This article develops a two-part theory that accounts for both the origins and the persistence of patronage politics. First, greater centrifugal and disintegrative pressures at key moments in the state-building process give local elites more opportunity to institutionalize patronage at the subnational level. Second, decentralized patronage systems are more resistant to reform than centralized ones. Case studies of India and Ceylon illustrate how variation in centrifugal pressures allowed subnational elites to capture the state in the former but not the latter. Further data from the British Empire shows that greater centrifugal pressures faced by British colonies at the time of decolonization are correlated with the persistence of higher levels of patronage over time.