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Spoils System

Jacksonian Democracy showed its face on inauguration day when crowds of celebrating supporters stormed the White House. Muddy boots trampled the fine carpeting, crystal and china were shattered, and all the food and drink were quickly consumed. Disapproving National Republicans spoke fearfully about the accession of “King Mob.” Many inauguration-day revelers were in Washington hoping to find government jobs. The term “spoils system” refers to the conferral of office on people based upon political concerns rather than fitness for office. Viewed in its best light, it was a further expression of increased democratization in American politics—one need not be a member of the elite in order to govern. Upon assuming office, Jackson was intent upon punishing his opponents and ridding the government of the services of those who represented the financial interests of New England. Martin Van Buren was named secretary of state and John H. Eaton as secretary of war; both were strong political allies of the president. During his two administrations, Jackson replaced less than twenty percent of federal office holders. That percentage was in line with his predecessors, but differed in that Jackson's dismissals were clearly more politically motivated. A Jackson supporter, Sen. William L. Marcy, was responsible for providing a name for this practice when he declared, “To the victor belong the spoils.” The spoils system remained an important part of the political landscape until the civil service reforms toward the end of the century. In actual practice, Jackson often avoided drawing upon the wisdom of his formal cabinet officials, preferring to confer frequently with an informal group of friends dubbed the “kitchen cabinet.”