The spoils system is another phrase for political patronage that is, the practice of giving the fruits of a party's victory, such as jobs and contracts, to the loyal members of that party. It was ended by Civil Service reform.
History of the Spoils System
Spoils became a famous word when it was used in 1832 by Senator William Marcy of New York in a speech that he made defending the decision of President Andrew Jackson to appoint one of his supporters, Martin Van Buren, as ambassador to the United Kingdom. New York politicians, he said, "boldly preach what they practice....If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy."
The use of the word dates back to Thomas Jefferson because he had appointed his partisans to office when he won the presidency from John Adams. Though Jackson is remembered as a heavy user of spoils, he only replaced about 20 percent of all the officeholders that he inherited from his predecessor.
By the late nineteenth century the spoils system was both more extensively used and sharply criticized. Ending the system and replacing it with appointments based on merit was major goal of the progressive movement around the turn of the century.
Spoils System Today
Today most federal appointments are based on merit, but in many state and local governments there continues to be a heavy reliance on patronage.