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New Worlds: Political Patronage

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Holding someone’s vows of fealty isn’t the only way to exercise power and influence within an aristocratic society. More broadly — and here I mean well beyond the bounds of aristocracy, because this concept is alive and well in modern republics, even if we don’t always use the term — there’s the idea of patronage.

This is an extremely broad term, potentially covering any instance of one person using their wealth, favors, connections, or other social capital on behalf of someone else. Artists can have patrons (and that’s something I intend to discuss eventually, when we get back to the subject of art). Museums can have patrons. Charitable organizations can have patrons. And within the context of politics, this dynamic is a massive part of how basically anything gets done.

Your thoughts may go first to the people with high-ranking positions in the government or court, and that’s not wrong. Rank hath its privileges, which often includes increased income (therefore more money to spend on fees, gifts, and bribes), authority over a certain sphere or activity, better access to the monarch or prime minister or president, and more. Still, rank alone doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a effective patron: the shifting tides of politics can mean that a position which should be influential, like a chief councillor, winds up getting sidelined in favor of someone in another role, like the monarch’s private secretary. Interpersonal animosity or individual disgrace can mean that people stop taking your calls — because remember, a lot of what’s being spent here is social capital, not anything you can put in the bank and point at as proof that another person has to listen to you. Even cold hard cash stops meaning a lot if everybody around you decides you’ve become political poison. Winding up in that position frequently means losing your rank soon after, as you’ve become a liability; a ruler who clings to an unpopular minister for reasons of friendship is dragging a ball and chain with them wherever they go.

The fuzzy nature of social capital, though, means that someone can wind up as an influential patron by very unorthodox routes. After all, what do you really need? Not a fancy title attached to your name; you just need people to listen to you. Familial connections can get you there, with the in-laws of a ruler or a high-ranking official exerting an outsized influence on politics. In other cases, individuals have achieved great power through nothing more than the raw force of charisma.

In a royal or imperial context, this often manifests under the generalized term of “favorite.” Contemporary histories love to complain about the female favorites, i.e. mistresses, of male rulers, because of the patriarchal assumption that women shouldn’t be asserting such influence on politics; even Elizabeth I of England, who clearly thought it was just fine to have a woman on the throne, hated it when her ladies-in-waiting interfered too much. But male favorites (who in some cases were clearly the lovers of the king, too) could come in for just as much loathing, even to the point of open assassination. Often such murder could be draped in the cloak of loyal service: the evil councillor who steers the monarch down an ill path and usurps royal authority for himself is just as much a stock trope as the power-hungry mistress.

And favorites are all the more likely to be hated when they come from a low background. Even in a republic, we tend to wind up with something of an elite political class, as the machinery of patronage makes it easier to get friends and relatives into good positions for future advancement. But an outsider with good looks and a silver tongue — which in modern times might be exercised through the media, toward a general audience, instead of at court, toward an elite one — can slide right past all the gates and right into the heart of power.

However they got there, what can such a person do? Practically anything, depending on their context. In formal terms, a patron might have the ability to reward their political clients with appointments to lucrative or influential positions, whether those be the oversight of strategically significant castles, the collection of certain kinds of tax revenue, or seats on important committees. If the patron is, say, a judge, they can decide cases in favor of the party they prefer — sometimes within the bounds of the law, but sometimes with corruption and cronyism on open display.

A lot of patronage, though, is more amorphous. It simply consists of deciding whose petitions you will prioritize reading, which requests you’ll devote your own resources toward granting, who you’ll give advice to or go the extra mile for. A word in the ear of a personal friend, bringing a certain matter to their attention that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks, making it clear that you’d be grateful if they do you this favor — i.e. someday, when they need a favor in return, your own door will be open. Linguists appear to disagree on whether the term “lobbyist” originated with the British Parliament or U.S. Congress, but either way, it refers to the tendency of petitioners to hang around the lobby of the legislative chamber, waiting to flock toward the officials as soon as they emerge. Nowadayss, of course, a lot of that stuff can be done by email or phone call . . . but the personal touch still matters. So much of this is driven by relationships, by our deep-seated impulses against disappointing a friend.

Exercised on a grand enough scale, this is how you get parties and factions within a government. Reward your clients or your in-laws or your own relatives with key positions, and when the day comes that you’re the one who needs a favor or people to speak up in support of an idea, your investment will pay off handsomely. Meanwhile, your rivals are doing the same thing, jockeying to get your guy out and their guy in — sometimes literally, physically out and in, if their authority covers the right of access to restricted locations where deals get made. Anyone with access to the more privileged spaces, like the minister’s office or the monarch’s bedchamber, has an advantage over somebody shouting amid the crowd outside.

Usually this is a long game, played over years and even generations. Under the right circumstances, though — which often means the “favorites” corner of the field — the terrain can change with astonishing speed. In 1614, enemies of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and favorite of James I of England, picked out a pretty young gentleman named George Villiers, bought him new clothes, lobbied hard to have him made royal cup-bearer, and got him some roles as a dancer in the court masques. Villiers was knighted in 1615, made a baron in 1616, made an earl in 1617, made a marquess in 1618, made Lord High Admiral in 1619, and then had to wait four whole years to become the Duke of Buckingham, as he is usually known today — yes, the same Buckingham who appears in The Three Musketeers. His rise was meteoric, his influence enormous, and his end sticky, with an army officer assassinating him in 1628.

Such individuals are rarely replaced in their entirety right away. But like the sea, the tides of patronage rise and fall, and there is always someone’s boat ready and eager to float upward.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: Political Patronage”

  1. Royal favorites, particularly those of low-birth, make convenient scapegoats if you can’t quite accuse the king.

    (I also note that the original patronage system in Rome was a lot more formal than this, so it’s careful not to let notions slip either way.)

    1. I originally meant to talk more about Roman patronage in this essay, but it kind of fell by the wayside. I’ll see if I can’t cram it back in somehow for the book version.

  2. “If the patron is, say, a judge, they can decide cases in favor of the party they prefer — sometimes within the bounds of the law, but sometimes with corruption and cronyism on open display.”
    I think one of my favorite examples of that is a story told by Quintilian in Institutio Oratoria. He was arguing a case on the behalf of Berenice, who was Titus’ (not yet emperor, merely the son of the emperor) lover, only to discover that she herself presided as the judge.
    I love it because it not only shows off the power of patronage, it also shows off how much appearances still mattered – Berenice didn’t just declare unilaterally she won, she made sure to hire a very good lawyer to argue the case.

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