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.

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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.

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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

 

The 1879 “Government Shutdown,” Part I

Mark Twain never said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” He did observe, however: “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” This is nowhere more true than in politics, and it is certainly as apt today as it was when Twain wrote it in 1907.

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Mark Twain, American humorist, author, and social critic.  (PBS)

In recent years, Americans have become accustomed to threats of a “government shutdown” at the hands of one party in the Congress, opposed to the programs and policies of the President of the opposite party. One side cries, “Politics!” The other side counters, “Principle!”  But when threatening to defund the government in order to change public policy was first attempted in 1879, the cry was “Revolution!” Politics and principle, principle and politics vied with one another in minds, and hearts, and maneuvers, of all parties involved.

Some background is in order. Between 1865 and 1870, the years immediately following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were adopted. These were the first amendments to the Constitution to be passed in sixty years. The amendments abolished slavery in the United States, conferred citizenship to the newly freed people, and granted black males the right to vote. With these amendments came modern conceptions of civil rights and voting rights.

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The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery.  The next two amendments granted citizenship to African Americans and gave Black men the right to vote.  These are collectively known as the “Reconstruction Amendments.”  (Library of Congress)

Through several legislative measures in the late 1860s and 1870s, blacks gained property rights and equal protection under the law. Mechanisms to ensure that blacks could vote in free and fair elections were established, supported by the U.S. Army and federal courts.

At the same time, many white southerners were disfranchised. Immediately after the Civil War, former political and military leaders of the Confederacy were barred from holding political office. Many white southerners felt that they were at the mercy of Republican Carpetbaggers from the North, the Union Army, and the newly freed blacks, who for the first time exercised political power in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress.

The once-dominant southern Democrats were determined to regain their political and social dominance in the former Confederacy. For more than a decade they used intimidation, physical violence, and even murder to keep blacks and southern Republicans from the polls.

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White southerners did everything possible–including murder–to keep African Americans from the polls after the Civil War.  Efforts to suppress the black vote and resurrect white supremacy also led to the creation of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  (Newberry Library)

Federally appointed civilian officers were employed to monitor the fairness of elections. When violence broke out, the U.S. Army was brought into maintain peace and an orderly election process.

Fearing “negro domination,” white southern Democrats invoked states’ rights. Republicans sought to preserve the rights of the freedmen as a matter of justice, and also as a means to expand the influence of their party in the South. These constant tensions were at the heart of the controversy in 1879.

In early 1879, in the waning days of the second session of the 45th Congress, the House’s Democratic majority attached riders to funding bills to prohibit the use of federally appointed marshals to oversee elections, and to prevent the Army from having any role in protecting voters at polling places. The Republican Senate would not agree to these measures. As a result, Congress failed to pass $45,000,000 in appropriations for the Federal government for the fiscal year beginning on July 1.

This impasse caused President Hayes to call the 46th Congress into special session on March 18. The new Congress presented a problem for the Republican president. Both the Senate and the House were now controlled by the Democrats (for the first time since 1859). This spelled trouble for Hayes and his chief lieutenant in the House of Representatives, James Garfield.

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Congressman James A. Garfield worked closely with President Hayes.  (Library of Congress)

Toward the end of April, the 46th Congress passed an Army Appropriations bill with a rider identical to the one that passed at the end of the 45th Congress. Once again, the Democrats aimed at preventing federal marshals to oversee elections. Once again, the Army would be prohibited from keeping peace at the polls during congressional and presidential elections.

From the Democrats’ point of view, it was time to end Republican and federal government interference in elections in southern states. They invoked the constitutional principle of states’ rights while they sought to insure the dominance of white men in the politics of their states. They were also looking to the 1880 presidential contest, hoping to be able to intimidate or discourage enough black voters to elect a Democrat president for the first time since 1856.

Using the appropriations authority vested in the House of Representatives, the Democratic majority was trying to force the hand of the Republican president – to sign the appropriation with the objectionable rider – or to defund the government. Senate Democrats were in full accord with their House colleagues.

President Hayes and Congressman Garfield understood both the constitutional argument being made by the Democrats and the political advantage they sought. Even before the final bill was passed, Hayes wrote in his diary, “The appropriation bill is essential to the continuance of the Government… It is the duty of Congress to pass it. The rider is attached to get rid of the Constitutional exercise of the veto power to defeat… [a rider]… the Pres[iden]t does not approve…”  The political gamesmanship of the House Democrats gave the Republican President a constitutional argument with which to battle them.

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Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States from 1877-81. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

In his diary, the president expressed his thoughts about this controversy many times. Of the Democrats he wrote, “They will stop the wheels – block the wheels of government if I do not yield my convictions in favor of the election laws. It will be a severe, perhaps a long contest. I do not fear it – I do not even dread it. The people will not allow this Revolutionary course to triumph.”  Later, he confided, “I object to the [army appropriations] bill because it is an unconstitutional and revolutionary attempt to deprive the Executive of one of his most important prerogatives… [and to] coerce him to approve a measure which he in fact does not approve.”  This was the constitutional counter-argument taken up by the Republicans.

(Check back soon for Part II!)

-Joan Kapsch and Alan Gephardt, Park Rangers

 

The Front Porch Campaign of 1880

In 1880, the “surprise” presidential nomination of Ohioan James A. Garfield by the Republicans resulted in a campaign that, unlike any before it, regularly brought citizens and candidate face-to-face. It was conducted on the front porch of Garfield’s home.

Prior to 1880, it was considered undignified for anyone to actively seek the presidency. Nominees did not travel from state to state or city to city to tell voters that they had the solutions for the country’s problems. Expected to emulate the example of George Washington, they were to remain above the fray.  The sitting president, Rutherford B. Hayes, spoke to this tradition when he advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.”

Traditionally, it was the Congressmen, Senators, and party workers who did the heavy lifting during presidential campaigns. It was they who traveled, they who spoke, they who organized evening torchlight parades, and more. Garfield honored these traditions. Meanwhile, he stayed home; he stayed put. But his 1880 campaign departed significantly from past practice.

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In 1880, James A. Garfield had represented his Ohio district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years.  He was also a U.S. Senator-elect when the Republicans chose him to be their presidential candidate that year.  (Library of Congress)

Arriving at his Mentor farm after his nomination at Chicago, Garfield was greeted by crowds of citizens. People who had known him from his days as a student, teacher, and Civil War officer came to wish him success. Newspaper reporters camped out on his lawn. Their accounts of the welcome Garfield received stimulated interest in his candidacy.

Farmers and businessmen, college students and women (unable cast ballots in 1880), immigrants and Union veterans, including a number of black veterans, came to see, came to hear, and came to meet the Republican nominee.

In the little campaign office behind his home, Garfield and his aides exchanged letters and telegrams with the leaders of groups to fix dates and times of arrival, and to exchange information, so that when they met, a group’s spokesman and Garfield could address each other with appropriate remarks.

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This is a modern image of the small exterior library building that James A. Garfield turned into a campaign office during his 1880 presidential campaign.  It is located just behind the main Garfield home, and visitors to James A. Garfield NHS are invited to step inside and see the office’s interior.  (NPS photo)

An estimated 15,000 to 17,000 citizens traveled to Mentor, Ohio (population: 540) to see and hear Garfield. From a train platform specially built to bring the people to the candidate, they literally walked a mile-and-a-half up a lane that extended the entire length of Garfield’s 160 acre farm. They walked up that lane in good weather and in bad, in sunshine and in showers.

Often, a “Garfield and Arthur” band was playing near the front porch when visitors arrived, adding excitement to the air. Poets read and singers sang. A Congressman, Senator, or local official would hail the Republican Party and Garfield.

Soon, the candidate would pass through the vestibule doors leading from the interior of his home to his porch. A designated group leader addressed him respectfully. Garfield would respond, eschewing political issues. He spoke instead to the identities and the aspirations of those gathered before him. His remarks were often brief, sometimes lasting no more than three or four minutes. From the porch serving as his podium, Garfield discussed “The Possibilities of Life,” “The Immortality of Ideas,” and “German Citizens.”

As a teacher, soldier, Congressman, and Republican presidential nominee, James Garfield wrestled with the matter of race. It was as difficult an issue for his generation as it is for ours.  Still, he supported the right of African-Americans to be free, to be equal with whites in the eyes of the law, and to be treated with justice. In his remarks on “The Future of Colored Men,” Garfield spoke to 250 such citizens assembled on his lawn in October 1880.

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These African American Civil War veterans visited James A. Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio property during the 1880 “front porch” presidential campaign.  The Garfield home is visible in the background.  Garfield was one of the few Republicans still openly talking about race and civil rights as late as 1880.  (NPS photo)

“Of all the problems that any nation ever confronted,” he said, “none was ever more difficult than that of settling the great race question… on the basis of broad justice and equal rights to all. It was a tremendous trial of the faith of the American people, a tremendous trial of the strength of our institutions…” that they had survived a brutal and bloody civil war; that freedom had been won for the enslaved as a result; that the promise of fair treatment was to be the inheritance of the freedmen.

When, late in the campaign, he stood before his “Friends and Neighbors” from Portage County, Ohio, he revealed the tender side of his nature, and his appreciation for the life he’d been given. To this audience, composed of the many who had helped to form the fabric of his being, he offered these thoughts:

“Here are the school-fellows of twenty-eight years ago.

Here are men and women who were my pupils twenty-

five years ago… I see others who were soldiers in the

old regiment which I had the honor to command… How

can I forget all these things, and all that has followed?

How can I forget…the people of Portage County, when

I see men and women from all its townships standing at

my door? I cannot forget these things while life and

consciousness remain. The freshness of youth, the very

springtide of life… all was with you, and of you, my

neighbors, my friends, my cherished comrades… You

are here, so close to my heart… whatever may befall me

hereafter…”

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A common scene during the 1880 front porch campaign: Garfield and family members sitting on the front porch of their Mentor, Ohio farmhouse.  Left to right: Eliza  Ballou Garfield (James Garfield’s mother); James Garfield; Mollie Garfield (President and Mrs. Garfield’s 13-year-old daughter); and Mrs. Lucretia Garfield.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

And then, as he had so often done before, James Garfield invited his guests to linger in friendly communion: “Ladies and gentlemen, all the doors of my house are open to you. The hand of every member of my family is outstretched to you. Our hearts greet you, and we ask you to come in.”

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

(Park Ranger Alan Gephardt wrote this article in January 2016 for the blog of PBS’s American Experience to coincide with the February 2 national broadcast of Murder of a President, their excellent documentary about President Garfield and his tragic 1881 assassination.)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

Presidents and Politicians: The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

At the end of the Civil War, many Union officers from Ohio were able to transfer their careers to the political arena. Some were quite successful; others were not. The 23rd Ohio Volunteers had the honor of delivering two future presidents, a Supreme Court justice, and an ambassador to Hawaii.

The 23rd OVI was mustered into service in July 1861 at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. The regimental commander would be William Rosecrans, a man destined for both praise and scorn during the course of his military career. His staff officers were two graduates of Kenyon College: Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Matthews and Major Rutherford B. Hayes. Among the enlisted men was eighteen-year-old William McKinley.

Before leaving Camp Chase, the regiment nearly chose to go on strike. The soldiers went ballistic when they received old muskets probably left over from the Mexican War. Many of the boys refused to accept the ancient guns. While the dispute raged, the officers were alarmed to learn that General John C. Fremont was on his way to inspect the new recruits. A genuine concern developed that the soldiers of the 23rd would boycott the inspection. After much debate the boys agreed to appear in front of General Fremont but still argued they would not go into battle with the outdated weapons.

These members of the 23rd Ohio's color guard stand proudly with their national colors, which have obviously seen a great deal of fighting.  (Ohio Historical Society)

These members of the 23rd Ohio’s color guard stand proudly with their national colors, which have obviously seen a great deal of fighting. (Ohio Historical Society)

While officers tried to coerce the soldiers, Major Hayes went from tent to tent and talked things over with his men. He made no threats, but quietly reminded everybody they had an obligation to defend their country regardless of the poor weapons issued. He assured them better muskets would eventually be issued. The soldiers were impressed with Hayes’s words and agreed to accept the guns. Private McKinley would remark that his fellow soldiers were won over by Major Hayes and readily accepted him as their leader.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthews would not enjoy the respect of his troops. A political appointee, Matthews did not have the ability to instill confidence in his regiment. He was a lawyer by trade, serving as United States Attorney for the District of Ohio. His courtroom skills did not translate well to the Union army. Within a year he would resign from the 23rd.

With Matthews gone, Major Hayes received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. By April of 1862 he was appointed commander of the regiment. He proved to be an aggressive leader, always eager to give battle. Sometimes the battles were with superior officers. He tangled with Major General Jesse Reno, who was enraged when the men of the 23rd were caught pilfering straw for their horses and camp site. Hayes defended his soldiers, advising the general he would pay for the straw if need be. After a few tense moments Reno calmed down and headed off to rejoin his division. Hayes was already well thought of by his men. Now they would run through a brick wall for him.

In September 1862 the 23rd was heavily engaged in the battle of South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign that culminated with the bloody battle of Antietam. Hayes ordered his regiment to charge. Moments later he was shot in the left arm, but stayed on the field while the fight continued. Later he was moved to a field hospital and eventually recuperated at home in Ohio.

Rutherford B. Hayes served the Union with distinction throughout the Civil War.  Like many postwar Republicans, his military record made him an appealing candidate for high office.  (NEED SOURCE)

Rutherford B. Hayes served the Union with distinction throughout the Civil War. Like many postwar Republicans, his military record made him an appealing candidate for high office. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Hayes missed the battle of Antietam, but Commissary Sergeant William McKinley would prove himself a hero there. The 23rd was on the field all day, taking part in one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War. They had entered the fight without eating breakfast and by late afternoon were exhausted and desperate for food. McKinley seized the moment by loading a wagon with rations and coffee. He took one volunteer with him and rode into the fight. He was stopped by several Union officers who warned him to turn back. The sergeant ignored the advice and spurred the horses forward. A rebel cannon shot damaged the back of the wagon but McKinley did not stop until he reached the 23rd. Word of his bravery reached Hayes, who recommended the nineteen-year-old for promotion to second lieutenant. Several weeks later McKinley was an officer.

Hayes, now a colonel, returned to command in November of 1862. His place had been taken by Major James Comly, a competent officer and a good friend. Along with leading the 23rd, Hayes was given command of the First Brigade of the Second Kanawha Division consisting of the 23rd, the 89th Ohio, and two cavalry companies. They saw little action until July of 1863 when the brigade gave chase to Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders. The rebels had entered southern Ohio via Kentucky, intent on causing as much mayhem as possible. The first Brigade caught up with Morgan on July 19th and followed him to Buffington Island, where the raiders surrendered.

William McKinley entered Union service as a private.  By war's end, he was a Major with an impressive service record.  (NEED SOURCE)

William McKinley entered Union service as a private. By war’s end, he was a Major with an impressive service record. (William McKinley Presidential Library)

For the balance of the year the First Brigade did not see any significant action. In July of 1864 they were involved in the battle of Winchester, Virginia. The Confederates pushed back Hayes’s brigade, forcing them to a defensive position behind a lengthy stone wall. While holding firm, Colonel Hayes realized the 13th regiment had been left behind. He ordered Lieutenant McKinley to ride through the Confederate position and return with the lost soldiers. McKinley galloped forward, dodging bullets and cannon shot. The Union officers had their spyglasses on the rider, amazed that he was still upright in the saddle. McKinley passed the Rebel lines and continued riding until he located the 13th. He brought them back to the Union lines unscathed, and ready to continue the fight. Another promotion for McKinely was in the works, this time to captain.

There would be more honors for Hayes and McKinley. In December Hayes would be promoted to Brigadier General and McKinley to brevet Major. Both men continued to fight to the utmost. While directing his brigade in one battle, Hayes’s horse was killed, causing the general to take a nasty spill. He fell unconscious causing some of his soldiers to think their commander was dead. He roused himself only to see his brigade retreating with Confederates closing in from all directions. General Hayes scrambled to his feet and somehow staggered his way back to safety. A spent rebel bullet struck him in the head, a perfect end to a day of intense fighting.

Once again Major McKinley would leave the safety of his lines, this time to identify cavalry that was too close to the Union position. He galloped forward directly into a company of Confederate riders. The chase was on but the amazing escapades of the daring young officer would not be ended here. To the astonishment of his fellow officers he outran the pursuing Confederates, arriving safely at the Union position. In four years of service McKinley had risen from a volunteer private to a major while still in his early twenties. He mustered out of the army, studied law, and soon became a prosecuting attorney. Similar to his military career, he took the field of politics by storm. In short order he was a Republican Congressman, Governor of Ohio, and in 1896 elected the 25th President of the United States. McKinley won a second term but was shot by a suspected anarchist and died on September 14, 1901.

Stanley Matthews did not endear himself to the soldiers of the 23rd Ohio, who much preferred the command of Rutherford B. Hayes.  Even so, President James A. Garfield nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court in 1881 on Hayes's recommendation.  (NEED SOURCE)

Stanley Matthews did not endear himself to the soldiers of the 23rd Ohio, who much preferred the command of Rutherford B. Hayes. Even so, President James A. Garfield nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court in 1881 on Hayes’s recommendation. (Library of Congress)

General Hayes entered politics immediately after the Civil War. He served as a Republican Congressman, Governor of Ohio for three non-consecutive terms, then won the presidency in the election of 1876. Hayes selected his old staff officer James Comly to be ambassador to Hawaii, where he functioned for six years. At the end of his term, Hayes nominated Stanley Matthews for a position on the United States Supreme Court. The nomination was tabled but re-submitted by President James A. Garfield in 1881. Matthews got his seat and served with distinction until his death in 1889.

James Comly served as a staff officer to Rutherford B. Hayes during the Civil War.  Later, President Hayes made Comly the U.S. ambassador to Hawaii.  (NEED SOURCE)

James Comly served as a staff officer to Rutherford B. Hayes during the Civil War. Later, President Hayes made Comly the U.S. ambassador to Hawaii. (www.picturehistory.com)

The men of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry performed admirably during their time in the Civil War. They were skillfully commanded by a fearless Rutherford B. Hayes. Major William McKinley displayed immense courage time and again on the battlefield. Stanley Matthews had some deficiencies in command, but proved to be a capable member of the Supreme Court. James Comly served his general well and was rewarded for his efforts by representing the United States in one of the elite assignments any non-politician could hope to get. The 23rd OVI left quite a legacy during the war, and continued doing so for many years to come.

-Scott Longert, Park Guide

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