The spoil system is a system of political patronage wherein loyal party supporters are awarded with key government positions when a party wins office or takes the majority in the legislature. Political patronage of this nature can be seen in many nations, although it occurs at a much lesser level than it once did. In the United States, where the term has its origin, the president still retains the ability to appoint people to a few key "plums" in the administration as under the old spoil system, but for the most part people must win political positions by merit.
When President Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, members of the opposition party feared the wave of appointments he would make and their fears turned out to be well grounded. "To the victor belong the spoils," a famous Jackson supporter said, and President Jackson appointed people primarily on the basis of loyalty to him and the Democratic Party, rather than because he thought they were especially well-suited to their positions.
As the 1800s wore on, people began to protest the spoil system. They argued that it gave presidents a tremendous amount of power, as they could essentially build an entire government of supporters and use this to exert far more control than intended under the Constitution. In addition, highly suitable and talented people with the merit to succeed in appointed positions were passed over because they did not demonstrate sufficient party loyalty. The ability to literally buy appointments, such as ambassadorships, in the spoil system was also heavily criticized.
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Fighting this and other ethically disputed political practices, advocates began to usher in the civil service. Under the civil service, all government positions are open to anyone. To apply, people must pass a standardized examination. The recruitment process moves forward with people who have passed the examination, with the government interviewing them for positions and selecting people on the basis of merit. Merit is also key to promotion in the civil service.
A number of acts of legislature, including the Hatch Act of 1939, were passed to break down the spoil system and provide a more fair government. In the United States today, most government positions fall within the civil service framework. While the president does appoint some people, they must pass a confirmation process and merit is an important consideration in their selection. A handful of appointees are indeed rewarded for loyal party service and campaign assistance, but these numbers are small.