The Terms of Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison

            The latter half of the nineteenth century in America was flooded with corruption in the U.S. Government. The harsh reconstruction policies of Ulysses S. Grant and his poor choice of advisors greatly upset the American people, and the spoils system, or the system of a president appointing government officials by who they voted for in the elections, was getting out of hand. In addition tariffs, inflation, and whether the dollar should be backed by gold and silver, or just gold, were also issues under debate. This essay will focus on the presidents who served during these times of political controversy and the issues mentioned above.

            By the time the 1880 election came around, much of the American public was greatly concerned with the government they were under. For the Republican ballot there were two major candidates; Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine. Ulysses S. Grant was trying to earn a third term, and although he wasn’t very noisy about it, he made a ton of political enemies, who grouped together to create the Anti-Third Term Alliance. This alliance was led by a very popular Republican named James G. Blaine. When the first ballot was cast Grant was in the lead, with Blaine a close second; but nobody had enough votes to win. A middle group, led by John Sherman, had the choice of either swinging the votes to Blaine or Grant, but they chose neither option and swung their votes toward a representative named James Abram Garfield, or more popularly known as James A. Garfield or just J.A. Garfield. The vice president, Chester Alan Arthur, or just Chester Arthur, was chosen in able to gain the support of Roscoe Conkling, a powerful senator from New York. Garfield won the electoral vote, (votes carried out by the Electoral College. Each vote is carried out by an elector who pledges to vote for a particular candidate, in today’s politics, electors pledge to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state, with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska) despite losing the popular vote (the amount of votes cast by the people). Garfield was flooded with people, who wanted government positions, as in the spoils system, and the only way he saw to end it was to have a civil service act instituted. Unfortunately four months after his inauguration Garfield was assassinated by a man named Charles J. Guiteau, who said that God was telling him to kill Garfield. Guiteau was hanged nine months later and considered mentally ill. An early metal detector made by Alexander Graham Bell, the man who would invent the telephone five years later, was used to try and locate the bullet inside Garfield, but it was never found due to the surgeon looking only where he thought the bullet was. He also used dirty hands to reach inside Garfield’s body and infected him with a nasty disease that caused a slow painful death.

            Garfield’s assassination was a nightmare for the American people. The vice president, Chester Arthur, was a Conkling Loyalist, which was very troubling for the American people, and Garfield’s civil service act seemed to have been thrown away. However, a letter from a woman named Julia Sand convinced Arthur to be better, much better, than anyone could have anticipated. Here are a few excepts from her letter that, in this order, carried the message clearly; “The house of Garfield’s life are numbered – before this meets your eye, you may be President. The people are bowed in grief; but – do you realize it? – not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor…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 & brave. Reform! It is not proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is proof of it, sometimes in ones career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it…” At least one person still hoped that Arthur would change his ways, and so he did. The two sent letters back and forth, and Sand was not afraid to be direct and blunt about it. Arthur, when he became president, declined Conkling’s request for a government job and the two never spoke again. Arthur then put in Garfield’s civil service act into action via the Pendleton Act, which stated jobs should be awarded by merit, not by voter loyalty. This effectively ended the spoils system (for the most part). Despite his achievements, Arthur’s health was declining rapidly and his term was not very active in comparison to other presidents, which explains his low ranking among other presidents. However, Arthur today is remembered as one of the most honest presidents in U.S. history. The president died a year after he left office in 1886, and both former president Rutherford B. Hayes and president (at the time) Grover Cleveland attended his small funeral.

            The election of 1884 was an easy victory for Grover Cleveland. Formerly the governor of New York, Cleveland was a Bourbon Liberal, or a Democrat who supported the idea of limited government in order to secure individual rights. Cleveland’s Presidency was marked with integrity, similar to Arthur’s, and was respected by both Democrats and Republicans alike. Cleveland hung tight onto the gold standard backing the dollar and opposed the inflation of the dollar as well. Cleveland’s motives inspired even some Republicans to vote for him. These “traitor” Republicans were called “mugwumps”, which meant that they were too good for party politics. Cleveland ran for president again in 1888 but despite winning the popular vote he lost the electoral vote to Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison.

            Benjamin Harrison won the 1888 election (even though he only made campaign speeches from his hometown) and moved into the White House. During his term in office, Harrison raised the federal budget to $1 billion, the first time ever in American history. Harrison also raised tariffs, or taxes on imported and exported goods. The particular tariff in question was the McKinley Tariff (made by none other than future president William McKinley, then a representative), which was designed to protect American industries from foreign competition. (Harrison also had the Sherman Antitrust Act (outside the U.S. this is known as the competition law) passed during his term, which illegalized monopolies, or where a certain market for goods is owned by only one company. Harrison also created National Forests (an expansion of federal power). Harrison, due to his policies, was unpopular, and, as a result, lost the 1892 election.

            Grover Cleveland’s comeback was short-lived. A major economic crash, known as the Panic of 1893, shed darkness on Cleveland’s second term. This crash, despite the havoc it wreaked, did not destroy Grover Cleveland’s image as being an honest president, and is often in the top 15 list of the best U.S. Presidents. Also, Cleveland did more reform in his second term, and placed low tariffs into place, however an income tax was instated after this. Cleveland also campaigned (during the 1892 election) against the Force Bill, which made it the federal government’s responsibility to make sure elections were fair. In addition, Cleveland opposed annexation of the new Republic of Hawaii, which was made by American and European settlers who overthrew the queen, Liliuokalani. Cleveland also mediated a border dispute between Britain (who owned British Guiana, now Guyana) and Venezuela, which improved relations between the two nations. Cleveland did not run for a third term and an era of Republican domination resumed with the election of William McKinley, the 25th President.

            In conclusion, these years were a time of political controversy, from the issue of high tariffs and monopolies to the extension of federal power and the spoils system. The spoils system, as stated previously, was the idea of giving government positions based on who someone voted for, and J.A. Garfield’s idea of reform was carried out by Chester Arthur after he was assassinated by a mentally ill man named Charles J. Guiteau. Chester Arthur put Garfield’s idea into place after receiving a letter from a woman named Julia Sand, who, out of all the Americans, still had hope for Arthur in reforming the federal government. Arthur was succeeded by Grover Cleveland, a Bourbon Democrat, which meant that he though limited government was needed to secure individual rights. Cleveland supported low tariffs and the gold standard, and opposed imperialism and inflation of the dollar. He even inspired Republicans to vote for him. These “traitors” were called “mugwumps”, indicating they were too good for party politics. Cleveland lost the election of 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, who is mostly remembered for raising the federal budget and having the Sherman Antitrust Act being passed during his term, which illegalized monopolies. Cleveland made a comeback and won the 1892 election and despite the Panic of 1893, Cleveland’s reputations survived, and Cleveland settled a border dispute and repealed the Force Bill, which extended federal power to make sure elections were fair. Cleveland did not run for a third term and, as a result, Republican domination resumed.