The Spoils System: Definition and Summary

How a Comment by a Senator Became a Controversial Political Tradition

Engraved portrait of Senator William Marcy
Senator William Marcy, who inadvertently gave the Spoils System its name. Getty Images

The Spoils System was the name given to the practice of hiring and firing federal workers when presidential administrations changed in the 19th century.

The practice began during the administration of President Andrew Jackson, who took office in March 1829. Jackson supporters portrayed it as a necessary and overdue effort at reforming the federal government.

Jackson's political opponents had a very different interpretation, as they considered his method to be a corrupt use of political patronage. And the term Spoils System was intended to be a derogatory nickname.

The phrase came from a speech by Senator William L. Marcy of New York. While defending the actions of the Jackson administration in a speech in the U.S. Senate, Marcy famously said, "To the victors belong the spoils."

The Spoils System Was Intended As a Reform

When Andrew Jackson took office in March 1829, after the bruising election of 1828, he was determined to change the way the federal government operated. And, as might be expected, he ran into considerable opposition.

Jackson was by nature very suspicious of his political opponents. And as he took office he was still quite angry at his predecessor, John Quincy Adams. The way Jackson saw things, the federal government was full of people who were opposed to him.

And when he felt that some of his initiatives were being blocked, he became incensed. His solution was to come up with an official program to remove people from federal jobs and replace them with employees considered loyal to his administration.

Other administrations going back to that of George Washington had hired loyalists, of course, But under Jackson, the purging of people thought to be political opponents became official policy.

To Jackson and his supporters, such changes were a welcome change. Stories were circulated which claimed elderly men who were no longer able to perform their jobs were still filling positions to which they had been appointed by George Washington nearly 40 years earlier.

The Spoils System Was Denounced as Corruption

Jackson's policy of replacing federal employees was bitterly denounced by his political opponents. But they were essentially powerless to fight against it.

Jackson's political ally (and future president) Martin Van Buren was at times credited with having created the new policy, as his New York political machine, known as the Albany Regency, had operated in similar fashion.

Published reports in the 19th century claimed that Jackson's policy accounted for nearly 700 government officers losing their jobs in 1829, the first year of his presidency. In July 1829, there was a newspaper report claiming the mass firings of federal employees actually affected the economy of the city of Washington, with merchants unable to sell goods.

All that may have been exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Jackson's policy was controversial.

In January 1832 Jackson's perennial enemy, Henry Clay, became involved. He assailed Senator Marcy of New York in a Senate debate, accusing the loyal Jacksonian of bringing corrupt practices from the New York political machine to Washington.

In his exasperated retort to Clay, Marcy defended the Albany Regency, declaring: "They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victors belong the spoils."

The phrase was widely quoted, and it became notorious. Jackson's opponents cited it often as an example of blatant corruption which rewarded political supporters with federal jobs.

The Spoils System Was Reformed in the 1880s

Presidents who took office after Jackson all followed the practice of doling out federal jobs to political supporters. There are many stories, for instance, of President Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, being endlessly annoyed by officer-seekers who would come to the White House to plead for jobs.

The Spoils System was criticized for decades, but what ultimately led to reforming it was a shockingly violent act in the summer of 1881, the shooting of President James Garfield by a disappointed and deranged office-seeker. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, 11 weeks after being shot by Charles Guiteau at a Washington, D.C. train station.

The shooting of President Garfield helped inspire the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which created civil servants, federal workers who were not hired or fired as a result of politics.

The Man Who Coined the Phrase "Spoils System"

Senator Marcy of New York, whose retort to Henry Clay gave the Spoils System its name, was unfairly vilified, according to his political supporters. Marcy did not intend his comment to be an arrogant defense of corrupt practices, which is how it has often been portrayed.

Incidentally, Marcy had been a hero in the War of 1812 and served as governor of New York for 12 years after briefly serving in the U.S. Senate. He later served as the secretary of war under President James K. Polk. Marcy later helped negotiate the Gadsden Purchase while serving as secretary of state under President Franklin Pierce.

Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York State, is named for him.

Yet, despite a long and distinguished government career, William Marcy is best remembered for inadvertently giving the Spoils System its notorious name.