The 1879 “Government Shutdown,” Part II

Congressman James Garfield augmented Hayes’ constitutional scruples with a defense of black voting rights. He decried the Democrats’ attempt to achieve “wholesale disfranchisement of the Negro…in the South” as an attack on his party’s legacy: the ending of slavery, Constitutional amendments guaranteeing citizenship and voting rights to blacks, and the supremacy of the Union. These Republican constitutional arguments at the same time served the party for partisan political advantage.

The idea that what the Democrats were up to was an attempt to undermine the Constitution was seen as “revolutionary” by Hayes, by Garfield, and by other prominent Republicans. Plain and simple, the Democrats were trying to blackmail Hayes into ending federal voting rights provisions in the states.

garfieldlookingright

Congressman James A. Garfield, one of President Hayes’s most articulate allies during the “Revolution in Congress.”  (Library of Congress)

In a speech before the House, later published as “Revolution in Congress,” Garfield pointedly remarked, “… if the President, in the discharge of his duty, shall exercise his plain constitutional right to refuse his consent to this proposed legislation, the Congress will so use its voluntary powers  as to destroy the government. This is the proposition… we confront; and we denounce it as revolution.”

Even two of President Hayes’s Republican detractors came to his defense. New York Senator Roscoe Conkling stood before the Senate on March 24, 1879, and excoriated the Democrats demand that unless “another species of legislation [a rider] is agreed to, the money of the people… shall not be used to maintain the government.” This, he said, was “revolutionary…” Conkling’s arch rival, Maine Senator James G. Blaine, agreed. “I call it the audacity of revolution for any senator or representative… to get together and say [to the President and the country], ‘We will have this legislation or we will stop… the government.’ That is revolutionary…”

Over the course of three months, the Democrats tried five times to attach riders to appropriations bills for the Army and for the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of the government. All had the same object: rid the South of federal marshals and end the Army’s presence at the polls.

Hayes vetoed every bill with such riders. Each time, his veto was sustained in the House because Republicans, guided by Congressman Garfield, stood firmly against the Democrats.

conkling

Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York did not see eye to eye with President Hayes on much, but he stood by the President during these events.  In 1881, Conkling would have a very bitter public dispute with Hayes’s presidential successor: James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

Hayes and Garfield stood shoulder to shoulder against Democratic maneuvers to weaken the protections of citizens at the polls. Hayes’ insistence that he would not be bullied by the Democrats was so determined that Congressman Garfield feared that the President’s strategy would backfire. He appealed to Hayes to find some face-saving compromise to save the Democrats total embarrassment. The President scoffed at Garfield’s chivalrous concern: ‘A square backing down is their best way out, and for my part I will await that result with complacency.”

The self-confident Hayes insisted that he would not sign any appropriations bills with the riders to which he objected. Only once did Hayes approve an appropriation bill with riders. It funded the Army and the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, but omitted funding for federal marshals. In the end, the Democrats were able to withhold only $600,000 of the $45,000,000 needed to keep the federal government functioning.

In the end, Hayes, Garfield and their Republican colleagues successfully defended the President’s constitutionally mandated veto power. In this, they had taken a step in reinvigorating the role of the president in national affairs.

The success of the political goal of defending black voting rights and of increasing Republican influence in the South was not as obvious. After all, the Democrats had won a partial victory. They were able to defund the marshals. However, as the marshals were called to duty only at election time, there was still time for the President and Congressman Garfield to get them funded. A deficiency bill to provide funding not approved earlier is mentioned in the diaries of both Hayes and Garfield in April 1880.

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“Hayes at Bat,” from the Daily Graphic on June 3, 1879.  (Daily Graphic)

Over the course of three months, Hayes’ battle with the Democrats won him respect in many parts of the country, and especially among Republicans. “I am now experiencing one of the ‘ups’ of political life,” he wrote on July 3.  Congress adjourned on the 1st after a session of almost 75 days mainly taken up with a contest against me. Five vetoes, a number of special messages and oral consultations with friends and opponents have been my part of it. At no time… has the stream of commendation run so full. The great newspapers and the little have been equally profuse of flatter…”

Garfield emerged as the leading spokesman for the administration. Already, in early 1879, there was talk among prominent Republicans that Garfield should be a candidate for president.

A constitutional victory for the Executive was won in 1879 that could not be diminished: a president could not – or should not – be forced to sign legislation with which he disagreed.

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield’s actions during the 1879 crisis led many to think that he would make a good Republican presidential candidate in 1880.  Garfield did not publicly respond to anyone suggesting him as a candidate but privately did not think the idea very realistic.  (Library of Congress)

The fight over riders to appropriations bills between House Democrats and President Hayes and his Republican allies in Congress in 1879 has parallels to the politics of our time.

First, the tensions between the Executive branch and the Legislative branch of the government were illuminated. In 1879, the Executive branch, which had been weakened in relation to Congress after the death of Lincoln, was strengthened by President Hayes’s determined stand. His Republican allies in Congress, united by the leadership of Congressman Garfield, gave Hayes critical support.

Second, the 1879 controversy was indeed “revolutionary,” as Republicans claimed. At no time before had there been such a bold attempt to “shut down” the operations of the federal government by a denial of funding. At no time after, until a partial shutdown caused by the Democrats in 1976 when Gerald Ford was President, was such a tactic employed again. The threat of shutdowns has occurred with greater frequency in the last forty years, making our own politics “revolutionary” in nature.

Finally, as is often true of modern politics, the 1879 veto fight contained a measure of temporary political advantage for both political parties. However, both parties were divided internally and neither could be assured of easy victory as they approached the 1880 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, African-Americans, whose political status was at the center of the 1879 controversy, steadily lost ground in their fight for respect and civil rights, another legacy of the divisive politics of the Hayes/Garfield era.

-Joan Kapsch and Alan Gephardt, Park Rangers

 

Around and About James A. Garfield: Whitelaw Reid (Part I)

This is the inaugural article in a series of occasional blogs that will offer a biographical sketch of individuals who influenced the life, career, and decisions of James A. Garfield. This series begins with a look at Whitelaw Reid, most noted as the editor of the New York Tribune for forty years, from 1872 to 1912.

Reid was born in Xenia, Ohio on October 27, 1837. His mother wanted to name him “James,” but his Baptismal Certificate shows only the name “Whitelaw.” Yet, he used the name “James” throughout childhood. In early adulthood, he began using Whitelaw as his name, and was sometimes known simply as “White.”

Whitelaw_Reid_-_Brady-Handy

Whitelaw Reid.  (Wikipedia)

He attended the Xenia Academy in his youth, studying Latin, classical literature, and mathematics. At fifteen he was well enough prepared for entry into Miami University, at Oxford, Ohio, as a second year student. While at the school, Reid joined a literary society whose members enjoyed discussing politics and public speaking. He graduated with honors in 1856. Though his studies did not indicate a career in journalism, by the early 1860s Reid was writing for the Cincinnati Gazette, the Cincinnati Times, and the Cleveland Herald, under the pen name “Agate.”   (Agate is a translucent rock of varied colorful layers.)

During the Civil War, Reid acted as a correspondent at several battlefields, among them Shiloh and Gettysburg. His account of the Battle of Shiloh, with tales of confusion, courage, and disaster narrowly averted, has been described as classic war reporting.

The war years affected Reid directly. His older brother, Gavin died in 1862, though not on the battlefield. His father died in 1865. Reid was now responsible for the care of his mother, who was in her sixties. The results of the war also led him to attempt a “get rich quick” investment in a southern plantation in 1866. At the same time, Reid took up his talent with his pen to compose After the War and Ohio in the War.  His experiment in the South was not profitable, and within two years he took the step that made his an influential voice in American society and made him a confidante to political figures, including James G. Blaine and James A. Garfield.

Like other white northerners, Reid betrayed a mix of opinions and attitudes toward black slaves, and African-Americans in general. Prior to the Civil War his experience of blacks had been little. He was opposed to slavery, and supported Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. He did not think, after the war, that universal suffrage for black men was wise, but he also knew of many “orderly and respectable” blacks who he felt were worthy of the right to vote. He favored education for the former slaves but had doubts about their capabilities. “The negroes do not have the intelligence and the white do not have the inclinations to secure for the blacks the full benefits of any educational provisions that may be made for them.”

Though today many Americans would find this attitude highly prejudicial, in Reid’s day it was commonly held, even among those whites who wanted justice for African-Americans.

In the South, he found the former rebels to be still rebellious, and yet he thought that northern military domination the white “elite” during Reconstruction was a mistake. At the same time, he was in accord with many northerners who were sure that allowing the southern elite to regain political control spelled disaster for blacks on the local level, and repudiation of Confederate debt on the national level.

The year 1868 was a seminal year for Reid. This tall, slender man with a drooping mustache, long black hair, and “intelligent eyes” joined the staff of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. The following year he was named managing editor. In 1872, Reid was part of the Liberal Republican movement that opposed a second term for President Grant and that ultimately supported the ill-fated Greeley for the presidency. Greeley died just days after the election and a short time later Reid became the new editor of the Tribune.

Horace_greeleyH3c

Horace Greeley, 1872 Liberal Republican presidential nominee and longtime influential editor of the New York Tribune.  (Dickinson College)

Greeley’s disastrous candidacy and death caused the circulation of the daily Tribune to decline greatly. It was Reid’s task to revive it. This took years. Complicating his ability to achieve that goal were several factors.  Disputes between himself and the typesetters union and his unskilled laborers arose on several occasions. In 1877, he proposed wage reductions to save costs, knowing that the unionized work force would resist him. When a new Tribune building was under construction during this time, he replaced striking workers with Italian immigrants who worked for less. Reid’s clashes with unions and his workers persisted throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Insisting that “authority” must be maintained, he favored strong action against striking workers during the Railroad Strike of 1877.

Of the many presidents Reid would come in contact with, the first was Hayes. Reid thought Hayes was an excellent choice for the Republicans in 1876. He regarded Hayes as a gentleman and an honest man, if not a great one. He assured Hayes of the support of the Tribune during the election, and initially approved of Hayes’ desire to reform the civil service. However, after Hayes became president, articles appeared in the Tribune critical of the overzealous reforms of Carl Schurz, the Secretary of the Interior.

Carl_Schurz_1879

Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz ran afoul of Whitelaw Reid with the many reforms he tried to institute at the Department of the Interior.  (Wikipedia) 

In 1880, Reid and the Tribune were strongly opposed to the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant for a third term as president. (President Hayes did not wish a second term.) James G. Blaine appeared to Reid to be the best hope for a Republican victory, but the nomination went to James A. Garfield. Immediately, Reid began to council harmony within the party and to advise the nominee. He urged Garfield to remain at his Mentor, Ohio home for the duration of the campaign. It was a tradition that presidential candidates did not campaign for themselves, and Reid knew that Garfield would have liked being “on the stump.” Whether from Reid’s influence or not, Garfield did indeed remain at home, resulting in the first front porch presidential campaign. The innovation proved to be successful. Garfield and Reid consulted regularly during the campaign and in the months leading to the president-elect’s inauguration.

Reid offered Garfield his take on two opposing figures in the Republican Party. Do not put too much stock into Carl Schurz and his ties to the German vote, Reid advised, opining that Schurz had done Hayes more harm than good. New York’s senior Senator, Roscoe Conkling, was another concern. Reid cautioned Garfield that Conkling could not be given too much influence in future New York political appointments, but recognized that “he is undoubtedly of great value on the stump…”

Garfield, for his part, respected Reid’s political sagacity and position as the editor of an influential newspaper. His view of civil service reform closely followed Reid’s. Garfield favored reform, but also acknowledged the value of consulting congressional opinion in the process of making appointments.

Reid was of good service to Garfield as he began forming his cabinet amidst the competing cries of the many factions of the Republican Party. Reid agreed with the incoming Secretary of State, James Blaine, that a way to satisfy moderate Republicans, and Conkling’s demand for a New York appointment, was the selection of Thomas L. James as the Postmaster General. James initially accepted. Then he received a tongue-lashing from Conkling and backed out. Later, he thought it over and accepted again. None of this pleased Conkling, who resented Reid’s influence with Garfield. As Reid’s biographer, Bingham Duncan, put it, “Reid happily described [Conkling’s] discomfiture to Miss Mills [Reid’s fiancée] and added, ‘G. told me of it with a chuckle.’”

Early in 1881, Mrs. Garfield traveled to New York to purchase dresses for the Inauguration. She stayed at Reid’s home, with her companion, Mrs. Sheldon. Upon her return to Mentor, Mrs. Garfield received a letter from Reid. It contained information on an overcharge of more than $100 from one of the companies Mrs. Garfield visited, with an additional mention of a bill from Tiffany.

In the same letter, Reid wrote that he had “met Mrs. Hayes at dinner last night. She told me of people coming to her about your policy on wines & her advising them to keep away from you. But, speaking for herself, & without any idea of its ever reaching you, she spoke very frankly of her belief that it would be a mistake to change [Mrs. Hayes’ practice of forbidding alcohol to be served in the White House]. She thought it would cost about five thousand votes in Ohio.”

lucy%20hayes

First Lady Lucy Hayes, famous for banning alcohol from White House events and known to many as “Lemonade Lucy.”  In fact, it was her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes, who instituted the ban on spirits.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Whitelaw Reid’s most consequential advice to the new president, supported by Blaine, was his urging that William Robertson be appointed as Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson had opposed Conkling and his preferred nominee, former president Grant, at the 1880 Convention. Now he was being touted for the most important appointed position in the federal government. It was a direct attack on Conkling and caused a big fight between the President and the Senator, and further disrupted the Republican Party. When, in April, Reid was asked to persuade Robertson to withdraw, he opined to John Hay, one of Lincoln’s former secretaries, and a good friend, that sticking with Robertson would be “the turning point of [Garfield’s] Administration… the crisis of his Fate.”

Though ultimately President Garfield won his battle with Conkling over the Robertson appointment, “Fate,” in the human form of Charles Guiteau, was not kind him. The assassin pointed to the battle with Conkling over patronage as part of his “inspiration” in shoot the President.

After Garfield’s death, Reid advised Blaine to resign from the cabinet. He opposed President Arthur’s administration and supported Blaine for the presidency in 1884. Until then, Reid refocused his attention on the Tribune, and particularly on the promotion of a technological advancement invented by a German immigrant living in Baltimore at the time, Ottmar Mergenthaler.

Using a keyboard similar to that found on a typewriter, hot lead was molded into lines of type. The process was much faster than having typographers set the lines in a composing stick one letter at a time.

The editors at the Baltimore Sun rejected Mergenthaler’s new technology, but the editor of the New York Tribune embraced it. Whitelaw Reid promoted the new “linotype [line-of-type] machine,” and the helped to establish the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. In taking up the efficiency of Mergenthaler’s invention, Reid opened up another controversy with the Typographical Union #6, for the linotype machine meant a cut in wages for typographers, the men who arranged the type to be printed. Negotiations between Reid and the union produced the usual results: charges of bad faith and walk-outs. Type founders, the men who made the type, and newspaper proprietors, saw nothing wrong in cutting the wages of typographers, since the linotype machines was doing the work previously done by them. The issues between Reid and his typographers were not resolved during the 1880s.

Both Hayes and Garfield had offered Reid a diplomatic post in Germany, which he refused. He was without influence during the Arthur and first Cleveland presidencies, but after Benjamin Harrison’s election in 1888 Reid made no secret of his desire to be Ambassador to Great Britain. He was offered the post of Ambassador to France instead; it was accepted.

At this time, Reid held to a limited role for the United States in international affairs. Like many of his contemporaries during the post-war years, he did not see a need for the influence of the United States to extend beyond North and South America. He favored a small navy and opposed the acquisition of Hawaii by the United States (an instance in which he agreed with President Cleveland), but he understood the importance of an isthmian canal in Central America. Though an admirer of the English, he cast a wary eye on Great Britain and its desire for a presence, and influence, in Latin America.

Reid’s tenure in France served the country well. In 1892, this seasoned newspaper editor and successful diplomat was chosen as President Harrison’s running mate in a bid for the president’s reelection. He was a more active candidate for Vice President than Harrison, whose wife was dying, was for President. Reid credited the Republican Party as the party that freed the slave and preserved the Union, protected labor [surprising inclusion from a man who cut wages and hired scabs], promoted manufacturing, built the railroads, instituted the all-steel navy, and more. Despite Reid’s efforts and those of other Republicans, Harrison lost the election. It was a blow to Reid, who for a time withdrew from public life.

1892RepublicanPoster

This poster supported the Republican ticket of Benjamin Harrison and Whitelaw Reid in 1892.  Harrison and Reid were defeated by Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson I.  (Wikipedia)

In 1896, with William McKinley’s election to the presidency, Reid expressed an interest in becoming Secretary of State. Senator Platt, of New York, the Republican strongman of that state, opposed the idea: “I told [Mark] Hanna [McKinley’s most important adviser] to tell McKinley if he wanted Hell with the lid off… to appoint Reid.”  John Sherman was appointed Secretary of State instead; Reid was also passed over for the post of Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. While this second slight by McKinley left Reid bitter, his disappointment was assuaged a bit when he was appointed to head the mission sent to Great Britain to attend the ceremonies for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

(Check back soon for Part II!)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

The Remarkable Roscoe, Part III

Even though Conkling’s supporters endorsed reform at the 1877 New York Republican Convention, he thrashed reformers verbally, suggesting that they were amateurs, phonies, or hypocrites. He referred to the Civil Service as the “Snivel Service,” and called supporters of reform “man milliners,” who paraded “their own thin veneering of superior purity” while attacking Grant. “Their stock in trade is rancid, canting self-righteousness,” he said.

Yet, despite all the self-interested antagonism that he directed at Hayes, he still agreed with the President on important monetary policy matters. He stood with Hayes in opposition to the Bland-Allison bill, which called for the remonetization of silver. He called this an idea of “a nearly equal mixture of idiots and knaves.” Conkling voted against the measure, but failed to do anything to prevent a Senate override after Hayes vetoed it, and Bland-Allison became law.

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling's support.  Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes's efforts to reform the nation's civil service.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling’s support. Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes’s efforts to reform the nation’s civil service. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Conkling also stood with Hayes in the matter of “riders” to appropriations bills. In 1879, House Democrats attempted to “de-fund” the U.S. Army; to prevent it from “interfering” with Congressional elections in the South. Five times the Democrats attached such riders to appropriations bills, and five times Hayes vetoed them. Conkling supported Hayes every time, denouncing the efforts to compel Hayes “to give up his convictions, his duty, and his oath, as the price to be paid a political party for allowing the Government to live.”

But these were rare moments of good will. When the presidential election year of 1880 came around, he was anxious to replace the retiring Hayes with former president Grant. His support for Grant began in February 1880, soon after the latter’s return from a much publicized and praised trip around the world. Conkling led a pro-Grant majority at the New York state convention. It seemed as if Conkling had unified New York’s delegation to support Grant at the national convention. This was an illusion.

An intra-party power struggle played out in May, when state senator William Robertson (always a thorn in Conkling’s side) announced that he would vote for James G. Blaine, of Maine. Soon, a revolt against Grant that began in the New York delegation spread throughout the national convention that met in June. The “unit rule,” that pledged state delegations to vote as one for the candidate who had majority support in each came under attack. William Robertson led that fight in New York and Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio fought the unit rule in the Rules Committee.

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York.  Robertson was not a "Conkling man," and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship.  Robertson's appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state's senior senator, or the President.  (Wikipedia.com)

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson was not a “Conkling man,” and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship. Robertson’s appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state’s senior senator, or the President. (Wikipedia.com)

Irony of ironies, it was General Garfield – who hadn’t sought the nomination – who won it. Grant’s defeat angered Conkling. He didn’t think any better of Garfield than he did of Hayes. To many Grant Republicans, the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock, looked like a winner. Roscoe Conkling thought James Garfield was a beaten man. That wouldn’t be so bad; he could run Grant again in 1884.

So, as in 1876, Conkling did not go out of his way to support the 1880 national ticket. He troubled the nominee with his demands over control of New York appointments and cabinet appointments in a future Garfield administration. Once again, Conkling’s self-interest guided his thoughts and actions. Conkling and Garfield met on more than one occasion after the surprise Republican nominee became the surprise Republican victor. Conkling’s insistence that he control New York patronage was an irritant and a warning to the President-elect.

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield's doorstep.  (Puck)

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield’s doorstep. (Puck)

Garfield was determined to avoid what Hayes had gone through. When Garfield appointed William Robertson to be the new Collector of the Port of New York, a political battle between the new president and Conkling rivaled anything that had gone on between Conkling and Hayes. It was a months-long battle of wills that led Conkling to resign from the Senate, in the belief that he would be reelected, and thereby be placed in a stronger position to defeat the Robertson nomination and prevail over Garfield. Conkling’s gamble failed. Republicans in the New York Legislature were not about to defy their own president. Conkling was not reelected.

Meanwhile, a demented Charles Guiteau, having followed the course of the Garfield- Conkling fight in the press, assassinated the President. His distorted sense of reality led him to believe that removing Garfield would reunite the Republican Party – and save the country.

The combination of political defeat and Guiteau’s bullet brought Conkling’s political career finally and irrevocably to an end. Conkling acknowledged as much when he said after Garfield’s death, “How can I speak into a grave? How can I battle with a shroud? Silence is a duty and a doom.” Later he said, “I am done with politics now and forever.” He meant it.

After 1881, Conkling devoted himself to his law practice. Among his clients were financier Jay Gould, and the young inventor, Thomas Edison. He was a defense lawyer in the Supreme Court case, San Mateo County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court declared that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th amendment was intended to protect corporations as well as individuals.

Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a miserable day in New York City. A heavy rain turned into sleet, and the sleet into snow. It was not long before the city was a mess, with traffic stopped, the elevated railway disabled, and shops closed. The next day the wind gusts were clocked at 75 mph. After spending the morning in court, Roscoe Conkling trudged two-and-a-half miles through huge drifts of snow to his home. He wrote late, “I had an ugly tramp in the dark…drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs… and fallen telegraph wires.” Upon arriving home, he collapsed.

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home.  He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old.  (Library of Congress)

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home. He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old. (Library of Congress)

Soon he was confined to bed, the victim of an abscess in his right ear. Ironically, Dr. D. Hayes Agnes, who had attended President Garfield, was called to Conkling’s bedside. By early April, an operation was necessary. A hole was drilled into Conkling’s head with a mallet and chisel to relieve a buildup of pus. It was hoped that the strong, athletic Conkling would pull through. He did not. He fell into a coma and died on April 18, 1888, at the age of 58.

What could be made of this man who once so towered over his competitors? The noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll eulogized Conkling, acclaiming him as a man who “stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute integrity …Roscoe Conkling was an absolutely honest man.”

This was not the view of all men at the time, and Conkling’s reputation remains largely negative because of all the controversy that he stirred in defense of his political machine. True, he could be principled, as when he urged President Grant to veto the inflation bill of 1874 and when he sided with President Hayes over the appropriations riders. He took the high road when he stood by Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce, as their white colleagues altogether avoided the first elected black member of that body.

This statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City.  Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform.  (www.nycgovparks.org)

This John Quincy Adams Ward-sculpted statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City. Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform. (www.nycgovparks.org)

Conkling’s poor reputation, however, remains. He contributed no lasting positive record. The economic forces that were transforming the United Stated were controlled by men like Gould and Fisk, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie. It was a transformation that Roscoe Conkling did not attempt to understand or guide. Intra-party squabbles, not the welfare of the nation, preoccupied Conkling. He repeatedly “let himself be caught up in inconsequentials.” Why did he allow this? Was it a basic insecurity that drove Conkling to act as he did? Was he just a mean-spirited individual who needed to dominate others? Alas, herein lays a mystery.

What is clear is that in his battles with two successive presidents, Roscoe Conkling helped to forge the start of a new path for the institution of the presidency that would make it in our time the most influential and watched position in American politics – and the world’s. In this, Conkling’s career in politics, after more than one hundred thirty years, still echoes.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

The Remarkable Roscoe, Part II

If Roscoe Conkling’s support of Abraham Lincoln and opposition to Andrew Johnson in the 1860s grew out of an understanding of the needs of the entire country, then it is also clear that his later relations with Grant, Hayes, and Garfield were colored by his preoccupation with the local political machine he sought to preserve. His contemporaries recognized that he was intelligent and capable.

A one-time ally, railroad executive Chauncey Depew, made the point in retrospect. “Roscoe Conkling was created by nature for a great career.” That he wasted his talents “was entirely his own fault. Physically he was the handsomest man of his time. His mental equipment nearly approached genius… His oratorical gifts were of the highest order, and he was a debater of rare power and resources. But his intolerable egotism deprived him of the vision necessary for supreme leadership…. [H]is wonderful gifts were wholly devoted to partisan discussions and local issues.”

The shift in his attention away from national needs toward an increasingly narrow and self-interested point of view manifested itself during the Grant administration. From 1869 onward, the junior Senator from New York was Grant’s most steadfast supporter. In turn, Grant made it possible for Conkling to become the dominant political figure in New York State Republican politics.

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant.  The 18th president's friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade.  (Library of Congress)

Roscoe Conkling found an ally in President Ulysses S. Grant. The 18th president’s friendship and support helped Conkling dominate New York politics for a decade. (Library of Congress)

One of Grant’s early foreign policy initiatives was the annexation of San Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). Grant’s objectives were many: to establish an American naval station in this island nation, to provide trade opportunities for the Dominicans, to offer “the protection of our free institutions and laws, our progress and civilization,” and to encourage recently freed blacks to emigrate. This last goal might have resulted in the elimination of the race issue in the U.S.; at the least it might have forced white Southerners to treat black Southerners more fairly – at the risk of losing black labor. When Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Charles Sumner, objected, it was Conkling who, at Grant’s request, took the lead in having Sumner removed from his post.

Conkling’s support of Grant strengthened their bond. Happily for Conkling, Grant’s relationship with New York’s other Senator, Reuben Fenton, was not good. Fenton fawned over Grant, which the latter did not like. Conkling, by contrast, was always respectful, yet stuck to his guns when challenged. Grant liked that!

When it was time to appoint a new Collector of the Port of New York, Grant’s choice favored Conkling rather than Fenton. The Collectorship was the most important appointive post in the nation. More imports came into New York than into any other port in the nation. The job of Collector carried many responsibilities and perks, and presented many opportunities to preside over a workforce that would be loyal to a man who knew how to build a political machine. Conkling and Fenton were rivals to be that man. Each man wanted to dominate New York’s Republican Party. The two men who had the best chance for being appointed were Thomas Murphy and William Robertson. Robertson was an ally of Senator Fenton. Murphy was more of an independent. Conkling threw his support to Murphy. After Grant appointed Murphy, Conkling’s authority in New York increased as Fenton’s withered.

However, Conkling’s rise did not help Republicans nationwide. Historically, a President’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. In addition, there was dissatisfaction with some Grant policies and appointments. Consequently, Republican majorities in the Congress were reduced after the 1870 midterm election.

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country.  Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position.  (Wikipedia.com)

Collector of the Port of New York, based at the New York Customs House, was the most lucrativce patronage job in the country. Senator Roscoe Conkling was determined to always have one of his loyalists in this position. (Wikipedia.com)

Despite the President’s declining prestige, Conkling defended Grant unstintingly. To a correspondent he wrote, “He has made a better President than you and I, when we voted for him, had any right to expect…” Conkling reminded an audience at Cooper Union of Grant’s storied service to the nation. Grant was “honest, brave, and modest, and proved by his translucent deeds to be endowed with genius, common sense and moral qualities adequate to our greatest affairs…” He had “snatched our nationality and our cause from despair, and bore them on his shield through the flame of battle” To a nineteenth century audience, Conkling’s vivid descriptions of Grant most certainly struck a chord. One can only imagine how his physical presence and voice reinforced the sentiments he expressed.

Two developments in 1871 and 1872 illustrate Conkling‘s growing authority, and the political alliances that would in time undo that authority. Late in 1871, Thomas Murphy resigned as Collector of the Port of New York. Conkling recommended the appointment of Chester Alan Arthur as the new Collector. Grant made the appointment.

Arthur was a good choice. He was “honest, efficient and courteous, and unlike Tom Murphy he had none of the air of the party hack.” He was also Conkling’s man. Chester Arthur’s appointment, and the defeat of William Robertson for the gubernatorial nomination in the summer of 1872, outlined the contours of Conkling’s political actions for the next several years. William Robertson blamed Senator Conkling for his defeat. Meanwhile, Chester Arthur became a kind of lightning rod for Conkling. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes would attack Conkling’s power in New York by firing Arthur. In 1880, Robertson’s actions would assault Conkling’s authority in the Republican Party. In time, their conflicting personalities and goals would clash again – and again.

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling's (and therefore Grant's) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1875.  Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling.   (Wikipedia.com)

Future President Chester A. Arthur was Conkling’s (and therefore Grant’s) choice to become Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur was a Conkling loyalist who owed much of his political career to Conkling. (Wikipedia.com)

Conkling was steadfast and influential during Grant’s second term. At its beginning, in 1873, a financial panic struck the nation. It was devastating. One response to it among some members of Congress was a bill to issue more paper money so that Americans could pay their debts. Conkling called this proposal “a falsehood and a fraud. It can never be true, and therefore it can never be right or safe.” When the Inflation Act of 1874 was passed, Conkling urged Grant to veto it. After some indecision, Grant followed Conkling’s advice. (James Garfield held the same view of paper money, that it was dishonest and bad for the economy.)

The other major service that Conkling performed for the nation in this period came at the end of Grant’s term. It involved the disputed election of 1876. Was Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, to succeed Grant, or was it to be the Democrat, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York? Nationwide, Tilden had won a quarter million more popular votes than Hayes. But in three Southern states, (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) there were charges of fraud and suppression of the black vote. Who had actually won in these states, and how were their electoral votes to be awarded? In all three states, both parties were determined to send their electors to Washington. There was also a disputed elector in Oregon. It was a quandary for the entire country.

To resolve the matter, President Grant favored creating a Congressional Commission that would review the states’ votes and recognize the appropriate electors. Again serving as President Grant’s strongest ally in the Congress, Senator Conkling led the effort that created the Electoral Commission of 1877. The measure was seen as unconstitutional by many, including James Garfield, because it gave Congress a hitherto unwarranted part in the election of a president. The commission bill passed, however, and the Commission that was created (Garfield was a member but Conkling was not) decided the election for Hayes. David Jordan called it Conkling’s finest moment. Perhaps so, but whether it was his finest moment in behalf of the nation, or in behalf of his party, is an open question.

Ironically, the Republican Conkling believed that the Democrat Tilden had carried Florida and Louisiana, and therefore the election – and he said so publicly. Moreover, Conkling’s lack of enthusiasm for Hayes may have caused the Republican to lose New York. After Hayes was declared the winner, Conkling referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud B. Hayes,” and “His Fraudulency.”

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878.  It didn't take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in 1878. It didn’t take him long to run afoul of Senator Roscoe Conkling. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

What transpired next was a mixture of reform-minded idealism and political payback on the part of Hayes, with Conkling doing all he could to preserve his political machine in New York. On the one hand, Hayes the idealist believed that political work done on federal work time was unethical. On the other hand, Hayes the politician, and his Secretary of State, New Yorker William Evarts, wanted to create a political base favorable to the new administration.

Mixing the ideal with the political, Hayes appointed a commission to investigate several major port cities. Among its recommendations were changes at the Port of New York. In June Hayes attempted to replace Conkling’s allies, Collector Chester Arthur and Naval Officer Alonzo Cornell, with recess appointments. This action failed to achieve the desired result, but in 1879, Edwin Merritt and Silas Burt were confirmed by the Senate as permanent replacements for Arthur and Cornell. The fight over the Collectorship dominated and poisoned political relations between Hayes and Conkling.

(Check back soon for the conclusion of “The Remarkable Roscoe”!)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

The Remarkable Roscoe: Friend and Nemesis of Presidents (Part I)

 Arguably, the greatest adversary James A. Garfield ever encountered in his national political career was the New York senator and political boss, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling, a man who thrived on battling perceived enemies, was also one of the most colorful political figures of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Two descriptions of Conkling, one modern and one contemporary, make the point well. David M. Jordan, Conkling’s most recent biographer, captured an unforgettable presence and a most striking personality:

“‘Lord Roscoe,’ many called him, and he carried himself like a member of the higher peerage. Roscoe Conkling steps from the pages of history angry, haughty, larger than life. Although he was vindictive and overbearing, he was handsome, intelligent, and capable of orating for hours at a time without losing either a word of his memorized speech or a listener; gaudy as a peacock, he makes the political leaders of our era pale into shadows in comparison. He was not a pleasant man, but he stirred strong emotions, and he had a considerable impact on American history.”

Roscoe Conkling was a Senator from New York and one of the most powerful political figures in the United States during much of the 1870s and early 1880s.  (Wikipedia.com)

Roscoe Conkling was a Senator from New York and one of the most powerful political figures in the United States during much of the 1870s and early 1880s. (Wikipedia.com)

Less charitably, Conkling’s bete noire in politics, James G. Blaine, delivered a salvo at Conkling on the floor of the House on April 30, 1866, that made the two men adversaries for the rest of their careers. Sneered Blaine after several exchanges between the two:

“The contempt of that large-minded gentleman is so wilting; his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and all the members of this House that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him.”

These withering remarks were aimed at a dynamic, very influential political personality, someone who was taken very seriously in his day. The Conkling-Blaine rivalry dominated Republican Party politics throughout the late 1860s, 1870s and early 1880s.

Roscoe Conkling was born on October 30, 1829 (just weeks after his future political acolyte, Chester Alan Arthur) in Albany, New York. Little is known of his earliest years, but biographer Jordan notes that by age fourteen, young Roscoe’s interest in politics had taken root. At age sixteen, he was studying law in Utica. At twenty, he was committed to the abolition of slavery. In this commitment, he had something in common with James A. Garfield, whose own antislavery sentiments were just beginning to emerge at this time. 

James G. Blaine made himself one of Conkling's lifelong enemies when he insulted Conkling in an 1866 speech on the House of Representatives floor.  The two would square off against one another many times over the following 15 years.  (Politico.com)

James G. Blaine made himself one of Conkling’s lifelong enemies when he insulted Conkling in an 1866 speech on the House of Representatives floor. The two would square off against one another many times over the following 15 years. (Politico.com)

The future Senator from New York was physically impressive. He stood six feet, three inches tall, was “erect and muscular,” and blond. He sported a “Hyperion” curl on his forehead that was the delight of political cartoonists; at a time when the sartorial standard for men was black, Conkling made an elegant figure, sporting colorful vests of yellow or lavender and light-colored trousers. He was an advocate of physical fitness, a skilled and avid horseman and an enthusiast for boxing. 

Conkling was also blessed with intelligence and physical appeal. Though married to Julia Seymour in 1855 (she the sister of Horatio Seymour, a future governor of New York and the 1868 Democratic presidential nominee), many women found him attractive. He “exud[ed] animal vigor, even sexuality,” according to David Jordan. Altogether, the pride he took in his physical and oratorical prowess was part and parcel of his political mystique.

Like Garfield, Conkling possessed a driving need for “self-improvement.” He read a great deal – Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, and Byron. According to David Jordan, he possessed “a prodigious memory” by which he could “reproduce verbatim” much of what he read. 

Elected to Congress in 1859, his acid tongue shortly found a target in President James Buchanan during the secession crisis of late 1860. Buchanan, he said, was “petrified by fear, or vacillating between determination and doubt, while the rebels snatched from his nerveless grasp the ensign of the Republic, and waved before his eyes the banner of secession…”

Though he had supported Seward for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, he believed as Lincoln did, that slavery in the United States would be eventually abolished. Early in the war, he favored President Lincoln’s idea of compensated emancipation – paying slaveholders to free their slaves. Even so, Conkling was a fiscal conservative, and opposed financing the war with paper money. He was for “sound money,” that is, money backed by gold. Here was another view he shared in common with James Garfield. 

For a man who descended the pages of history with the unsavory reputation of a corruptionist, Conkling was seen early in his career as “an opponent of all sorts of jobbery and corruption.” And in fact, he does not seem to have been politically corrupt. He does not appear to have benefitted financially from his political wire pulling.

Conkling dressed very well and was described as "strutting" rather than walking.  This led to him being regularly mocked as a "dandy" and a "peacock," as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon.  (Jackdaw Cartoons)

Conkling dressed very well and was described as “strutting” rather than walking. This led to him being regularly mocked as a “dandy” and a “peacock,” as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon. (Jackdaw Cartoons)

Conkling was regarded as “a consistent and warm personal friend of President Lincoln.” This was probably an exaggeration. In 1864, when Conkling was running for reelection, some local Republicans wanted another candidate. Abraham Lincoln endorsed him in a letter that read in part, “I am for the regular nominee in all cases… no one could be more satisfactory to me as the nominee in that District, than Mr. Conkling. I do not mean to say there are not others as good as he is… but I think I know him to be at least good enough. Given the divisions in the Republican Party at the time, Lincoln was choosing his words carefully.

Whether for reasons of humanity or because it was the “politically correct” stance to take, Conkling opposed the “Black Codes” of the South that restricted the employment opportunities and geographical movement of blacks. He insisted that the southern states repudiate the Confederate debt and the right to secede. He helped to write the 14th Amendment, which gave blacks citizenship. Like Garfield, he insisted that the southern states ratify the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote, before they could be readmitted to the Union. To demonstrate his support for the first black member of the Senate, he made it a point to escort Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce about the chamber when other white senators shied away.

Like other Republicans, Conkling became increasingly bothered by the leadership style of Andrew Johnson, and supported his impeachment. When Johnson took his national “Swing ‘Round the Circle” during the 1886 election, Conkling referred to the president as an “angry man, dizzy with the elevation to which assassination has raised him, frenzied with power and ambition…”

Conkling developed close ties with Johnson’s successor, Ulysses S. Grant. He admired Grant’s service during the war and became a loyal ally. The two men worked well together. Conkling supported Grant’s cabinet appointments, his Reconstruction policies, and the president’s efforts to annex Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) to the United States. Conkling supported Grant’s appointment of Thomas Murphy to be Collector of New York in 1870, and Grant approved Conkling’s recommendations for other New York appointments.

Murphy proved to be a less than scrupulous public official. In 1871 he was forced out of his position. Conkling recommended the honest, efficient, and courteous Chester Alan Arthur as his successor, and Grant made the appointment. And unlike Murphy, Chester Arthur was no party hack. He ran the port well, and through it he helped Roscoe Conkling build and maintain a political machine in New York.

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  He was a Conkling loyalist and acolyte who owed most of his political connections and success to Conklng.  (Wikipedia.com)

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Conkling loyalist and acolyte who owed most of his political connections and success to Conklng. (Wikipedia.com)

Revelations of waste and scandal during the first Grant administration led to a revolt within the party in 1872. Well-born gentlemen, newspaper editors, and politicians (in both parties, really) stressed the need to appoint government workers on the basis of merit, not political loyalties. Conkling was threatened by such talk of reform. He had built a political machine in New York based on his ability to control who received federal jobs. To him, Civil Service Reform was more properly “snivel service reform.”Concern over Grant’s administration meant that there was no chance that he would be his party’s nominee for a third term in 1876. That year’s contested nominating convention put forth Governor Rutherford B. Hayes as the Republican choice to succeed Grant. Hayes was perceived as a reformer, but Conkling was unimpressed. He dragged his feet during the campaign, and probably for that reason Hayes lost New York.

The election results were so close, and there was so much controversy over voting irregularities in the South, that the winner of the Hayes-Tilden was disputed. Conkling was a principal author of the legislation that created a Congressional commission to resolve the election. But although he was a Republican, Conkling believed that Democrat Samuel Tilden was the rightful victor. Consequently, he referred to Hayes as “Rutherfraud B.Hayes.” No love was lost between the two men.

Samuel Tilden was the Democratic governor of New York when he ran for president in 1876.  He won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a bitterly contested election.  (Wikipedia.com)

Samuel Tilden was the Democratic governor of New York when he ran for president in 1876. He won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a bitterly contested election. (Wikipedia.com)

In 1878, Hayes removed Chester Arthur from the Collectorship. The move was part reform-minded and in part payback. Hayes and his Secretary of State, New Yorker William Evarts, wanted to build a new Republican machine in the Empire State loyal to the reformers. So, the bad blood between Hayes and Conkling persisted into the 1880 election cycle.

Hayes was not a candidate for reelection, but Grant was urged to seek a third term. Though he was genuinely interested in a third term, reformers in the Republican Party were determined to prevent it. Within the New York Republican Party, State Senator William H. Robertson was a leader in the anti-Grant forces. Robertson’s maneuverings at the Republican Convention in Chicago figured large in denying Conkling’s man Grant a third presidential bid. The “beneficiary” of the deadlocked convention was of course James A. Garfield, a man closely associated with Conking’s primary adversary, President Hayes.

(“Stay tuned” for Part II, where the Conkling-Garfield dispute and Conkling’s life after politics will be discussed.)

 -Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger