What is Spoils System?

Definition and meaning of spoils system: The "spoils system" is a political practice where government jobs are handed out to a winning candidate or party's supporters, friends, and relatives, rather than being awarded based on merit.

The term originated in the early 19th century, and was famously encapsulated in the phrase "to the victor belong the spoils," attributed to New York Senator William L. Marcy in 1832. The spoils system became a hallmark of American politics, especially during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Under the spoils system, new leadership often results in significant turnover in the government workforce. Positions, from the highest levels of the federal government down to offices like local postmasters, can be replaced by individuals who supported the winning party. This can happen regardless of the individuals' qualifications or experience. In the past, this practice was seen as a way to reward supporters' loyalty and consolidate power within the ruling party.

However, the spoils system has been widely criticized for promoting inefficiency, corruption, and incompetence. It has led to government positions being filled by individuals who were not the most qualified for their roles, compromising the effectiveness and integrity of public service. The spoils system also prevented stability within the civil service, as employees were at risk of losing their jobs with each political turnover.

The pushback against the spoils system culminated in the late 19th century with the call for civil service reform. This movement aimed to ensure that government jobs were filled based on merit, qualifications, and competitive examinations, rather than political connections. A significant milestone in this reform effort was the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. This act laid the groundwork for the modern merit-based civil service system in the United States.

Today, the spoils system is largely a relic of the past in U.S. federal employment. However, its legacy persists in the form of political appointments for a small number of high-level positions within the federal and state governments, where the president or governors may choose appointees based on their loyalty and support.


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