Civil Service Reform
Hardly a congressman could dare oppose pensions for Civil War veterans, but a few attempted to reform the spoils system which had been an integral part of politics for some time. The practice of awarding government jobs to party loyals, regardless of qualifications, had been in place before the Civil War and flourished afterward. Between 1865 and 1891, the number of people with federal jobs tripled, from 53,000 to 166,000. Those elected to office scrambled to control these jobs as a way to cement support for themselves and their parties. In exchange for comparatively short hours and relatively high pay, appointees promised their votes and a portion of their earnings to their political patron.
Some were shocked by this blatant behavior and began to agitate. Civil service reform became a fervent crusade in 1881 with the formation of the National Civil Service Reform League. That same year, with President Garfield’s assassination by a mentally ill job seeker, the movement took on steam. The result was the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1882, outlawing political contributions by officeholders and creating the Civil Service Commission. The Commission would oversee competitive examinations for government positions. This act gave the new commission jurisdiction over about 10 percent of the federal jobs, but since the Constitution barred Congress from interfering in state affairs, patronage at the state and local levels continued for some years.
Railroad expansion had exploded by the 1880s. Besides the major transcontinental lines, branch railroads reached out to every corner of the country. The fact that railroads became THE way to transport goods also gave the unregulated rail companies carte blanche when it came to rates. Competition was steep among long distance lines, keeping rates within reasonable limits. But, on the non-competitive short lines, railroads often raised rates as high a possible to compensate for low rates on the competitive lines, making price disproportionate to distance. Railroads also played favorites by reducing rates to large shippers and offering free passenger passes to preferred customers and politicians. In many cases, the railroads also controlled the grain elevators, making farmers captive to storing and shipping rates.
This activity prompted farmers, small merchants and some reform politicians to demand regulation of rates. These attempts occurred first at the state level, mostly under pressure from organized agrarian groups like the Grange in the mid-west. But the scattered efforts of state legislatures came to a halt in 1886, when the Supreme Court ruled that individual states had not power to regulate interstate commerce. If railroad rates were to be controlled, it would have to be a federal law.
After a number of attempts at reconciling the House and Senate versions of bills over the course of 1886 after the Supreme Court decision, a compromise was reached and the Interstate Commerce Act was passed and signed into law in 1887. It prohibited rebates and pools and required railroads to publish their rates openly. It also outlawed charging more for short-haul shipments than for long-haul ones over the same line. More importantly, perhaps, the law established the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first of many government regulatory commissions over the years.
The National Elections
As the election year approached, Ulysses Grant, considered to be a rather inept president, was urged by his supporters to run for a third term. Congress, in a bipartisan vote, quickly put an end to that idea by passing a resolution reminding the country - and Grant - of the two-term tradition. With Grant out of the running, the Republican Party nominated Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio for president and William A. Wheeler of New York for vice president. Hayes, dubbed " The Great Unknown," was relatively obscure on the national front, but served as three-time governor of Ohio, an important swing state in national elections.
Samuel J. Tilden of New York was the Democratic nominee for president, joined by Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana as the vice presidential candidate. Tilden was known for the fact that he’d undone Boss Tweed in New York. The Democratic ticket campaigned against Republican scandal and for sweeping civil service reform.
Tilden won 184 of the necessary 185 electoral votes, with 20 votes in four states disputed because of irregular returns. Indiana went for the Democratic ticket, supporting its native son, Hendricks. The issue became how to resolve the 20 contested votes. The disputed states of Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida submitted two sets of returns, one Republican, one Democratic. One vote from the fourth state, Oregon, was in dispute because it’s elector held a federal office, contrary to the Constitution.
Both parties sent "visiting statesmen" to the three southern disputed states. Weeks passed with no resolution. The Constitution only specified that the returns should be sent to Congress and opened in the presence of the House and Senate by the Senate president. The Constitution did not specify who should count the votes.
Unable to decide, the legislature formed a fifteen member commission composed of Supreme Court justices and members of Congress. Although it was supposed to be non-partisan, eight members were Republican and seven were Democrats. As established, the commission’s final decision would stand unless both the Senate and House rejected it. The commission adopted the Republican vote in each state, the (Democratic ) House disagreed, but the (Republican) Senate concurred. Hayes and Wheeler were declared president and vice president. The results of this compromise functionally ended Reconstruction in the South. Federal troops still stationed there were withdrawn and the Republican party quietly abandoned its commitment to black equality.
The crisis of the election of 1876 left a cloud over Hayes, called "His Fraudulency" and "Old 8 to 7" in the press. Under Hayes, Reconstruction was ended. During his tenure, he emphasized national unity and played a quiet (too quiet to some) role as reformer and conciliator. His wife Lucy, a staunch prohibitionist, was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy, " and no liquor was served at the White House. Many believed that his political record was a disaster and as the election year approached, even his party seemed to abandon him. He had earlier declared himself a one-term president, ultimately saving himself the embarrassment of not getting re-nominated.
It took the Republicans thirty-six ballots to arrive at a nominee. The nomination of "dark horse" candidate James A. Garfield, another Civil War hero, finally broke the impasse. His running mate, Chester Arthur of New York, was a close associate of powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling from New York. Democrats, still seething over the loss of the presidency in 1876, nominated former Civil War general Winfield S. Hancock. He appealed to veterans and was popular in the South, where he had fair mindedly directed one of the military Reconstruction districts. Former Indiana congressman William English was Hancock’s running mate. The Greenback-Labor Party ran James Weaver.
In their platforms, both major parties equivocated on the currency question and tepidly endorsed civil service reform, while supporting generous pensions for Civil War veterans (on the Union side - not for Confederates) and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Both parties ignored the growing problems of debt-burdened farmers and powerless laborers. The Republicans called for protective tariffs; the Democrats for tariffs "for revenue only."
During the campaign, the Republicans waved the "bloody shirt" of the Civil War one more time and quite possibly purchased their narrow but crucial victory in Indiana. Democrats, equally blind to the economic and social problems, harped on Garfield’s alleged participation in the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal of a few years earlier, a railroad stock payback scheme involving politicians and railroad company owners.
Garfield won a narrow popular vote, getting only around 39,000 more popular votes than Hancock. By carrying the pivotal states of New York and Indiana, he garnered 214 electoral votes to Hancock’s 155. His presidency was short-lived, though. Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed and mentally ill office-seeker, shot Garfield in the back in a Washington railroad station. Garfield lay in agony for eleven weeks and died on September 19, 1881.
Chester Arthur took over as president and surprised his fellow politicians - and the American public - by instituting the first serious civil service reforms. Previously, government jobs were strictly doled out on the spoils system Arthur’s stand was especially surprising given that he was a notorious spoilsman himself, a close associate of Roscoe Conkling, a true believer in the spoils system. Arthur’s work, and the Republican’s new found enthusiasm for reform led to the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, the so-called Magna Carta of civil-service reform. Even so, Arthur’s reforms offended too many of his Republican associates, and he was not re nominated, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1886.
The presidential campaign of 1884 is remembered for two things. A Democrat was victorious for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the campaign was perhaps the worst mudslinging, frenzied but meaningless battle ever fought for the presidency. As Henry Adams said, "Everyone takes part. We are all doing our best, and swearing like demons. But the amusing thing is that no one talks about real issues."
Dissent ruled the Republican party. They split into three factions; dissident reformers called Mugwumps, who were opposed to party and government graft; Stalwarts, supporters of Ulysses S. Grant who had fought civil service reform; and Half-Breeds, moderate reformers and high-tariff men loyal to the party. At the time of the convention, in June 1884, most felt Chester Arthur had little to show for his nearly three years in office, and although he wanted to run again, the Republicans nominated James G. Blaine of Maine on the fourth ballot. Blaine, a charismatic figure and former secretary of state and Maine congressman, was popular for his protectionist stance in tariff issues, but of questionable honesty. His running mate was John A. Logan, a Stalwart and one of his opponents at the Convention. Their relationship was notably cool during the campaign.
The Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland of New York, who only four years earlier, had been a relatively unknown lawyer in Buffalo. In 1881, he was elected Buffalo’s mayor on a reform ticket and a year later, to the governorship of New York. By 1884, he had earned a reputation for honesty and courage and for what would be called moderation today, "sound conservatism" then. His running mate was Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana.
The Democrat’s pleasure in having a candidate of upstanding principles was seriously eroded with the announcement shortly after that Cleveland, a bachelor, had fathered a child out of wedlock by Mrs. Maria Halpin, years ago in Buffalo. The Republicans quickly took up the chant, " Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?" To which the Democrats replied, " Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!" The furor did die down when Cleveland acknowledged his paternity and showed that had contributed to the child’s support.
Blaine’s candidacy fared no better. Many of the reform-minded Republicans bolted the party out of disgust for Blaine’s political villainies. His enemies published the famous "Mulligan letters," supposedly written by Blaine to a Boston railroad executive Warren Fisher and linking the powerful politician to a corrupt deal involving federal favors to a southern railroad. At least one damning letter ended with the words, " Burn this letter." Democrats used this evidence as a rallying cry to march through the streets chanting, " Burn, burn, burn this letter."