Monday, June 17, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Twenty, Garfield Died For Our Sins


The election of James Garfield as our twentieth President came during the height of the Spoils system within our government.  A political party winning the Executive office (Presidency) would expect to fill government job vacancies - well-paying and in some positions ripe for kickback abuse - by picking various "friends" and underlings who helped with the elections to fill said jobs.

To say corruption ruled within the Spoils system is an understatement: it was at its worst under the Grant administration (review his sad administration for the basic information), with the subsequent Presidency under Hayes doing its utmost to undo the damage (Hayes personally kicked one patronage figure Chester A. Arthur from the key post of Collector of the Port of New York (basically the tax collector at our busiest richest port)).

By 1880 government corruption was a major issue, and civil service reform a major topic.  Unfortunately, such reform needed a focused Congress to make the legislation, and Congress was - still is - a little too divided against itself to make meaningful legislation when it needs to.  Congress has to be prodded to do what's right from an external - sometimes painful - act.

Even though the Republicans at the time were the dominant party - and the one with roughly 16 straight years of corrupt office as a loadstone - they were large enough to have a reform faction gaining influence this election cycle.  Their candidate was Garfield, a long-standing Congressman with perhaps the most jaw-dropping political resume our nation ever saw: college professor and president, lay preacher, lawyer, practiced orator, Civil War volunteer corps leader promoted to battlefield general, voted into Congress and only taking the job (which meant resigning his battlefield position) by direct order of Lincoln himself, serving 16 straight years (which at the time was practically a record, and a clear testament to how the voters liked him).  Garfield had a blemish, accused of taking part of the corruption in Congress during the Grant years, but the charges were never proved and Garfield's performance before and after suggested he was incorruptible.

Garfield's faction - the Half-Breeds, apparently the 19th Century equivalent of RINO - had another candidate on the ballot (Blaine) but Garfield's name quickly rose as a compromise candidate against the Stalwarts (led by political machine boss Conkling) who were pushing for Grant on a third term (were they really THAT tone-deaf?).  After the fractured convention, Garfield was forced to take on Arthur as his Vice-President to balance the ticket.

It was one of the closest popular votes ever - Garfield had roughly 7,700 more votes than Democratic candidate (and fellow Civil War hero) Winfield Hancock - but the Electoral counts wasn't even close (214 to 155).  Garfield also won his Congressional seat again (some states still alow candidates to run for both offices) and was named as Senator-elect by his state of Ohio (making him the only man to ever be Congressman-elect, Senator-elect and President-elect at the same time).

It'd be nice to think that Garfield's reform efforts would begin in earnest and he would act as President with statements and deeds to demonstrate what Character he had.

Within the fourth month of his term of office, Garfield was shot in the back by a disgruntled job-seeker who was convinced he was owed an office under the Spoils system, and was equally convinced that by killing Garfield it would make Arthur President he would get a pardon and a cushy job out of it (I refuse to name the assassin here: most of these jokers do it for the fame and notoriety.  You don't even wanna know what this jerkass wrote as his legal defense during the trial).

The public and political response to such a shooting was, of course, total outrage against the Spoils system itself.  That such a minor nobody would think he "earned" a government job for campaigning for a guy - the best evidence we got that the assassin did anything for the Republicans during the election year was that he handed out some flyers and showed up for a rally or two - became a horrific concept.  Arthur himself, once a symbol of the Spoils system, would champion civil service reform and become its successful advocate (although to say more would cover what should go into next week's Character review).

Garfield's death so early within his tenure tends to make him an "incomplete" figure in Presidential reviews.  Which does a disservice to the man when one looks at what he actually did in those four months:

  • He ignored Senatorial courtesy by nominating his Cabinet with people he wanted rather than take suggestions from the Senate first.  This went a long way to breaking the patronage power of Senators like Conkling (who resigned his office and hoped to get re-appointed to the Senate to spite Garfield's obstruction: instead Conkling lost to a party rival, and a victorious Garfield nominated some of Conkling's allies back to their old jobs, now under his patronage and not Conkling).
  • Garfield on his own initiative (he was a skilled mathematician and economist) paid back $200 million in maturing bonds earlier than scheduled, which saved the government millions from national debt.
  • Garfield pushed for criminal charges and investigations into his own party's involvement in corruption in the postal service.
  • Garfield pushed for federally-funded universal education, an effort to break the illiteracy and lack of education for 70 percent of Blacks across the nation.
  • His foreign policy focus was on South America and improving relations with neighboring nations.
  • He nominated a handful of federal judges and one Supreme Court Justice, always a key legacy of any administration.

Even with this much evidence of what Garfield did and intended to do, it's tricky to nail down his character.  Arguably Garfield was Active (he was to the forefront of a lot of actions his White House undertook), but was he Negative or Positive?  His refusal to compromise on certain issues lean towards the Stubborn traits of an Active-Negative (and his micro-managing of things, he meddled in nearly every Cabinet's department by the sound of it).  However, his proactive efforts - paying off the bonds early, pushing for reform issues - made him a forward-thinking leader.  That most of his actions were not to his own self-interest but to the benefit of others makes Garfield a likely candidate for an Active-Positive President.

The big "what-if" of "what if Garfield hadn't been shot?"  He'd have been a little bit like Hayes, a fellow reform-minded A-P, and Lincoln.  And considering how he wiped out the likes of Conkling, he might have succeeded where Hayes couldn't in terms of getting civil service reform passed.  But it might have taken two terms to do it against a recalcitrant Congress.  It had to take the tragedy of Garfield's assassination to make reform a reality.

Next Week: Can the Office of President Change A Man's Character?  Yes, It Could...

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