Podcast # 39: The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester Arthur

James Garfield was President for 4 months. He is not a President that if often talked about, but considering the brief length of his Presidency, that makes sense. James Abram Garfield was born in Ohio in 1831. Like many Presidents before him, he was born to a poor family who lived in a Log Cabin. His father died when he was young and the family struggled. He didn’t have much formal schooling until his teenage years where he excelled at school. He studied Greek and Latin, went on to College where he worked his way through, even being hired as a teacher before graduation. He was hired as a teacher at what was Western Reserve Eclectic Institute which is now called Hiram College and he would go on to become its President. A member of the Republican Party, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate and served in the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, rising up the ranks to major general. When he was elected to the US House of Representatives to represent the state of Ohio, President Lincoln, urged him to step down from his military post and to serve. He did just that and served as one of the most influential members of the House of Representatives until he was elected President. The election of 1880 was an interesting one. Hayes as we discussed in a previous podcast, had promised to serve only 1 term, Ulysses S. Grant attempted another go at President, running for a potentially third and unprecedented 3rd term after he returned from his world tour. Grant didn’t win his party’s nomination, instead it went to James A. Garfield on the 36th ballot. Garfield was considered a dark horse candidate and narrowly won the election. The Republicans were a rather divided party at the time. You have two groups within the party fighting for power in the form of political appointments – cabinet positions ect. There are the Half breeds – called that because of their moderate positions on issues, they were led by Sen. James Blaine of Maine – who Garfield made his Sec of State – they were deemed to be half Republicans and the Stalwarts – who saw themselves as the Traditional Republicans – led by Sen. Roscoe Conkling from New York. The major issue that divided the two groups was the issue of the spoils system. Half Breeds sought to reform it and the Stalwarts wanted to keep the system in place just as it was. It was that infighting that was the reason for the 36 ballots to select a nominee at their Convention. So you have this very interesting dynamic within Garfield’s emerging presidency – his VP is Stalwart, and Garfield will be shot by a Stalwart- but we are not up to that yet. In his inaugural address, Garfield discussed how in its first 100 years as a nation the country grew, not just in size of territory but in population. He referred to the Civil War as a conflict that not only purified the nation but made it stronger. He talks about the impact of the war and emancipation, the importance of preventing what he calls “bad local governments” from denying black men their right to vote. This is a direct quote from his speech “It is alleged that in many communities, negro citizens are practically denied the freedom of the ballot. In so far as the truth of this allegation is admitted, it is answered that in many places honest local government is impossible if the mass of uneducated negroes are allowed to vote. These are grave allegations.” Now as students of history we know that this was true and not what he calls allegations.

He goes on to mention the low literacy rates and pushes for education for all – the future of our country depends on it. He discusses the economy, bimetallism, the importance of farmers as well as the growing industrial cities throughout the north and Midwest. He discusses a hot button issue of the time period – the territory of Utah and the need to enforce US Laws and mentions while the US Protects Religious Freedom, it does not and will not condone Polygamy. Now this is a very complex topic – one that we could do an entire episode on, the Mormons traveled 1300 miles to Utah, when it was still a part of Mexico. The Mexican-American War would change that, Brigham Young and the Mormons, dominated local politics, but disregarded laws against polygamy or plural marriage. It was not until the Mormon church issued a proclamation to abandon the practice of plural marriage, that Utah was finally granted statehood. This is well after Garfield’s presidency, so when he made that statement, it was in fact a big deal. So while the speech itself is mediocre at best, he felt it was as well, he has a number of bold goals for his Presidency outlined in the speech. He and his large family – he and his wife who was actually a former student of his move into the white house with their 5 children but they don’t occupy the Presidential mansion very long. On July 2, 1881, while in the waiting room of a Washington, DC train station, a man by the name of Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield in the back and arm. The wound should not have been fatal had a better doctor or physician taken care of him. A local doctor whose first name was also doctor oddly enough, examined him but was unable to locate the bullet to remove it. Consistent prodding and poking to locate it and heal the President, only made matters worse as it led to multiple infections. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell even attempted to help save the President by trying to perfect a new invention he called a metal detector to help the doctors locate the bullet. President Garfield never recovered and spent the last 2 months of his life in pain and being tortured by a doctor who was trying to help him. Now, why was he shot, Guiteau was a Stalwart Republican and felt as though he had been wrongfully cheated out of an ambassadorship. It’s also important to note that his family tried to have him committed because they thought he was insane. It is believed that when he shot the President, he stated Chester Arthur is President now. Arthur also being a Stalwart. Guiteau was convicted of killing the President and was hanged for his crime.

Chester A. Arthur was now the President. He was born in Vermont in 1829 and moved with his family to New York when he was young. He attended what is now known as Union College and the desk he used while Quartermaster and Inspector General for NY State is in the President’s office of the college. He was a school teacher, a principal and became a lawyer. As a NY Lawyer, he worked on a number of high profile cases that helped to improve civil rights for people of color in the 1850s and 1860s. He was involved in local New York politics.

During the Civil War, he was QuarterMaster for NY. In this post he was responsible for ensuring food and supplies for the soldiers representing the state were ordered and available when needed. This was an important job. Many considered this role as being the army behind the army. If you want to know more about his role in this, you can visit the New York State Militia Museum and Veterans research center website to see a number of primary source documents. As a member of the Republican Party and the spoils system of the Party led by NY Sen Roscoe Conklin – Chester Arthur was given the position of Customs collector for the port of NY. In return, he would hand out jobs for people Conkling owed a favor to or those who had helped the party. You have to understand that this was the holy grail of jobs. NY was the country’s busiest port and the collector was in charge of collecting the taxes imposed on imported goods. At first, the collector was paid based on a percentage of the amount collected but it was then changed to yearly salary – the salary was still high for the time period and people who were put in that job did pretty pretty good as Larry David would say. So when President Hayes removed Chester Arthur from this position it was a big deal and part of the reason why the Republicans put him on the ticket to run as Vice President. When Arthur became President, it was thought that he would continue to do what he had done in NY for the republican party political machine in Washington DC. He didn’t. He distanced himself from Conkling and helped to bring about reform.

When he became President, his wife had died a few years earlier and so his sister, took on the role of hostess at White House functions. With each new family that entered the White House, Congress typically gave a stipend to spend on new furnishings and decorations. The Garfield’s had spent their stipend and the home had been newly decorated but President Arthur refused to move in until it was redecorated to his liking. He was well known for his high end taste and his preference for the finer things in life. If you go to the white house historical society, they have detailed information on how each family changed the white house and how much they spent. Typically, the first lady oversaw the décor changes, but President Arthur who was newly widowed, hired a decorator, Henry Louis Tiffany whose family owned Tiffany & Co. in NYC to redecorate the White House. They also auctioned off multiple wagon loads full of a lot of the old furniture.

During his Presidency we see the passage of a number of important laws.

Pendleton Civil Service Act was passed in 1883 and it required federal jobs to be given to people based on merit- their ability to the job properly and not given simply as a thank you for support or as a guarantee of future support. When the law was first passed, it only applied to about 10% of government jobs, but today, applies to the majority of them. Civil Service exams were used to determine one’s ability to the job. The United States Civil Service commission was established to oversee the exams.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – it is important to note that as Chinese Immigrants began coming to the United States in the late 1840s after Gold and silver were discovered in California, laws began to be passed to limit the civil rights of Chinese immigrants as well as immigrants from other Asian countries. Local laws that targeted foreign born miners, companies that paid Chinese workers less than their white counterparts. Anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese sentiment grew and we begin to see calls to restrict immigration from Asian countries so as to protect native born laborers. Many people don’t know or realize that not only were Black Americans and Native Americans legally barred from testifying in court, so to were Asian Americans. So not only are they facing increasing amounts of discrimination, there is little that they can do about it to protect themselves or legal ways of protecting themselves and their rights through the court system.

The first time the Chinese Exclusion Act came across his desk, it was for a time period of 20 years. He vetoed the bill and stated the following. Now this is a brief quote from a much longer statement on his reasoning for the Veto.

“It may be that the great and paramount interest of protecting our labor from Asiatic competition may justify us in a permanent adoption of this policy; but it is wiser in the first place to make a shorter experiment, with a view hereafter of maintaining permanently only such features as time and experience may commend.”

Chinese Immigrants were barred from entering the United States, there were some exceptions made (merchants. Travelers, students, teachers and diplomats). Laws were passed in the United States that banned Chinese immigrants and their American born children from becoming US citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in place until 1942. It was the first law that banned an entire ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. Even after the law was repealed for years, only a small number of Chinese immigrants were allowed into the United States. When teaching or studying about this topic, I highly recommend the American Experience documentary on PBS on the Chinese Exclusion Act and using materials provided by Angel Island, and Chinese American Museums. I talked about some of those resources in our immigration podcast.

He did not actively seek reelection in 1884 and when he left office in 1885, he returned to his home in NY. He was incredibly sick –he had a kidney disease known as Bright’s Disease. He died in 1886. A little known president, who became president due to the death of his predecessor. Little is known about him because just before his death, he ordered that all of his personal and public papers be burned. A man who was known to be elegant, a sharp dresser who owned upwards of 80 pairs of pants and who just may be one of the least known about and talked about Presidents in United States history.

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