Half-breeds, Stalwarts, and Mugwumps

His political career was none too stellar, except for that one moment he seized history.

This dapper-looking fellow is President Chester Alan Arthur, (1881-1885). Arthur was considered a dandy, pursuing an opulent lifestyle filled with fine food, drink, and expensive suits; largely paid for from the public trough.

Arthur came of political age in the post-Civil War Gilded Age, a world of political machines, graft and corruption. When a supporter helped their man get elected, position and profit rained down in return.

This dubious system functioned rather well for victorious elective candidates through countless election cycles. The political universe of Chet Arthur and his band of Republican cronies became expert skimmers from the public trough and the public trust. In the Republican Party this faction was christened Stalwarts, and Stalwarts liked their well-oiled approach to public service very much, indeed.

Arthur, himself, had been named Collector for the New York Customs House during the Grant Administration, and money from this lucrative Customs House flowed to Arthur’s friends and political operatives. His particular patron was the powerful New York Senator, Roscoe Conkling, a master in Senate handiwork.

Opposing this Old Guard of money changers were the crudely titled, Half-breeds. This oddly pejorative moniker (too common in that era) represented a growing group of reformers in the GOP who aimed to clean up the corrupt practice of patronage. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine believed government jobs should be based on merit, not connections, and Blaine promoted the use of Civil Service Exams. In other words, Half-breeds endorsed qualified government workers over payola for their friends. The Stalwarts were horrified.

In the 1880 Presidential Election the Republicans, in a heated convention, split the ticket with candidates of both wings. For President, James Garfield, a Half-breed, and for Vice President, Stalwart, Chester Arthur, crony of Sen. Conkling. The Party felt it had fused the differences between the two factions, and the fat cats believed they could continue to prey. Then came the Garfield assassination.

In July, 1881, President Garfield, a distinguished Union general, and a former member of the House of Representatives, appeared at the Baltimore and Potomac Rail Station in Washington DC. In the crowd waited Charles Guiteau, an unhinged, office-seeking Stalwart. Guiteau approached the President in the crowd, shooting him at close range. Garfield died two months later from his infected wounds.

Guiteau had shouted, after opening fire, that he was a Stalwart, and would now get a government job. He didn’t. In fact, all Guiteau received was a date with the hangman, carried out in June, 1882.

And what of Chester A. Arthur? He assumed the presidency in a charged atmosphere of national grief. So changed was Arthur, that he promoted passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883. This act created the Civil Service Commission, and mandated written exams for classes of government jobs. The Stalwarts were horrified, but politically could do nothing. Garfield had been made a martyr for reform, and Arthur took the high road, making that reform real.

Oh, and by the way, the Mugwumps were another reforming splinter of the GOP. So appalled by the legacy of bribery and corruption, they bolted the party in 1884 for Democrat, Grover Cleveland.

Wonder how the 2020 Election will reshape the current GOP?

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

Bad Faith

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The 68-year-old Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in the foul weather. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either cooperate, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for Vice President. The Whig Party had gelled during the Jackson administration, proposing financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern economy.

Foremost among the Whigs was the Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, in 1840 when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to nominate their candidate, Clay failed to gain the top spot, and then declined the offer of the vice-presidency. Clay later regretted his momentary pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had publicly broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the institution of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency. 

From there, Whig policies quickly unraveled.

If the Whig’s aimed to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the demise of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising Phoenix. And that party still exists today, if they haven’t squandered their good name in the pit of Trumpism. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight,” and “Clay,” a play in three acts. Books are available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Same, But Different

On a cable news program a while back a guest argued that the impeachment of Donald Trump resembled that of 19th Century President, Andrew Johnson. Though the position may be true to the extent that Johnson was under attack from the opposition party, the events that brought about the trial did not center on presidential corruption.

Abraham Lincoln had invited Tennessee Democrat, Andrew Johnson, onto his 1864 ticket as a conciliatory gesture toward the South. As Senator, Johnson had remained staunchly loyal to the Union, though Tennessee had been the final state to secede in 1861. Lincoln made clear with this VP choice that he intended to deal judicially with erring brothers below the Mason-Dixon Line.

During the final year of the war, a philosophical rift widened between President Lincoln and the Radicals in his party. Lincoln believed that Southern States had only attempted to secede, but had failed in that effort, and General Lee’s surrender put paid to the attempt. Since secession had been thwarted, Lincoln argued his pardoning power gave him authority to deal with Confederate leaders.

Countering that argument were Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. This faction insisted that when Southern states seceded, they had, indeed, committed political suicide. This, Congress insisted, granted them the power to shape post-war policy.

Per the Constitution, Article One admitted new states.

The mounting dispute between the Executive and Legislative branches erupted in mid-April of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin. Andrew Johnson inherited the power struggle between the Presidency, and the Congress.

When it came to interpreting the Constitution, Johnson not only agreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy, but was also a traditional ‘strict-constructionist’. In other words, Johnson’s understanding of the law did not reach past the Twelfth Amendment. Johnson viewed the 14th and 15th Amendments as beyond Congress’ legal authority.

Vetoing many Radical bills, including legislation for the new Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson refused to enforce civil rights for freed slaves. Still, as fast as Johnson vetoed such Republican bills, Congress overrode him.

Born in poverty, and illiterate most of his life, Johnson’s malice also included the Planter aristocracy. Keeping somewhat to Lincoln’s view, Johnson enjoyed nothing better than reading letters from Southern leaders pleading for his pardon.

Rubbing nearly everyone the wrong way, Andrew Johnson plainly was not a savvy politician, and became an ever increasing nuisance to the Radical majority. The Republican Party fully intended to punish the white South, and protect the lives of Freedmen.

The inevitable clash came when Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” in 1867. This legislation aimed to tie the President’s hands by prohibiting the removal of any members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. Armed with his own knowledge of the Constitution, Johnson knew this bill didn’t pass legal scrutiny, and promptly fired Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

The House immediately fired back with eleven articles of impeachment.

Once the inevitable impeachment reached the Senate for trial, equivocating Senators felt the heat from their Radical colleagues. Various hold-outs, uncomfortable with the flimsy case, proved difficult to sway. The central sticking point was that the Act was no more than a trap for a President who refused get out of the Radical’s way. To one Kansas Senator, Edmund Ross, the whole episode was an undeniable setup. Ross believed that there was too much noise, too much turmoil, and not enough evidence.

Sensing reluctance in the ranks, the Republican majority bought more time by taking a ten-day delay on the vote. Members like Ross and other hesitant Senators, were threatened with investigations for bribery if they didn’t toe the line. However, neither stalling, nor threats changed any minds. In the end the vote to convict failed, 35-19, not the 2/3 majority required by law.

Andrew Johnson was broken by the ordeal. He quietly waited out the remainder of his term, replaced by Ulysses S Grant in 1869. (Johnson had been correct. The Tenure of Office Act was found unconstitutional in 1926).

That Andrew Johnson proved unequal to the task of governing goes without question. He was bigoted, petty, and stubborn. But this man was not corrupt, and his impeachment was more a product of tragedy, turmoil, and a power struggle. No overseas hotels, no bowing to foreign dictators, no obstruction of subpoenas. No armed invasion of the Capitol.

Update: Never before has a president been impeached twice. This time Republican obstructionists claim no moral high ground at all, just a gutless blind allegiance to a flawed cult figure.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. For more email Gail at gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #1

Marines manned numerous doorways along the wide hallway, as clusters of tourists wandered through colorful rooms. Upstairs the President listened to the public commotion with satisfaction, not for the house, not for the job, which, in truth, had become tiresome, but for the knowledge he could drop down and set all their bourgeois hearts aflutter. 

After a moment, he made his decision, slipping down an interior stair case, stepping into the Blue Room.

As his hands automatically fluffed his hair, the President sidled up beside a class of wiggly school children snapping cell phone pictures.

“And where are you from?,” the president teased with pleasure, anticipating an excited response. He half closed his eyes, and paused, waiting for the gratifying answer.

But he heard nothing.

Bemused, the President opened one eye, then the other. The chatty children paid him no mind, in fact were moving away, following their guide into the hallway.

“Wait,” he found himself calling. “It’s me, your President. I’m here.”

He repeated, “The President of the United States.”

But the children didn’t hear. He remained alone in the Blue Room, his hair acceptably coiffed.

No further tourists entered, though dozens drifted past the doorway. He didn’t understand and he thought very hard, seeking a rational explanation.

It was at that moment that he heard a voice, quite close, and quite annoyed. 

“Am I to understand you are a New Yorker?” 

The President wheeled around toward the sound. Before him, no more than an arm’s length away stood a mustachioed gentleman, wearing pinz nez spectacles, sporting a shiny top hat. The man’s eyes blazed behind the thick round lenses, and the astonished President detected a trickle of cold sweat trace down the back of his thick neck.

“I say, are you, or are you not, a New Yorker?” The stern man spoke in a nasally, patrician voice.

“Ahh. How did you get in here,” the President stammered. “Where is my secret service protection?”

“Supercilious pup,” the man in the top hat snapped. “They tell me that YOU are from New York, and are president! A common side show huckster, President.”

The President, though alarmed, replied reflexively, “I’m in real estate. I . . .made my fortune in New York real estate.” Only the muffled din of passing tourists kept the President from panic.

“Real Estate!” The man in spectacles scornfully shouted. “I’d say you are just another scoundrel from the wealthy criminal class. In New York, swindlers like you are a dime a dozen. I made a career of exposing rascals like you.” 

The man, attired in a three-piece suit, a watch fob draping his ample waist, bore a deep scowl. “And you found your way into this office of trust. Intolerable.”

Though bewildered, the President, unaccustomed to such personal insults, felt his pique rising. “I was elected President by the largest margin in American Hist . . .”

“Poppycock,” the specter interrupted. “It is my understanding the decision rested upon a mere tilt in the Electoral system, and that outsiders interfered to make certain of your victory.” 

The strange visitor moved closer. “I’d say that you are a compromised pawn of foreign meddlers, and give not one damn for the American people.”

At this point the President had heard enough, and attempted to move his legs. He wanted very much to escape the Blue Room, but his feet remained rooted. 

“I have important things to do, you need to go,” the President’s voice trembled, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

The apparition narrowed his intense eyes, and took another step toward the unnerved President. 

“I claim more authority to this revered House and Office than your mercenary greed could ever comprehend. You belong with Tweed, Plunkitt, Fisk, Conkling, and the rest of New York’s good-for-nothings. Dishonor has followed you to the Presidency, what, with your womanizing, graft, and unsavory business connections.” The fierce apparition fixed an intense, menacing gaze. “You do not belong here, nor your parade of lackeys and opportunists.

The buzz of foot traffic grew louder, and when the President again glanced toward his unwelcome visitor, he found him gone, the Blue Room empty.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-volume memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.

Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com