Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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SPOILS SYSTEM, The. This phrase designates a theory of politics and a use of official authority—more especially that of appointment and removal—according to which the merits of candidates and the general welfare are subordinated to the selfish interests of individuals, factions or parties. The range of this subordination is very great. It extends all the way from the case of a party which, honestly holding none but its followers to be fit for a clerkship, selects the best or them, but bars the gates of office against all others down to the faction leaders, who, excluding all but their own henchmen, corruptly make promotions for money, and promise places for votes; all the way from the great officer who, hardly conscious of wrong, accepts for the party the offerings of his subordinates, down to the official robber who mercilessly demands the places or the money of those serving under him; all the way from the head of a bureau or a department who requests more clerks, that they may work for his party, or serve as waiters or coachmen in his own family, down to the legislators who vote appropriations in aid of their re-election, and city aldermen who bribe electors by corrupt contracts, and conciliate thieves, gamblers and grog-shop keepers by winking at their offenses.


—It is doubtless vain to expect that in politics there will ever be such unselfish regard for merit and duty as to exclude every shade of that system, and perhaps there will always be various questions as to the moral aspects of which honest men will disagree. The limits of the spoils system in its practical application at any time can not, therefore, be precisely stated; nor can we any more precisely state where the merit system begins.*115. But it is, nevertheless, a great advantage to have convenient phrases, which, like the spoils system, and the merit system, distinctly mark those extreme and incompatible theories and methods in politics and administration of which the people readily take notice for approval or rebuke. In reference to these systems, all officers and politicians may be readily and usefully classified. Which system does a great politician or officer defend or practice? must always be an important question.


—The phrase "spoils system" appears to have had its origin in an speech made in January, 1832, by Mr. Marcy, of New York, in the senate of the United States, in which (in speaking of the politicians of his day, and especially of New York politicians) he said, "When they are contending for victory, they avow the intention of enjoying the fruits of it. If they are defeated, they except to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy" (Gale & Seaton's Congressional Debates, vol. viii., part 1, p. 1325.)


—The system of the pirate and the highwayman, thus defended, had been for some years growing in and poisoning our politics. It was only this open and shameless avowal of it which was original with Mr. Marcy. In the article on TERM AND TENURE OF OFFICE some facts are given tending to show that the earliest practice according to that system was in New York. It was not unnatural that the first unblushing avowal of it, at Washington, should be made by a senator from that state. Among the maxims of Col. Burr for the guidance of politicians, one of the most prominent was, that the people at elections were to be managed by the same rules of discipline as the soldiers of an army; that a few leaders were to think for the masses, and that the latter were to obey implicitly their leaders. * * He had, therefore, great confidence in the machinery of a party," etc. (Statesman's Manual, vol.ii.,p.1139.) New York has never lost the art, so aptly and early taught by Burr, of making and running party machines. Jenkins, in his "History of Parties in New York." (p.227), tells us, that "before 1820 the spoils system had been so far matured in that state, that Gov. Clinton, in that year, complained in a message' of an organized and disciplined corps of federal officers interfering in state elections." Mr. Hammond, in his "Political History of New York," and speaking of its early politics, declares, "that party spirit had raged in this more than in any other state of the Union." Mr. Van Buren's relation to the system appears in the article last cited. The unparalleled abuses in past years at the New York postoffice and custom house, and the municipal, judicial and other corruptions associated with the names of Barnard, McCunn, Tweed and Fisk, at the city of New York, have made the consequences of a long and general toleration of that system a part of our familiar history. But it is due to New York to add, that, during the past decade, her citizens have done more than those of any other state to arrest such abuses and to substitute a "merit system" for a "spoils system," both in her own administration and in that of the federal government.


—The politicians and the office seekers readily comprehended the spirit and opportunities of the new system which Marcy announced. The era had not long been closed, even among the enlightened nations, during which the hope of plunder and spoils from captured ships and cities had been regarded as essential alike for securing enlistments and for achieving victories on sea or land. Intense and vindictive partisans, accustomed to treat their political opponents as both personal and public enemies, adopted with equal facility the reasoning of Marcy and the war code of pillage and spoils. Either in the heat of victory or the hope of gain, they forgot or disregarded the fact, that the places, the salaries, the promotions, the profitable contracts which they sought, did not belong to the party they had conquered, but to the people, of which they were only a part. A new force, compounded in about equal proportions of corruption and savagery, was soon made potential, alike in the battle fields of politics, in the methods of elections, and in the process of administration. The proclamation of the spoils system in the senate greatly shocked the better minds of both parties, and alarmed the country at large. Nevertheless the theory of the system (of which "rotation in office, "in order to increase the spoils, was an important part)was , even by men in high places, largely and rapidly accepted. In the debate in the senate in 1835, upon the bill for repealing the four years term of office act of 1820, Senator Shepley of Maine, and Senator Hill of New Hampshire, defended that kind of rotation which requires no fault in an officer to justify a call for his removal, and Wright of New York, following Jackson's first message, declared such rotation "to be cardinal republican principle." But, on the other hand, Webster, Clay and Calhoun, Ewing, Southard and White, and others, denounced the new system as false in theory and demoralizing, corrupt and despotic in tendency.


—The abuse of the power of removal, for the double purpose of weakening and wreaking revenge upon the opposite party (or "punishing enemies," in the phrase of the spoils system war code), and of rewarding party workers and personal friends (or of "making and dividing spoils," according to the theory of that code), was the part of the spoils system which was first fully developed. It was not in New York alone that the greed for offices, the hate of political opponents, the fierce partisanship, and the corrupt selfishness and demagogism from which that abuse springs, had affected the administration, even before Marcy's declaration. If there was space for tracing their first manifestations, we should find Washington much annoyed by them, and in every subsequent administration marks of their presence, if not evidences of their pernicious influence. They gave Jefferson much trouble, and tested the sturdy independence of the younger Adams. But it was Jackson who first adopted a fundamental article of the spoils system code, by making the doctrine of "rotation in office" a cardinal principle of his policy at the beginning of his administration. The significance and the disastrous effects of that doctrine, as illustrating the true character of the system which March justified, is sufficiently explained in the article on REMOVALS.


—If we consider the spoils system in the details of its practical methods and evil effects, they will be found most developed along the great lines of public administration and party activity. In the articles on ASSESSMENTS (Political),CIVIL SERVICE REFORM CONFIRMATIONS, JUDICIARY, (Elective), PATRONAGE, PRIMARY ELECTIONS, PROMOTIONS, REMOVALS, and TERM AND TENURE OF OFFICE, the results of the system along those lines and much of its history are given.


—It was for the purpose of arresting those abuses and substituting a merit system for a spoils system, that the civil service act, approved Jan.16, 1883, was enacted by congress; and for the same purpose the legislature of New York passed a yet more stringent act on May 4 of the same year. Several sections of each of those acts are aimed against political assessments, and both of them direct that impartial tests of character and of attainment (mainly through competitive examinations) be substituted for official favor and political influence as a basis for entering the public service in non-effective offices.


—But in one particular the New York law goes much further than the act of congress. It greatly enlarges the scope of the law against bribery, as it has stood in this country, following, however, in the wake of the bribery and office-brokerage laws long in force of Great Britain. The American bribery laws, of prior date, perhaps without exception, only prohibit the corrupt "use of money or any promise, contract," etc., for the "payment of money," or for the "delivery or conveyance of anything of value." This leaves the corrupt promise or use of places, promotions, official influence for votes, speeches and work, etc., in aid of candidates and parties, as well as removals and official threats of removal for personal and party ends, untouched. These grave abuses, which are among the worst results of the spoils system theory of politics, are made penal by the fourteenth section of the New York law, as they long since were under British statutes. (See Eaton's "Civil Service in Great Britain," pp. 132 to 141.)


—No more space can be given to the origin and growth of the spoils system in this country. But no one should infer that it is of American origin, or that it most naturally flourishes under republican institutions. The work last cited shows the origin of the system in the despotism, corruptions and favoritism of the English monarchy in feudal times, and traces its progress, until the suppression of all its worst features by the substitution in Great Britain of a merit system of the same character, in most particulars, as that which the statutes of congress and of New York aim to establish. There is not an abuse in our politics or administration, connected with the spoils system, which did not exist in a more aggravated form in England before our revolution. In precise form, some of the abuses attending confirmations by senates, could not exist in Great Britain, because such confirmations are there unknown; but a statute (49 Geo. III., chaps. 126,218), far more stringent than any we have on the subject, enacted when our constitution had been but twelve years in force, contains penal clauses against the corrupt use of solicitations, recommendations, bargainings or negotiations for obtaining nominations, appointments or resignations, which might be usefully enacted here. It is also true that the forms of political assessments, as they exist with us, were not known under the old English spoils system. But it was because offices, grants, promotions, decorations and charters were both openly sold for money and corruptly bartered for political services and votes. If offices, after being sold there, were also liable to be annually taxed, as with us, at the will of a party, a great officer or a partisan committee, their value upon the original sale would have been greatly impaired. The British patronage monger preferred to get the full price on the original sale. Within the last half-century the British government has purchased back for itself, for a money price paid in hand, civil offices which had been merchandise for generations. It is hardly twelve years since commissions in the British army were freely bought and sold. And, to this day, the right to be a rector or parson in the church of England (subject to the approval of the bishop) is openely and extensively advertised for sale, and is publicly bought and sold for money. King James had helped to bring gerrymandering to perfection before Elbridge Gerry was born. We have added little to the art of coercing voters, or concealing, or lying about, the false count of votes. Office-mongering and office-brokerage and patronage of every kind, a century ago, had definiteness and an importance in the penal law, the politics and the social life of Great Britain, which they have not yet attained in this country.


—We have only to glance at the essential spirit and methods of a federal and aristocratic despotism, as compared with those of a spoils system according to the theory of Burr and Marcy, to see how naturally the latter grows out of the former. The king reaches the throne through birth and privilege, and not by merit. The lords hold their places by his favor. The aristocratic class, made up of the blood royal, the nobility, the state church officials, the high officers of the army and the navy, and the great land owners, are a part of the party forever in power. They make their political faith, the creed of the state church and subserviency to their wishes, the tests for obtaining and continuing in office of whatever kind. What more natural, under such a government, than that all those who do not respond to these tests should not only be excluded from office, but be denied the privilege of voting? Not merely the political faith of that forever dominant party was for generations essential to holding office, but the acceptance of the articles of the state church as well, and, for a long time, the partaking of the sacrament according to its method, were absolute conditions of office holding. The office-holding noblemen, the bishops, and the king's lord lieutenants of counties, were the patronage mongers, place dispensers and election manipulators of their sections; and their cunning and precedents are adroit enough to be even yet worthy the study of senators, politicians and bosses who act on the theories of those feudal potentates and imitate their methods so far as our form of government will allow.


—With us the party majority is the king of politics. Spoils-dispensing senators, representatives, governors and party leaders are with us the feudal lords of patronage. Our constitution allows no religious creed to be made a test for office. But, disregarding personal merit and common justice almost as absolutely as any feudal aristocracy ever did, the lords of our politics, in flagrant violation of the first principles of a republic and of the plain intent of the constitution, make the faith of the dominant party, its selfish interests and unmanly subserviency to themselves, the conditions of gaining and holding any of the tens of thousands of places where, in federal departments, in state bureaus and in city offices alike, political views are not in the least qualifications for official duty.


—The leaders, under the old English spoils system, claimed the right and used the opportunity of exerting all the authority and resources of the government in their hands to keep their class and party in power and their opponents out of power. Patronage was a prerequisite of a great officer, to be used for himself and his party. Equally with the leaders or our spoils system, they repudiated all demands based on individual merit which they thought inconsistent with the selfish interest of their class and party. They said, in the language of Marcy, We "claim as matter of right the advantages of success." We "see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victor belong the spoils." Feudal leaders sold the offices in order to get money to be used for keeping themselves in power. Our spoils system leaders annually rob the humble officers under them of a part of their salaries for the same purpose. The use of money thus gained to buy the press, to corrupt the officers of election, and to bribe voters, has been the common offense of both. Each alike made its political creed the paramount qualification for an appointment, and claimed the right to use all official authority for propagating that creed. James II. and Andrew Jackson, Archbishop Laud and Senator Marcy, George III and assessment-extortioner Hubbell agree in this, that the opinions of the dominant party, the favor of its leaders, and subservient work as they direct, are the supreme qualifications for clerks, janitors, office boys and scrub-women, and that each are bound to give time to money to keep those who oppress them in power.


—That phase of the spoils system which consists in the usurpation of the appointing power of the executive, by the legislative department, has been, save in the matter of confirmations, almost identical in Great Britain and in this country. Executive patronage there was for generations as carefully apportioned among the members of parliament as plunder ever was among pirates, or spoils among soldiers. To avoid the intolerable nuisance of having members going the rounds of the departments, bullying and begging for their shares of patronage, a patronage secretary was provided, who kept accounts with each member, and doled out to him his share as regularly as soup is dispensed from a free eating house.


—The greater interest of these facts does not consist merely in the historical analogies between the corrupt and partisan systems of the two countries, but in the further facts, rich in hope for us, that, in the elder country, where that system was founded on the throne, intrenched in feudal principles and class distinctions—where it was buttressed by the army on one side and the state church on the other, and was, therefore, tenfold stronger than with us—it has been, through a steady effort of twenty-five years, overthrown and removed. In our efforts to overthrow such a system, we have but to contend for the fundamental principles of a republic while standing upon all the best precedents of its founders. It would not be a bad definition of a true republic to describe it as a government under which office is secured by merit to the exclusion of favoritism and influence, nor of a true aristocratic despotism, to define it to be a government under which favor and influence secure office, and merit is subordinated to birth and privilege.


—There is another view of the subject which must not be overlooked. That can hardly be said to be a system in political affairs which is but a series of abuses. A system implies an orderly method proceeding from some recognized theory. The theory of the spoils system may be readily outlined.


—1. In a merely superlative and ideal sense, a party may be (what Burke declared it to be) a body of persons agreeing together in the support of common principles, which they seek to carry into effect for the public good; but according to the only practical and sensible use of the word, a party is a highly organized body of politicians constantly engaged in selfish and warlike effort for capturing the government (or for keeping its enemies from capturing it), and for gaining honors, offices and profits for themselves.


—2. Politics is at once a game, a business and a series of campaigns: to be so conducted as to pay the leaders, the fighters and the workers. Profit enough must be got out of the administration to pay the expenses of capturing it and the cost of office seeking.


—3. The theory that a regard for great principles, love of country, and a sense of duty—analogous to those sentiments which support the charities, the asylums and the churches of a nation—are the vital force of a party, is altogether chimerical.


—4. Patriotism, disinterested public opinion and devotion to great principles as a duty, are suspicious and unreliable elements in politics; and, if they ever exist, they are yet generally but a cover for a hypocrite or a doctrinaire. They are indeed very dangerous to good party management and to favorite leaders. Selfishness, patronage and discipline are the great forces of politics. Absolute obedience, and the despotic rule of the majority, are the strength and salvation of a party.


—5. The honors, the offices, the public employments, the political assessments, the profitable contracts, the opportunities of levying illegal fees and political blackmail—these are the spoils, to be divided so as to be made most effective.


—6. Personal merit is not to be wholly ignored, nor public opinion needlessly affronted; but the wishes of the leaders must be accepted as the law of the party, and zeal and work for the party are qualifications for public service paramount to personal merit. The party politics of a door-tender, a cartman, a storekeeper, an office boy, a washwoman and a chimney sweep, are essential to their selection. When either gets an office, a debt to the party is incurred, for which fealty, work and assessments are due as long as the man or the woman holds it.


—7. The leaders must govern secretly and absolutely, after the precedent of the Albany regency, and according to the original semi-military code of Burr. To refuse obedience to them, or to bolt however bad a nomination, is treason to the party never to be forgiven.


—8. Custom houses and postoffices, under the spoils system, are not mere places for doing public work upon business principles by officers having business capacity, but are intrenched outposts of the party, to be manned by its valiant warriors, and to be barricaded against opponents; nor this alone, for these offices are also asylums for broken-down henchmen, sally-ports for carrying elections, and banks of issue for raising assessments.


—9. The party leaders must hold the gates of the primaries as well as all the gates of office; they must fix the conditions upon which any member of the party can vote for a delegate or be allowed to receive a nomination. It is fatal to discipline to allow the primary meetings to be open to all those who are faithful to the principles of the party. The officers of primary organizations should be the compliant henchmen of the senators, governors and chieftains who run the postoffices and custom houses, and they must exact a pledge from all members to obey the leaders, to defend the platform of the majority, and to support every nomination whether good or bad. To allow those ready to support the principles of a party to freely meet, and choose their own presiding officers, and select and send their own delegates to a convention, is fatal to spoils system management.


—10. Senators are the feudal lords of state politics, whose voice should be held supreme in selecting the federal officers to serve within these states; and if a president shall refuse to nominate a senator's favorite for a collector, the senator should resign, go home, and arouse his state against the president. From Burr to Marcy and Jackson, and from the latter to Tweed and Conkling, such has been the theory and the practice under the spoils system.


—11. Clerks, other small officers and laborers paid by the public, though bound to work for the government, are also bound, not only to work for the party, but to pay to it the partisan taxes it chooses to impose. They must not be allowed to serve the people equally and justly at all times, irrespective of political opinions and party interests, but, on pain of removal, must, as far as the criminal law will permit, make every official act bribe or coerce a vote, and bring dollars to the patron age monger or the party that gave them their places.


—12. All attempts, therefore, to compel the use of official authority only for public purposes, all attempts to put persons into the service merely because they are the most worthy, all attempts to put them in without the consent of the party managers or the member of congress of the state or district, all attempts to impartially test their fitness by examinations, all attempts to prevent great officials using patronage as a perquisite of themselves and their party, are utterly utopian and doctrinaire—gross invasions of the discretion of officials and of the rights of parties. When the infamous Judge Barnard, on his trial under impeachment, replied to a question about his use of judicial patronage—"I won this office, and its patronage is mine"—he rivaled Marcy in condensing the whole spirit of the spoils system.


—With such authority and income, with resources for bribery and coercion so ample, a party, following able and unscrupulous leaders, may go a great way in defiance of public opinion. It has honors for the aspiring, authority for the ambitious, profits to bribe the mercenary, removals for overawing the timid, money to pay its own expenses, exclusions from the muster roll of party membership, for intimidating those who threaten to say what they think, or expose what they know to be wrong.


—But the course of events during the last few years has made it plain that the spoils system must everywhere very soon give place to a system under which merit must be the test of selections for appointments, and regard for the intents of the public, rather than those of the party, be made the rule of administration. The people are more and more clearly comprehending that parties must serve the people, and not ask the people to be the servants of a party.


Notes for this chapter

The phrase "merit system" was first used in Eaton's "Civil Service in Great Britain," and it is sufficiently defined by saying that it is everywhere the very opposite of the spoils system, in both theory and method. The merit of a candidate, the merit of a bill or the merit of a policy are equally the basis of all just claim for support. A system which everywhere, in politics and official life, holds merit to be a decisive test, must everywhere recognize the public interests as paramount. Such a system is as thoroughly democratic and republican as it is thoroughly just.

Footnotes for STATISTICS

End of Notes

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