The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold

PATRONAGE: THE SPOILS SYSTEM VS CIVIL SERVICE

At the heart of each president’s administration was the protection of the spoils system, that is, the power of the president to practice widespread political patronage. Patronage, in this case, took the form of the president naming his friends and supporters to various political posts. Given the close calls in presidential elections during the era, the maintenance of political machinery and repaying favors with patronage was important to all presidents, regardless of party affiliation. This had been the case since the advent of a two-party political system and universal male suffrage in the Jacksonian era. For example, upon assuming office in March 1829, President Jackson immediately swept employees from over nine hundred political offices, amounting to 10 percent of all federal appointments. Among the hardest-hit was the U.S. Postal Service, which saw Jackson appoint his supporters and closest friends to over four hundred positions in the service (Figure).

A cartoon shows Andrew Jackson riding a pig, which is walking over “fraud,” “bribery,” and “spoils,” and feeding on “plunder.”
This political cartoon shows Andrew Jackson riding a pig, which is walking over “fraud,” “bribery,” and “spoils,” and feeding on “plunder.”

As can be seen in the table below (Table), every single president elected from 1876 through 1892 won despite receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote. This established a repetitive cycle of relatively weak presidents who owed many political favors, which could be repaid through one prerogative power: patronage. As a result, the spoils system allowed those with political influence to ascend to powerful positions within the government, regardless of their level of experience or skill, thus compounding both the inefficiency of government as well as enhancing the opportunities for corruption.

Year Candidates Popular Vote Percentage Electoral Vote
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes 4,034,132 47.9% 185
Samuel Tilden 4,286,808 50.9% 184
Others 97,709 1.2% 0
1880 James Garfield 4,453,337 48.3% 214
Winfield Hancock 4,444,267 48.2% 155
Others 319,806 3.5% 0
1884 Grover Cleveland 4,914,482 48.8% 219
James Blaine 4,856,903 48.3% 182
Others 288,660 2.9% 0
1888 Benjamin Harrison 5,443,663 47.8% 233
Grover Cleveland 5,538,163 48.6% 168
Others 407,050 3.6% 0
1892 Grover Cleveland 5,553,898 46.0% 277
Benjamin Harrison 5,190,799 43.0% 145
Others 1,323,330 11.0% 22
1896 William McKinley 7,112,138 51.0% 271
William Jennings Bryan 6,510,807 46.7% 176
Others 315,729 2.3% 0
U.S. Presidential Election Results (1876–1896)

At the same time, a movement emerged in support of reforming the practice of political appointments. As early as 1872, civil service reformers gathered to create the Liberal Republican Party in an effort to unseat incumbent President Grant. Led by several midwestern Republican leaders and newspaper editors, this party provided the impetus for other reform-minded Republicans to break free from the party and actually join the Democratic Party ranks. With newspaper editor Horace Greeley as their candidate, the party called for a “thorough reform of the civil service as one the most pressing necessities” facing the nation. Although easily defeated in the election that followed, the work of the Liberal Republican Party set the stage for an even stronger push for patronage reform.

Clearly owing favors to his Republican handlers for his surprise compromise victory by the slimmest of margins in 1876, President Hayes was ill-prepared to heed those cries for reform, despite his own stated preference for a new civil service system. In fact, he accomplished little during his four years in office other than granting favors, as dictated by Republic Party handlers. Two powerful Republican leaders attempted to control the president. The first was Roscoe Conkling, Republican senator from New York and leader of the Stalwarts, a group that strongly supported continuation of the current spoils system (Figure). Long supporting former President Grant, Conkling had no sympathy for some of Hayes’ early appeals for civil service reform. The other was James G. Blaine, Republican senator from Maine and leader of the Half-Breeds. The Half-Breeds, who received their derogatory nickname from Stalwart supporters who considered Blaine’s group to be only “half-Republican,” advocated for some measure of civil service reform.

A cartoon shows Roscoe Conkling playing a popular puzzle game of the day with the heads of potential Republican presidential candidates. The caption reads “The Great Presidential Puzzle.”
This cartoon shows Roscoe Conkling playing a popular puzzle game of the day with the heads of potential Republican presidential candidates, illustrating his control over the picks of the party.

With his efforts towards ensuring African American civil rights stymied by a Democratic Congress, and his decision to halt the coinage of silver merely adding to the pressures of the economic Panic of 1873, Hayes failed to achieve any significant legislation during his presidency. However, he did make a few overtures towards civil service reform. First, he adopted a new patronage rule, which held that a person appointed to an office could be dismissed only in the interest of efficient government operation but not for overtly political reasons. Second, he declared that party leaders could have no official say in political appointments, although Conkling sought to continue his influence. Finally, he decided that government appointees were ineligible to manage campaign elections. Although not sweeping reforms, these were steps in a civil service direction.

Hayes’ first target in his meager reform effort was to remove Chester A. Arthur, a strong Conkling man, from his post as head of the New York City Customs House. Arthur had been notorious for using his post as customs collector to gain political favors for Conkling. When Hayes forcibly removed him from the position, even Half-Breeds questioned the wisdom of the move and began to distance themselves from Hayes. The loss of his meager public support due to the Compromise of 1877 and the declining Congressional faction together sealed Hayes fate and made his reelection impossible.

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