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6: Presidential Knight-Errantry

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Presidential Knight-Errantry

Although President Cleveland decisively repelled the Senate's attempted invasion of the power of removal belonging to his office, he was still left in a deplorable state of servitude through the operation of old laws based upon the principle of rotation in office. The Acts of 1820 and 1836, limiting commissions to the term of four years, forced him to make numerous appointments which provoked controversy and made large demands upon his time and thought. In the first year of his administration, he sent about two thousand nominations to the Senate, an average of over six a day, assuming that he was allowed to rest on Sunday. His freedom of action was further curtailed by an Act of 1863, prohibiting the payment of a salary to any person appointed to fill a vacancy existing while the Senate was in session, until the appointment had been confirmed by the Senate. The President was thus placed under a strict compulsion to act as a party employment agent.

If it is the prime duty of a President to act in the spirit of a reformer, Cleveland is entitled to high praise for the stanchness with which he adhered to his principles under most trying circumstances. Upon November 27, 1885, he approved rules confirming and extending the civil service regulations. Charges that Collector Hedden of the New York Customs House was violating the spirit of the Civil Service Act, and was making a party machine of his office, caused the Civil Service Commission to make an investigation which resulted in his resignation in July, 1886. On the 10th of August, Daniel Magone of Ogdensburg, New York, a widely known lawyer, was personally chosen by the President with a view to enforcing the civil service law in the New York Customs House. Before making this appointment, President Cleveland issued an order to all heads of departments warning all officeholders against the use of their positions to control political movements in their localities. "Officeholders," he declared, "are the agents of the people, not their masters. They have no right, as officeholders, to dictate the political action of their associates, or to throttle freedom of action within party lines by methods and practices which prevent every useful and justifiable purpose of party organization." In August, President Cleveland gave signal evidence of his devotion to civil service reform by appointing a Republican, because of his special qualifications, to be chief examiner for the Civil Service Commission.

Democratic party workers were so angered and disgusted by the President's policy that any mention of his name was enough to start a flow of coarse denunciation. Strong hostility to his course of action was manifested in Congress. Chairman Randall, of the committee on appropriations, threatened to cut off the appropriation for office room for the commission. A "rider" to the legislative appropriation bill, striking at the civil service law, caused a vigorous debate in the House in which leading Democrats assailed the Administration, but eventually the "rider" was ruled out on a point of order. In the Senate, such party leaders as Vance of North Carolina, Saulsbury of Delaware, and Voorhees of Indiana, openly ridiculed the civil service law, and various attempts to cripple it were made but were defeated. Senator Vance introduced a bill to repeal the law, but it was indefinitely postponed by a vote of 33 to 6, the affirmative vote being cast mainly by Republicans; and in general the strongest support for the law now came from the Republican side. Early in June, 1887, an estimate was made that nine thousand civil offices outside the scope of the civil service rules were still held by Republicans. The Republican party press gloated over the situation and was fond of dwelling upon the way in which old-line Democrats were being snubbed while the Mugwumps were favored. At the same time, civil service reformers found much to condemn in the character of Cleveland's appointments. A special committee of the National Civil Service Reform League, on March 30, 1887, published a report in which they asserted that, "tried by the standard of absolute fidelity to the reform as it is understood by this League, it is not to be denied that t this Administration has left much to be desired." At a subsequent session of the League, its President, George William Curtis, proclaimed that the League did not regard the Administration as "in any strict sense of the words a civil service reform administration." Thus while President Cleveland was alienating his regular party support, he was not getting in return any dependable support from the reformers. He seemed to be sitting down between two stools, both tilting to let him fall.

Meanwhile, he went on imperturbably doing his duty as he saw it. Like many of his predecessors, he would rise early to get some time to attend to public business before the rush of office seekers began, but the bulk of his day's work lay in the discharge of his compulsory duties as an employment agent. Many difficult situations were created by contentions among Congressmen over appointments. It was Cleveland's habit to deal with these cases by homely expostulation and by pleas for mutual concessions. Such incidents do not of course go upon record, and it is only as memoirs and reminiscences of public men are published that this personal side of history becomes known. Senator Cullom of Illinois in his Fifty Years of Public Service gives an account that doubtless fairly displays Cleveland's way of handling his vexatious problems. "I happened to be at the White House one day, and Mr. Cleveland said to me, 'I wish you would take up Lamar's nomination and dispose of it. I am between hay and grass with reference to the Interior Department. Nothing is being done there; I ought to have some one on duty, and I cannot do anything until you dispose of Lamar.'" Mr. Lamar, who had entered the Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior, was nominated for associate justice of the Supreme Court on December 6, 1887. He had been an eminent member of the Senate, with previous distinguished service in the House, so that the Senate must have had abundant knowledge of his character and attainments. It is impossible to assign the delay that ensued to reasonable need of time for inquiry as to his qualifications, but Senator Cullom relates that "the nomination pended before the Judiciary Committee for a long time." Soon after the personal appeal, which was made by the President to every Senator he could reach, action was finally taken and the appointment was confirmed January 16, 1888.

Senator Cullom's reminiscences also throw light upon the process by which judges are appointed. President Cleveland had selected Melville W. Fuller of Illinois for the office of chief justice of the Supreme Court. According to Senator Cullom, Senator Edmunds "was very much out of humor with the President because he had fully expected that Judge Phelps, of his own State, was to receive the honor.... The result was that Senator Edmunds held the nomination, without any action, in the Judiciary Committee for some three months." Senator Cullom, although a party associate of Edmunds, was pleased that the President had selected an Illinois jurist and he was determined that, if he could help it, Edmunds should not have the New Hampshire candidate appointed. He therefore appealed to the committee to do something about the nomination, either one way or the other. The committee finally reported the nomination to the Senate without recommendation. When the matter came up in executive session, "Senator Edmunds at once took the floor and attacked Judge Fuller most viciously as having sympathized with the rebellion." But Cullom was primed to meet that argument. He had been furnished with a copy of a speech attacking President Lincoln which Phelps had delivered during the war, and he now read it to the Senate, "much to the chagrin and mortification of Senator Edmunds." Cullom relates that the Democrats in the Senate enjoyed the scene. "Naturally, it appeared to them a very funny performance, two Republicans quarreling over the confirmation of a Democrat. They sat silent, however, and took no part at all in the debate, leaving us Republicans to settle it among ourselves." The result of the Republican split was that the nomination of Fuller was confirmed "by a substantial majority."

Another nomination which caused much agitation at the time was that of James C. Matthews of New York, to be Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia. The office had been previously held by Frederick Douglass, a distinguished leader of the colored race; and in filling the vacancy the President believed it would be an exercise of wise and kindly consideration to choose a member of the same race. But in the Washington community, there was such a strong antipathy to the importation of a negro politician from New York to fill a local office that a great clamor was raised, in which Democrats joined. The Senate rejected the nomination, but meanwhile Mr. Matthews had entered upon the duties of his office and he showed such tact and ability as gradually to soften the opposition. On December 21,1886, President Cleveland renominated him, pointing out that he had been in actual occupation of the office for four months, managing its affairs with such ability as to remove "much of the opposition to his appointment which has heretofore existed." In conclusion, the President confessed "a desire to cooperate in tendering to our colored fellow-citizens just recognition." This was a shrewd argument. The Republican majority in the Senate shrank from what might seem to be drawing the color line, and the appointment was eventually confirmed; but this did not remove the sense of grievance in Washington over the use of local offices for national party purposes. Local sentiment in the District of Columbia is, however, politically unimportant, as the community has no means of positive action.


In the same month in which President Cleveland issued his memorable special message to the Senate on the Tenure of Office Act, he began another struggle against congressional practice in which he was not so fortunate. On March 10, 1886, he sent to Congress the first of his pension vetoes. Although liberal provision for granting pensions had been made by general laws, numerous special applications were made directly to Congress, and congressmen were solicited to secure favorable consideration for them. That it was the duty of a representative to support an application from a resident of his district, was a doctrine enforced by claim agents with a pertinacity from which there was no escape. To attempt to assume a judicial attitude in the matter was politically dangerous, and to yield assent was a matter of practical convenience. Senator Cullom relates that when he first became a member of the committee on pensions he was "a little uneasy" lest he "might be too liberal." But he was guided by the advice of an old, experienced Congressman, Senator Sawyer of Wisconsin, who told him: "You need not worry, you cannot very well make a mistake allowing liberal pensions to the soldier boys. The money will get back into the Treasury very soon."

The feeling that anything that the old soldiers wanted should be granted was even stronger in the House, where about the only opportunity of distinction allowed by the procedure was to champion these local demands upon the public treasury. It was indeed this privilege of passing pension bills which partially reconciled members of the House to the actual control of legislative opportunity by the Speaker and the chairmen of a few dominating committees. It was a congressional perquisite to be allowed to move the passage of so many bills; enactment followed as a matter, of course. President Cleveland made a pointed reference to this process in a veto message of June 21, 1886. He observed that the pension bills had only "an apparent Congressional sanction" for the fact was that "a large proportion of these bills have never been submitted to a majority of either branch of Congress, but are the results of nominal sessions held for the express purpose of their consideration and attended by a small minority of the members of the respective houses of the legislative branch of government."

Obviously, the whole system of pension legislation was faulty. Mere individual effort on the part of the President to screen the output of the system was scarcely practicable, even if it were congruous with the nature of the President's own duties; but nevertheless Cleveland attempted it, and kept at it with stout perseverance. One of his veto messages remarks that in a single day nearly 240 special pension bills were presented to him. He referred them to the Pension Bureau for examination and the labor involved was so great that they could not be returned to him until within a few hours of the limit fixed by the Constitution for the President's assent.

There could be no more signal proof of President Cleveland's constancy of soul than the fact that he was working hard at his veto forge, with the sparks falling thickly around, right in his honeymoon. He married Miss Frances Folsom of Buffalo on June 2, 1886. The ceremony took place in the White House, and immediately thereafter, the President and his charming bride went to Deer Park, Maryland, a mountain resort. The respite from official cares was brief; on June 8th, the couple returned to Washington and some of the most pugnacious of the pension vetoes were sent to Congress soon after. The rest of his public life was passed under continual storm, but the peace and happiness of his domestic life provided a secure refuge.

On the other hand, the rebuffs which Democratic Congressmen received in the matter of pension legislation were, it must be admitted, peculiarly exasperating. Reviewing the work of the Forty-ninth Congress, "The Nation" mentioned three enactments which it characterized as great achievements that should be placed to the credit of Congress. Those were the act regulating the presidential succession, approved January 18, 1886; the act regulating the counting of the electoral votes, approved February 3, 1887; and the repeal of the Tenure of Office Act, approved March 3, 1887. But all three measures originated in the Senate, and the main credit for their enactment might be claimed by the Republican party. There was some ground for the statement that they would have been enacted sooner but for the disturbance of legislative routine by political upheavals in the House; and certainly no one could pretend that it was to get these particular measures passed that the Democratic party was raised to power. The main cause of the political revolution of 1884 had been the continuance of war taxes, producing revenues that were not only not needed but were positively embarrassing to the Government. Popular feeling over the matter was so strong that even the Republican party had felt bound to put into its national platform, in 1884, a pledge "to correct the irregularities of the tariff and to reduce the surplus." The people, however, believed that the Republican party had already been given sufficient opportunity, and they now turned to the Democratic party for relief. The rank and file of this party felt acutely, therefore, that they were not accomplishing what the people expected. Members arrived in Washington full of good intentions. They found themselves subject to a system which allowed them to introduce all the bills they wanted, but not to obtain action upon them. Action was the prerogative of a group of old hands who managed the important committees and who were divided among themselves on tariff policy. And now, the little bills which, by dint of persuasion and bargaining, they had first put through the committees, and then through both Houses of Congress, were cut down by executive veto, turning to their injury what they had counted upon to help them in their districts.

During the campaign, Democratic candidates had everywhere contended that they were just as good friends of the old soldiers as the Republicans. Now, they felt that to make good this position they must do something to offset the effect of President Cleveland's vetoes. In his messages, he had favored "the most generous treatment to the disabled, aged and needy among our veterans"; but he had argued that it should be done by general laws, and not by special acts for the benefit of particular claimants. The Pension Committee of the House responded by reporting a bill "for the relief of dependent parents and honorably discharged soldiers and sailors who are now disabled and dependent upon their own labor for support." It passed the House by a vote of 180 to 76, with 63 not voting, and it passed the Senate without a division. On the 11th of February, President Cleveland sent in his veto, accompanied by a message pointing out in the language of the act defects and ambiguities which he believed would "but put a further premium on dishonesty and mendacity." He reiterated his desire that provision should be made "for those who, having served their country long and well, are reduced to destitution and dependence," but he did not think that the bill was a proper means of attaining that object. On the 19th of February, the House committee on pensions submitted an elaborate report on the veto in which they recited the history of the bill and the reasons actuating the committee. Extracts from Cleveland's messages were quoted, and the committee declared that, in "hearty accord with these views of the President and largely in accordance with his suggestions, they framed a bill which they then thought, and still continue to think, will best accomplish the ends proposed." A motion to pass the bill over the veto on the 24th of February received 175 votes to 125, but two-thirds not having voted in the affirmative the bill failed to pass. The Republicans voted solidly in support of the bill, together with a large group of Democrats. The negative vote came wholly from the Democratic side. Such a fiasco amounted to a demonstration of the lack of intelligent leadership. If the President and his party in Congress were cooperating for the furtherance of the same objects, as both averred, it was discreditable all around that there should have been such a complete misunderstanding as to the procedure.

Meanwhile, the President was making a unique record by his vetoes. During the period of ninety-six years, from the foundation of the Government down to the beginning of Cleveland's administration, the entire number of veto messages was 132. In four years, Cleveland sent in 301 veto messages, and in addition he practically vetoed 109 bills by inaction. Of 2042 private pension bills passed by Congress, 1518 were approved and 284 became laws by lapse of time without approval. The positive results of the President's activity were thus inconsiderable, unless incidentally he had managed to correct the system which he had opposed. That claim, indeed, was made in his behalf when "The Nation" mentioned "the arrest of the pension craze" as a "positive achievement of the first order.'" But far from being arrested, "the pension craze" was made the more furious, and it soon advanced to extremes unknown before.(2)

The Democratic politicians naturally viewed with dismay the approach of the national election of 1888. Any one could see that the party was drifting on to the rocks and nobody deemed to be at the helm. According to William R. Morrison, who certainly had been in a position to know, President Cleveland had "up to this time taken no decided ground one way or the other on the question of tariff." He had included the subject in the long dissertation on the state of the Union, which ever since Jefferson's time the President has been wont to send to Congress at the opening of a session, but he had not singled it out as having precedence. He now surprised the country, roused his party, and gave fresh animation to national politics on December 6, 1887, by devoting his third annual message wholly to the subject of taxation and revenue. He pointed out that the treasury surplus was mounting up to $140,000,000; that the redemption of bonds which had afforded a means for disbursement of excess revenues had stopped because there were no more bonds that the Government had a right to redeem; and that, hence, the Treasury "idly holds money uselessly subtracted from the channels of trade," a situation from which monetary derangement and business distress would naturally ensue. He strongly urged that the "present tariff laws, the vicious, inequitable and illogical source of unnecessary taxation, ought to be at once revised and amended." Cleveland gave a detailed analysis of the injurious effects which the existing tariff had upon trade and industry, and went on to remark that "progress toward a wise conclusion will not be improved by dwelling upon the theories of protection and free trade. This savors too much of bandying epithets. It is a condition which confronts us, not a theory." The effect of the message was very marked both upon public opinion and party activity. Mr. Morrison correctly summed up the party effect in saying that "Mr. Mills, obtaining the substantial support of the Administration, was enabled to press through the House a bill differing in a very few essential measures from, and combining the general details and purposes of, the several measures of which I have been the author, and which had been voted against by many of those who contributed to the success of the Mills Bill."

An incident which attracted great notice because it was thought to have a bearing on the President's policy of tariff revision, was the veto of the Allentown Public Building Bill. This bill was of a type which is one of the rankest growths of the Congressional system—the grant of money not for the needs of public service but as a district favor. It appropriated $100,000 to put up a post-office building at Allentown, Pennsylvania, where adequate quarters were being occupied by the post-office at an annual rent of $1300. President Cleveland vetoed the bill simply on the ground that it proposed an unnecessary expenditure, but the fact was at once noted that the bill had been fathered by Congressman Snowden, an active adherent of Randall in opposition to the tariff reform policy of the Administration. The word went through Congress and reverberated through the press that "there is an Allentown for every Snowden." Mr. Morrison said in more polite phrase what came to the same thing when he observed that "when Mr. Cleveland took decided ground in favor of revision and reduction, he represented the patronage of the Administration, in consequence of which he was enabled to enforce party discipline, so that a man could no longer be a good Democrat and favor anything but reform of the tariff."

After the Mills Bill had passed the House(3)and had been sent to the Senate, it was held in committee until October 3, 1888. When it emerged it carried an amendment which was in effect a complete substitute, but it was not taken up for consideration until after the presidential election, and it was meant simply as a Republican alternative to the Mills Bill for campaign use. Consideration of the bill began on the 5th of December and lasted until the 22nd of January, when the bill was returned to the House transformed into a new measure. It was referred to the Ways and Means Committee, and Chairman Mills reported it back with a resolution setting forth that "the substitution by the Senate under the form of an amendment.... of another and different bill," is in conflict with the section of the Constitution which "vests in the House of Representatives the sole power to originate such a measure." The House refused to consider the resolution, a number of Democrats led by Mr. Randall voting with the Republicans in the negative. No further action was taken on the bill and since that day the House has never ventured to question the right of the Senate to amend tax bills in any way and to any extent. As Senator Cullom remarks in his memoirs, the Democrats, although they had long held the House and had also gained, the Presidency, "were just as powerless to enact legislation as they had been before."


(1) It is a singular fact, which contains matter for deep consideration, that the District of Columbia, the national capital, is the only populated area in the civilized world without any sort of suffrage rights.

(2) March 19, 1887.

(3) The Mills Bill was passed July 21, 1888, yeas 162, nays 149, not voting 14. Randall, Snowden, and two other Democrats joined the Republicans in voting against the bill.

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