political Patronage is a practice where politicians and officeholders grant government jobs, political offices, and privileges to their supporters.
  • The Spoils System can also extend to ensuring government contracts are awarded to companies that provide political support and can impact government legislation through the process of Political Lobbying.
  • The process of using political power to “repay” political supporters is referred to as the “Spoils System.”
  • Examples of Political Patronage and the Spoils System can be found in all levels and types of government systems (see the list of scandals associated with the Spoils System at the end of this entry).
  • The Civil Service includes people who are not elected officials or part of the military.

Bosses, Politicians, Patrons, and Political Machines

  • Political Machines are groups that use that Spoils System to their advantage, working to keep their party in power.
  • By keeping political power, a Political Machine increases its chances of passing legislation in support of its political platform and also has greater control over the flow of money.
  • Political Machines are typically led by “Bosses,” such as Boss Tweed, who controlled the Tammany Hall Political Machine during the Gilded Age.
  • Politicians are the people the Political Machine puts forward to run for office. Sometimes, the politicians are also Bosses.
  • While the Politicians hold the authority to award the spoils, it is often done at the direction of the Bosses.
  • Patrons provide support for the Politicians during elections and are rewarded with the spoils.
  • The spoils often included government jobs that provided lucrative salaries, pensions — and opportunities for corruption
William M. Boss Tweed, Brady, NA
“Boss” Willilam M. Tweed. Image Source: National Archives.

Andrew Jackson and the Spoils System

  • During the era of Andrew Jackson, politicians used civil servants to organize and fund their political campaigns.
  • Public employees were required to contribute a portion of their salaries to the political party.
  • Civil servants, particularly those outside Washington, D.C., played important roles in political campaigns, such as running conventions, canvassing, transporting supporters to polling stations, and staffing the polls.
  • The appointment of civil servants was important to Senators and members of the House of Representatives because they relied on “patronage” for political survival.
  • Patronage was important because civil servants had to support their patrons to secure their positions. This led to frequent turnover with each change of party.
  • The “Spoils System” resulted in inefficient and sometimes corrupt governance, as political appointees replaced civil servants regardless of experience.
  • Despite its flaws, major political parties, especially those in power, defended the spoils system as necessary for the functioning of American democracy, citing its adaptability to the widest voting and complex electoral processes in the world.

The Civil War’s Impact on the Spoils System

  • The Civil War resulted in a significant turnover of Civil Servants, many of whom received their jobs through the Spoils System, but were suspected of treason for supporting Secession, or for protesting the war.
  • This turnover occurred amidst unprecedented demands placed on the government and Civil Servants, as Reconstruction worked to reintegrate the Confederate states back into the Union, while also providing support and protection for hundreds of thousands of former slaves..

Thomas A. Jenckes and Nonpartisan Civil Service

  • Soon after the war, Representative Thomas A. Jenckes, a Rhode Island Republican, started a movement to reform the government by eliminating the Spoils System.
  • Jenckes proposed a bill requiring that nonpolicy-making Civil Servants be appointed through competitive examinations that were open to anyone. Jenckes intended to create a Nonpartisan Civil Service.
  • Nonpartisan Civil Service appealed to intellectuals who were disillusioned by the chaotic nature of political campaigns and merchants who were frustrated by incompetent and corrupt customs officials.
  • The bill was opposed by Radical Republicans, including John A. Logan of Illinois, who wanted to use the Spoils System to help newly freed slaves.

President Ulysses S. Grant and the Spoils System

  • Although the Jenckes bill did not pass, Congress acknowledged the need for changing the Spoils System and reforming the Civil Service.
  • In 1871, Congress authorized President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint a commission to develop rules for examining applicants for Civil Service positions.
  • President Grant initially supported the idea of Civil Service Reform, and his commission, led by George William Curtis, drafted examination rules.
  • However, after the Presidential Election of 1872, which Grant won, Congress withheld funding from the commission.
  • In turn, Grant used the Spoils System to appoint Chester A. Arthur as the head of the New York Custom House, instead of promoting the top assistant. Arthur was supported by Roscoe Conkling, a prominent leader in the Stalwart Faction of the Republican Party, which, in turn, supported Grant.
  • In response, George William Curtis resigned from the commission.
  • Afterward, Grant abandoned the reform rules entirely, appeasing supporters of the Spoils System.
Ulysses S. Grant, President, 1875, Portrait, WH
President Ulysses S. Grant. Image Source: White House Historical Society.

Progressives, Goo Goos, and the Spoils System

  • Progressives opposed the Spoils System and wanted government positions to be awarded based on ability, not political connections.
  • Supporters of the Spoils System referred to the Progressives as “goo-goos” for wanting “good government people.”
  • The term was used sarcastically to mock the idealism and aspirations of reform-minded Progressives.
  • However, government reformers held to their beliefs that they could establish a more transparent and accountable government.

Merit-Based Civil Service and the Spoils System

  • Progressives sought to create Merit-Based Civil Service and wanted to standardize the hiring process for non-elected government employees.
  • Progressives wanted the impartial Civil Service Commission, led by George William Curtis, to oversee the process.
  • Prospective employees were required to undergo competitive examinations as part of the hiring process for government positions like building inspectors or tax collectors.

President Rutherford B. Hayes and the Spoils System

  • Following the controversial Presidential Election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President.
  • Hayes, who made a campaign promise not to run for a second term in office, made significant strides in civil service reform shortly after taking office.
  • He prohibited assessments of Civil Servants based on their involvement in political activities.
Rutherford B Hayes, 19th President
President Rutherford B. Hayes. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Hayes and the New York Custom House

  • Hayes insisted on making the New York New York Custom House a model of reform
  • Despite resistance, Hayes removed Chester A. Arthur from his position as head of the New York Custom House.

President James A. Garfield and the Spoils System

  • President James A. Garfield, who succeeded Hayes and was aligned with the Stalwart Faction of the Republican Party, tried to restore the Spoils System in the New York Custom House.
  • However, Garfield was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau before he could achieve it.
  • Guiteau had supported Garfield and the Stalwarts during the Presidential Election of 1880 and believed he deserved a political appointment for his patronage.
  • When Guiteau did not receive an appointment, he decided to assassinate Garfield.
James Garfield, 20th President of the United States, Portrait
President James A. Garfield. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Garfield Assassination Leads to Reform of the Spoils System

  • George William Curtis still supported the Civil Service Reform Movement and blamed the Spoils System for the Garfield Assassination. 
  • Curtis used it to gain support for reforming the Spoils System, which put pressure on Congress to pass a bill in honor of Garfield.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act Limits the Spoils System

  • In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which was sponsored by George Hunt Pendleton.
  • The passage of the act was aided by the Election of 1882, which saw the election of Democrat Grover Alexander for a second term, while Democrats also gained control of the House of Representatives.
  • The act prohibited assessments of all Civil Servants based on their political patronage.
  • It established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission responsible for implementing a Merit-Based System for federal offices with more than 50 employees.
Grover Cleveland, Portrait
President Grover Cleveland. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Merit System Reduces the Spoils System

  • 10% of the positions in the Civil Service were reclassified as part of the Merit System and applicants were required to take competitive examinations.
  • Still, 90% of Civil Service positions were subject to the Spoils System.
  • However, from 1883 to 1900, the number of positions open to the Spoils System was reduced from 90% to 55%.
  • By 1920, it is estimated that 80% of the positions in the Federal Government were under the Merit System.
  • The Merit System trickled down to the state and local governments, where Civil Service Commissions were also implemented.

Effects of the Pendleton Act on the Spoils System

  • The Pendleton Act contributed to the development of professional Civil Servants and larger government bureaucracies at all levels of government.
  • Civil Servants became better educated and shifted the Civil Service in a more professional direction.
  • Political parties shifted the Spoils System away from seeking patronage from individuals and local groups and more toward corporations and business interests.
  • Civil Servants were no longer obligated to contribute time and money to political campaigns, and political parties started to rely more on corporations for financial contributions.
  • This shift led to a rise in corporate influence over public policy, as parties sought funding from corporate entities in exchange for political support.
George H. Pendleton, Senator, LOC
George Hunt Pendleton. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Transformation of the Spoils System During the Gilded Age

  • The Spoils System was transformed and reduced during the Gilded Age.
  • Reforming the Spoils System was a fundamental aspect of the Progressive Era, marking a significant shift toward efficiency and professionalism in government operations.
  • Although Progressives wanted to create a better government, it also led to the rise of professional politicians and increased influence on government from the Titans of Industry, such as J.P. Morgan.

Reduction of the Spoils System Expands Direct Democracy

  • Government reformers also looked to extend the Merit System to the electoral process.
  • In doing so, they wanted a more informed electorate that was responsible for “Direct Democracy.”
  • Direct Democracy is the idea that ordinary citizens have the right to participate in the election of representatives and vote on issues that affect them.
  • Progressives also believed a more educated electorate would reduce the power of Political Machines, which were widely viewed as taking advantage of the poor and immigrants living in cities.
  • Direct Democracy led to:
    • Passage of the 17th Amendment in 1911, which established the direct election of Senators for all states.
    • Direct Primary Elections in all 50 states, allowing voters rather than party officials to select nominees for political offices. These were intended to reduce the influence of Party Bosses and give citizens more control over the selection of candidates.
    • A standard ballot — known as an Australian Ballot — was introduced in most states by 1896. Before that, political parties produced the ballots that were distributed to potential voters. Although the Australian Ballot created some problems, especially for people who could not read, they contributed to the modernization of the electoral process.

Examples of Government Corruption Caused by the Spoils System

Corruption and the Gilded Age

  • In this case, corruption is the abuse of political power for personal gain.
  • It was present in various forms during the Gilded Age, and Mark Twain identified it as one of the most prevalent characteristics of the era.
  • It was prevalent in the Federal Government during Reconstruction but was also prevalent at the state and local levels.

Credit Mobilier Scandal

  • The Credit Mobilier scandal was a political and financial scandal that emerged in the United States during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in the early 1870s.
  • The scheme was initiated before Ulysses S. Grant was elected President, but it was publicized while he was in office.
  • It involved the illegal manipulation of contracts and construction costs by Credit Mobilier, which was contracted to build the Union Pacific Railroad.
  • Members of Congress and high-ranking government officials were implicated in the scandal, raising questions about corruption and favoritism between the government and businesses.
  • It was exposed in 1872, tarnishing the Grant Administration and Grant’s reputation.

Gold Market Manipulation and Black Friday

  • “Black Friday” refers to September 24, 1869, when a financial panic erupted in the United States.
  • It was caused by Jay Gould and James Fisk, who concocted a scheme to manipulate the price of gold.
  • Their scheme relied on preventing the federal Treasury from selling gold, which they achieved by using their political connections to the Grant Administration.
  • On Black Friday, Fisk and Gould drove the price of gold up, causing financial ruin for many honest businesspeople.
  • The bubble burst when the Treasury released gold, contrary to Grant’s alleged assurances, leading to a congressional investigation that concluded Grant had acted indiscreetly but was unaware of the details of the scheme.

Santo Domingo Annexation

  • During Grant’s first term in office, a group of American investors proposed the United States should annex Santo Domingo.
  • Grant supported annexation as a means to expand American influence in the Caribbean and secure naval bases.
  • However, the scheme was intended to provide personal gain for the investors.
  • Annexation faced opposition from Congress and the public, due to concerns over the potential expansion of slavery and the financial costs.
  • The plan was ultimately rejected by Congress.

Salary Grab of 1873

  • The Salary Grab of 1873 was a controversial action taken by Congress that involved increasing the salaries of government officials, including members of Congress and the President. 
  • The salary increases were enacted on the last day of Grant’s first term in office, without input from the public. 
  • This move drew widespread criticism from the public and the press, leading to accusations of corruption and self-interest among lawmakers. 
  • The incident contributed to growing public distrust of the government during the Gilded Age.

Sanborn Incident

  • Treasury Department appointed tax collector John D. Sanborn.
  • Sanborn accepted money from corporations in exchange for smaller tax payments to the government.

Whiskey Ring Scandal

  • In 1874–1875, the Whiskey Ring scandal defrauded the Treasury of millions in excise-tax revenues.
  • Involved tax collector John McDonald.
  • McDonald accepted bribes from St. Louis distillers to reduce tax payments.
  • McDonald colluded with Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, to conceal the corruption.
  • Despite President Grant’s declaration to hold all guilty parties accountable, Babcock’s involvement led to leniency and even exoneration for some of the people involved.

Trader Post Scandal

  • Also known as the Indian Ring Scandal.
  • Secretary of War William Belknap used his position to award contracts to merchants to supply forts and reservations on the frontier.
  • In return, Belknap received quarterly payments for as much as $20,000.
  • The scheme was exposed and Belknap was impeached, however, he confessed to President Grant and resigned.
  • Although there was a disagreement over whether or not impeachment proceedings could continue, they did, and Belknap was acquitted.

Corruption Beyond the Federal Government

Corruption during the Gilded Age extended to state and local governments and was driven by Political Machines

Southern Corruption

  • Southern Political Machines prioritized White Supremacy as a means to achieve financial gain.
  • Tactics included trumped-up charges and biased juries to remove opposition.
  • Victims included Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames and South Carolina politicians Robert Smalls and George Washington Murray.

Northern Corruption

  • Local corruption intertwined with industrial influence.
  • Employers coerced employees to vote for preferred candidates under threat of job loss.
  • Manipulation aimed at securing favorable legislation for industries.

Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed

  • William Tweed controlled Tammany Hall, New York City’s Democratic Political Machine.
  • Tweed colluded with contractors to overcharge the city for building projects.
  • He diverted millions of dollars for personal gain.
  • Tweed was stopped by reformers led by Samuel Tilden and Thomas Nast.

Corruption in Pennsylvania

  • Pennsylvania’s Republican Political Machine, led by Simon Cameron and later Matthew Quay, was known for corruption.

Corruption and the Wild West

  • Western city and town governments faced corruption from various sources.
  • Outlaws, gamblers, rustlers, saloon keepers, brothel owners, and mining companies alluded with officials.
  • Corruption was widespread during this time, which is usually referred to as the “Old West” or the “Wild West.”

Spoils System APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the Spoils System, Civil Service Reform and the Gilded Age for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Spoils System Definition

The Spoils System, also known as the Patronage System, was a political practice in the United States during the 19th century whereby government jobs and appointments were awarded based on loyalty to a political party rather than skill or qualifications. Often seen as starting under President Andrew Jackson, the Spoils System allowed victorious political parties to reward their supporters with government positions. The practice sometimes led to corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence in the government. The Spoils System was eventually reformed with the passage of Civil Service Reform laws, such as the 1883 Pendleton Act.

Spoils System APUSH Units

The Spoils System is part of the following:

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Spoils System
  • Date c. 1832–c. 1922
  • Author
  • Keywords Spoils System, Political Patronage, Patronage System, Spoils System summary, Spoils System facts, Spoils System significance, Spoils System overview, Spoils System examples, Who did the Spoils System benefit, What is the Spoils System, What scandals are associated with the Spoils System, When was the Spoils System popular, Where was the Spoils System used, Why was the Spoils System replaced with the Merit System, How did the Spoils System affect American politics
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 19, 2024