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2: Political Groping and Party Fluctuation

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President Garfield's career was cut short so soon after his accession to office, that he had no opportunity of showing whether he had the will and the power to obtain action for the redress of public grievances, which the congressional factions were disposed to ignore. His experience and his attainments were such as should have qualified him for the task, and in his public life he had shown firmness of character. His courageous opposition to the greenback movement in Ohio had been of great service to the nation in maintaining the standard of value. When a party convention in his district passed resolutions in favor of paying interest on the bonds with paper instead of coin, he gave a rare instance of political intrepidity by declaring that he would not accept the nomination on such a platform. It was the deliberate opinion of Senator Hoar, who knew Garfield intimately, that "next to the assassination of Lincoln, his death was the greatest national misfortune ever caused to this country by the loss of a single life."

The lingering illness of President Garfield raised a serious question about presidential authority which is still unsettled. For over two months before he died he was unable to attend to any duties of office. The Constitution provides that "in case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President." What is the practical significance of the term "inability"? If it should be accepted in its ordinary meaning, a prostrating illness would be regarded as sufficient reason for allowing the Vice-President to assume presidential responsibility. Though there was much quiet discussion of the problem, no attempt was made to press a decision. After Garfield died, President Arthur, on succeeding to the office, took up the matter in his first annual message, putting a number of queries as to the actual significance of the language of the Constitution—queries which have yet to be answered. The rights and duties of the Vice-President in this particular are dangerously vague. The situation is complicated by a peculiarity of the electoral system. In theory, by electing a President the nation expresses its will respecting public policy; but in practice the candidate for President may be an exponent of one school of opinion and the candidate for Vice-President may represent another view. It is impossible for a voter to discriminate between the two; he cannot vote for the candidate for President without voting for the candidate for Vice-President, since he does not vote directly for the candidates themselves but for the party electors who are pledged to the entire party ticket. Party conventions take advantage of this disability on the part of the voter to work an electioneering device known as a "straddle," the aim of which is to please opposite interests by giving each a place on the ticket. After Garfield was nominated, the attempt was made to placate the defeated faction by nominating one of its adherents for Vice-President, and now that nominee unexpectedly became the President of the United States, with power to reverse the policy of his predecessor.

In one important matter there was, in fact, an abrupt reversal of policy. The independent countries of North and South America had been invited to participate in a general congress to be held in Washington, November 24, 1881. James Gillespie Blaine, who was then Secretary of State, had applied himself with earnestness and vigor to this undertaking, which might have produced valuable results. It was a movement towards closer relations between American countries, a purpose which has since become public policy and has been steadily promoted by the Government. With the inauguration of President Arthur, Blaine was succeeded by Frederick T. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who practically canceled the invitation to the proposed Congress some six weeks after it had been issued. On February 3, 1889, Blaine protested in an open letter to the President, and the affair occasioned sharp discussion. In his regular message to Congress in the following December, the President offered excuses of an evasive character, pointing out that Congress had made no appropriation for expenses and declaring that he had thought it "fitting that the Executive should consult the representatives of the people before pursuing a line of policy somewhat novel in its character and far-reaching in its possible consequences."

In general, President Arthur behaved with a tact and prudence that improved his position in public esteem. It soon became manifest that, although he had been Conkling's adherent, he was not his servitor. He conducted the routine business of the presidential office with dignity, and he displayed independence of character in his relations with Congress. But his powers were so limited by the conditions under which he had to act that to a large extent public interests had to drift along without direction and management. In some degree, the situation resembled that which existed in the Holy Roman Empire when a complicated legalism kept grinding away and pretentious forms of authority were maintained, although, meanwhile, there was actual administrative impotence. Striking evidence of the existence of such a situation is found in President Arthur's messages to Congress.

In his message of December 6, 1881, the President mentioned the fact that in the West "a band of armed desperadoes known as 'Cowboys,' probably numbering fifty to one hundred men, have been engaged for months in committing acts of lawlessness and brutality which the local authorities have been unable to repress." He observed that "with every disposition to meet the exigencies of the case, I am embarrassed by lack of authority to deal with them effectually." The center of disturbance was in Arizona, and the punishment of crime there was ordinarily the business of the local authorities. But even if they called for aid, said the President, "this Government would be powerless to render assistance," for the laws had been altered by Congress so that States but not Territories could demand the protection of the national Government against "domestic violence." He recommended legislation extending to the Territories "the protection which is accorded the States by the Constitution." On April 26, 1882, the President sent a special message to Congress on conditions in Arizona, announcing that "robbery, murder, and resistance to laws have become so common as to cease causing surprise, and that the people are greatly intimidated and losing confidence in the protection of the law." He also advised Congress that the "Cowboys" were making raids into Mexico, and again begged for legal authority to act. On the 3rd of May, he issued a proclamation calling upon the outlaws "to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes." In his regular annual message on December 4, 1882, he again called attention "to the prevalent lawlessness upon the borders, and to the necessity of legislation for its suppression."

Such vast agitation from the operations of a band of ruffians, estimated at from fifty to one hundred in number, and such floundering incapacity for prompt action by public authority seem more like events from a chronicle of the Middle Ages than from the public records of a modern nation. Of like tenor, was a famous career which came to an end in this period. Jesse W. James, the son of a Baptist minister in Clay County, Missouri, for some years carried on a bandit business, specializing in the robbery of banks and railroad trains, with takings computed at $263,778. As his friends and admirers were numerous, the elective sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, and judges in the area of his activities were unable to stop him by any means within their reach. Meanwhile, the frightened burghers of the small towns in his range of operations were clamoring for deliverance from his raids, and finally Governor Crittenden of Missouri offered a reward of $10,000 for his capture dead or alive. Two members of his own band shot him down in his own house, April 3, 1882. They at once reported the deed and surrendered themselves to the police, were soon put on trial, pleaded guilty of murder, were sentenced to death, and were at once pardoned by the Governor. Meanwhile, the funeral ceremonies over Jesse James's remains drew a great concourse of people, and there were many indications of popular sympathy. Stories of his exploits have had an extensive sale, and his name has become a center of legend and ballad somewhat after the fashion of the medieval hero Robin Hood.

The legislative blundering which tied the President's hands and made the Government impotent to protect American citizens from desperadoes of the type of the "cowboys" and Jesse James, is characteristic of Congress during this period. Another example of congressional muddling is found in an act which was passed for the better protection of ocean travel and which the President felt constrained to veto. In his veto message of July 1, 1882, the President said that he was entirely in accord with the purpose of the bill which related to matters urgently demanding legislative attention. But the bill was so drawn that in practice it would have caused great confusion in the clearing of vessels and would have led to an impossible situation. It was not the intention of the bill to do what the President found its language to require, and the defects were due simply to maladroit phrasing, which frequently occurs in congressional enactments, thereby giving support to the theory of John Stuart Mill that a representative assembly is by its very nature unfit to prepare legislative measures.

The clumsy machinery of legislation kept bungling on, irresponsive to the principal needs and interests of the times. An ineffectual start was made on two subjects presenting simple issues on which there was an energetic pressure of popular sentiment—Chinese immigration and polygamy among the Mormons. Anti-Chinese legislation had to contend with a traditional sentiment in favor of maintaining the United States as an asylum for all peoples. But the demand from the workers of the Pacific slope for protection against Asiatic competition in the home labor market was so fierce and so determined that Congress yielded. President Arthur vetoed a bill prohibiting Chinese immigration as "a breach of our national faith," but he admitted the need of legislation on the subject and finally approved a bill suspending immigration from China for a term of years. This was a beginning of legislation which eventually arrived at a policy of complete exclusion. The Mormon question was dealt with by the Act of March 22, 1882, imposing penalties upon the practice of polygamy and placing the conduct of elections in the Territory of Utah under the supervision of a board of five persons appointed by the President. Though there were many prosecutions under this act, it proved so ineffectual in suppressing polygamy that it was eventually supplemented by giving the Government power to seize and administer the property of the Mormon Church. This action, resulting from the Act of March 3, 1887, created a momentous precedent. The escheated property was held by the Government until 1896 and meanwhile, the Mormon Church submitted to the law and made a formal declaration that it had abandoned polygamy.

Another instance in which a lack of agreement between the executive and the legislative branches of the Government manifested itself, arose out of a scheme which President Arthur recommended to Congress for the improvement of the waterways of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The response of Congress was a bill in which there was an appropriation of about $4,000,000 for the general improvements recommended, but about $14,000,000 were added for other special river and harbor schemes which had obtained congressional favor. President Arthur's veto message of August 1, 1882, condemned the bill because it contained provisions designed "entirely for the benefit of the particular localities in which it is proposed to make the improvements." He thus described a type of legislation of which the nation had and is still having bitter experience: "As the citizens of one State find that money, to raise which they in common with the whole country are taxed, is to be expended for local improvements in another State, they demand similar benefits for themselves, and it is not unnatural that they should seek to indemnify themselves for such use of the public funds by securing appropriations for similar improvements in their own neighborhood. Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable it secures more support." The truth of this last assertion Congress immediately proved by passing the bill over the President's veto. Senator Hoar, who defended the bill, has admitted that "a large number of the members of the House who voted for it lost their seats" and that in his opinion the affair "cost the Republican party its majority in the House of Representatives."

Legislation regarding the tariff was, however, the event of Arthur's administration which had the deepest effect upon the political situation. Both national parties were reluctant to face the issue, but the pressure of conditions became too strong for them. Revenue arrangements originally planned for war needs were still amassing funds in the Treasury vaults which were now far beyond the needs of the Government, and were at the same time deranging commerce and industry. In times of war, the Treasury served as a financial conduit; peace had now made it a catch basin whose excess accumulations embarrassed the Treasury and at the same time, caused the business world to suffer from a scarcity of currency. In his annual message on December 6, 1881, President Arthur cautiously observed that it seemed to him "that the time has arrived when the people may justly demand some relief from the present onerous burden." In his message of December 4, 1882, he was much more emphatic. Calling attention to the fact that the annual surplus had increased to more than $145,000,000, he observed that "either the surplus must lie idle in the Treasury or the Government will be forced to buy at market rates its bonds not then redeemable, and which under such circumstances cannot fail to command an enormous premium, or the swollen revenues will be devoted to extravagant expenditures, which, as experience has taught, is ever the bane of an overflowing treasury."

The congressional agents of the protected industries were confronted by an exacting situation. The country was at peace but it was still burdened by war taxes, although the Government did not need the accumulating revenue and was actually embarrassed by its excess. The President had already made himself the spokesman of the popular demand for a substantial reduction of taxes. Such a combination of forces in favor of lightening the popular burden might seem to be constitutionally irresistible, but by adroit maneuvering the congressional supporters of protection managed to have the war rates generally maintained and, in some cases, even increased. The case is a typical example of the way in which advantage of strategic position in a governmental system can prevail against mere numbers.

By the Act of May 15, 1882, a tariff commission was created to examine the industrial situation and make recommendations as to rates of duty. The President appointed men who stood high in the commercial world and who were strongly attached to the protective system. They applied themselves to their task with such energy that by December 4, 1882, they had produced a voluminous report with suggested amendments to customs laws.

But the advocates of high protection in the House were not satisfied; they opposed the recommendations of the report and urged that the best and quickest way to reduce taxation was by abolishing or reducing items on the internal revenue list. This policy not only commanded support on the Republican side, but also received the aid of a Democratic faction which avowed protectionist principles and claimed party sanction for them. These political elements in the House were strong enough to prevent action on the customs tariff, but a bill was passed reducing some of the internal revenue taxes. This action seemed likely to prevent tariff revision at least during that session. Formidable obstacles, both constitutional and parliamentary, stood in the way of action, but they were surmounted by ingenious management.

The Constitution provides that all revenue bills shall originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate has the right to propose amendments. Under cover of this clause the Senate originated a voluminous tariff bill and tacked it to the House bill as an amendment. When the bill, as thus amended, came back to the House, a two-thirds vote would have been required by the existing rules to take it up for consideration, but this obstacle was overcome by adopting a new rule by which a bare majority of the House could forthwith take up a bill amended by the Senate, for the purpose of non-concurrence but not for concurrence. The object of this maneuver was to get the bill into a committee of conference where the details could be arranged by private negotiation. The rule was adopted on February 26, 1883, but the committee of conference was not finally constituted until the 1st of March, within two days of the close of the session. On the 3rd of March, when this committee reported a measure on which they had agreed, both Houses adopted this report and enacted the measure without further ado.

In some cases, rates were fixed by the committee above the figures voted in either House and even when there was no disagreement, changes were made. The tariff commission had recommended, for example, a duty of fifty cents a ton on iron ore, and both the Senate and the House voted to put the duty at that figure; but the conference committee fixed the rate at seventy-five cents. When a conference committee report comes before the House, it is adopted or rejected in toto, as it is not divisible or amendable. In theory, the revision of a report is feasible by sending it back to conference under instructions voted by the House, but such a procedure is not really available in the closing hours of a session, and the only practical course of action is either to pass the bill as shaped by the conferees or else to accept the responsibility for inaction. Thus pressed for time, Congress passed a bill containing features obnoxious to a majority in both Houses and offensive to public opinion. Senator Sherman in his "Recollections" expressed regret that he had voted for the bill and declared that, had the recommendations of the tariff commission been adopted, "the tariff would have been settled for many years," but "many persons wishing to advance their particular industries appeared before the committee and succeeded in having their views adopted." In his annual message, December 4, 1883, President Arthur accepted the act as a response to the demand for a reduction of taxation, which was sufficiently tolerable to make further effort inexpedient until its effects could be definitely ascertained; but he remarked that he had "no doubt that still further reductions may be wisely made."

In general, President Arthur's administration may therefore be accurately described as a period of political groping and party fluctuation. In neither of the great national parties was there a sincere and definite attitude on the new issues which were clamorous for attention, and the public discontent was reflected in abrupt changes of political support. There was a general feeling of distrust regarding the character and capacity of the politicians at Washington, and election results were apparently dictated more by fear than by hope. One party would be raised up and the other party cast down, not because the one was trusted more than the other, but because it was for a while less odious. Thus a party success might well be a prelude to a party disaster because neither party knew how to improve its political opportunity. The record of party fluctuation in Congress during this period is almost unparalleled in sharpness.(1)

In state politics, the polling showed that both parties were disgusted with their leadership and that there was a public indifference to issues which kept people away from the polls. A comparison of the total vote cast in state elections in 1882 with that cast in the presidential election of 1880, showed a decline of over eight hundred thousand in the Republican vote and of nearly four hundred thousand in the Democratic vote. The most violent of the party changes that took place during this period occurred in the election of 1882, in New York State, when the Republican vote showed a decline of over two hundred thousand and the Democratic candidate for Governor was elected by a plurality of nearly that amount. It was this election which brought Grover Cleveland into national prominence.


(1) In 1875, at the opening of the Forty-fourth Congress, the House stood 110 Republicans and 182 Democrats. In 1881, the House stood 150 Republicans to 131 Democrats, with 12 Independent members. In 1884, the Republican list had declined to 119 and the Democratic had grown to 201, and there were five Independents. The Senate, although only a third of its membership is renewed every two years, displayed extraordinary changes during this period. The Republican membership of 46 in 1876 had declined to 33 by 1880, and the Democratic membership had increased to 42. In 1882, the Senate was evenly balanced in party strength, each party having 37 avowed adherents, but there were two Independents.

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