From Hayes to McKinley
H. Wayne Morgan, 1969

The first thing you might notice is that this book is called From Hayes to McKinley, while this article only goes from Hayes to Arthur. Part of the reason is that I got this book via Link+, which doesn't allow renewals, and I'm a slow reader. But part of it is that I just didn't think this book was very good, and I was looking for convenient point at which to bail. It seems to me that when you're writing political history, your priorities ought to be to (a) clearly sketch out the issues of the day, (b) map where the major players stood on these issues, and (c) give readers a feel for what these people were like. But Morgan conveys neither personality nor policy very well.

He also starts at the beginning of Rutherford Hayes's presidency, rather than with the infamous 1876 election. This is a reasonable choice, I suppose, given that entire books could and have been written about 1876, but it seems worth a few words. In 1876, incumbent president Ulysses Grant was inclined to run for a third term, but the scandals of his administration made a renomination for Grant a near impossibility. Democrats hoped to capitalize on the damage Grant had done to the Republican brand by nominating New York governor Samuel Tilden, who had broken up the corrupt Canal Ring and played a key role in sending Boss Tweed to jail. Republicans countered by nominating Ohio governor Rutherford Hayes, also known as a reformer. The two men disagreed on very little, and in any event, custom dictated that presidential candidates not campaign on their own behalf. They remained above the fray while local surrogates made blunt arguments:

  • Democrats: "Vote for a Republican? You can't be serious! Have you forgotten that for the last eight years they've all shown themselves to be crooks?"

  • Republicans: "Vote for a Democrat? You can't be serious! Have you forgotten that less than a dozen years ago they were trying to kill us?

"Not every Democrat was a rebel, but every rebel was a Democrat," the Republicans maintained. Democrats dismissed this as "waving the bloody shirt," living in the past when Republican malfeasance was very much a matter of the present. But the Civil War was not entirely over in 1876. The end of formal battle in 1865 had left the nation with the monumental task of placing the South on a new footing which would lead to better integration with the country it was rejoining. A number of groups rose to the challenge. Obviously the freed slaves were very interested in redefining their place in Southern society. Northerners, both black and white, journeyed south to help in the effort. Even some white Southerners were willing to participate peacefully in the reinvention of their culture on a basis other than racial subjugation and plantation agriculture. But many more were not. And they formed insurgent groups to intimidate, drive out, and murder people in the first three categories. This prompted Congress to send in federal troops, and the Civil War entered its twilight phase.

The struggle between U.S. forces and white supremacist militias came to a head every election season, and its progress could be measured by counting office holders. Where troops were able to protect Republican voters and enforce the requirement that former rebels take loyalty oaths, the Republican coalition took power; of the ten states subject to military control, all but Virginia initially elected Republican governments. As paramilitary squads such as the White League and Red Shirts gained the upper hand, the Democrats seized control. This process may actually be best exemplified by an unsuccessful attempt: when the Republican slate for state offices in Louisiana was ruled to have won the 1872 election there, a militia composed of Klansmen and other rebel veterans stormed the courthouse in the town of Colfax in Grant Parish, massacring around a hundred freedmen defending it (half of them after they had surrendered). While U.S. troops kept the Republican governor from being toppled in turn, the Supreme Court ruled that Southern militias were immune from federal prosecution. By 1876, only three former rebel states had not fallen into the hands of these self-styled "redeemers": Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. The prospects for a Democratic sweep of the South looked good.

The 1876 returns indicated a three-point victory for Tilden in the popular vote. He had won his home state of New York, along with neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey; Indiana, thanks to the third-party candidacy of a dude with a preposterous neckbeard; and, by landslide margins, every state that had permitted slavery in 1860. In an election with 185 electoral votes needed to win, Tilden had earned 203. Except that three state electoral commissions reported that enough Democratic votes were fraudulent to tip those states into the Republican column. Those states? All together now: Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida.

With those three states sending two separate slates of electors to the electoral college, plus a dispute over a potentially tiebreaking elector in Oregon, Congress wound up appointing its own electoral commission to settle the mess. The commission was composed of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent: Abraham Lincoln's old pal David Davis. Hoping to sway Davis's vote, Illinois Democrats voted him into the Senate. They miscalculated: Davis immediately resigned to take his Senate seat, and it turned out that the alternate lined up for him was a Republican. The electoral commission voted 8-7 to award all the disputed electoral votes to Rutherford Hayes, who thus won the presidency 185 to 184.

This obviously sounds very fishy. But while today vote fraud in the U.S. is largely a myth, committed almost exclusively by Republican officials, in the 19th century it was rampant. It was standard practice for parties to bring thousands of people across state lines to vote illegally — the practice even had a name, "colonization." Ballot boxes frequently "went missing," or turned out to have been stuffed. And the public tended to shrug, figuring that since both parties were doing it the fraud probably canceled itself out. So, yes, it was awfully convenient that Republican state governments happened to declare just enough vote fraud to swing the election to a fellow Republican. But it's important to keep in mind that the disputed vote totals were fraudulent — and that's not even accounting for all the voters scared into staying home by the many terrorist groups openly operating throughout the South. While there's no way to know with absolute certainly what a fair vote might have looked like, we can take a pretty good guess: while there were very few white Republicans in the South, there were virtually no black Democrats. States with black majorities in 1876 would therefore, in a fair vote, almost certainly have wound up in Hayes's column. These states were Louisiana, South Carolina… and Mississippi, with eight electoral votes rather than Florida's four. Hayes should therefore probably have won by nine electoral votes, rather than merely one — and certainly rather than losing by 37. Had that happened, it actually would be accurate to say that the terrorists had won.

So let's finally turn to the rightful victor of the 1876 election…

Democrats didn't protest Hayes's election, having purportedly struck a deal with their counterparts across the aisle: in exchange for their acquiescence to the rulings of the electoral commission, the federal government would withdraw the last of its troops from the South. This Hayes did. But he had an ulterior motive.

Hayes, at least according to Morgan's account, was basically the last of the Whigs. Though born in Ohio, he was of New England stock and subscribed to the tenets of New England Whiggery. One of these was self-discipline, and Hayes quickly discontinued the provision of alcohol at White House functions. Another was self-improvement, and Hayes's signature issue was education; as governor, he had been a prime mover behind the founding of The Ohio State University, and devoted the years after his presidency working to expand access to all kinds of schooling. It will come as no surprise that on economic matters he shunned the call for "soft money" as "morally unsound." What this litany has to do with the previous paragraph is that the Whigs, unlike the Republicans, had not been a sectional party until very near the moment of the party's dissolution. There had been plenty of Southern Whigs — "Cotton Whigs," they'd been called. Hayes was convinced that the reason there were so few white Southern Republicans was that the presence of federal troops in the South caused resentment toward the party responsible for sending them. Remove the troops, and surely the Republicans could attract a Southern following like their Whig predecessors had. And if putting away the stick wasn't enough, there was always the carrot. Hayes appointed many Southern Democrats to fill civil service positions — again, trying to demonstrate to potential converts that the Republican Party was not the enemy of the South.

The old guard of abolitionists was incensed: "Half of what Grant gained at Appomattox, Hayes surrendered in Washington," Wendell Phillips grumbled. And of course the policy didn't actually work at all. The South remained solidly Democratic for nearly a century. A point of principle that Hayes had insisted upon in ending Reconstruction was that black rights be respected; instead, white Southerners immediately reduced the freed slaves to a social position only nominally better than the one they'd held before the war. By 1878, Hayes had to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: "I am reluctantly forced to admit that the experiment was a failure." But as the New York Times noted, "outside of small and suspicious circles," "the old form of the southern question" no longer attracted "any real interest." Many contemporary observers were less interested in what Hayes's move said about his attitude toward the South than about what it said about his attitude toward civil service reform. For this was the unlikely issue that had split the Republican Party into warring factions.

By the time Hayes took office, the federal government had grown to the point that it employed 100,000 people. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, those jobs had been distributed by the party in power to its supporters in what was known as the "spoils system." With each new administration, government officials were fired en masse and newly appointed ones took their places. These jobs were highly sought after. Say you get put in charge of the Dubuque post office. First, you get a reliable salary, nothing to sneeze at during the Long Depression of the late 19th century. You also get to be a big cheese in Dubuque. And after you hand out jobs at the post office in turn, you have your own coterie of men who owe you favors. At this point you're probably a big fan of the spoils system, but there are a few problems. First: since you got your job as a reward for supporting the winning candidate rather than for any expertise in running a post office, and since you hired people based on this same favor-trading system rather than for any expertise in delivering mail, postal service in Dubuque will probably be fairly shitty. It might improve as time goes by and you all gain experience… but four years later a new administration is likely to come in and a fresh batch of novices will replace you all. There there's the small matter of corruption. Recognizing that you only have a few years to maximize the return from your appointment, you might bring aboard some extra employees, give them fictitious mail routes, bill the federal government for your new hires' salaries, and split the proceeds with the recipients of these sinecures. This sort of thing was pervasive enough in his predecessor's administration that Hayes was under some pressure to prove that corruption was specifically a Grant problem and not a Republican problem.

Bestowing patronage upon Democrats was a step too far for nearly all Republicans, and Hayes became something of a pariah within the party. But letting qualified Democrats keep their jobs after a Republican was elected — turning civil service into a career that would require some skill and span multiple administrations — was an idea that held some appeal to reform-minded members of the GOP. Supporters of the spoils system, calling themselves "Stalwart Republicans," denigrated these reformers as "Half-Breeds." "I do not know how to belong to a party a little," scoffed the informal leader of the Stalwarts, New York senator Roscoe Conkling, who controlled patronage in the nation's most populous state. Hayes, holding to form, maintained that it might be a good idea to create some sort of examination to determine whether candidates were fit for the offices their sponsors proposed to give them. Stalwarts found this proposal worthy of ridicule:

We shall see some queer mutations
      and improvements not a few
Firemen must know equations
      and be up on Euclid too.

The contest between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds reached a flashpoint when a report commissioned by treasury secretary John Sherman, brother of famed Union general William Sherman, indicated that the New York Custom House was packed with far more appointees — read, Conkling's spoilsmen — than were needed to actually perform the work of collecting duties. Hayes ordered that customs officials be barred from simultaneously working as party functionaries; the head man at the Custom House, one Chester Arthur, refused to obey this directive, so Hayes fired him. Arthur returned to Conkling's camp to prepare for the 1880 election.

Hayes was not running for a second term — "I have had enough of it," he explained — so the two Republican factions faced off with neither possessing the advantage of incumbency. The leading contender on the Half-Breed side was Maine senator James Blaine, who had led by a wide margin at the 1876 Republican convention before his opponents coalesced around Hayes. Conkling had been second on the first ballot in 1876, but this time deferred to a candidate he thought could seal the nomination and the general election for the Stalwarts: Ulysses Grant. The Stalwart argument was that having had a couple of practice terms and gone on a world tour, Grant was at long last ready to be president — and that, unlike the Half-Breeds, Grant had proven himself to be the kind of guy who would go to bat for his friends. Conkling gave a rousing speech on Grant's behalf, and Grant led on the first ballot, slightly ahead of Blaine and well in front of third-place finisher John Sherman. Sherman's supporters were unhappy; chief among their complaints was that his nomination speech had been given by an Ohio congressman who seemed more interested in positioning himself for a future nomination than in talking up Sherman. This congressman was named James Garfield.

Garfield had indeed toyed with the idea of seeking the presidency someday, perhaps in 1888. But as the numbers remained the same on ballot after ballot — Grant around 300, Blaine around 280, Sherman around 100 — the delegates started to cast about for other options. A handful switched to Garfield. Garfield objected, claiming that he could not be awarded votes without his consent, but the convention chair overruled him. By the time the number of ballots reached the 30s, Grant finally started to make a little more progress — enough to convince Blaine and Sherman that Grant would win the nomination and that they had to do something drastic to "save the Republican Party." Their supporters would not flip to each other… but they would flip to the relatively unknown Garfield, whom both men considered far preferable to Grant. A shocked Garfield won on the 36th ballot, 399 to 306.

That still left the general election to be won. The Republicans had no chance so long as the party remained split. The Stalwarts had to be brought aboard. To ask Grant or Conkling to accept second billing to an obscure congressman would have been viewed as an insult, but Conkling had many associates in New York who could balance the ticket. The Garfield camp started by asking congressman Levi Morton to serve as Garfield's running mate. When Morton sought Conkling's blessing, he found that it was not forthcoming. Conkling intimated that anyone who joined up with Garfield could no longer count himself among Conkling's friends. Morton declined the nomination. Garfield's people next turned to Stalwart par excellence Chester Arthur. Again, Conkling said, "If you wish for my favor and my respect, you will contemptuously decline" Garfield's offer. But unlike Morton, Arthur was not cowed. "The office of the vice-presidency is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining," he said, adding that he didn't even care whether he won — he could die happy knowing that Chester Arthur of all people had once been nominated for VP.

To oppose Garfield, the Democrats nominated a general, Winfield Scott Hancock. (Garfield and Arthur had also both been generals during the war, as had Hayes and of course Grant, but Hancock was still in the army.) Hancock was popular and respected, but he knew little about politics. When asked about the tariff on imported goods, Hancock replied that it was a "local question." He later explained that he meant that different localities were affected by it differently, but Republicans hooted that if Hancock thought every town levied its own duties on foreign imports, he had a lot to learn. For a few days it looked as though the Republicans had suffered a similar gaffe when a letter was uncovered in which Garfield expressed solid support for open immigration from China, a very unpopular policy… but the letter turned out to be a forgery, and the dirty-tricks squad responsible for it had stupidly released it early enough for the forgery to be discovered before Election Day, winning the Republicans a sympathy vote. In the end, the vote was almost entirely sectional. The Democrats won every state where slavery had been legal in 1860. The Republicans won every other state, with the exception of Nevada, California (where the Chinese immigration issue hit close to home and many distrusted Garfield on the issue whether the letter was forged or not), and New Jersey. The popular vote was very close, but the electoral vote showed an easy win for Garfield.

Garfield found himself faced with the same onerous task that faced all new presidents: filling government jobs. (Recall that Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War in his office, spending hours at a time dealing with the office seekers who lined up out his door and all through the White House.) One of these jobs was collector of the port of New York. Garfield chose William Robertson, president pro tempore of the New York state senate. Roscoe Conkling objected; the tradition of senatorial courtesy dictated that he had veto power over all appointments involving his state, and he hated Robertson. Garfield replied that he would press forward with the nomination, and "settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States." Conkling resigned in fury, expecting that the resulting outcry would force Garfield to back down. Instead, the New York state legislature calmly voted in a replacement senator. Thus ended Conkling's political career.

Another job Garfield had to fill was the ambassadorship to France. This he granted to Levi Morton, who had requested it when he turned down the VP slot. This came as a great disappointment to an office seeker named Charles Guiteau, who had lined up day after day to ask for the position, until James Blaine, whom Garfield had appointed secretary of state, personally banned Guiteau from the White House: "Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live." Guiteau wrote Garfield a letter demanding that he fire Blaine for this indignity. Garfield did not. So on 1881.0702, Guiteau ambushed Garfield at a Washington train station and shot him in the back. "I am a Stalwart!" Guiteau shouted. "Arthur is president now!"

Arthur actually wouldn't become president until September. Garfield's wounds were survivable, and he was even able to conduct some presidential business over the remainder of the summer. Had he been shot in an identical fashion as little as ten years later, he almost certainly would have been able to serve out his term. But in 1881, doctors had not yet taken to washing their hands or sterilizing their instruments. As they poked at Garfield's wounds, attempting to find and extract the bullet, they condemned the president to a gruesome, lingering end. James Garfield died of complications from iatrogenic infection on 1881.0919.

It's hard to know what to make of a president who only served for four months before being shot. Up to the point he took office, Garfield seemed (at least in my limited reading about him) to be a rather diffident figure, but this certainly didn't seem to be the case in the showdown with Conkling. All in all, he strikes me as having been a slightly less stiff version of Rutherford Hayes. They seem not only to have had similar political opinions but also to have prioritized issues similarly. This did not seem as though it would be the case for…

Presidents had died in office before, and it tended to show the folly of "balancing" tickets. William Henry Harrison gets elected on the Whig ticket — and dies, at which point John Tyler vetoes the entire Whig agenda. Abraham Lincoln sees the Union through the Civil War — and dies, at which point a Southern Democrat takes the helm of a country that had just spent four years in bloody battle against Southern Democrats. Now the Half-Breeds pull off some fancy electioneering to deny the Stalwarts the Republican nomination… and a year later one of the core Stalwarts is sitting in the big chair.

As Morgan relates, this was a highly unlikely turn of events. Before the 1880 election Chester Arthur had never been elected to anything. He'd been a cog in a political machine — a fundraiser, a favor-trader, but not someone who himself had ever gone out and sought votes from the public. At the New York Customs House, he had benefitted from a system that awarded senior officials bonuses that far exceeded their salaries. Consequently he had acquired a taste for extravagant living that he continued as president. John Quincy Adams had started his day at five a.m.; Arthur tended to shamble out of bed at a bit past ten. He wore dandyish outfits: "Cutaways with colored piping, ruffled shirts, fancy shoes, a forest of canes and an array of hats"; Democratic newspapers mocked his "lovely coats, charming vests, and angelic trousers." Those trousers had to be let out every so often, as Arthur was fond of twelve-course dinners and not fond of any sort of physical exertion, going nowhere on foot but always in a well-appointed carriage. Often that carriage conveyed him to the theater, or to an exclusive social club for a few rounds of drinks with eminent gentlemen. Hayes muttered that the presidency was being marred by "liquor, snobbery, and worse"; others observed that, after years of selecting presidents out of the Midwest, the public was now seeing what happened when the president was from New York City. But while Arthur's lifestyle was good fodder for the newspapers, the question still remained how his actual administration would differ from Garfield's.

It wound up doing so much less than most expected. Chester Arthur may have embodied the spoils system, but the spoils system had basically just murdered the last president, and its days were numbered. When the Republicans were wiped out in the midterm elections of 1882, Morgan contends, the message was clear: either the Republicans could pass civil service reform in their lame duck session, or the Northern Democrats who were on their way in would do so and take the credit. So it was that Chester Arthur, elevated to the presidency in the name of the Stalwarts, signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act that began the dismantling of the system the Stalwarts were dedicated to defending.

There may have been other reasons for Arthur's change of heart on the issue, though. Presumably the murder of Garfield had affected Arthur much as it had affected the public. And then there was the unequivocal end of his relationship with Conkling, which may well have driven Arthur over to the Half-Breeds. When a spot on the Supreme Court had opened up in 1882, Arthur in loyal fashion had nominated his old boss for the job. Conkling had accepted the nomination, been confirmed by the Senate… and then refused to take his seat. It was as if to tell Arthur, See? When your enemies try to win you over with offers of high office, this is how you tell them to fuck off.

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