December 31, 2012

presidential fact #22

Although never a serious contender, Robert Todd Lincoln was briefly considered as Republican nominee for president in 1884.

December 28, 2012

Chet Arthur as president. Good God!

This is where Chester Arthur worked until Rutherford B Hayes fired him. He was the customs collector at the New York Customs House, a coveted position because of its power and potential for embezzlement. The customs house system was the largest source of income for the federal government until income tax was instated. It was also notoriously corrupt, in a time when every federal system was corrupt. Although Arthur's official salary was about $10,000 a year, he routinely took home about $60,000 in kickbacks, "bonuses," and outright theft, making more than the president ($50,000). Rutherford B Hayes was trying to clean up the civil service, and targeted Arthur as a high-profile scapegoat. Unfortunately, Arthur couldn't be removed without the approval of Congress (remember the Tenure of Office Act?), and Arthur's brofriend Senator Roscoe Conkling kept blocking it in committee. The Hayes administration finally succeeded after months of battle (Arthur was suspended and reinstated once or twice during the process) and Arthur was out.

The problem with this move, politically, was that Hayes and Arthur were both Republicans. So was Conkling! The Republican party was bitterly divided into factions - the Radicals, the Stalwarts, and the moderates in between (sometimes called Mugwumps, a term which also included Democrats). Although Congress was usually split quite evenly between parties, there hadn't been a Democratic president since Buchanan. The Republicans would fight amongst themselves during a presidency, but every 4 years would have to figure out a way to back the same person for president.

This is Roscoe Conkling and he was The Main Problem. As a senator from New York he led the Stalwart faction using fear and bribery. His deputies (Arthur among them) were extremely loyal but sometimes cautious because he was a megalomaniac, one of a long line of New York political bosses (M Van Buren, Thurlow Seed, William Seward) who were just the worst.

But Arthur had tied his fortunes to Conkling early on. The son of a poor preacher who moved around a lot, he seemed to want the opposite — a steady job, wealth, and moral bankruptcy. He started out idealistic, but shed his idealistic friends as he got older and more ambitious.

Arthur was a young lawyer in New Yorker when governor Edwin Morgan took a shine to him and appointed him as the state's quartermaster general during the Civil War. This meant he was in charge of all the logistics for New York's troops (who numbered more than any other state's) such as housing, clothing, supplies, and food. [He may have taken this job, rather than fighting, because his wife and her family were from Virginia and sided with the South.] Either way, he was very, very good at his job. Whatever his motivations at any of his jobs, he remained an excellent administrator.

His work brought him to the attention of the party bosses, and he was ever after heavily involved in New York politics. He was especially good at coercing campaign donations out of government employees by threatening to fire them.

So he eventually runs the customs house and he's super rich and really fat and undoubtedly corrupt. He gets fired, and his friends the Stalwarts are really mad. The 1880 election is just around the corner, however, and the Radicals and Stalwarts will need to find a way to agree on a candidate. Conkling wanted Grant to run for a third term, which was bananas, the Radicals wanted Blaine. After they stalemated over that for a few days Garfield was chosen as a compromise candidate, and, as a concession to the Stalwarts, and to ensure their support, the Radicals told them they could pick the vice presidential candidate. They did not expect them to pick Chester Arthur, a man the sitting president had just fired in disgrace.

They also did not expect Garfield to die, and for Chester Arthur - a corrupt businessman who had never held elected political office - to become president. As one newspaper editor put it, while Garfield was dying: "Chet Arthur as president. Good God!"

I want to stop and point out that Arthur is one of the most fascinating men I've read about for At Times Dull. His story is so unpredictable and unlikely, and himself so enigmatic, and I was truly eager to see how it all worked out for him. I emailed Thomas C. Reeves to thank him for writing such a fascinating account, and I would recommend it. It's not only a great biography, but provides my best understanding of post-bellum politics, the civil service wars, and the national mood at this time.

So anyway, Arthur becomes president and everyone is wringing their hands. Surely he will just be a puppet for Conkling. Surely he will undo civil service reform and entrench the spoils system. Surely he will split the Republican party in two once and for all. Arthur read all of this bad press and was determined to prove it false. I wouldn't say he felt chastised by it, but perhaps abashed. He went public with the idea that he was simply there to see through the aims of the Garfield administration, of which he was now the executor. A lot of his Republican cronies, who thought they were going to cash in favors with him, eventually broke up with him because he wasn't being corrupt enough. He offered Conkling a few mid-level appointments, but certainly didn't hand him the reins of the country (thank God).

He wasn't a great or bad president. He passed civil service reform measures (the newspapers went to town with the irony of that), approved the rebuilding of the Navy, and his biggest problem, for real, was what to do with the gigantic federal budget surplus.

Also, he was recently widowed, and quite lonely. He spent a lot of money on entertaining and decorating, and hosted dinners for the bachelor Congressmen. He did his work as president dutifully, but never enjoyed it. He got a lot of flak for showing up to work late (like after lunch) and delegating too much. What his critics didn't know was that he had a SECRET FATAL DISEASE! I'm not kidding, it's just like The West Wing. Shortly after becoming president he was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney condition now called nephritis. For most of his term he felt ill, had no energy, and was losing weight. He declined a run for re-election (because he knew about his secret disease) and died a year and a half after leaving office.

There were a lot of people in the country who thought Arthur had no business being president, and Arthur was first among them. Never has a forgettable presidency been such a high achievement.

December 13, 2012

presidential fact #21

With 78.4 percent of registered voters, the election of 1880 had the highest voter turnout in American history.

the later life and chronic diarrhea of James Garfield

The Civil War starts and James Garfield decides he should be a colonel (soldiers got to elect their own colonels in Ohio). What were his qualifications? A few years in the state senate and a massive ego. He was not elected to colonel because he had shown too much interest in it, which was considered ungentlemanly, and he pouted about that for a while. Then he got diarrhea.

James Garfield always had diarrhea. It was his main way of dealing with stress and emotion. His biographer notes at one point that you could tell the story of his life by how his bowels reacted to it. This is delightful to me because he had such a high opinion of himself, but he was just diarrhea all the time. He had to take breaks from being in the Civil War because of his diarrhea. He had surgery at one point during his Congressional career — all I know is that he was confined to bed for six weeks after an operation for a "painful rectal condition," but I don't know if that was the cause or the effect of the diarrhea. Either way, it was serious.

When he was done pouting and started being in the Civil War for real, he was fairly successful, but never as much as he wanted to be. He was desperate to win glory for himself. He hated it when there were long stretches between battles because how would America learn how great he was if he couldn't distinguish himself in battle? He started being like, I hate war! I want to be in the US Congress instead! But he couldn't make his mind up to leave the army because surely that pivotal battle that would make him a hero was just around the corner.

Eventually he met General William Rosecrans, who liked him immediately and offered him a job as his chief of staff. He hemmed and hawed about it because it would be more glorious to lead his own troops into battle, but eventually took the position because of the political prestige (and because having a more sedentary job would be more suited to his chronic diarrhea). It didn't quite work out that way, because Rosecrans soon became another one of the generals that Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton could not stand. Even Garfield eventually became annoyed at Rosecrans' lack of initiative, but had to officially remain loyal to him because of his position (although that didn't stop him from writing a letter to Treasury Secretary Salmon P Chase about how annoyed he was with Rosecrans, which blew up in his face later). After a particularly disastrous display of lack of leadership at the Battle of Chickamauga, Grant was promoted above and allowed to fire Rosecrans, and Garfield basically left the army after that to run for Congress.

He was elected to Congress in 1862 and stayed there until 1879, when he was elected to the Senate for only a year before running for president. The war chapters were the last that Margaret Leech wrote before she died, and the Congress and President chapters were finished by someone else, more summarily than she would have. As a result, I know a lot less about his years in Congress than I do about his early years and war years. This may be to Garfield's disadvantage, because he was a very popular and influential member of Congress, and he and Crete were very happy once she moved to Washington with him. It could be that attaining this stature mellowed him out a bit, or that moving to Washington gave Crete a little more personality. His manic need for approval may have been salved by being a Congressman.

Even so, he was almost no one's first choice for the Republican nomination in 1880. The Republican were split between a New York-led faction that wanted Grant for a third term, and a more moderate faction that wanted James Blaine of Maine. Garfield was at the convention to support his Ohio friend John Sherman (who was Hayes' Secretary of State), but the delegates' votes were deadlocked, with neither Grant's or Blaine's supporters willing to switch over, so Garfield was proposed as a compromise candidate and quickly got the nomination. They all seem to be compromise candidates these days.

He was inaugurated in March of 1881, shot in July, and died in September. In his three "active" months in office, the only thing he accomplished was standing up to Roscoe Conkling, but it will be more interesting to talk about that in the context of Chester Arthur, who was caught in the middle of that fight, and became president upon Garfield's death.

December 11, 2012

Don't let your sons grow up to be James Garfields

It may be clear that I really like Hayes. I dig his wife, his kids are hot, he seemed to be a very temperate and decisive man. A real Ed Harris type. He was not a great president, but not many are. He was, however, determined, ethical, effective, and fair. The federal government was a real mess from the catastrophe of the Johnson administration and the negligence of the Grant administration - Congress has gradually risen in power to almost overshadow the executive - and Hayes stopped the tide and started the process of turning it back.

He vowed to not seek a second term, because he (rightly) thought his civil service reform efforts would be muddied by the favors needed during a reelection campaign. And he was pleased when the Republican nominee in 1880 was his fellow Ohioan and friend James Garfield. [Notice how Ohio is having a big moment in post-Civil War America? It's like the new Virginia.] This underscores another reason I really like Hayes, and that is that I really hate James Garfield.

Perhaps more accurately, I really don't like Congressman and President Garfield, but I really hate young James Garfield. But before we get to that, I want to introduce you to someone:

This is Margaret Leech, author of the Garfield biography I read. Notice anything about her? She's a woman! And she wrote a presidential biography! It's an At Times Dull first!

A year or so ago I saw T Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris speak, and in the signing line I asked him to recommend a Taft biography, which he did, and then he went on to say, "Make sure you read Margaret Leech." She's written biographies of Garfield and McKinley, a few novels, a lot of magazine work, and an account of life in D.C. during the Civil War. She was the first woman to win two Pulitzers. (Asterisk: her father-in-law was Joseph Pulitzer.) She's generally great. She actually died while writing The Garfield Orbit and the last two chapters were finished from her notes, but I decided to read it anyway because Garfield and his 6-month term don't matter that much.

It's interesting that this book was written by a woman, because it's by far the soapiest I've read. But then, maybe Garfield is just the soapiest president so far. He was born into poverty in Ohio and his father - as so many fathers of future presidents do - died when Garfield was still a boy. He very famously worked on the canal as a teenager and went to a prep school run by The Disciples of Christ, a fairly strict sect of Christianity he converted to when he was 18ish.

He was very alpha male. He was boisterous, magnetic, inspiring and condescending. He was known from an early age as a talented orator, and spent most of his weekends preaching. Women routinely became obsessed with him, which is curious because this is his face:


I just think he was a tool. He was one of those insecure egomaniacs who want to be in charge of everything so they can feel loved. I spent all of this book annoyed.

For starters, he was a caveman when it came to women. He met his best friend, Almeda Booth, when they were at school together. They would stay up all night together translating Greek and discussing theology and making lesson plans. They were extremely compatible, but he laughed at the idea of them being together because she was ugly, and women are not for conversing with, they're for doing your shirts.

Which is why he married Lucretia, or Crete. Crete was tiny, shy, and in awe of James. They fell in love and got engaged, and then he went to Massachusetts to attend Williams before they got married. While at Williams, he fell completely out of love with Crete. He started sleeping with his friend Rebecca, because she "loved his preaching." While this went on, he convinced Crete and Rebecca that they should write letters to each other, because he wanted his friend and his fiancee to "be like sisters." Total Garfield.

Crete went out to Massachusetts for James's graduation and it was the worst week of her life because James ignored her and made her hang out with Rebecca the whole time, like the catch that he was. After college he moved back to Ohio and became president of his old school and meant to do right by Crete, who had been waiting around for him for years, even though he didn't like her anymore. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate, because his preaching had made him so famous, and he and Crete both moved to Columbus, still unmarried, where they thought a change of scene would give them a fresh start. WRONG. They still didn't like each other very much, but after 5 years of engagement, only 1.5 of which had been happy, there was nothing left to do but GET MARRIED ANYWAY. They rented a room in a boardinghouse for their first miserable years of marriage, unaided by the fact that ugly soulmate Almeda moved into the room next door to theirs and took all of James's attention.

What is baffling about their whole story is that James and Crete went on to be extremely happy. After 3 years of bad marriage he went off to war. After a year he had to return to Ohio for the summer to recuperate from illness, and, by their own accounts, their physical reunion was somewhat invigorating. Then, they fell in love again. After that they would always describe their marriage as having been perfect after they got through the miserable beginning. I mean, don't try this at home, but I'm glad it worked out for them. On the other hand, there were a lot of affair rumors for the whole of Garfield's life. Crete never believed them but I have no trouble doing so.

In my next post I will talk about how Garfield had diarrhea for the whole of the Civil War.

December 07, 2012

President Facts: Hayes edition

Hayes was the first president to visit the West Coast while in office.

Hayes was the first president to have a telephone in the White House, but they barely used it because they had no one to call.

Rud and Lucy were total abstainers from alcohol. Alcohol was banned in their White House, although they were known for their lavish entertaining. They claim that the money they saved on alcohol allowed them to plan better parties.

Lucy Hayes was the first first lady to have attended college!

Lucy Hayes instituted the White House Easter Egg Roll when D.C. banned it from the Capitol lawn.

December 06, 2012

RBH and the sober second thought of the people

Here's something you may already know if you are a close and dedicated reader of ATD: I don't understand the economy and I'm not trying to correct that. "The president had to deal with some economic issues" is always my least favorite part of the biographies. Presidents whose entire tenures revolve around economic problems, such as Martin Van Buren, as far as I recall, really just slide right by without me getting interested in them. Sorry, Martin, you seem to have been a good Secretary of State.

I'm obviously ramping up to the economic issue of Rud's term, which was the coinage of silver. Some people wanted to keep doing it and some didn't. It was a big deal! That's all I can say. He also dealt with the railroad boom and continue the executive slog with the Indian Affairs Bureau. None of it, I have to say, is particularly exemplary.

Rud's big cause, and one that I can really get behind, was civil service reform. Particularly, he went after what they called patronage and the spoilsmen. Perhaps you have seen Lincoln? You know how they buy votes by promising mid-level federal jobs? That is patronage. Each president, after elected, got to fire anybody he wished - from the cabinet to the postmaster of Akron - and appoint whomever he wished. This system was the dumbest. First of all, if your wife's cousin's dad is Franklin Pierce and that means you get to be assistants customs collector at Baltimore, you are going to get fired as soon as Pierce is out of office. Second of all, the civil service was full of unqualified brothers-in-law. Third of all, appointments took up MONTHS AND MONTHS of the president's time after election and inauguration. The White House was flooded with office seekers or letters from office seekers at all times. Every single president has hated this part of their job, but none seriously questioned its necessity until Rud.

Patronage was at the heart of 19th century politics. This was still a time when it was unseemly to presidential candidates to campaign for themselves (just imagine!), so their "friends" would travel around giving speeches on their behalf and writing editorials. Once elected, the president would give these friends new jobs in return. Jobs were also given in return for votes or to get someone out of your state's Senate race. So when Rud started pushing for civil service reform, all the politicians who loved giving jobs out - known as spoilsmen - were like, how will we get anything done? Roscoe Conkling, a senator from New York and close friend of Grant, fought Hayes on this as hard as he could, because patronage was his main source of power. The customs collector at New York was the most powerful federal job in the country, and Conkling was usually able to dictate to the president who should have it. To prove a point, Hayes' fired the man whom Conkling had placed in that post. That man was Chester Arthur! It made Conkling so mad!

I commend Hayes for his effort, mostly because this blogger could do without 30 pages of "the president worried over federal appointments" that comes in the middle of every biography. Hayes certainly did not fix civil service reform, but he was right to introduce the issue, which would take decades to fix. Hayes angered a lot of people, but he frequently referred to "the sober second thought of the people," who he was confident would understand his motivations in time. It was a feeling for the long game that comes to many presidents once they're in office.

Unfortunately, in order to win the presidency four years later, Garfield really needed Conkling on his side, so the Republicans put Chester Arthur on the ticket as vice president, who obviously became president a few months into Garfield's term. When Grant died, Hayes attended the funeral with president Arthur. He was pretty sure it was going to be awkward attending a funeral with a man he had fired, but they had a great time and Arthur never brought it up. Way to go, guys!

This long-game perspective did not always make Rud a good president. When it came to Reconstruction, and all the horrible things that were going on down there, like the first black cadet having his ear cut off at West Point, Rud's opinion was: the South should be better educated. Which, true, but also people who cut off other people's ears should be prosecuted in the present day. (Technically, they were, but they were found innocent. The black cadet probably cut off his own ear for attention! was the verdict.) But we're entering a time when the presidents wanted to prove to the South that they trusted them again, so they were trying to be hands-off about egregious civil rights violations. It was going so-so.