The Spoils System versus the Merit System

When a political party comes to power, its leaders tend to place many of their faithful followers into important public offices. The use of public offices as rewards for political party work is known as the "Spoils System." The system is popular in numerous nations.

Many consider this practice warranted when capable persons are appointed to high places where policy is made. They hold that the party in power must craft policy to meet its constituents' needs. On the other hand, it is unwarranted when political leaders dismiss able persons from positions that do not make policy. They do this to haul aboard others whose merit consists merely of party loyalty, thus compromising governmental effectiveness.

It was once commonly assumed that the spoils system in the United States came into general use first during Andrew Jackson's presidency. It has an older history. President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, favored a policy of keeping rival Federalists out of government offices.

By 1840, the spoils system was widely used in local, state and federal government. The United States fell far behind other nations in civil service standards of ability and rectitude. In 1841, when William Henry Harrison became president, the practice had reached groaning proportions.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 office-seekers converged on the Capital to scramble for 23,700 jobs that then comprised the federal service. Numerous persons hired through the spoils system were untrained for their work and indifferent to it. In the early days, government work was simple.

However, as government grew, a serious need for qualified workers developed. Pressure for reform began shortly following the Civil War. The gross scandals of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration lent credence to the efforts of reformers George W. Curtis, Dorman B. Eaton and Carl Schurz.

In 1871, Congress authorized the president to set regulations for admission to public service and appoint the oversight Civil Service Commission. However, this merit system ended in 1875 because of Congress's failure to provide the funds to see it through.

Nevertheless, the experiment proved the merit system to be both functional and supportive. President Rutherford B. Hayes was enamored of reform and began to use competitive examinations as a basis for office appointments.

In 1881, a spurned office-seeker shot and killed President James A. Garfield. His death provoked further public outcry for civil service reform and spurred passage of a bill introduced by Sen. George H. Pendleton of Ohio. His bill became the Civil Service Act of 1883 and re-established the Civil Service Commission. The Act rendered it unlawful to fill various federal offices by the spoils system.

Since then, much has been done to avoid the evils of the system. Federal civil service legislation has been greatly expanded. Many municipalities and states have made training and experience the prerequisites of appointment to public office.