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What is a Spoil System?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The spoil system is a system of political patronage wherein loyal party supporters are awarded with key government positions when a party wins office or takes the majority in the legislature. Political patronage of this nature can be seen in many nations, although it occurs at a much lesser level than it once did. In the United States, where the term has its origin, the president still retains the ability to appoint people to a few key "plums" in the administration as under the old spoil system, but for the most part people must win political positions by merit.

When President Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, members of the opposition party feared the wave of appointments he would make and their fears turned out to be well grounded. "To the victor belong the spoils," a famous Jackson supporter said, and President Jackson appointed people primarily on the basis of loyalty to him and the Democratic Party, rather than because he thought they were especially well-suited to their positions.

As the 1800s wore on, people began to protest the spoil system. They argued that it gave presidents a tremendous amount of power, as they could essentially build an entire government of supporters and use this to exert far more control than intended under the Constitution. In addition, highly suitable and talented people with the merit to succeed in appointed positions were passed over because they did not demonstrate sufficient party loyalty. The ability to literally buy appointments, such as ambassadorships, in the spoil system was also heavily criticized.

Fighting this and other ethically disputed political practices, advocates began to usher in the civil service. Under the civil service, all government positions are open to anyone. To apply, people must pass a standardized examination. The recruitment process moves forward with people who have passed the examination, with the government interviewing them for positions and selecting people on the basis of merit. Merit is also key to promotion in the civil service.

A number of acts of legislature, including the Hatch Act of 1939, were passed to break down the spoil system and provide a more fair government. In the United States today, most government positions fall within the civil service framework. While the president does appoint some people, they must pass a confirmation process and merit is an important consideration in their selection. A handful of appointees are indeed rewarded for loyal party service and campaign assistance, but these numbers are small.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Feb 25, 2014

Upon reading this article on the spoil system, I am reminded of the phenomenon known as "cronyism". Are the two things pretty inter-changeable? Thanks.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 14, 2011


I think that the ultimate thing "holding government back" is not the system itself, but the basis of that system, the moral code on which our nation is founded. This code has nothing good to say about a spoil system, and is the strength which founded the ideals that people should be heard and that checks and balances should be established in the first place.

By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 12, 2011


Yes, but the goal of Democracy is to weaken and slow radical actions which could be taken by politicians. In a merit-based system, balance of parties and of various different thoughts are measured and differing views of people all over the nation are taken into consideration. This can be messy, but is not nearly as dangerous as a system in which there are few checks and balances holding the government back from conquest and other harmful endeavors.

By GigaGold — On Feb 10, 2011

The merit system is much more balanced, but also has some major flaws. For instance, if someone is elected purely based on the merit they have for their position, without consideration into other aspects, such as morality and loyalty, then all kinds of people could hold office, and could use their power to cause and stir up trouble.

By BostonIrish — On Feb 09, 2011

The Jacksonian era was one of unbridled hegemony of the Scotch Irish feeling of manifest destiny and Jacksonian conquest. This is what helped to expand the US, but it also caused a lot of pain and bloodshed among the Natives and the Spanish settlers of what used to be a part of Mexico. Jackson not only elected people who were loyal to him, but used them to support his political machine of conquest. This was a major flaw in the spoil system, and not a problem which truly democratic nations should take lightly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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