Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

June 18, 2012

Economy, Government, History, Politics

The daughter of a friend of ours has a leading role in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’, a rock musical about Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, at the San Jose Stage, so I am looking forward to seeing it in a few days. The review in the San Jose Mercury News quotes the play’s narrator as suggesting that history is still out on whether Jackson was a  “great president – or a genocidal maniac who was an American Hitler”, presumably referring to Jackson’s policy of ethnic cleansing among Native Americans. Jackson is equally ‘well known’ for beginning the ‘spoils system’ in American politics, whereby existing office holders were removed en masse, for no other reason than to reward supporters with lucrative positions.

The spoils system was looked upon as having a negative effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government, so following the assassination of President James A. Garfield by a rejected office-seeker in 1881, the Pendleton Act was passed, creating a Civil Service Commission to evaluate job candidates on a bipartisan merit basis. Thus was born the modern U.S. Civil Service, based strictly on merit, and following the Hatch Act of 1939, civil servants were prohibited from engaging in any political activities while performing their duties.

While, at first glance, it seems obvious that a merit-based civil service is superior to a spoils system, this is not necessarily the case. Entrenched bureaucrats lack incentives to provide good service and not surprisingly use their power and influence to protect their own interests including tenure, compensation, fringe benefits and toleration of poor performance. While it is true that a career bureaucrat may be more efficient than one with a shorter tenure, the career bureaucrat also possesses more power to resist a politician’s attempt to assert his or her control. At least the spoils system provided incentives for political parties to overcome the powerful sectional interests of those seeking government subsidies and other privileges. Today, without these incentives, it does not seem to matter much which party is in office. Sharp and clear ideological differences between the parties have long since been exchanged for bland and fuzzy platitudes reflecting the fact that there are no longer real and substantial differences between them. You may want to ‘throw the bums out’ but if the real power lies with the life-tenured bureaucrats, you may have already lost your power to do so.

“I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.”  Andrew Jackson

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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One Comment on “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

  1. thoughtsontheatre Says:

    I hope you enjoy the show! It’s a fascinating, hilarious, and unbiased portrayal of Jackson.


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