The “spoils system” describes when a candidate wins election and then rewards campaign staffers and fundraisers by appointing them to prized jobs in the administration.
This practice is sometimes also called the patronage system.
The spoils system has likely existed, in one form or another, for as long as government itself. However, it is closely associated with 19th century politics, and it likely began to flourish during Andrew Jackson’s administration.
Andrew Jackson introduced a system of rotation in office, under which government jobs were regularly rotated among party members. In theory, this system would create an egalitarian system, in which no one person was allowed to dominate any particular office. Jackson argued that government offices did not require specialized training, and should not be turned into a bureaucracy dominated by a class of civil servants.
In practice, Jackson’s administration was not as democratic as he had hoped. Although the president did introduce many new people into government office, most public jobs were still held by wealthy elites.
The phrase “spoils system” was also made famous in the early 19th century. William Learned Marcy, who served in the U.S. Senate and eventually as governor of Massachusetts, was famous for using the phrase.
When Martin Van Buren was nominated to serve as ambassador to England, Van Buren was criticized for allegedly practicing the “spoils system.” Marcy, defending Van Burean, said that there was nothing wrong with a system in which “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”
Of course, Jackson was not the only president to closely supervise appointments to civil service jobs.
The White House notes that Chester A. Arthur was another fan of the spoils system:
Honorable in his personal life and his public career, Arthur nevertheless was a firm believer in the spoils system when it was coming under vehement attack from reformers. He insisted upon honest administration of the Customs House, but staffed it with more employees than it needed, retaining them for their merit as party workers rather than as Government officials.
Today, the spoils system has been replaced by the Federal merit system. The merit system is outlined in a House document entitled Our American Government, and reads in part:
The Federal merit system was established to ensure that any personnel actions, such as hiring, promotion, demotion, or firing, are taken on the basis of an individual’s ability and performance. It replaced the ‘‘spoils system’’ whereby political patronage controlled hiring and firing practices.
By contrast, the merit system is designed to ensure that the best candidates are hired for Federal positions, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will have the opportunity to rise as far as their abilities take them. Important merit system principles include the selection and advancement for Federal positions on the basis of knowledge, ability and skills, under fair and open competition; and personnel management conducted without regard to politics, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age or handicapping condition.
Briefly, this means that most government jobs are considered non-political and the people who hold these jobs may not be replaced for political reasons. Post office workers, government clerks, and other employees who work in non-political civil service posts are to be hired based on their abilities, not on membership in a political party.