Changing Face of Patronage

I was listening to a lecture on the politics of reconstruction when I encountered something that seemed quite quaint.   By 1877, a lot of the country was tiring of reconstruction, and was ready to move on.  Southern Democrats were taking the opportunity to re-take control of their states (through voter intimidation and outright murder) and, unfortunately, institute a race-based social system that would be enforced by government officials for almost a hundred years.

In this background, enter the contested Presidential election between Republican Hayes and Democrat Tilden.  The electoral college vote turned on three close southern races that no one to this day probably knows who really won, particularly if one factors in the voter intimidation in those states.  Never-the-less, Republicans found themselves in control of the vote counting and later the special committee to investigate and certify the election, and predictably Republican Hayes was certified the winner.

Southern Democrats were ticked off, and threatened to throw every wrench they could into seating the new government.  So, in a back room compromise, Democrats exchanged agreement on accepting Hayes as President for agreement by Republicans to pull troops out of the South and effectively allow Southern Democrats leeway to do whatever they liked with blacks in the South.

This is all grossly simplified, but what caught my attention was one side-bargain of the deal.  The Southern Democrats wanted a cabinet position under Hayes.  What did they want?  State, maybe War?  No, they wanted the Postmaster position.  The reason was that the Postmaster had by far the most patronage positions to award of any of the Cabinet positions, because it employed so many civil service positions.

Doesn't handing out a few jobs as rewards to your political supporters seem such a quaint form of political corruption today?  Now, of course, with the power to tax or regulate whole industries out of business, or to step on one group of competitors in favor of another set in a high-stakes market, this seems so benign.  I wish that were all we had to worry about today.  Instead, we have a President who can, without any enabling legislation, take two of the largest corporations in American (GM and Chrysler), cancel the debts owed to their secured creditors, and then hand control of these companies to his strongest political supporters (the UAW) -- an act of political patronage that makes a joke of selling a few postmaster positions.

Update: Don Boudreaux discusses the rise of government-controlled fire fighting in the context of political patronage.


  1. Anonymous Mike:

    In fact for a very long time, I want to say well into the 20th Century, Postmaster General was seen as the patronage-dispensing position in the cabinet and so was always given with that in mind. Keep in mind too that until about that time, the only contact the average citizen would have with the federal government was the post office

    I had never thought until you post about how the "patronage system" has transformed through the years thanks both to civil service reforms and the massive growth in federal expenditures and regulations. I guess just a mental block on my part but with everyone patting themselves on the back on how much more "enlightened" we are these days for eliminating the spoils system and not giving as many jobs to political hacks... well back then they were just small time petty thieves compared to today

    When my book on this subject is published, I will make sure to cite this post as an inspiration

  2. mark:

    I believe the postmaster was also powerful because, at least in the 19th century, the postal service had effective power of censorship by refusing to carry pamphlets and the such. I am hypothesizing here, but is it possible the southern Democrats sought to wrest this power away from their politcal opponents?

  3. Bob Smith:

    I like patronage jobs. Why? When the new regime rides into town incumbents are going to lose their jobs. That eliminates the permanent bureacracy that's a cancer on our current political and economic scene. Since the permanent bureaucracy can't be fired by a new administration (whether that's federal, state, or local) it exists only to serve itself, not its nominal political masters who in fact have no real control over it.