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The Jay Commission

February 20, 2020

In the 19th century the Collector of the Port of New York served at the pleasure of the U.S. President.  When Rutherford Hayes took office in 1877, Chester Arthur had been the Collector for several years, having been appointed by President Grant.  Arthur was also one of Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political operatives.

Less than six weeks after inauguration Hayes asked Treasury Secretary John Sherman to investigate the Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco customhouses.  Because of the disputed 1876 election Hayes would not be a good candidate to succeed himself in 1880.  Sherman wanted to run for President and did not want to alienate the Conkling wing of the Party.  He tried to convince Hayes to go easy on the New York Customhouse, but Hayes was insistent.  Besides, Hayes was offended that Conkling referred to him as “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes.

Sherman devised a plan where Arthur would have some say in how the investigation proceeded.  The investigating commission would be comprised of two private citizens and one government official.  Arthur would participate in selecting one of the private citizens.

Arthur chose Lawrence Turnure.  Sherman chose John Jay, grandson and namesake of the first Chief Justice, with Arthur’s concurrence.  Finally, Sherman chose Assistant Solicitor of the Treasury J. H. Robinson.  Again Arthur seemed satisfied, even pleased with Sherman’s choice.

The Jay Commission also had political and social balance.  Jay and Turnure were wealthy businessmen with sterling reputations.  Robinson was very knowledgeable in customs management.  Jay was a Liberal Republican, Turnure a Democrat, and Robinson a member of the Hayes Administration.

As the Jay Commission began its work Arthur had no complaints about its makeup.  Unfortunately for him, the New York Customhouse was so corrupt that Arthur was bound to be displeased with the Commission’s reports.



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