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A Transition Period

Politicians at Washington very generally failed to realize that the advent of President Hayes marked the dismissal of the issues of war and reconstruction. They regarded as an episode what turned out to be the close of an era. They saw, indeed, that public interest in the old issues had waned, but they were confident that this lack of interest was transient. They admitted that the emotional fervor excited by the war and by the issues of human right involved in its results was somewhat damped, but they believed that the settlement of those issues was still so incomplete that public interest would surely rekindle. For many years the ruling thought of the Republican party leaders was to be watchful of any opportunity to ply the bellows on the embers. Besides genuine concern over the way in which the negroes had been divested of political privileges conferred by national legislation, the Republicans felt a tingling sense of party injury.

The most eminent party leaders at this time—both standing high as presidential possibilities—were James G. Blaine and John Sherman. In a magazine article published in 1880 Mr. Blaine wrote: "As the matter stands, all violence in the South inures to the benefit of one political party.... Our institutions have been tried by the fiery test of war, and have survived. It remains to be seen whether the attempt to govern the country by the power of a 'solid South,' unlawfully consolidated, can be successful.... The republic must be strong enough, and shall be strong enough, to protect the weakest of its citizens in all their rights." And so late as 1884, Mr. Sherman earnestly contended for the principle of national intervention in the conduct of state elections. "The war," he said, "emancipated and made citizens of five million people who had been slaves. This was a national act and whether wisely or imprudently done it must be respected by the people of all the States. If sought to be reversed in any degree by the people of any locality it is the duty of the national government to make their act respected by all its citizens."

Republican party platforms reiterated such opinions long after their practical futility had become manifest. Indeed, it was a matter of common knowledge that negro suffrage had been undone by force and fraud; hardly more than a perfunctory denial of the fact was ever made in Congress, and meanwhile it was a source of jest and anecdote among members of all parties behind the scenes. Republican members were bantered by Democratic colleagues upon the way in which provision for Republican party advantage in the South had actually given to the Democratic party a solid block of sure electoral votes. The time at last came when a Southern Senator, Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, blurted out in the open what had for years been common talk in private. "We took the government away," be asserted. "We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.... With that system—force, tissue ballots, etc.—we got tired ourselves. So we called a constitutional convention, and we eliminated, as I said, all of the colored people we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.... The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, and we shoot them in South Carolina, when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections."

Such a miscarriage of Republican policy was long a bitter grievance to the leaders of the party and incited them to action. If they could have had their desire, they would have used stringent means to remedy the situation. Measures to enforce the political rights of the freedmen were frequently agitated, but every force bill which was presented had to encounter a deep and pervasive opposition not confined by party lines but manifested even within the Republican party itself. Party platforms insisted upon the issue, but public opinion steadily disregarded it. Apparently a fine opportunity to redress this grievance was afforded by the election of President Harrison in 1888 upon a platform declaring that the national power of the Democratic party was due to "the suppression of the ballot by a criminal nullification of the Constitution and laws of the United States," and demanding "effective legislation to secure integrity and purity of elections." But, although they were victorious at the polls that year, the Republican leaders were unable to embody in legislation the ideal proposed in their platform. Of the causes of this failure, George F. Hoar gives an instructive account in his Autobiography. As chairman of the Senate committee on privileges and elections he was in a position to know all the details of the legislative attempts, the failure of which compelled the Republican leaders to acquiesce in the decision of public opinion against the old issues and in favor of new issues.

Senator Hoar relates that he made careful preparation of a bill for holding, under national authority, separate registrations and elections for members of Congress. But when he consulted his party associates in the Senate he found most of them averse to an arrangement which would double the cost of elections and would require citizens to register at different times for federal elections and for state and municipal elections. Senator Hoar thereupon abandoned that bill and prepared another which provided that, upon application to court showing reasonable grounds, the court should appoint officers from both parties to supervise the election. The bill adopted a feature of electoral procedure which in England has had a salutary effect. It was provided that in case of a dispute concerning an election certificate, the circuit court of the United States in which the district was situated should hear the case and should award a certificate entitling the one or other of the contestants to be placed on the clerk's roll and to serve until the House should act on the case. Mr. Hoar stated that the bill "deeply excited the whole country," and went on to say that "some worthy Republican senators became alarmed. They thought, with a good deal of reason, that it was better to allow existing evils and conditions to be cured by time, and the returning conscience and good sense of the people, rather than have the strife, the result of which must be quite doubtful, which the enactment and enforcement of this law, however moderate and just, would inevitably create." The existence of this attitude of mind made party advocacy of the bill a hopeless undertaking and, though it was favorably reported on August 7, 1890, no further action was taken during that session. At the December session it was taken up for consideration, but after a few days of debate a motion to lay it aside was carried by the Democrats with the assistance of enough Republicans to give them a majority. This was the end of force bills, and during President Cleveland's second term the few remaining statutes giving authority for federal interference in such matters was repealed under the lead of Senator Hill of New York. With the passage of this act, the Republican party leaders for the first time abandoned all purpose of attempting to secure by national legislation the political privileges of the negroes. This determination was announced is the Senate by Mr. Hoar and was assented to by Senator Chandler of New Hampshire, who had been a zealous champion of federal action. According to Mr. Hoar, "no Republican has dissented from it."

The facts upon which the force bill was based were so notorious and the bill itself was so moderate in its character that the general indifference of the public seemed to betray moral insensibility and emotional torpor. Much could be said in favor of the bill. This latest assertion of national authority in federal elections involved no new principle. In legalistic complexion the proposed measure was of the same character as previous legislation dealing with this subject, instances of which are the Act of 1842, requiring the election of members of the House by districts, and the Act of 1866, regulating the election of United States Senators. Fraudulent returns in congressional elections have always been a notorious evil, and the partisan way in which they are passed upon is still a gross blemish upon the constitutional system of the United States, and one which is likely never to be removed until the principle of judicial determination of electoral contests has been adopted in this country as it has been in England. The truth of the matter appears to be that the public paid no attention to the merits of the bill. It was viewed simply as a continuation of the radical reconstruction policy, the practical results of which had become intolerable. However great the actual evils of the situation might be, public opinion held that it would be wiser to leave them to be dealt with by state authority than by such incompetent statesmanship as had been common in Washington. Moreover, the man in the street resented the indifference of politicians to all issues save those derived from the Civil War.

Viscount Bryce in his American Commonwealth, the most complete and penetrating examination of American political conditions written during this period, gives this account of the party situation:

"The great parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. What are their principles, their distinctive tenets, their tendencies? Which of them is for tariff reform, for the further extension of civil service reform, a spirited foreign policy, for the regulation of railroads and telegraphs by legislation, for changes in the currency, for any other of the twenty issues which one hears discussed in this country as seriously involving its welfare? This is what a European is always asking of intelligent Republicans and intelligent Democrats. He is always asking because he never gets an answer. The replies leave him deeper in perplexity. After some months the truth begins to dawn upon him. Neither party has, as a party, anything definite to say on these issues; neither party has any clean-cut principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both certainly have war cries, organizations, interests, enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of the government. Tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice have all but vanished. They have not been thrown away, but have been stripped away by time and the progress of events, fulfilling some policies, blotting out others. All has been lost, except office or the hope of it."

That such a situation could actually exist in the face of public disapproval is a demonstration of the defects of Congress as an organ of national representation. Normally, a representative assembly is a school of statesmanship which is drawn upon for filling the great posts of administration. Not only is this the case under the parliamentary system in vogue in England, but it is equally the case in Switzerland whose constitution agrees with that of the United States in forbidding members of Congress to hold executive office. But somehow the American Congress fails to produce capable statesmen. It attracts politicians who display affability, shrewdness, dexterity, and eloquence, but who are lacking in discernment of public needs and in ability to provide for them, so that power and opportunity are often associated with gross political incompetency.(1) The solutions of the great political problems of the United States are accomplished by transferring to Washington men like Hayes and Cleveland whose political experience has been gained in other fields.

The system of congressional government was subjected to some scrutiny in 1880-81 through the efforts of Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio, an old statesman who had returned to public life after long absence. He had been prominent in the Democratic party before the war and in 1864 he was the party candidate for Vice-President. In 1868 he was the leading candidate for the presidential nomination on a number of ballots, but he was defeated. In 1869 he was a candidate for Governor of Ohio but was defeated; he then retired from public life until 1879 when he was elected to the United States Senate. As a member of that body, he devoted himself to the betterment of political conditions. His efforts in this direction were facilitated not only by his wide political experience but also by the tact and urbanity of his manners, which had gained for him in Ohio politics the nickname of "Gentleman George."

In agreement with opinions long previously expressed in Story's Commentaries, Senator Pendleton attributed the inefficiency of national government to the sharp separation of Congress from the Administration—a separation not required by the Constitution but made by Congress itself and subject to change at its discretion. He proposed to admit the heads of executive departments to participation in the proceedings of Congress. "This system," said he, "will require the selection of the strongest men to be heads of departments, and will require them to be well equipped with the knowledge of their offices. It will also require the strongest men to be the leaders of Congress and participate in the debate. It will bring those strong men in contact, perhaps into conflict, to advance the public weal and thus stimulate their abilities and their efforts, and will thus assuredly result to the good of the country."(2) The report—signed by such party leaders as Allison, Blaine, and Ingalls among the Republicans, and by Pendleton and Voorhees among the Democrats—reviewed the history of relations between the executive and legislative branches and closed with the expression of the unanimous belief of the committee that the adoption of the measure "will be the first step towards a sound civil service reform, which will secure a larger wisdom in the adoption of policies, and a better system in their execution."

No action was taken on this proposal, notwithstanding the favor with which it was regarded by many close students of the political institutions of the country. Public opinion, preoccupied with more specific issues, seemed indifferent to a reform that aimed simply at general improvement in governmental machinery. The legislative calendars are always so heaped with projects that to reach and act upon any particular measure is impossible, except when there is brought to bear such energetic pressure as to produce special arrangements for the purpose, and in this case no such pressure was developed. A companion measure for civil service reform which was proposed by Senator Pendleton long remained in a worse situation, for it was not merely left under the congressional midden heap but was deliberately buried by politicians who were determined that it should never emerge. That it did emerge is due to a tragedy which aroused public opinion to an extent that intimidated Congress.

Want of genuine political principles made factional spirit only the more violent and depraved. So long as power and opportunity were based not upon public confidence but upon mere advantage of position, the contention of party leaders turned upon questions of appointment to office and the control of party machinery. The Republican national convention of 1880 was the scene of a factional struggle which left deep marks upon public life and caused divisions lasting until the party leaders of that period were removed from the scene. In September 1879, General Grant landed in San Francisco, after a tour around the world occupying over two years, and as he passed through the country he was received with a warmth which showed that popular devotion was abounding. A movement in favor of renominating him to the Presidency was started under the direction of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Grant's renown as the greatest military leader of the Civil War was not his only asset in the eyes of his supporters. In his career as President he had shown, on occasion, independence and steadfastness of character. He stayed the greenback movement by his veto after eminent party leaders had yielded to it. He had endeavored to introduce civil service reform and, although his measures had been frustrated by the refusal of Congress to vote the necessary appropriations, his tenacity of purpose was such that it could scarcely be doubted that with renewed opportunity he would resume his efforts. The scandals which blemished the conduct of public affairs during his administration could not be attributed to any lack of personal honesty on his part. Grant went out of the presidential office poorer than when he entered it. Since then, his views had been broadened by travel and by observation, and it was a reasonable supposition that he was now better qualified than ever before for the duties of the presidential office. He was only fifty-eight, an age much below that at which an active career should be expected to close, and certainly an age at which European statesmen are commonly thought to possess unabated powers. In opposition to him was a tradition peculiar to American politics, though unsupported by any provision of the Constitution according to which no one should be elected President for more than two terms. It may be questioned whether this tradition does not owe its strength more to the ambition of politicians than to sincere conviction on the part of the people.(3)

So strong was the movement in favor of General Grant as President that the united strength of the other candidates had difficulty in staying the boom, which, indeed, might have been successful but for the arrogant methods and tactical blunders of Senator Conkling. When three of the delegates voted against a resolution binding all to support the nominee whoever that nominee might be, he offered a resolution that those who had voted in the negative "do not deserve and have forfeited their vote in this convention." The feeling excited by this condemnatory motion was so strong that Conkling was obliged to withdraw it. He also made a contest in behalf of the unit rule but was defeated, as the convention decided that every delegate should have the right to have his vote counted as he individually desired. Notwithstanding these defeats of the chief manager of the movement in his favor, Grant was the leading candidate with 304 votes on the first ballot, James G. Blaine standing second with 284. This was the highest point in the balloting reached by Blaine, while the Grant vote made slight gains. Besides Grant and Blaine, four other candidates were in the field, and the convention drifted into a deadlock which under ordinary circumstances would have probably been dissolved by shifts of support to Grant. But in the preliminary disputes a very favorable impression had been made upon the convention by General Garfield, who was not himself a candidate but was supporting the candidacy of John Sherman, who stood third in the poll. On the twenty-eighth ballot, two votes were cast for Garfield; although he protested that he was not a candidate and was pledged to Sherman. But it became apparent that no concentration could be effected on any other candidate to prevent the nomination of Grant, and votes now turned to Garfield so rapidly that on the thirty-sixth ballot he received 399, a clear majority of the whole. The adherents of Grant stuck to him to the end, polling 306 votes on the last ballot and subsequently deporting themselves as those who had made a proud record of constancy.

The Democratic national convention nominated General Hancock, which was, in effect, an appeal to the memories and sentiments of the past, as their candidate's public distinction rested upon his war record. The canvass was marked by listlessness and indifference on the part of the general public, and by a fury of calumny on the part of the politicians directed against their opponents. Forgery was resorted to with marked effect on the Pacific coast, where a letter—the famous Morey letter—in which Garfield's handwriting was counterfeited, was circulated expressing unpopular views an the subject of Chinese immigration. The forgery was issued in the closing days of the canvass, when there was not time to expose it. Arrangements had been made for a wide distribution of facsimiles which exerted a strong influence. Hancock won five out of the six electoral votes of California and came near getting the three votes of Oregon also. In the popular vote of the whole country, Garfield had a plurality of less than ten thousand in a total vote of over nine million.

The peculiarities of the party system which has been developed in American politics, forces upon the President the occupation of employment agent as one of his principal engagements. The contention over official patronage, always strong and ardent upon the accession of every new President, was aggravated in Garfield's case by the factional war of which his own nomination was a phase. The factions of the Republican party in New York at this period were known as the "Stalwarts" and the "Half-Breeds," the former adhering to the leadership of Senator Conkling, the latter to the leadership of Mr. Blaine, whom President Garfield had appointed to be his Secretary of State. Soon after the inauguration of Garfield it became manifest that he would favor the "Half-Breeds"; but under the Constitution appointments are made by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and both the Senators from New York were "Stalwarts." Although the Constitution contemplates the action of the entire Senate as the advisory body in matters of appointment, a practice had been established by which the Senators from each State were accorded the right to dictate appointments in their respective States. According to Senator Hoar, when he entered public life in 1869, "the Senate claimed almost the entire control of the executive function of appointment to office.... What was called 'the courtesy of the Senate' was depended upon to enable a Senator to dictate to the executive all appointments and removals in his territory." This practice was at its greatest height when President Garfield challenged the system, and he let it be understood that he would insist upon his constitutional right to make nominations at his own discretion. When Senator Conkling obtained from a caucus of his Republican colleagues an expression of sympathy with his position, the President let it be known that he regarded such action as an affront and he withdrew all New York nominations except those to which exception had been taken by the New York Senators, thus confronting the Senate with the issue whether they would stand by the new Administration or would follow Conkling's lead.

On the other hand, Senator Conkling and his adherents declared the issue to be simply whether competent public officials should be removed to make room for factional favorites. This view of the case was adopted by Vice-President Arthur and by Postmaster-General James of Garfield's own Cabinet, who, with New York Senators Conkling and Platt, signed a remonstrance in which they declared that in their belief the interests of the public service would not be promoted by the changes proposed. These changes were thus described in a letter of May 14,1881, from the New York Senators to Governor Cornell of New York:

"Some weeks ago, the President sent to the Senate in a group the nominations of several persons for public offices already filled. One of these offices is the Collectorship of the Port of New York, now held by General Merritt; another is the consul generalship at London, now held by General Badeau; another is Charge d'Affaires to Denmark, held by Mr. Cramer; another is the mission to Switzerland, held by Mr. Fish, a son of the former Secretary of State.... It was proposed to displace them all, not for any alleged fault of theirs, or for any alleged need or advantage of the public service, but in order to give the great offices of Collector of the Port of New York to Mr. William H. Robertson as a 'reward' for certain acts of his, said to have aided in making the nomination of General Garfield possible.... We have not attempted to 'dictate,' nor have we asked the nomination of one person to any office in the State."

Except in the case of their remonstrance against the Robertson appointment, they had "never even expressed an opinion to the President in any case unless questioned in regard to it." Along with this statement the New York Senators transmitted their resignations, saying "we hold it respectful and becoming to make room for those who may correct all the errors we have made, and interpret aright all the duties we have misconceived."

The New York Legislature was then in session. Conkling and Platt offered themselves as candidates for reelection, and a protracted factional struggle ensued; in the course of which, the nation was shocked by the news that President Garfield had been assassinated by a disappointed once seeker in a Washington railway station on July 2, 1881. The President died from the effects of the wound on the 19th of September. Meanwhile, the contest in the New York Legislature continued until the 22d of July when the deadlock was broken by the election of Warner Miller and Elbridge G. Lapham to fill the vacancies.

The deep disgust with which the nation regarded this factional war, and the horror inspired by the assassination of President Garfield, produced a revulsion of public opinion in favor of civil service reform so energetic as to overcome congressional antipathy. Senator Pendleton's bill to introduce the merit system, which had been pending for nearly two years, was passed by the Senate on December 27, 1882, and by the House on January 4, 1883. The importance of the act lay in its recognition of the principles of the reform and in its provision of means by which the President could apply those principles. A Civil Service Commission was created, and the President was authorized to classify the Civil Service and to provide selection by competitive examination for all appointments to the service thus classified. The law was essentially an enabling act, and its practical efficacy was contingent upon executive discretion.


(1) Of this regrettable fact the whole history of emancipation is a monument. The contrast between the social consequences of emancipation in the West Indies, as guided by British statesmanship, under conditions of meager industrial opportunity, and the social consequences of emancipation in the United States, affords an instructive example of the complicated evils which a nation may experience through the sheer incapacity of its government.

(2) Senate Report, No. 837, 46th Congress, 3d session, February 4, 1881.

(3) The reasoning of The Federalist, in favor of continued reeligibility, is cogent in itself and is supported by the experience of other countries, for it shows that custody of power may remain in the same hands for long periods without detriment and without occasioning any difficulty in terminating that custody when public confidence is withdrawn. American sensitiveness on this point would seem to impute to the Constitution a frailty that gives it a low rating among forms of government. As better means are provided for enforcing administrative responsibility, the popular dislike of third terms will doubtless disappear.

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