Patronage and Prosperity

Photograph of Amos Kendall.

Amos Kendall was a journalist and a staunch supporter of President Andrew Jackson. In return for his support, he was one of President Jackson’s closest advisors, save Martin Van Buren. Kendall even “formulated the rationale for the spoils system as ‘rotation in office’ and ghostwrote the Bank Veto Message as well as several of Jackson’s other major state papers.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 495.

Kendall, through his support of the Democratic Party and President Jackson, “synthesized the power of the press over public opinion with the power of patronage to create a network of self-interest.” Id. One such example is the expansion of the Post Office. While this helped foster the communications revolution and the transportation revolution and bring the country closer together, Kendall had “largely controlled appointments to branch post offices.” Id.

With his power, Kendall censored antislavery opinion from being disseminated by mail, as he hoped to shape public opinion through his newspaper, not the spread of antislavery “propaganda.” See id.

Kendall, however, also imposed order and a new sense of accountability on the Post Office, which had previously been quite lax. See id. Ultimately, Kendall was a fixture in early American society as he was “a newspaper editor, party organizer, political propagandist, postmaster general, telegraph builder, and promoter of language for the deaf.” Id. citing Matthew Crenson, The Federal Machine: Beginnings of Bureaucracy in Jacksonian America (Baltimore, 1975), 140-43, 157; Richard R. John, Spreading the News (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 219-23, 269-72; quotation from Donald Cole, A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy (Baton Rouge, 2004), 301.

Amos Kendall is a prime example of the lure, and danger, of having a system that fosters patronage. Through patronage, and corruption, there can be significant accomplishments, as Kendall’s work for the Post Office showed in contributing to the communications and transportation revolutions. However, all of this progress came at a price. A whole segment of society, advocating for abolition, was effectively silenced as their mail was not delivered to the South.

The balance of preventing corruption while ensuring healthy progress can be difficult to achieve. However, Americans should remember that progress should not come with the price of corruption or patronage. While President Jackson, and his Democratic Party, embraced those principles in the 1820s and 1830s, modern Americans should realize that progress need not come with such baggage. Even if progress and prosperity must be more incremental without a system of patronage, that is a price worth paying.

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