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When the Constitution was written in the late 1700s, Daniel Webster wrote the following regarding the Constitution.

I am committed against any attempt to rule the free people of this country by the power and patronage of the Government itself.

In this context, what does patronage mean?

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2 Answers

Webster’s own understanding of the word patronage can be found in a speech he made in 1835:

“The most striking demonstration of the increase of executive authority ... is the use of the power of patronage; it is the universal giving and taking away of all place and office, for reasons no way connected with the public service, or the faithful execution of the laws [emphasis added]; it is this which threatens with overthrow all the true principles of the government. Patronage is reduced to a system. It is used as the patrimony, the property of party. Every office is a largess, a bounty, a favor; and it is expected to be compensated by service and fealty. A numerous and well-disciplined corps of office-holders, acting with activity and zeal, and with incredible union of purpose, is attempting to seize on the strong posts, and to control, effectually, the expression of the public will.”¹

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He defines the word immediately after he uses it - now that's a primary source! Brilliant find. –  HaL Jan 26 '12 at 22:31
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My reading of history is that this was the modus operandi of the British government in the 1700's and probably well beyond, and is taken for granted as simply "the way things are" in many parts of the world today. –  mickeyf Jan 26 '12 at 23:02
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Webster is referring to executive patronage, which allows an elected individual (such as the president of the United States) to appoint other individuals to government offices (rather than having those offices filled via election).

Patronage is one of the principles of Jacksonian Democracy, which Webster opposed during his career as a politician. At the time, and as it is now, patronage was regarded as a spoils system in which the winning political party was rewarded for their victory.

It seems to me that Webster could have easily left out "and patronage" from the quote provided without altering the meaning, but Webster is mostly remembered for his brilliant speeches as an orator and was likely attracted to the alliteration of "power and patronage".

It should also be noted that Webster was born in 1782 (five years before the Constitution was authored), and would likely have written or spoken that quote much later than the 1700s, most likely the 1830s or 40s.

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