Politics and Corruption in the Gilded Age

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How did politicians of the Gilded Age use the spoils system?

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This answer will focus on the spoils system as it relates to presidential politics.

Many historians "credit" Andrew Jackson, who served two terms as president (1829-37), as the initiator of the spoils system in American presidential politics. While he was in office Jackson rewarded political allies such as NY Senator...

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This answer will focus on the spoils system as it relates to presidential politics.

Many historians "credit" Andrew Jackson, who served two terms as president (1829-37), as the initiator of the spoils system in American presidential politics. While he was in office Jackson rewarded political allies such as NY Senator William Marcy, to whom credit is given for naming this phenomenon when he said in 1832, "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy" in response to Jackson's many political appointments that appeared to be based on partisanship rather than merit. One notable recipient of Jackson's generosity was Samuel Swartwout, an old army buddy whom Jackson named as collector of the NYC customhouse. Jackson also rewarded corrupt newspaper editors who wrote favorably about his decisions and leadership. For example, historians claim that the US postal system had a considerable number of beneficiaries from Jackson's spoils system; over 400 people received the post despite having no training for it.

The Gilded Age is said to encompass the years 1870-1900, and though Jackson had long been out of office, the spoils system continued sporadically during this period.  For example, president Ulysses S. Grant, who served two terms from 1869-77, appointed, at Republican senator Roscoe Conkling's urging, Chester Arthur to the post of New York customs collector. Consequently, Arthur gave many government positions to Conkling's supporters, and those supporters gave generously to the Republican party. 

Rutherford B. Hayes, president from 1877-81 denounced the spoils system, proclaiming that it "degrades the civil service and the character of the government."

President James Garfield (1881) was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, a lawyer and writer. Garfield rebuffed Guiteau's repeated requests to be appointed a post in the diplomatic corps because of the support he had demonstrated for Garfield's candidacy.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, passed during Chester Arthur's presidency, was politically inconvenient for Arthur, who had deeply involved in the spoils system. Many saw Arthur's subsequent support for the Pendleton Act to be the ultimate flip-flop, since he himself had benefited from it under Grant.

President Grover Cleveland (1885-89 and 1893-97) struggled with the reform; a Democrat, he announced that he would not fire any Republicans performing government jobs well or appoint Democrats solely for partisan support, though he did ultimately buckle under pressure from Democrats to fill those jobs with partisans--particularly those who set policy.

President William Henry Harrison (1889-93) claimed to support the reform movement but history remembers him as a president who caved to the pressure of the spoils doctrine and who appointed party leaders and supporters.

The final president of the Gilded Age, William McKinley, had little success in upholding reform of the spoils system.  His close relationship with Mark Hanna, Republican operative and "kingmaker" and decision to remove 4,000 merit-list positions held by Democrats led many to deride him as a "party hack."

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The "Gilded Age" is the period of time during the late 1800s and early 1900s during which a high level of corruption, shoddiness, fakery, and little substance was rampant. The name comes from Mark Twain's novel of the same name.

Perhaps the spoils system is one of the main reasons why this time period became known as the "Gilded Age." In the spoils system, an elected official would unabashedly dole out jobs and favors to friends, family, and others.

These favors manifested themselves in different ways, but it was common to see jobs given in exchange for political favors, and nepotism was obvious in multiple levels of government. One egregious example of the spoils system was evident when U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the insertion of several of his wife's family members into federal government positions.

During the tenure of Chester A. Arthur as president, he oversaw the implementation of the Civil Service Commission. This was the beginning of the end for the spoils system, as it set standards that stated that government jobs were to be given by merit, not privilege. Over time, the spoils system slowly gave way to this new process of hiring government employees.

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