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.

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