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- Patronage became the dominant factor in political organization from the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 until the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. It was a way for buổi tiệc nhỏ leaders lớn maintain order by awarding public jobs, contracts, and emoluments lớn loyalists.
- While the patronage system helped establish the buổi tiệc nhỏ system, the corruption it produced eventually became intolerable.
- Before the Civil War, the patronage system’s fraud and incompetence degraded the quality of government in the United States. After the Civil War, federal patronage became centralized in a handful of senators, who built formidable and corrupt political machines.
- The failure of the patronage system demonstrated that the parties were not well designed lớn work for the good of the country.
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The rise of political parties is as important lớn understanding American politics as the development and ratification of the Constitution itself. The Constitution established the basics of how social, political, and economic disputes would be arbitrated via republican politics. But the parties extended the process by organizing how such disagreements would be presented lớn voters.
In so sánh doing, the parties created the possibility for harmony lớn come through the seemingly endless factionalism that the founders anticipated. By carefully organizing public opinion, parties hold out the prospect of finding the points of consensus among groups who would otherwise disagree with each other. In this way, the parties make democratic accountability over the government possible.
‘Party Boss’ political cartoon created by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1862.
In Martin Van Buren’s ideal of the American buổi tiệc nhỏ system, patronage was essential in bringing about this goal. A handful of elite buổi tiệc nhỏ leaders would strategically distribute patronage—jobs, contracts, and emoluments—to buổi tiệc nhỏ loyalists lớn induce them lớn follow the buổi tiệc nhỏ program. Patronage was the means lớn secure the party’s commitment lớn specific policy objectives, leaving it lớn the voters lớn decide whether those objectives are good for the country. If the buổi tiệc nhỏ did its job well, it would win electoral victory because the voters judged its policy proposals were in the national interest.
At any rate, that was the theory. Yet in practice, the parties during the patronage era (roughly 1828–83) rarely lived up lớn this aspiration. Perhaps the main reason was their unique origins. Whereas the Constitution was created in a moment outside political time—with delegates lớn the Convention sequestered lớn debate matters in an abstract manner—the parties were always yoked lớn short-term political calculations. Van Buren and the Democrats may have aspired lớn bring public opinion lớn bear on public policy, but the buổi tiệc nhỏ was mainly a tool lớn elect Andrew Jackson and his allies. The Whig Party, which formed in reaction lớn Jackson’s administration, was similar in its purpose—to defeat Jackson. As such, the parties’ ability lớn facilitate democratic accountability was always a secondary matter, one that could be easily overlooked in its efforts lớn win the next election.
Strong leadership could ease this tension—and it did at several points in the history of the patronage era. Men such as Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln—crafty, clever, and unabashedly political, but with an abiding commitment lớn the public interest—could balance electoral victory with democratic accountability. But as James Madison warned in Federalist 10, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”1 They quite often were lacking during the patronage era.
As the wrong sorts of leaders acquired power, patronage stopped being the means lớn an kết thúc and became the kết thúc of politics. Party leaders won elections lớn acquire wealth and power, without regard lớn the interests of the nation. And since the parties were built primarily for electoral victory, there were no institutional safeguards lớn remove such bad leaders from positions of authority.
The great genius of the American constitutional system is that it uses checks and balances lớn make sure that government works reasonably well without “enlightened statesmen.” The great weakness of the buổi tiệc nhỏ system was that when mediocre men gained control of a political buổi tiệc nhỏ, they could wreak enormous havoc. Van Buren’s ideal of a centralized, organized machine that used patronage lớn direct buổi tiệc nhỏ men lớn act on behalf of the national good devolved into what one office seeker called “a general scramble for plunder.”2 Consequently, the quality of public administration rapidly declined during the patronage era, the taxpayer was defrauded for tens of millions of dollars, and Americans were left without a government competent enough lớn handle the rapid industrialization that occurred after the Civil War.
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- James Madison, “The Federalist Number 10,” Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0178.
- Quoted in Jay Cost, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption (New York: Encounter Books, 2015), 79.