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spoils system

spoils system, in U.S. history, the practice of giving appointive offices to loyal members of the party in power. The name supposedly derived from a speech by Senator William Learned Marcy in which he stated, "to the victor belong the spoils." On a national scale, the spoils system was inaugurated with the development of two political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, and was used by the earliest Presidents, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The system soon became entrenched in state politics and was practiced more extensively on a national scale during the administration of Andrew Jackson, who declared (1829) that the federal government would be bettered by having civil servants rotate in office. He replaced incumbent officeholders with members of his own party. Nevertheless, during Jackson's eight years in office not more than one fifth of officeholders were replaced. The dispensation of offices by strict party allegiance was followed in succeeding years and critical opposition grew. The corruption and inefficiency bred by the system reached staggering proportions in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, and reaction against this helped bring about civil service reform, which was inaugurated by creation of the Civil Service Commission in 1871. The spoils system has, however, continued for many federal offices and is even more prevalent in state and local governments.

See A. A. Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils (1968); W. d. Foulk, Fighting the Spoilsmen (1974).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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