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

Advertisements

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

Stalwarts, Half Breeds, and Political Assassination

Most summaries of the assassination of President James A. Garfield describe his attacker, Charles Guiteau, as nothing more than a “disappointed office seeker.” When police apprehended him after he shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, Guiteau calmly told them, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…Arthur is president.” Were these just the ramblings of an almost surely mentally unbalanced murderer? Or was there something more to Guiteau’s statement? Understanding the factionalism in the Republican Party during this era helps one understand not only how James A. Garfield ascended to the presidency, but also that his murder was wholly political in nature. 

One main issue led to the split in the Republican Party: patronage. Under the patronage system, the winners of congressional and presidential elections had the power to appoint whomever they chose to fill numerous federal jobs. Experience and qualifications mattered little (if at all). Powerful politicians loved the so-called “spoils system” because it allowed them to put friends and relatives into lucrative positions and ensure loyalty from everyone they appointed. According to author Kenneth D. Ackerman, “Senatorial courtesy—deferring to senators of the president’s party on local positions—helped the party in power to build a national base. Breaking the system apart would threaten everyone.” Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the undisputed king of the patronage system, and the key weapon in his spoils arsenal was the position of Collector of the Port of New York.

Roscoe Conkling was the senior Senator from New York and the undisputed king of the spoils system. He controlled the most nation’s most prized patronage position: Collector of the Port of New York. (wikipedia.com)

Conkling was also the leader of the Republican faction that came to be known as “Stalwarts.” These Republicans strictly adhered to the patronage system and continued to believe that sectional appeals (“waving the bloody shirt”) were still valid even after the Rutherford B. Hayes administration of 1877-81 began to gradually end Reconstruction in the South. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine was Conkling’s counterpart on the other side of the issue, leading the faction that came to be known as “Half Breeds.” Blaine and his followers “were known as ‘Half Breeds’ because of their willingness to depart from Stalwart orthodoxy,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould. Many of this faction, including President Hayes, believed that the patronage system contributed to the scandals and graft that had recently embarrassed the party during the eight years of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Civil service reform—the idea that candidates for federal jobs should have some qualification besides just their political affiliation or connections—became a popular cause among the Half Breeds.

Much of the nation’s trade flowed through the Port of New York. Because the Collector of Customs there received a percentage of the customs duties, the job was the most prized appointment in the country. Roscoe Conkling demanded that he alone select the man to fill this politically important and personally lucrative position. President Hayes, seeking to wrest control from Conkling, nominated two different men as Collector. Conkling rallied his Senate colleagues to defeat both and eventually succeeded in getting his own choice, an acolyte named Chester Alan Arthur, appointed instead. In 1878, President Hayes and Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman fired Arthur from his position for turning a blind eye to corruption inside the Customs House. In response, Conkling had Arthur named chairman of the New York Republican committee and made plans to have Arthur elected as the junior U.S. Senator from New York in 1880.

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 who was eventually placed on the 1880 ticket with Garfield to appease the Stalwarts. (wikipedia.com)

Led by Conkling, Stalwarts encouraged former president Ulysses S. Grant to seek an unprecedented third term in the White House in the 1880 election. Despite the many scandals of Grant’s two previous terms (1869-1877), the former Union general was still immensely personally popular with the American public. Grant was disheartened at Hayes’s attempts to dismantle the patronage system and, in consultation with Conkling and other Stalwart allies, agreed to run again. Conkling looked forward to reclaiming control of the New York Customs House and once again serving as President Grant’s right hand man, just as he had done during the earlier Grant administrations. On the other side of the aisle, Half Breeds supported none other than James G. Blaine for the Republican presidential nomination. The personal hatred between Conkling and Blaine, dating back to their early service together in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, made the issue that much more heated and complicated.

At the Republican convention in Chicago, Half Breeds worked tirelessly and successfully to block Grant’s nomination. In turn, the Stalwarts gave absolutely no consideration to supporting Blaine. After the first several ballots, it was clear that neither man could obtain the necessary votes to capture the nomination. A compromise candidate was needed. James A. Garfield of Ohio, longtime member of the House of Representatives and currently Ohio’s Senator-elect, was liked and respected by members of both factions. Garfield had traveled to the convention to nominate another candidate Conkling and the Stalwarts would never support: Treasury Secretary John Sherman. On the 36th ballot, Garfield, still stunned that his name had been forwarded as a candidate at all, received the nomination. To appease the Stalwart faction, Conkling disciple Chester A. Arthur, just two years removed from his New York Customs House firing, received the party’s vice presidential nomination.

This cartoon depicts Roscoe Conkling trying to solve “the great presidential puzzle” and deduce who would be the Republicans’ best candidate in 1880. Conkling hoped to see U.S. Grant nominated for a third term, but many Republicans, including James A. Garfield, opposed a third term. (wikipedia.com)

Garfield went on to defeat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by a razor-thin popular vote margin in the 1880 election and assumed the presidency on March 4, 1881. If the Arthur nomination was intended to be an olive branch to the Stalwarts, that branch cracked when Garfield made James Blaine his Secretary of State. The branch then splintered into a thousand pieces when the new president nominated William H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Conkling. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that Conkling was “a famously touchy character” and that he was “undoubtedly personally affronted.” However, as Richardson points out, Conkling opposed Robertson’s nomination by claiming that the Senate’s role to advise and consent to presidential appointments gave senators the power of appointment itself. “What was really at stake,” writes Richardson, “was whether or not Conkling would control New York.”

Conkling devised a bold plan to force the issue and embarrass President Garfield. He and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned their seats in protest and fully confident that the New York legislature would immediately reappoint them. (Recall that at this point the people did not elect their senators; rather, they were chosen by state legislatures.) Conkling and Platt miscalculated; the New York legislature was happy to be rid of them and promptly elected others to fill their seats. The Senate confirmed Robertson as head of the New York Customs House, and James A. Garfield won the only political victory of his very brief term in the White House.

So what does any of this have to do with Charles Guiteau and his attack on Garfield? Guiteau considered himself to be a Stalwart Republican. He had supported U.S. Grant for the party’s nomination in 1880, even preparing a nonsensical speech he hoped to give for the Grant campaign throughout New York. When the Republicans ended up choosing Garfield instead, Guiteau simply crossed out all references to “Grant” in his speech’s text and replaced them with “Garfield.” During the campaign, Guiteau hounded Republican officials to let him give his speech, which he finally did to a small and puzzled crowd. This odd performance led the mentally unbalanced Guiteau to believe that he had helped Garfield win New York, the most coveted electoral prize of the 1880 contest and the state that put Garfield over the top and into the presidency. His contribution to the party’s victory entitled him, he felt, to a patronage position, and he soon went to Washington, D.C. to present himself for consideration for the American consulship to Paris. Of course, he had no skills, qualifications, or experience to warrant such a position, but lesser men had received prized jobs under the patronage system.

Charles Guiteau was almost certainly mentally unstable, but he also thought of himself as a Stalwart Republican who opposed President Garfield’s intention to reform civil service. Guiteau was more than just a “disappointed officer seeker.” He was a political assassin. (wikipedia.com)

Once he got to Washington, Guiteau was sorely disappointed. His efforts to secure the Paris appointment failed, and he became a nuisance to the new administration. He aroused the ire of Secretary of State James Blaine, who at one point thundered at Guiteau, “Do not ask me about the Paris consulship ever again!” Once Guiteau realized that he would not get the position he wanted and that the Garfield administration was serious about scrapping the patronage system all together, he decided that “removing” Garfield was his best option. Making Chester A. Arthur president would not only save the country from a Half Breed Republican like Garfield, but would also, considering Arthur’s past affiliation with Roscoe Conkling, save the patronage system and quash civil service reform once and for all. As a nice by-product, Guiteau would also surely receive the Paris consulship from a grateful President Arthur.

Guiteau bought a pistol and stalked the President of the United States around Washington before finally shooting him on July 2, 1881. Garfield lingered for eighty days and suffered horrendous medical treatment before dying on September 19. Rather than being heralded as a hero for saving the Republican Party, Charles J. Guiteau was incarcerated, tried, and found guilty of murder. (In what was probably one of the most lucid statements he ever made, Guiteau, when accused of murdering Garfield during his trial, replied, “The doctors did that. I merely shot at him.”) Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.  He died a “disappointed office seeker,” to be sure, but to describe him as that and nothing more only tells part of the story. He was also a political assassin that killed President Garfield in an attempt to force the Republicans to change course on civil service reform. The Republican Party’s factionalism, clearly responsible for the selection of Garfield as its standard bearer in 1880, also led to the president’s murder at Guiteau’s hands.

This “Puck” cartoon depicts Guiteau threatening murder if not given a patronage job. He sought the American consulship to Paris; he eventually said he would accept the appointment to Vienna instead. Of course, he had no qualifications or experience, but that mattered little under the spoils system. (wikipedia.com)

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

The Federal Civil Service and the Death of President James A. Garfield

     Any standard history textbook today will tell you that Charles Guiteau, the assassin of James Abram Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States, was “a disappointed office seeker.” That’s an accurate description, as far as it goes, but there is much more to the circumstances of President Garfield’s tragic murder than that simple phrase suggests. The assassination of James Garfield was not the product of a pathetic, demented megalomaniac; it had its origins in the domestic politics of his time.

July 2, 1881: Secretary of State James Blaine (left) reacts to the shooting of President James A. Garfield (right). Assassin Charles Guiteau is being subdued at far left of image. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

     By that I mean to say that it was the political culture of the 1860s and 1870s that led to the President’s death in 1881. Specifically, it was “the spoils system” that was as much the cause of Garfield’s assassination as were Guiteau’s actions. 

     The Federal bureaucracy had been growing since the days of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Many government employees working in federal agencies owed their positions to the Congressmen and Senators who had recommended their appointments to the President. These workers were expected to perform political work for their patrons as part of the job. Federal employees were also “assessed” a portion of the salaries, usually about five percent, to fund campaigns.

     Reform-minded individuals in the political parties and in the press wanted to put an end to this kind of thing. The first legislation to reform the Federal civil service appeared in December 1865 when Rhode Island Congressman Thomas Allen Jenckes introduced a bill to create a Civil Service Commission, to formulate rules for civil servants, and establish examinations for certain positions in the federal service. Jenckes’ 1865 bill did not pass.

     In 1871, Congress finally passed legislation permitting President Grant to create the first Civil Service Commission.  Congressional support was not strong, however, and Grant abandoned the effort.

President Ulysses S. Grant. (Library of Congress)

     Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, was determined to reform the federal civil service, and in doing so, he confronted the colorful New York Senator, Roscoe Conkling.  He battled Hayes’ attempts to reduce his influence with civil service appointments in his state, mainly through replacing Conkling’s henchmen at the Port of New York, including the Collector, Chester Alan Arthur. It was this 1870s political donnybrook that would lead to assassination in 1881.

     By attacking Arthur, Hayes was attacking Conkling, and Conkling fought back. In the end, though, Hayes was triumphant, and Arthur was gone – but not for good!

Senator Roscoe Conkling was the undisptued king of patronage in his home state of New York. (Wikipedia)

 The Hayes-Conkling fight in 1877-1878 became the Garfield-Conkling fight three years later. Just as Rutherford B. Hayes had wanted to reduce the influence of Senators – and specifically Senator Conkling – in making presidential appointments, so too did James A. Garfield. During his own squabble with Roscoe Conkling, he confided to his diary in the spring of 1881 that he was bound to determine “whether I was the registering Clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the government.”

     What were the circumstances that caused President Garfield to make that comment? To begin with, President Hayes did not seek re-election in 1880. James Garfield was nominated after the leading contenders, including former President Grant, were unable to prevail. Conkling had strongly supported Grant, and he was displeased by Garfield’s surprise nomination.

      After Garfield won the election, Senator Conkling, ever the power broker, tried to win concessions from Garfield over control of New York political appointments.

     In the fall and winter of 1880-1881, the president-elect needed to satisfy the various factions in the Republican Party regarding his cabinet and various diplomatic and domestic posts.  Senator Conkling, meanwhile, sought to insure that the political attacks he had suffered under President Hayes would not be repeated by the new President.

     In January 1881, Garfield was fully aware of the need to accommodate Conkling as much as possible. The President-elect invited the Senator to his Mentor, Ohio home to talk. Conkling’s response to the invitation hinted ominously at his future course if his demands were not met: “I need hardly say that your administration cannot be more successful than I wish it to be.”  The meeting was not a great success and the tensions between the two continued.

     Nevertheless, President Garfield nominated five New York Stalwarts for government posts on March 22. He also nominated William Robertson, Conkling’s adversary, for that most important post of Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson’s nomination was a bombshell, recognized throughout the Republican Party and the national press as a challenge to Conkling.

     A compromise intended to achieve peace with Conkling fell through when Conkling reneged on a promise to meet with Garfield.  When Garfield heard this, he refused to rescind Robertson’s nomination to the Collectorship.

President Garfield nominated Willliam H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Sen. Conkling. (Wikipedia)

     The situation was once again in turmoil due to Conkling’s peevishness, and as Kenneth D. Ackerman writes, “James Garfield seemed to cross a psychological bridge…Conkling could not be dealt with nor tolerated.” Whitelaw Reid, the publisher of the New York Tribune, wrote to Garfield, telling him that this latest crisis was the turning point of his administration. If Garfield surrendered, Conkling would in effect be the President of the United States. Garfield’s response indeed showed backbone: “Robertson may be carried out of the Senate head first or feet first…I shall never withdraw him.”

     At this point, let us turn our attention away from president and the senator and introduce into the narrative President Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.

     Guiteau was born in Illinois in September 1841.  His journey through life up to the time of the assassination had been a troubled one. His mother died when he was seven, and his father, Luther Guiteau, was often abusive toward him. As an adult, he pursued a career in the law, and then took up theology. He was successful at neither.

     Charles Guiteau was a megalomaniac, and in 1880, having failed so far in life, he came to believe that his way to fame and fortune was in politics. He went to New York after Garfield’s nomination, where he ingratiated himself with Republican officials. He altered a pro-Grant speech he had written to a pro-Garfield speech. He got permission from the Vice Presidential nominee, Chester A. Arthur, to deliver it at a rally for the Republican ticket. When the Garfield-Arthur ticket won in November, the self-deceiving Guiteau believed that he was instrumental in the victory. Therefore, he reasoned, he deserved a political reward: a job in the government.

    He believed that he would make an excellent Consul to Paris – even though he had no prior experience in diplomatic service. He made repeated attempts to see President Garfield about it. Guiteau also badgered James G. Blaine, Garfield’s political confidante and Secretary of State. Early in the administration, Guiteau regularly visited the Secretary of State at his office.     

James G. Blaine, another Conkling enemy, became Secretary of State under President Garfield. Blaine went on to lose the presidential election of 1884 to Grover Cleveland. (Politico.com)

Charles Guiteau considered himself a Stalwart Republican, and he pestered the Garfield administration for a job before shooting the president. (Wikipedia)

     While Guiteau was making his maneuvers, the fight between President Garfield and Senator Conkling was coming to a head in the U.S. Senate.  The President of the Senate was Garfield’s Vice President, Chester Arthur. The role he chose to play in the fight between his mentor, Roscoe Conkling and his President, James Garfield, must be one of the most remarkable in the history of the nation.

     Chester Arthur, of course, was the man President Hayes had fired from the Collectorship of the Port of New York in 1878. He had become the vice presidential nominee in 1880 though Conkling urged him to drop the idea as if it were “a red hot shoe from the forge.” Arthur did not. The Vice Presidency was, he said, “a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

          Arthur and Conkling were a team in the effort to block the nomination of Robertson. On April 2, according to Kenneth D. Ackerman, Chester A. Arthur, Vice President of the United States, gathered together several New York associates “to plan the defeat of his own president’s most important political decision to date,” to kill the Robertson nomination. He saw no irony in this. 

      When Garfield withdrew all the New York nominations except Robertson’s to force a vote on Robertson, Roscoe Conkling and the junior New York Senator, Tom Platt, resigned their seats. They planned to return to Albany and win reelection. In so doing they would return to Washington politically stronger and able to defeat the President. Chester Arthur even went to New York to lobby on their behalf! 

     At this point, events moved quickly. With Conkling and Platt gone, the Senate ratified Robertson’s nomination on May 18.  President Garfield had achieved an important political victory – but it was a victory that would cost him his life.

     It seemed that the Republican Party was becoming more divided. The deranged Charles Guiteau, disappointed in his own hopes for the Paris Consulate, believed that Garfield had to be “removed” in order to save the Republican Party and the country. He purchased an English bulldog revolver – with borrowed money – from a shop in Washington.  He saw himself as a patriot and believed that the American public would rally to his support. He also believed that God – “the Deity” was the term he used – was telling him to remove President Garfield.

     Guiteau began stalking Garfield. One morning in June, he followed him to the Disciples church where the President worshipped. Guiteau couldn’t shoot a man at his devotions.

      Next, Guiteau followed Garfield to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on June 18. The President was accompanying his wife Lucretia to New Jersey, where she was to complete her recuperation from an attack of malaria. Guiteau couldn’t shoot Garfield there, either. Mrs. Garfield looked so frail, standing by her husband, that Guiteau said later that he “did not have the heart to fire upon him.”

     On a third occasion, Guiteau watched the President and his Secretary of State, James Blaine (who had been so rude to him) walking arm in arm on a Washington street one evening. He followed the pair for some time, but did not act.

      But Guiteau knew that he had one more chance to remove the President. It was announced in the newspapers. President Garfield would be taking a train to New Jersey, on Saturday, July 2 to meet his wife and continue on to a vacation in New England and New York.  The train would depart the Baltimore and Potomac Train Station at 9:30 a.m.

      This time he was prepared to act. He knew he would be arrested, so a few days before he checked out the Washington Jail. He thought it would be a nice place to be confined.

     Guiteau was already at the station when the President arrived a few minutes past nine, with Secretary Blaine by his side. The President and Secretary were crossing into the main waiting room when Guiteau fired two shots. One grazed Garfield’s right arm, while the other tunneled into his back. The President collapsed.

The Baltimore and Potomace railroad depot in which Guiteau shot Garfield. Note the black bunting and half-staff flag. Today, the National Portrait Gallery is found where this depot once stood. (www.touring-ohio.com)

     Charles Guiteau was immediately apprehended. Addressing one of the arresting officers, he said, “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”

     Guiteau became something of a celebrity in the press; his photograph was taken many times, and interviews and articles by and about him appeared in print. He always insisted that he was the agent of “the Deity” and that what he had done was for the good of the country.  Garfield lingered for 80 days before dying on September 19, 1881.  Guiteau, so sure he would be revered for his actions, was hanged on June 30, 1882, two days shy of the first anniversary of his attack on President Garfield.

     It is worth noting that the National Civil Service Reform League took advantage of President’s assassination by distributing a letter nationwide connecting the “recent murderous attack” on Garfield to promote reform legislation.  That legislation, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, was signed into law by President Arthur on January 16, 1883.

     So, President James Abram Garfield was assassinated not simply because a mentally deranged individual was “a disappointed office seeker”; a long-standing and divisive effort to reform the machinery of the Federal government created such a poisonous political atmosphere that that same disturbed individual saw himself as the person equipped to put and end to this factional and personal dispute.  Regretably, his solution robbed the country of the leadership of the intelligent, thoughtful, talented man who was the 20th President of the United States.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

“If Any Outsider is Taken, I Hope it Will be Garfield”: The 1880 Republican Convention

         Every four years, America’s political parties hold national conventions to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President. Cities vie to host the event, and convention week is always full of rallies, parades, demonstrations and buzz. Until the second half of the 20th century, conventions actually did choose the presidential candidates. Nomination battles, now decided in primaries and caucuses, were fought out on the convention floor and in back rooms. Rumors flew, reporters listened, delegates caucused, supporters rallied. The sense of possibility and opportunity for surprise gave conventions a kind of excitement seldom seen in political gatherings today.

          Republicans met for their seventh national convention in Chicago in early June, 1880. They convened in the brand new Industrial Exposition building, called the “Glass Palace” by locals for its enormous windows and skylights. It could hold 15,000 delegates, dignitaries and spectators. Some 500 reporters were provided tables right below the speakers’ platform where they could hear every word; they could report to the country by telegraph directly from the convention hall. Ladies filled the galleries while delegates settled under their state flags on the convention floor. The stage was set for the longest nominating battle in the history of the Republican party.

The “Glass Palace” on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, site of the 1880 Republican convention. http://www.grantstomb.org.

          In 1880, the Republican Party had no clear leader. Rutherford B. Hayes (R., Ohio) was president, but his term in office was tainted by the bitter battle that put him there. He had announced that he would not seek re-election. U.S. Grant (R., Illinois) had been president before Hayes. He left office after two terms under a cloud of scandal. But he had just returned from a triumphal world tour and was anxious to return to the White House for a third term as President.

         Unfortunately for Grant and his supporters, many Republicans remembered the graft and corruption of his presidency. Some opposed a third term for any president, though it was then allowed by the Constitution. When the Republicans held their convention in Chicago in early June 1880, Grant was supported by the largest bloc of delegates. But he did not have enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.

          The “anybody but Grant” Republicans were led by Senator James G. Blaine (R., Maine).  A smaller group, led by Congressman James A. Garfield, supported former Ohio Senator and current Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman. Several “favorite son” candidates were also nominated. The anti-Grant faction could not muster a majority for any one of those candidates.

Roscoe Conkling, John Logan, and Don Cameron drive the Grant train into Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

       Delegates to the National Convention were chosen in state and local caucuses, and their votes were usually pledged to one or another of the candidates on the first ballot. Those votes had been counted and analyzed by politicians and newspapermen for weeks. On the eve of the convention the Albany Evening Journal reported that 277 votes were committed to Senator Blaine, former President Grant could count on 314 votes, Secretary Sherman had 106, and 49 votes were scattered among several “favorite son” candidates. With 379 votes needed to win, a first ballot victory for any candidate was unlikely.

          But it was not impossible. The Grant forces at the convention were led by three important U. S. Senators: Don Cameron of Pennsylvania, John Logan of Illinois, and Roscoe Conkling of New York. They led three of the largest delegations at the convention, and if all three gave all of their votes to Grant, he could win on the first ballot. The delegations, however, were not unanimous. The three senators wanted the Republican national committee to invoke a “unit rule,” requiring that all the votes of a state delegation go to the candidate with the majority of votes from that state.

         James A. Garfield, an at-large delegate from Ohio, arrived in Chicago on Saturday, May 29, 1880.  The unit rule controversy met him as soon as he reached the city. He told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune that “all delegates…are political units, each one of which has a right to express his own political sentiment by his own personal vote…It is wholly un-Republican for one man to cast another man’s vote.” It was a principal of political autonomy that Garfield had held all his life and he told the reporter that for him it was “more important than even the choice of a candidate.” As an opponent of a Grant third term, and as chairman of the convention’s rules committee, Garfield spent the days before the convention opened working to block any attempt to impose a unit rule. Ultimately a compromise was reached that allowed all the delegates to vote on the question and the unit rule was defeated 449 votes to 306.

The interior of the “Glass Palace” on June 2, 1880 during the Republican convention. Library of Congress.

        Two of the party’s best speakers were on hand to present candidates. Roscoe Conkling of New York nominated “the man who can’t be defeated—General Ulysses S. Grant!” It was a speech interrupted over and over with cheers and demonstrations, and most reporters agreed that if the balloting had begun right after Conkling’s speech, Grant would have won the nomination by acclamation.

        James A. Garfield took the stage next to nominate his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman. He spoke calmly and thoughtfully, reminding the delegates that the presidential election would be decided “not in Chicago in the heat of July, but at the ballot-boxes in the Republic, in the quiet melancholy days of November.”

        As the evening ended, one delegate told a reporter, “If any outsider is taken, I hope it will be Garfield. If Ohio wants a man, let Ohio ask for her best.” That same night James Garfield received a letter from his wife. “I begin to be half afraid that the convention will give you the nomination,” Lucretia wrote, “and the place would be most unenviable with so many disappointed candidates. I don’t want you to have the nomination merely because no one else can get it, I want you to have it when the whole country calls for you…My ambition does not fall short of that.”

        None of the presidential candidates was in Chicago. Tradition demanded that they keep a seemingly disinterested distance while their political friends worked to secure the nomination for them. But the three major candidates were in close contact with their teams at the convention. Each had a dedicated telegraph line—Senator Blaine’s at his home on 15th Street in Washington, and Secretary Sherman’s to his Treasury Department office. Grant felt this was unseemly, so his neighbor in Galena, Illinois had a line brought to his home a few steps from Grant’s front door. With this rapid communication available, all three could be kept informed and send instructions to their forces in the convention hall. They could respond to events, propose strategies, and approve deals.

        When the balloting began on Monday morning, June 7, none of the candidates was far from his telegraph. The first ballot brought no surprises: U.S. Grant had 304 votes, James G. Blaine 284 votes, John Sherman 93 votes, Elihu Washburn 30, George Edmunds 34, and William Windom 10 votes. The chairman of the convention announced, “No candidate having received the 379 votes needed to nominate, the clerk will call the roll for the second ballot.” By the end of the day twenty-eight ballots had been taken, and the vote totals had barely budged. Grant had 307 votes, Blaine had 279 and Sherman 91. One vote had been cast for James Garfield on the second ballot, by a delegate from Pennsylvania. That delegate continued to vote for Garfield on every ballot, but no others joined him that day.

         Overnight, all three campaigns met in private caucuses to plot strategy for the next day. Telegraph lines to Washington and Galena hummed with news and advice. Each camp was sure that a break by one of the others would lead to the nomination, so in the end none was willing to cede votes and the stalemate continued. They began Tuesday with the twenty-ninth ballot, but there was no real change in the vote totals until the very end of the roll call for the thirty-fourth ballot. When the clerk called Wisconsin, the chairman of the delegation stood on his chair to announce “two votes for General Grant, two votes of James G. Blaine, and (pause) sixteen votes for James A. Garfield!”

          Garfield, at his place in the Ohio delegation, challenged the announcement, but was quickly overruled by the convention chairman. Telegrams flew to Sherman and Blaine. On the next ballot Indiana and Maryland switched their votes to Garfield. Blaine responded to his delegation and to Garfield, “Maine’s vote this moment cast for you goes with my hearty concurrence. I hope it will aid in securing your nomination and assuring victory to the Republican Party.” Sherman relayed this message: “Whenever the vote of Ohio will be likely to assure the nomination of Garfield, I appeal to every delegate to vote for him. Let Ohio be solid.”

        It ended on the thirty-sixth ballot when Wisconsin announced its 20 votes for James Garfield. That brought his total to 399, 20 more than needed for the nomination. Garfield sat stunned. The convention hall erupted with cheers. Outside on the lakeshore, cannon were fired. As the clamor subsided, Garfield was able to compose a telegram to Lucretia: “Dear Wife. If the result meets your approval, I shall be content. Love to all the household. J.A. Garfield.”

One party leader called it “the escape of a tired convention.” The Grant train derailed, Conkling, Cameron, and Logan limp out of Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide