Posts Tagged ‘Roscoe Conkling’

During the course of Barack Obama’s first term as President, much has been made of his group of czars.  I honestly don’t know much about the people involved, but there is much consternation, particularly from his opposition on the Republican side.  It is claimed that these men and women (I’m assuming both men and women are included) are influencing decisions being made by the President without the benefit of being elected by the people or appointed or approved by Congress.

But as Today’s History Lesson uncovers, President Obama isn’t the first Commander-in-Chief to get a little “outside help”.  And while it’s true that our example isn’t nearly as far-reaching or controversial as what we see in the White House today, it had a truly profound effect on the President in question.

The assassination attempt on President James Garfield not only shocked and angered the nation, it terrified Chester Arthur, the Vice President.  As we may recall, Garfield had been elected the previous year (1880) in most unlikely fashion, having been nominated at the Convention without ever being a candidate.  A groundswell of emotion and good will swept him into the White House.

And Chester Arthur?

He was actually a political opponent of Garfield, and was controlled by Roscoe Conkling, the senior Senator from New York who was, until the election, probably the most powerful man in America.  He was also very unpopular, so much so that when the news broke that Garfield had been shot, conspiracy theorists immediately pointed at Conkling and, by extension, Chester Arthur.  In her masterful book Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard writes, “It was widely assumed that he [Arthur] was in close and constant discussions with the man who had made him, planning for the day when he would be king, and Conkling his Cromwell.  So little respect was there for the vice president and so openly had he aligned himself with the president’s fiercest enemy, that to accuse him now of conspiring with Conkling was simply stating the obvious.

But to the contrary, Arthur was distraught over the President’s plight.  A journalist, finally gaining an audience with the Vice President who had largely disappeared from the public eye, noted that “His whole manner, rather than the words he uttered, showed a depth of feeling. . .which would astonish even many of those who think they know the man well.

Unknown to many, Chester Arthur had a “czar”.  Thirty-two year old Julia Sand was not elected and was not appointed.  And while she may have been an invalid, she knew how to write a letter.  Arthur received his first letter from her shortly after the President was shot, and she didn’t mince words.  “The day he was shot,” she penned, “the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the the foul act.  Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?”  She continued, “Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right.  He won’t succeed, though – making a man President cannot change him.’ ”  She then worked to encourage the troubled Arthur.  “But making a man President can change him!  Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life.  If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.  Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you – but not to beg you to resign.  Do what is more difficult and more brave.  Reform!

The letter clearly affected Chester Arthur…he kept it.  The letters from Julia kept coming, urging him Arthur to be strong and courageous, to think for himself, and to free himself from the bonds with which men like Roscoe Conkling would tie him, which is exactly what he did following the death of Garfield and his swearing in as the country’s 21st President.  And while Arthur would only serve out Garfield’s term, he did so as a respected and hard-working President.

On August 20, 1882, President Arthur made a special trip and met Julia Sand for the first time.  She was stretched out on the sofa, and Millard writes, “Arthur would stay for nearly an hour, pleased to finally have a face-to-face discussion with one of his most trusted advisers.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – If you read just one book of history this year, read this one. It’s that good.


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The next day, as the delegates made their weary way back to the hall, few of them held out any hope for a quick conclusion.”  These words, from Candice Millard’s terrific book Destiny of the Republic, seem rather obvious after our discussion from yesterday’s version of Today’s History Lesson.  The nomination process at the 1880 Republican National Convention had turned into a nightmare, as the previous day’s twenty eight ballots had failed to determine the party’s Presidential nominee.  Millard continues, “When the first ballot of the day, the twenty-ninth, showed little change from the day before, their fears were only confirmed.” June 9, 1880 was starting out just the way the previous day had ended.

You and I aren’t used to this kind of gridlock.  Well, actually, we are if we’re referring to “traffic with an accident two miles ahead.”  We understand that.  But in our experience, the outcome of nominating conventions is well-known in advance.  And since they are now televised, events need to fall into preset time slots.  Hiccups are anathema to live TV.  And, let’s be honest, in today’s political world, where the press has largely prostituted itself to one party or another, a multi-balloted nomination looks less clean and potentially provides not only the opposition, but a host of media outlets, with one more hand grenade in its arsenal.  Thirty ballots?…no way!!

But this convention had thirty, which became thirty-one, then thirty-two, then thirty-three ballots.  This was beginning to look suspiciously like the Democratic convention twenty years before, which required a remarkable fifty-nine ballots (over two conventions) just to select the candidate (Stephen Douglas) that would lose to the winner (Abraham Lincoln).

Then came the thirty-fourth ballot, and that single vote for James Garfield from the previous day became seventeen, as Wisconsin gave him most of its votes.  Garfield was shocked!  He wasn’t even running and immediately protested.  Addressing the convention president, he said, “The announcement contains votes for me.  No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention.”  The president (who was something of a Garfield supporter himself), told him to sit down and be quiet.  It was about to get crazier.

The thirty-fifth ballot saw votes from Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and North Carolina given to Garfield, who suddenly had fifty votes and was rapidly becoming a viable candidate, despite his vehement protests.  He urged his own delegation from Ohio to remain true to John Sherman.

Like cracks in a dam, however, the little drips of water that were the thirty-fifth ballot led to a “collapse and gusher” in the thirty-sixth.  The votes for Garfield poured in.  John Sherman saw the proverbial writing on the wall and, writing from his office in the Treasury Department, sent a quick telegram to the Ohio delegation, urging their unity in a vote for Garfield.  He urged other states to do the same.  When Ohio’s turn came, Garfield shouted his vote for Sherman, but it was no use.  His voice was just one in the flood and was swept away.  When the votes were tallied, James Garfield sat with 399 votes.

A fairly popular congressman, an excellent orator, and a man who came to the convention to speak on behalf of another candidate had just been handed the Republican nomination.  When the convention president asked if the nomination be made unanimous, it was Roscoe Conkling – arguably the most powerful man in America at the time and a backer of Ulysses Grant – who stood in stunned defeat and made the motion.  When it was seconded, bedlam erupted.  A roar of elation swept the floor, and Garfield was surrounded by well-wishers.  Garfield’s response to the congratulations was classic…”I am very sorry that this has become necessary.

The momentum continued and carried Garfield to victory in the general election as well.  Of course, we know that the term “President” would be applied to James Garfield for less time than other man except William Henry Harrison, as an assassin’s bullet would end his life just months after taking office.  But to my knowledge, no nominating convention has been so soundly turned on its head as was the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic

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