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The Road to Obscurity

Senator Roscoe Conkling was the Republican boss in the state of New York and the leader of the Stalwart faction in the national party.  The Stalwarts were those who supported former President Grant’s candidacy for a nonconsecutive third term in 1880.

In 1876 the Republican candidate lost in New York but was able to win the Presidency due to the Electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.  Now that Reconstruction had ended, it would be nearly impossible for a Republican to win all three Southern states.  In fact, it would be another 96 years before this would happen again.  This made the Electoral votes of New York all the more important in 1880.

If the Republican nominee did not have a New Yorker as a running mate, he should at least have a Stalwart.  Congressman Levi Morton of New York satisfied both requirements.  He was one of the few Stalwarts on good terms with the man at the top of the ticket.

Although James Garfield had been stunned by his sudden nomination for President, he had the presence of mind to realize that Morton could help unite the Grand Old Party.  Of course, Morton would need the blessing of Senator Conkling, which he sought before giving Garfield an answer.

Conkling replied, “If you think the ticket will be elected, if you think you will be happy in the association, accept.”

But Morton was not satisfied with that answer.  He then said to Conkling, “I have more confidence in your judgment than in my own.”

Conkling then suggested, “Governor Boutwell of Massachusetts is a great friend of yours.  Why don’t you talk with him?”

Just as Conkling had expected, Boutwell advised Morton to decline.

Morton did eventually become Vice President in another administration, but if he had accepted Garfield’s offer, he might have become the 21st President.  That honor would go to the most unlikely of candidates.



The Surprise Nominee

After controlling the U.S. Senate since 1861, the Republicans lost their majority during the mid-term elections of 1878.  The Democrats also won the House for the third time in a row.  With the opposition party controlling both houses, and after angering the New York Stalwarts of his own party, President Hayes found himself on a political island.  Hayes had decided not to seek re-election back in 1876, but even if he had changed his mind he couldn’t have been renominated without creating further division.

When 1880 came, there were three main contenders for the Republican nomination: Senator James Blaine, Treasury Secretary and former Senator John Sherman, and whoever the Stalwarts would support, which meant definitely not Blaine and probably not Sherman.  James Garfield was good friends with Senator Blaine, but he was politically bound to his state’s favorite son, John Sherman of Ohio.  Garfield even delivered the convention speech which nominated Sherman.

Conkling had tried to get the nomination for himself in 1876, but by 1880 he realized that would be impossible.  He chose to support a proven winner, former President Grant.  Through all 36 ballots Grant attracted more than 300 delegate votes.  He even had more votes on the 36th ballot than on the first, but he never received the 379 needed to secure the nomination.  Neither did Blaine nor Sherman.  The person who became the nominee had, for 33 ballots received zero, one, or two votes.  Then things began to change.  On the 34th ballot he received 17, on the 35th he received 50, and on the 36th he won with 399 votes, 20 more than needed.

The surprise nominee was Congressman James Garfield!  Conkling’s people were not happy, and the Senator himself was not in a mood to compromise.  Meanwhile, a member of Conkling’s faction was offered the vice-presidential nomination.



The Long Arm of Bad Law

The Tenure of Office Act was passed by Congress over President Andrew Johnson’s veto in 1867.  Its sole purpose was to create an impeachable offense that would lead to Johnson’s removal.  Johnson escaped conviction by one vote.  In 1869 the act was amended, but it still made life difficult for President Hayes in 1877.  Otherwise, he could have more easily fired Chester Arthur from the New York Customhouse.

Under the revised law the officeholder could not be removed until his replacement was confirmed by the Senate.  If the Senate was not in session, the President could make a recess appointment.  If the Senate did not confirm the appointee within thirty days after the start of the next session, everything was back to square one.  Because the Senate rejected Hayes’s appointee in December 1877, it took until mid-July 1878 before Arthur was finally removed.

Why didn’t Arthur just resign and get it over with?  Back in the fall of 1877, before Arthur had the chance to consider the President’s wishes, the public became aware that Hayes wanted Arthur out.  If Arthur had simply resigned, there would be no chance to recover his reputation, but if Arthur were fired, Hayes might try to produce evidence against him.  Although the Customhouse was a corrupt organization, Arthur believed his personal record was impeccable.  However, the amended act of 1869 did not require the President to give any reason for removing an officer.  When Hayes proceeded with removal without stating the reason, perhaps Arthur still felt he had won a crucial point.

The Tenure of Office Act was finally repealed in 1887 during Grover Cleveland’s first term.  Meanwhile, Hayes’s successors, James Garfield and Arthur himself, would have to operate their Administrations according to its limitations.










Arthur’s Almost Replacement

Although Chester Arthur was not officially removed from the Collectorship until 1878, President Hayes tried to appoint a replacement in December 1877.  The man Hayes chose had not been an officer during the Civil War, but he had done his part as a civilian to support the Union, and was a highly respected member of the reform wing of the Republican Party.

Hayes’s appointee was adored by those who knew him best, his family.  One of his sons would later write:  “I was fortunate enough in having a father whom I have always been able to regard as an ideal man…  he certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would laugh at my being decent.”

But Senator Conkling did not want to have such an incorruptible man at the head of the Customhouse.  When he came up for a vote, the Senate rejected Hayes’s appointee.  It did not matter that during the Civil War the appointee had devised an allotment system which ensured part of a soldier’s pay would go to his family back home.  It did not matter that the appointee had, at his own expense, toured all the New York divisions of the Army of the Potomac to explain the allotment system.  It did not matter that the appointee had, in 1864, raised money to give everyone in the Army of the Potomac a decent Thanksgiving dinner.  All that mattered was whether or not he could be controlled by Senator Conkling.

The rejected appointee would not have served long anyway.  He died in February 1878.  His adoring son quoted above was none other than future President Theodore Roosevelt.



“I Mean Strictly to Enforce It”

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.  Six days later President Lincoln was dead.  While the nation was still mourning the loss of the Great Emancipator, Alonzo Cornell’s father founded Cornell University with a half million dollar endowment.  The date was April 27, which also happened to be General Grant’s 43rd birthday.  When the 54-year-old President Grant was in the final months of his second term, he appointed Alonzo Cornell naval officer at the New York Customhouse.  Before the year was out Cornell would incur the displeasure of new President Rutherford Hayes.

Cornell had violated Hayes’s Executive Order of June 22, 1877 which forbade officers of the Customhouse from certain political activities.  When some members of Cornell’s faction asked Hayes to reconsider the Order, he replied:  “I mean strictly to enforce it, and anybody who comes under it – anybody who violates it will be removed.”  Within days it became known that he intended to remove not only Cornell, but also George Sharpe and Chester Arthur.  These three were part of the Conkling machine in New York, and Hayes chose to remove them because they obviously did not want to participate in effecting the reforms he had in mind for the New York Customhouse.

Cornell had been naval officer only since January 1877, but Sharpe had been surveyor since 1873, and Arthur had been there even longer as collector.  Their removal was a great intrusion on the Conkling machine’s territory, and Senator Conkling was determined to punish the President for this affront.

Spoilsmen Defy President Hayes

President Rutherford Hayes did not owe any political favors to Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.  The Senator had not been able to deliver his state to the Republican candidate in 1876.  When Hayes was pronounced the national winner by a single Electoral vote, Conkling began to ridicule Hayes, referring to him as “His Fraudulency” or “Rutherfraud.”

Conkling genuinely believed Hayes had lost the 1876 election.  This was certainly the case in New York.  Conkling, on the other hand, had been elected twice to the Senate by the New York legislature.  If anyone should have a say in what happened at the New York Customhouse, it should have been him, or so he thought.

Besides, the spoils system had been in place at least since the days of Democrat President Andrew Jackson.  In New York it could be traced back to Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton.  The Civil War had brought the Republican Party to power, and now the spoils belonged to them.

Hayes had a different vision of public service.  In his letter to the Treasury Secretary regarding the New York Customhouse he stated: “Party leaders should have no more influence in appointments than other equally respectable citizens.”  Conkling referred to such civil service reforms as the “snivel service.”

Hayes had also written: “No officer should be required or permitted to take part in the management of political organizations, caucuses, conventions, or election campaigns.”  This meant that Alonzo Cornell, who was both naval officer of the Port of New York and chairman of the Republican Party in the state of New York would have to give up one of these positions.

In late August 1877, in direct challenge to the President’s Executive Order, Cornell chaired a meeting of the state Republican committee.

Four Reports, Three Targets

Although the mission statement for the Jay Commission was published in the New York Times on April 18, 1877, the Commission did not begin taking testimony until April 26.  It issued its first report on May 24, which prompted President Hayes to write a brief letter to the Treasury Secretary outlining new Administration policy.  Hayes referred to this letter in his June 22 Executive Order which directed New York Customhouse officials to stop using their positions for political purposes.

The Jay Commission issued its second report on July 4, charging that “The evidence shows a degree and extent of carelessness [in personnel selection] which we think should not be permitted to continue.”  The third report, issued on July 21, made eleven recommendations to completely reorganize the department that employed the weighers and gaugers.  The fourth report came the last day of August and recommended major changes to the appraiser’s office.

The spring and summer of 1877 had been devastating to Senator Roscoe Conkling.  His principal lieutenant, Chester Arthur, headed the Customhouse and was now barely hanging on to that position.  Even if Arthur continued as Collector he would not be able to serve the Conkling machine without being fired by Hayes.

Conkling had a few other operatives at the Customhouse.  Alonzo Cornell, who was chairman of the state Republican Party in New York, had been appointed in January 1877 to the position of naval officer of the Port of New York.  Cornell viewed Hayes’s June 22 Executive Order as a violation of his civil and political rights.  General George Sharpe, another Conkling man, had been Surveyor of Customs since 1873.

These three men: Arthur, Cornell, and Sharpe would soon discover whether President Hayes or Senator Conkling would prevail.