Spoils System: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition of the…
  • 1:25 A Need for Reform
  • 2:10 Scandal and Corruption
  • 4:16 Reforming the Reform
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we're going to study the spoils systems, which is a method of political appointments started by President Andrew Jackson. We'll learn about its history, its pros and cons, and its eventual reform.

Definition of the Spoils System

To the victor goes the spoils. In other words, the winner takes all. At least that's what Andrew Jackson thought after he won the 1828 presidential election. Old Hickory, as Jackson was known, was a ruggedly individual backwoodsman from Tennessee and a hero of the War of 1812. He was also a practical man, committed to democracy and rule by the people, and he ran on a ticket emphasizing government reform. He was ready to make big changes as soon as he took office. He would start by kicking out the cronies of his predecessors and replacing them with some cronies of his own.

The result was a renewed civil service of government employees who were appointed by the president specifically because they were loyal to him and to his political party. This new procedure for hiring civil servants came to be called the spoils system.

In the spoils system, getting a government job was all about connections, so people who helped the president win his office and who were committed to the president's party were prime candidates for civil service positions. It didn't matter much if these individuals were educated or had experience in a particular job. The winner of the election could appoint whomever he wanted, and of course, he usually chose those closest to him. The spoils of his electoral victory were his and his alone, and those spoils, i.e., government appointments, were important tools to keep his loyal supporters close to him.

A Need for Reform

To be honest, Jackson was right when he said that the government needed reform. The civil service of 1828 was filled with incompetence and complacency. Some government workers had actually been appointed by George Washington, and they weren't doing their jobs too well any more. Some were just treading water and taking pride in their positions. Indeed, the civil service had become something of an elite class.

Jackson was determined to change all this. He wanted to involve a wider range of people in the government, especially common folks. Citizens, he thought, should be trained to be active members of a democratic society and giving them government jobs was a good way to make that happen. It was time for some fresh air and a few new ideas in the civil service.

Scandal and Corruption

Unfortunately, things didn't quite turn out the way Jackson had planned. Thanks to his new spoils system, getting a government job quickly became a lot more about who a person knew than about what that person knew. In other words, loyalty to the party and president counted more than knowing how to do the job. Some new appointees lacked education and experience, which led to inefficiency and incompetence.

Sometimes new appointees were more than merely inefficient and incompetent. They were downright crooks. Samuel Swartwout, for instance, received a civil service position at the customhouse in New York City because he was Jackson's old friend and fellow soldier. His job was to collect taxes on imported goods. A large percentage of those taxes somehow found their way straight into Swartwout's pocket. In 1838, he left New York in a hurry with one million extra dollars to his name. Jackson was left feeling pretty sheepish.

What's more, those unlucky enough to be booted out of their jobs and replaced by a Jackson crony faced the difficulty of finding another position. Some former civil servants had a rough go to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads, and the loss was especially painful for those who had been good at their jobs and really enjoyed them. A few unlucky fellows even went crazy and committed suicide after losing their jobs.

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