Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Greatest President We Ever Had

November, 2000 -- Allegations of fraud everywhere, by both parties. The election finally comes down to some disputed southern electoral votes. After a drawn-out battle, the issue is taken all the way to the Supreme Court, and finally settled there. The candidate with the least popular votes wins, and is made President. No, 2000 was not the first time that happened. Rutherford B. Hayes, by most observations, should never have been made president. Not only did he lose the popular vote, but it is likely that he also should have lost the electoral vote as well. Samuel J. Tilden probably won three crucial southern states: South Carolina, Louisiana, and --surprise-- Florida; however, two sets of ballots were sent from each state -- one, claiming Tilden's victory, and the other, Hayes' victory. Tilden's ballots were most likely the legitimate representation of eligible voters at the time. It makes sense that most southerners were Democrats in those days, but there were extenuating circumstances. The South was in "reconstruction," a misnomer if there ever was one. Lincoln's death had killed any hope of dampening the Radical Republicans' calls for blood after Lee's surrender. "Reconstruction" was most likely a vindictive military occupation of the conquered South. Legislatures for the southern states were filled with Republicans, many of them former slaves. Government was in the hands of northerners who had gone south to make sure the Rebellion was dead. Many of them had evil motives as well. We'll never know if Lincoln could have engineered a genuine Reconstruction in the South -- Booth's bullet denied that possibility to us.

What we do know is that southern states had been humiliated back into the Union, and many northern states still wanted retribution. At the time, Republicans represented the North, and most black former slaves were Republican (this would be true until FDR). The Civil War had been about much more than slavery, and the Democratic party of the time sought to hold on to those southern values, both good and bad. In the election of 1876, Samuel J. Tilden, a capable New York attorney and a knowledgeable politician, helped shut down the corrupt Tweed Ring. At this time, both parties, still reeling from the evils of a debilitating war, were infested with corrupt parasites. Tilden was a ray of hope in his own party, and probably would have made a good president. But he was a Democrat, and those in charge wanted to teach the Democrats a lesson because of their tacit support of southern policies.

The resolution of the disputed ballots from the three states was thrown to an electoral commission of 15 people. Five senators were selected; three Republican and two Democrat. Five representatives were selected; three Democrat and two Republican. Finally, four Supreme Court justices were selected; two appointed by Democrats; two, by Republicans. These four justices were then to select a "swing vote" among themselves -- someone in whom they had confidence; someone who would be fair and objective. They chose Joseph P. Bradley, an independent, but one appointed by Republican president Grant. When the vote came, it was, as it would be today, a strict party-line vote, and all the disputed votes were awarded to Hayes, who won 185-184, though we could really say he won 8-7, or even 1-0. Hayes' peace offering to the defeated southern Democrats was to promise the end of the occupation of the South by "reconstruction" troops, which he did.

And, in spite of all these irregularities in the electoral process, I still think he was the greatest president we ever had. Most people today know of Hayes only because of the election scandal. Some know of his wife, "Lemonade Lucy," who refused to serve alcohol in the White House. Hayes introduced Easter Egg rolling on the White House lawn, and Sunday night hymn sings at the White House. But Hayes was much more, and though there is still corruption in our government, the United States as we know it probably would have collapsed because of its own moral decay if Hayes had not set wheels in motion.

Ulysses Grant was a great man, no doubt. He was a man of high moral standards, and truly loved his country. His courtesy in accepting Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House is the epitome of statesmanship. That said, Grant's administration was one of the most corrupt in the history of the US, not because Grant was a bad man, but most likely, because he was a naive politician. He surrounded himself with advisors and right-hand men who had neither his love of country nor his desire to serve. In 1869, the bottom fell out of the gold market and careers were destroyed. At least two recessions occured during his administration. Corrupt staff hired corrupt help, and Grant, great as he was as a man, stands as one of the worst presidents we ever had. In the 1962 historians' poll, only Harding ranked lower, and Grant probably deserved the bottom rung. Yet had Grant sought a third consecutive term, he probably would have been elected again because he was Grant! Thankfully, he didn't.

In the 1876 Republican convention, James G. Blaine was the front-runner, and state primaries, it they had been the fare of that time, would have assured him the nomination. Though not personally corrupt, Blaine was just one more in a long line of Grant-type presidents, and had the corrupt Roscoe Conkling not wanted the nomination for himself, Blaine probably would have gotten enough votes by the 3rd or 4th ballot to get the nomination. As it was, Blaine led the first ballot and lacked only 27 votes to get the nomination. If also-rans Oliver Morton, Benjamin Briscoe, or Conkling himself had supported him, Blaine could have allowed the "business-as-usual" boys to keep party politics alive and well. Hayes trailed on all ballots through the sixth, but by then, was in second place, 308-113. On the seventh ballot, because the others didn't want Blaine to get the nomination if they couldn't have it, Hayes, the dark horse of dark horses, won, 384-351.

While the Republican party officially supported "civil service reform" and the "pacification of the South," they had done nothing about either. While financial and economic crises shook the whole nation, the Grant administration had allowed the South to ferment, the carpetbaggers and scalawags to sow seeds of hatred, and the reactionary hate groups, like the KKK, to flourish, fueled by ignorance and injustice. The White House was filled with office seekers, and only those who greased the right palms got the right jobs.

Hayes entered the White House with many promises, and unlike most politicians, he was to keep them all:
  • End of Reconstruction -- most Republicans saw this as a mere campaign promise to get votes. Hayes actually did something about it. By 1877, the troops were gone, and most Republicans of the time never forgave Hayes for this.
  • Term Limits -- Hayes said at the convention that he would not seek a second term. He was a four-year president by his own choice, and thus was not worried about whom he pleased for the sake of the next election.
  • Non-partisan politics -- Hayes looked past political labels for his appointments, putting at least one Democrat in his cabinet.
  • End of Corruption -- In 1877 he began by issuing an executive order that barred federal employees from taking part in political activities. Specifically, the most salient action was his conflict with the New York Port Authority. Thoroughly in the hands of corrupt politico Roscoe Conkling, Hayes authorized its investigation. Chester A. Arthur was collector, a very "cushy" position -- he had been appointed by Grant. After finding several irregularities, Hayes decided to remove Arthur. First, he tried discretely -- Arthur was offered a consulship in Paris. Arthur publicly refused the offer, probably at the urging of Conkling. Arthur had been Conkling's right-hand man at the Republican convention, and they had actually both supported Hayes and helped him to the nomination -- to keep rival James G. Blaine from getting it, as stated above. They felt betrayed when they could not "call in their chips" on Hayes. He fired Arthur. Though he never gave up on civil service reform, it would not become a reality during his administration.
  • Other overtures of reconciliation to the South -- Hayes appointed William B. Woods, of Georgia, to the Supreme Court -- the first southerner on the court since the Civil War.

Hayes consistently refused special appointments, or the acceptance of special favors. His manner of entering the White House may have been questionable, but his tenure there was unstained by the corruption of the times. He spent four years presiding because he had no plans for campaigning. He would not be in the White House beyond March of 1881, by his own design. He was not a welcome guest at the Republican convention of 1880. By that time, the Republicans had decided to bring back their "sugar daddy," former President Grant. Roscoe Conkling nominated him in a long, elaborate, flowery speech. The corrupt stalwart wing wanted their old access to the White House returned to them. The Republican moderates (the "Half-breeds") were split between John Sherman and old friend James G. Blaine. A new name, James A. Garfield, nominated Sherman. Many constituents were so impressed with Garfield's speech (he was an elaborate speaker and a lay preacher), that they chose to nominate him.

For 33 long votes, the delegates were locked, but Grant was always in the lead. Garfield always got 1 or 2 votes. On the 34th ballot, the state of Wisconsin shocked everyone by casting 16 votes for Garfield, and the snowball began to pick up speed. The next ballot, he had 50 votes, and by the next, the 36th, Garfield won with 399 votes, beating the respected former President by 93 votes. No one was more surprised and shocked than Garfield himself.

Conkling and his Stalwarts were not through, however. Robbed of the chance to insult Hayes by voting against him in the 1880 convention, they decided that the best insult would be to elevate fired customs collector Chester A. Arthur to the vice presidency. They railroaded his nomination through, and smugly left the convention assured that they had gotten even with Hayes, who had fired the corrupt Arthur.

No one imagined that Arthur would one day be president; he was not of presidential caliber. Garfield had narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent in popular vote, but had soundly defeated him in electoral vote, 214-155. Arthur was vice president, and, to Conkling's satisfaction, Hayes was returned to private life with a slap in the face. Garfield, however, was nothing but courteous and respectful to the former president, and when the senate turned down Hayes' final nomination to the Supreme Court, Garfield renominated him, and he was accepted. In spite of his support from the Stalwarts, Garfield supported civil service reform. We'll never know what he would have done. On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau shot Garfield in the back. Guiteau had been a Stalwart and a Garfield supporter, and expected an appointment or a diplomatic post. Because Garfield refused, Guiteau violently expressed his disappointment.

The assassination did two things: it showcased the corruption of a Washington gone mad, the corruption that Hayes had tried to stop. Secondly, it made Chester A. Arthur president. On September 19, Garfield died, most likely of the infections received by well-meaning physicians who had probed for the bullet, to no avail.

One of President Arthur's first messages received was from Guiteau in prison, who sent him a hopeful congratulatory letter, possibly still expecting some reward. Arthur, who just before Garfield's assassination had sided against Garfield and with Conkling, became an overnight convert. He pushed through much of the civil service legislation that Hayes had desired. He himself became a model of integrity in the White House. His reward was the anger of Conkling and the Stalwarts, who wielded so much power that they kept him from the Republican nomination of 1884, giving it instead to Grover Cleveland, but that's another story.

In the end, most people knew that Hayes had been right. And he had done something about it. His ethics were punctuated by something as gruesome as the assassination of a president. Today, much of the controls we have to prevent corruption in high places are because of the ethics of Hayes. He never should have been nominated by his party, and never would have won a primary. He didn't really win the presidency in 1876. In spite of this, he probably did more to undergird the recovery of the greatness of the office than has anyone before or since. For that reason, I think he's the greatest president we've ever had.

"There can be no complete and permanent reform of the civil service until public opinion emancipates Congressmen from all control and influence over government patronage... No proper legislation is to be expected as long as members of Congress are engaged in procuring offices for their constituents."

"I am not liked as a President by the politicians in office, in the press, or in Congress. But I am content to abide the judgment -- the sober second thought -- of the people."

--Both quotes by Rutherford B. Hayes

1 comment:

Mark Gostlin said...

Excellent and very informative. Thanks!