Spoils system

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In politics, a spoils system refers to an informal or formal practice by which the party in power, perhaps after winning an election, monopolizes prerequisites and government jobs with direct politically-motivated appointments. The term was derived from the phrase "to the victor go the spoils," where the term "spoils" refers to luxury gains resulting from any kind of victory. Proponents of such a practice consider official positions as rewards, which are given to loyal individual supporters.

Spoils systems are endemic in nations that are struggling to transcend systemic clientage based on tribal organization or other kinship groups and localism in general. In the History of the United States, the 'Spoils System' was the process of appointing officials to the government of the United States of America based on political connections rather than on impersonal measures of merit.

It was a contentious feature of Andrew Jackson, who introduced it as a democratic measure informed by his understanding of the nature of party politics and democracy. He considered that popular election gave the victorious party a "mandate" to select officials from its own ranks. The spoils system was closely linked to the new party system which he was instrumental in creating, generally known to scholars as the "second party system" (the first being the system which emerged in the aftermath of the ratification of the American Constitution). Proponents claimed that ordinary Americans were able to discharge the official duties of government offices - not just a special civil service elite. Opponents considered it vulnerable to incompetence and corruption, just like the systems it followed and preceded.

The system was formally ended in the Federal government in 1883 with the creation of a civil service. Although higher cabinet level offices continue to be formed by the party of the winner of the Presidential election, the incumbents of the remaining government jobs were hired by agencies independent of the political parties, and their job security was insured by law, a state of affairs that continues today. It therefore became difficult if not impossible for voters to have any say in who holds a lower government position.

The separation between political activity and the civil service was made stronger with the Hatch Act which prohibited federal employees from engaging in political activities.

Later, Ulysses S. Grant used this system, which resulted in corruption and political crime. The system survived in many states and large municipalities, such as the Tammany Hall ring, which survived well into the 1930s when New York City reformed its own civil service. However, there are still hints of the system in the U.S. diplomatic corps as most ambassadors to major nations are direct political appointments (often linked to contributions or other political connections) even though the majority of employees of the U.S. State Department are civil servants who are career diplomats.

Politicians like Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland were widely seen as opposing a spoils system. In fact, Lincoln's nickname "Honest Abe" stemmed from the widespread belief he would not fill political offices with party officials as his predecessor James Buchanan had done. Many Republicans supported the Democratic Party candidate Cleveland for the same reason, believing his opponent Benjamin Harrison was too closely supported by supporters of Grant's spoils system, which had extended well into the administration of Grant's successor Rutherford B. Hayes. Harrison himself, although an outspoken opponent of the spoils system, admitted that his political supporters had promised every available federal office to party supporters without his knowledge.


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