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The Mulligan Letters

One could make a reasonable argument that James Blaine was one of the good guys of American history.  However, his positive contributions during the Reconstruction Era have been overshadowed by his questionable business dealings during the Gilded Age.  He remained popular throughout his political career, but he was opposed by the reform wing of the Republican Party mostly because of something that happened in 1876.

President Grant would be retiring after two terms on March 4, 1877, and Congressman James Blaine was among those who sought to succeed him.  Up to this point no one had gone directly from the House of Representatives to the White House, but that did not deter Blaine from trying. 

He had been Speaker of the House until the recent mid-term election when the Democrats took control.  It was time to move on to something else.

Blaine lost the nomination to future President Rutherford Hayes, but one month after the Republican Convention he did move on to something else.  The Maine legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate.

Prior to the Convention, everyone’s choice for the number two spot had been Hayes, but he did not want to run with Blaine.  Hayes’s people made sure that didn’t happen by exposing Blaine’s little-known ties to the railroad interests.

Blaine had sold stock in a shaky railroad that soon failed.  Bigger railroad financiers bought out the failed railroad, thereby helping Blaine to save face.  This rescue saddled Blaine with an embarrassing conflict of interest. 

There was even documentary evidence, a series of letters that Blaine had written which became known as the Mulligan letters.

Blaine Nominated in 1884

In 1883 Robert Ingersoll was the attorney who got Stephen Dorsey acquitted of all charges in the Star Route scandal.  Seven years earlier Ingersoll had given the speech which nominated James Blaine for President of the United States.  The Republican Party rejected Ingersoll’s recommendation and nominated future President Rutherford Hayes instead.

Four years later Blaine was one of the two main contenders for the Republican nomination.  The stalemate between Blaine and former President Grant was overcome by nominating Blaine’s friend James Garfield for President.  President Garfield then appointed Blaine as Secretary of State.

Blaine was with Garfield in the train station on July 2, 1881 when the President was shot by an assassin.  On February 27, 1882 Blaine delivered a 38-page eulogy for the late President.

Blaine – unlike Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur – had not served in uniform during the Civil War.  Neither had Blaine’s Democratic opponent.  It had been almost twenty years since the Civil War, and new issues were being considered by the electorate.

Blaine had an impressive political resumé.  Even though he had served as Secretary of State for less than one year, he distinguished himself by promoting pan American cooperation.  He also championed the idea that the U.S. should dig a canal across the isthmus of Panama.

Blaine finally got the Republican nomination in 1884 and was rightly regarded as a formidable candidate.  He was a man of energy and ideas who had been Speaker of the House before becoming a U.S. Senator and then Secretary of State.  He had the good sense, or at least the good fortune, not to be involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, but something else had happened back in 1876 which put a lingering taint on his career.   

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Today, someone who should know better, remarked that if the current incumbent President were to lose the 2020 election, it would be the fourth time this happened in American history.  In other words, only three previous incumbents lost their bid for re-election.

This is most definitely not true.

John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in 1828.

Martin Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison in 1840.

Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison 1888.

Benjamin Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland 1892.

William Howard Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson 1912.

Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1932.

Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter 1976.

Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan 1980.

George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton 1992.

That’s ten times so far, and the instances are not clustered together. They occurred five times in the 19th century and five times in the 20th century. It’s bound to happen every now and then.

So, don’t believe everything you hear, especially if it’s on the radio, TV, or other media. In fact, you should check to see whether the assertions of this little essay are correct.

Also, you might want to discover who exactly made the incorrect assertion mentioned above.

Losing in New York

In September 1882 Republican Alonso Cornell was the popular governor of New York.  Although he had been one of the Customhouse officials who violated President Hayes’s 1877 executive order to refrain from certain political activities, Cornell was now viewed as largely nonpartisan in the management of his state’s government.  Since President Arthur and Governor Cornell were both from New York and had both been fired from the Customhouse by President Hayes, one might think they would have been intraparty allies.  They were not.

Treasury Secretary Charles Folger had Arthur’s tacit blessing to run against Cornell.  Arthur did his best to hold the gubernatorial primary at arm’s length, but everyone knew that Folger was hoping for more obvious support from the President.  On September 20, 1882 Folger defeated the incumbent governor by a convention vote of 257 to 222.

Charles Folger would have made a good governor, but the people were looking for a new kind of political leader.  That fall they turned to the Democratic mayor of Buffalo, and Charles Folger lost by 190,000 votes.  According to historian Thomas C. Reeves, this margin was “until then the greatest state election victory in American history.”[1]

But that was not all.  Democrats gained Congressional seats throughout the North and recaptured the House.  Arthur got the blame for this disaster and would fail to get the nomination to succeed himself in 1884.  The Republicans would instead choose former Senator and Secretary of State James Blaine.  As Blaine’s opponent the Democrats chose the recently elected governor of New York.


[1] Gentleman Boss, p. 319.

The Pendleton Act

Stephen Dorsey was acquitted on June 14, 1883.  The fraudulent Star Route arrangements had been undone, but the Arthur Administration had failed to convict the worst perpetrators despite overwhelming evidence.  The electorate may have thought President Arthur genuinely favored civil service reform, but they now had sufficient reason to believe he was ineffectual.

But Arthur had already done something very important to advance the cause of civil service reform.  On January 16, 1883 he had signed the bill that became the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.  Within a few months Arthur appointed a three-man Civil Service Commission. 

When accepting the nomination for Vice President, Arthur had expressed genuine skepticism regarding competitive examinations for government jobs.  When he became President, he still expressed misgivings but promised to sign whatever reform legislation Congress passed.  Meanwhile, Democratic Senator George Pendleton of Ohio had already proposed legislation that had been ignored by Congress.  After the Democrats won the House in 1882, the lame duck session passed Pendleton’s bill.

Arthur signed the bill into law and stated that “the people of the country, apparently without distinction of party, have in various ways and upon frequent occasions given expression to their earnest wish for prompt and definite action.”  He could say this because the Republican Senate had passed the bill 38 to 5 with no Republicans voting against it.  The House vote was 155 to 47.

Thus did the former spoilsman became the President who signed the nation’s first truly significant civil service reform legislation into law.  He had even tried to reform the Republican Party in his home state of New York, but his effort resulted in the rise of the Democrat who would succeed him as President.

Justice Denied

On March 4, 1882 a grand jury indicted Stephen Dorsey and eight other men for conspiracy to defraud the Federal government.  Contracts had been made to deliver mail along nineteen Star Routes for a total of $41,135, but the government paid $448,670.90 instead. 

It should have been an open and shut case.  One of the prosecutors later said: “The evidence in this case satisfied me beyond all possible doubt of the guilt of all the parties, and I have seldom had occasion to try a case in court with the testimony in which I was more entirely satisfied.” 

But it was not the facts and the evidence that prevailed.  The attorneys for the defense used the law in order to stall the proceedings and to obfuscate the jury.  By the time the jury had heard all ninety-eight prosecution witnesses their combined testimony filled 3,286 pages.  There were also 2,300 documents presented over a two-month period. 

The jury convicted two men but could not decide on Dorsey and three others.  When these men were tried a second time, they were acquitted.  This second verdict did not come until June 1883.

Although the trials had resulted in so few convictions, President Arthur could take credit for stopping the Star Route frauds and for saving the government around $2,000,000 per year.  But it was too little too late.  Arthur had already lost the House and had only a slim majority in the Senate. 

The Star Route scandals revealed yet again the need for civil service reform, but Arthur had already done something about that back in January 1883.

Arthur Presses On

In 1881 there were more than 9,000 star routes in the sparsely populated regions of the southern and western United States.  During 1879-1880 mail delivery along these routes had cost almost $6,000,000.  Many years earlier unscrupulous men discovered a way to get some of this money into their pockets, and that was the beginning of the Star Route Scandal.

The Star Route Scandal was a big headache for President Garfield right from the start of his term, but he did his best to find the perpetrators and prosecute them.  So did his successor. 

President Arthur, when asked how to proceed, replied to the Attorney General: “I want this work to be done as you are doing it, in the spirit in which you are doing it; I want it to be done earnestly and thoroughly.  I desire that these people shall be prosecuted with the utmost vigor of the law.”

But that was not all.  Arthur continued: “I will give you all the help I can.  You can come to me whenever you wish to, and I will do all I can to aid you.”

Did Arthur keep his word?  The Attorney General later said: “…he did so all the way through, without a moment’s hesitation – always stood by me and strengthened me and gave me confidence.” 

Arthur was bound to lose friends and political allies by doing the right thing.  In February 1881 Arthur had been one of the speakers at a dinner honoring Stephen Dorsey for his work during the recent Presidential campaign.  On March 4 of the following year, a grand jury indicted nine men, charging them with conspiracy to defraud the government.  Foremost among the defendants was Stephen Dorsey.

Asterisks and Avarice

During the 19th century, the land west of the Mississippi was so sparsely populated that the postal service hired contractors to deliver the mail.  These contractors were to have been chosen after competitive bidding, and the expectation was that the mail would be delivered with “certainty, celerity, and security.”[1]  These three words, were often symbolized by three asterisks, and the assignments became known as “star routes.” 

 Stephen W. Dorsey, who had been honored at Delmonico’s, was angling to get an appointment in the Post Office.  Senator Blaine warned President Garfield that “the true intent and meaning of the Dorsey dinner in N.Y. was (by increasing Dorsey’s prestige) to enable him to make demands of the Administration which will in the end, modestly center in the Second Ass’t Postmaster Generalship.”

Senator Chandler went even further.  He warned Garfield that “the ‘Star Service’ is the grand prize which is to nourish them and to furnish the scandals of the next presidential fight.”  The scheme worked as follows.  Someone would offer a bid so low as to guarantee its acceptance.  Then they would inflate the delivery costs by seeking approval for expedited service.  This would not only reward the contractors.  It would also provide kickbacks to certain government officials.

During his first week in office Garfield ordered an investigation.  When he received the results a few weeks later, Garfield instructed the Postmaster General as follows.  “I have sworn to execute the laws.  Go ahead regardless of where or whom you hit.  I direct you not only to probe this ulcer to the bottom, but to cut it out.”

In the fall of 1881 Chester Arthur affirmed the direction Garfield had chosen.


[1] This word order, although not alphabetical, is found on page 578 of the 1999 edition of Allan Peskin’s Garfield.

Too Corrupt to Ignore

Candidate James Garfield selected Stephen W. Dorsey to be Secretary of the Republican National Committee in 1880.  Dorsey advised Garfield to make peace with the Conkling wing of the Party.  Conkling would then deliver New York to the Republican column while Dorsey got votes in Indiana, and the Republicans would have another four years in the White House.  The plan worked, and Garfield became the 20th President. 

Members of the Conkling faction, but not Conkling himself, celebrated at Delmonico’s a few weeks before Garfield’s inauguration.  Garfield was also absent, but that made no difference since Dorsey was the guest of honor.  Besides, some of the after-dinner remarks indicated there had been some shenanigans during the Indiana campaign. 

Former President Grant began the speeches with a few bland remarks.  Dorsey responded with some nice words about the Vice-President-elect, who was the next speaker.  When it was Arthur’s turn to speak, he gave a speech in keeping with the festivities, but when praising the guest of honor, he said that Indiana was “a state that might be carried by close and careful and perfect organization and a great deal of…”  Arthur paused, and the audience completed the sentence with the word “soap,” a euphemism for purchased votes.

So, when Arthur became Vice-President, he knew Stephen Dorsey was someone who had bought votes in Indiana.  In April 1881 Garfield learned that Dorsey had also been implicated in the Star Route scandal.  This was too corrupt to ignore.  Garfield  was now compelled to investigate. 

When Arthur succeeded Garfield, the Star Route investigation had not been completed.  Perhaps Dorsey was expecting leniency from his old comrade, but Arthur was determined to make things right.

A Rough Start

When James Garfield became President, he asked his good friend and political ally James Blaine to become Secretary of State.  No one saw anything unusual in this.  But when Chester Arthur became President, many feared he would honor his friend and mentor Roscoe Conkling in the same way.  Arthur wisely asked Blaine to remain in the Cabinet.  When Blaine resigned after a few months, Arthur chose someone other than Conkling to replace him.  When Blaine recommended someone for Secretary of the Navy, Arthur took Blaine’s advice.  Arthur was doing his best to unite the Republican Party and the nation, but when he took Blaine’s advice, he also managed to make former President Grant unhappy.  Since Blaine was still hoping to be the Republican nominee next time around, Arthur received no political benefit from his conciliatory actions.

Arthur tried to retain Garfield’s Cabinet, but the only person who continued through the end of Arthur’s term was Secretary of War Robert Lincoln.  Not since the days of President Tyler had there been so many changes in the leadership of the Treasury Department.

Treasury Secretary William Windom, who as a U.S. Senator had supported President Hayes’s effort to remove Arthur from the Customhouse, was the first Cabinet member to resign.  Arthur appointed Edwin D. Morgan even though the former governor had already informed Arthur he was not interested.  When Morgan was confirmed, he respectfully declined.  Arthur then chose New York Chief Justice Charles J. Folger.  This took care of the Treasury Department for a few years, but Arthur would have two more Treasury Secretaries before the end of his term.

Meanwhile, there was a scandal regarding the Post Office which required Arthur’s Justice Department to prosecute some of his old friends.