Harper’s Weekly – March 31, 1877

Spoils System/Civil Service Reform

Corruption was widespread in post-Civil War America, facilitated by the spoils and patronage system put in place by President Andrew Jackson. Politicians, appointees, judges, editors, reporters, businessmen, lawyers, lobbyists and bankers all participated. As today, both true and false allegations flew widely and wildly in the press.

In 1832, Jackson was criticized for appointing Martin van Buren as Minister to England. New York Senator William Marcy defended Jackson by coining the phrase “To the victors belong the spoils.” Nast used the statue of Jackson on his horse as his symbol of the spoils system.

The spoils system was predicated on two fundamental interconnected parts. Most important was patronage, the awarding of jobs and political offices in return for votes and money.

The complementary necessity was political assessments on the patronage recipients, essential for funding the electoral machinery that kept their layers of bosses in power. Although laws were passed to make contributions optional, there was nothing “voluntary” about them.