The Cleveland Era by Henry Jones FordA Chronicle of the New Order in Politics

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  • 1918
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Volume 44 in the Chronicles of America Series. Abraham Lincoln Edition.





Politicians at Washington very generally failed to realize that the advent of President Hayes marked the dismissal of the issues of war and reconstruction. They regarded as an episode what turned out to be the close of an era. They saw, indeed, that public interest in the old issues had waned, but they were confident that this lack of interest was transient. They admitted that the emotional fervor excited by the war and by the issues of human right involved in its results was somewhat damped, but they believed that the settlement of those issues was still so incomplete that public interest would surely rekindle. For many years the ruling thought of the Republican party leaders was to be watchful of any opportunity to ply the bellows on the embers. Besides genuine concern over the way in which the negroes had been divested of political privileges conferred by national legislation, the Republicans felt a tingling sense of party injury.

The most eminent party leaders at this time–both standing high as presidential possibilities–were James G. Blaine and John Sherman. In a magazine article published in 1880 Mr. Blaine wrote: “As the matter stands, all violence in the South inures to the benefit of one political party…. Our institutions have been tried by the fiery test of war, and have survived. It remains to be seen whether the attempt to govern the country by the power of a ‘solid South,’ unlawfully consolidated, can be successful…. The republic must be strong enough, and shall be strong enough, to protect the weakest of its citizens in all their rights.” And so late as 1884, Mr. Sherman earnestly contended for the principle of national intervention in the conduct of state elections. “The war,” he said, “emancipated and made citizens of five million people who had been slaves. This was a national act and whether wisely or imprudently done it must be respected by the people of all the States. If sought to be reversed in any degree by the people of any locality it is the duty of the national government to make their act respected by all its citizens.”

Republican party platforms reiterated such opinions long after their practical futility had become manifest. Indeed, it was a matter of common knowledge that negro suffrage had been undone by force and fraud; hardly more than a perfunctory denial of the fact was ever made in Congress, and meanwhile it was a source of jest and anecdote among members of all parties behind the scenes. Republican members were bantered by Democratic colleagues upon the way in which provision for Republican party advantage in the South had actually given to the Democratic party a solid block of sure electoral votes. The time at last came when a Southern Senator, Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, blurted out in the open what had for years been common talk in private. “We took the government away,” be asserted. “We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it…. With that system–force, tissue ballots, etc.–we got tired ourselves. So we called a constitutional convention, and we eliminated, as I said, all of the colored people we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments…. The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, and we shoot them in South Carolina, when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections.”

Such a miscarriage of Republican policy was long a bitter grievance to the leaders of the party and incited them to action. If they could have had their desire, they would have used stringent means to remedy the situation. Measures to enforce the political rights of the freedmen were frequently agitated, but every force bill which was presented had to encounter a deep and pervasive opposition not confined by party lines but manifested even within the Republican party itself. Party platforms insisted upon the issue, but public opinion steadily disregarded it. Apparently a fine opportunity to redress this grievance was afforded by the election of President Harrison in 1888 upon a platform declaring that the national power of the Democratic party was due to “the suppression of the ballot by a criminal nullification of the Constitution and laws of the United States,” and demanding “effective legislation to secure integrity and purity of elections.” But, although they were victorious at the polls that year, the Republican leaders were unable to embody in legislation the ideal proposed in their platform. Of the causes of this failure, George F. Hoar gives an instructive account in his “Autobiography.” As chairman of the Senate committee on privileges and elections he was in a position to know all the details of the legislative attempts, the failure of which compelled the Republican leaders to acquiesce in the decision of public opinion against the old issues and in favor of new issues.

Senator Hoar relates that he made careful preparation of a bill for holding, under national authority, separate registrations and elections for members of Congress. But when he consulted his party associates in the Senate he found most of them averse to an arrangement which would double the cost of elections and would require citizens to register at different times for federal elections and for state and municipal elections. Senator Hoar thereupon abandoned that bill and prepared another which provided that, upon application to court showing reasonable grounds, the court should appoint officers from both parties to supervise the election. The bill adopted a feature of electoral procedure which in England has had a salutary effect. It was provided that in case of a dispute concerning an election certificate, the circuit court of the United States in which the district was situated should hear the case and should award a certificate entitling the one or other of the contestants to be placed on the clerk’s roll and to serve until the House should act on the case. Mr. Hoar stated that the bill “deeply excited the whole country,” and went on to say that “some worthy Republican senators became alarmed. They thought, with a good deal of reason, that it was better to allow existing evils and conditions to be cured by time, and the returning conscience and good sense of the people, rather than have the strife, the result of which must be quite doubtful, which the enactment and enforcement of this law, however moderate and just, would inevitably create.” The existence of this attitude of mind made party advocacy of the bill a hopeless undertaking and, though it was favorably reported on August 7, 1890, no further action was taken during that session. At the December session it was taken up for consideration, but after a few days of debate a motion to lay it aside was carried by the Democrats with the assistance of enough Republicans to give them a majority. This was the end of force bills, and during President Cleveland’s second term the few remaining statutes giving authority for federal interference in such matters was repealed under the lead of Senator Hill of New York. With the passage of this act, the Republican party leaders for the first time abandoned all purpose of attempting to secure by national legislation the political privileges of the negroes. This determination was announced is the Senate by Mr. Hoar and was assented to by Senator Chandler of New Hampshire, who had been a zealous champion of federal action. According to Mr. Hoar, “no Republican has dissented from it.”

The facts upon which the force bill was based were so notorious and the bill itself was so moderate in its character that the general indifference of the public seemed to betray moral insensibility and emotional torpor. Much could be said in favor of the bill. This latest assertion of national authority in federal elections involved no new principle. In legalistic complexion the proposed measure was of the same character as previous legislation dealing with this subject, instances of which are the Act of 1842, requiring the election of members of the House by districts, and the Act of 1866, regulating the election of United States Senators. Fraudulent returns in congressional elections have always been a notorious evil, and the partisan way in which they are passed upon is still a gross blemish upon the constitutional system of the United States, and one which is likely never to be removed until the principle of judicial determination of electoral contests has been adopted in this country as it has been in England. The truth of the matter appears to be that the public paid no attention to the merits of the bill. It was viewed simply as a continuation of the radical reconstruction policy, the practical results of which had become intolerable. However great the actual evils of the situation might be, public opinion held that it would be wiser to leave them to be dealt with by state authority than by such incompetent statesmanship as had been common in Washington. Moreover, the man in the street resented the indifference of politicians to all issues save those derived from the Civil War.

Viscount Bryce in his “American Commonwealth,” the most complete and penetrating examination of American political conditions written during this period, gives this account of the party situation:

“The great parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. What are their principles, their distinctive tenets, their tendencies? Which of them is for tariff reform, for the further extension of civil service reform, a spirited foreign policy, for the regulation of railroads and telegraphs by legislation, for changes in the currency, for any other of the twenty issues which one hears discussed in this country as seriously involving its welfare? This is what a European is always asking of intelligent Republicans and intelligent Democrats. He is always asking because he never gets an answer. The replies leave him deeper in perplexity. After some months the truth begins to dawn upon him. Neither party has, as a party, anything definite to say on these issues; neither party has any clean-cut principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both certainly have war cries, organizations, interests, enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of the government. Tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice have all but vanished. They have not been thrown away, but have been stripped away by time and the progress of events, fulfilling some policies, blotting out others. All has been lost, except office or the hope of it.”

That such a situation could actually exist in the face of public disapproval is a demonstration of the defects of Congress as an organ of national representation. Normally, a representative assembly is a school of statesmanship which is drawn upon for filling the great posts of administration. Not only is this the case under the parliamentary system in vogue in England, but it is equally the case in Switzerland whose constitution agrees with that of the United States in forbidding members of Congress to hold executive office. But somehow the American Congress fails to produce capable statesmen. It attracts politicians who display affability, shrewdness, dexterity, and eloquence, but who are lacking in discernment of public needs and in ability to provide for them, so that power and opportunity are often associated with gross political incompetency.* The solutions of the great political problems of the United States are accomplished by transferring to Washington men like Hayes and Cleveland whose political experience has been gained in other fields.

* Of this regrettable fact the whole history of emancipation is a monument. The contrast between the social consequences of emancipation in the West Indies, as guided by British statesmanship, under conditions of meager industrial opportunity, and the social consequences of emancipation in the United States, affords an instructive example of the complicated evils which a nation may experience through the sheer incapacity of its government.

The system of congressional government was subjected to some scrutiny in 1880-81 through the efforts of Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio, an old statesman who had returned to public life after long absence. He had been prominent in the Democratic party before the war and in 1864 he was the party candidate for Vice-President. In 1868 he was the leading candidate for the presidential nomination on a number of ballots, but he was defeated. In 1869 he was a candidate for Governor of Ohio but was defeated; he then retired from public life until 1879 when he was elected to the United States Senate. As a member of that body, he devoted himself to the betterment of political conditions. His efforts in this direction were facilitated not only by his wide political experience but also by the tact and urbanity of his manners, which had gained for him in Ohio politics the nickname of “Gentleman George.”

In agreement with opinions long previously expressed in Story’s “Commentaries,” Senator Pendleton attributed the inefficiency of national government to the sharp separation of Congress from the Administration–a separation not required by the Constitution but made by Congress itself and subject to change at its discretion. He proposed to admit the heads of executive departments to participation in the proceedings of Congress. “This system,” said he, “will require the selection of the strongest men to be heads of departments, and will require them to be well equipped with the knowledge of their offices. It will also require the strongest men to be the leaders of Congress and participate in the debate. It will bring those strong men in contact, perhaps into conflict, to advance the public weal and thus stimulate their abilities and their efforts, and will thus assuredly result to the good of the country.”* The report–signed by such party leaders as Allison, Blaine, and Ingalls among the Republicans, and by Pendleton and Voorhees among the Democrats–reviewed the history of relations between the executive and legislative branches and closed with the expression of the unanimous belief of the committee that the adoption of the measure “will be the first step towards a sound civil service reform, which will secure a larger wisdom in the adoption of policies, and a better system in their execution.”

* “Senate Report,” No. 837, 46th Congress, 3d session, February 4, 1881.

No action was taken on this proposal, notwithstanding the favor with which it was regarded by many close students of the political institutions of the country. Public opinion, preoccupied with more specific issues, seemed indifferent to a reform that aimed simply at general improvement in governmental machinery. The legislative calendars are always so heaped with projects that to reach and act upon any particular measure is impossible, except when there is brought to bear such energetic pressure as to produce special arrangements for the purpose, and in this case no such pressure was developed. A companion measure for civil service reform which was proposed by Senator Pendleton long remained in a worse situation, for it was not merely left under the congressional midden heap but was deliberately buried by politicians who were determined that it should never emerge. That it did emerge is due to a tragedy which aroused public opinion to an extent that intimidated Congress.

Want of genuine political principles made factional spirit only the more violent and depraved. So long as power and opportunity were based not upon public confidence but upon mere advantage of position, the contention of party leaders turned upon questions of appointment to office and the control of party machinery. The Republican national convention of 1880 was the scene of a factional struggle which left deep marks upon public life and caused divisions lasting until the party leaders of that period were removed from the scene. In September 1879, General Grant landed in San Francisco, after a tour around the world occupying over two years, and as he passed through the country he was received with a warmth which showed that popular devotion was abounding. A movement in favor of renominating him to the Presidency was started under the direction of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Grant’s renown as the greatest military leader of the Civil War was not his only asset in the eyes of his supporters. In his career as President he had shown, on occasion, independence and steadfastness of character. He stayed the greenback movement by his veto after eminent party leaders had yielded to it. He had endeavored to introduce civil service reform and, although his measures had been frustrated by the refusal of Congress to vote the necessary appropriations, his tenacity of purpose was such that it could scarcely be doubted that with renewed opportunity he would resume his efforts. The scandals which blemished the conduct of public affairs during his administration could not be attributed to any lack of personal honesty on his part. Grant went out of the presidential office poorer than when he entered it. Since then, his views had been broadened by travel and by observation, and it was a reasonable supposition that he was now better qualified than ever before for the duties of the presidential office. He was only fifty-eight, an age much below that at which an active career should be expected to close, and certainly an age at which European statesmen are commonly thought to possess unabated powers. In opposition to him was a tradition peculiar to American politics, though unsupported by any provision of the Constitution according to which no one should be elected President for more than two terms. It may be questioned whether this tradition does not owe its strength more to the ambition of politicians than to sincere conviction on the part of the people.*

* The reasoning of “The Federalist,” in favor of continued reeligibility, is cogent in itself and is supported by the experience of other countries, for it shows that custody of power may remain in the same hands for long periods without detriment and without occasioning any difficulty in terminating that custody when public confidence is withdrawn. American sensitiveness on this point would seem to impute to the Constitution a frailty that gives it a low rating among forms of government. As better means are provided for enforcing administrative responsibility, the popular dislike of third terms will doubtless disappear.

So strong was the movement in favor of General Grant as President that the united strength of the other candidates had difficulty in staying the boom, which, indeed, might have been successful but for the arrogant methods and tactical blunders of Senator Conkling. When three of the delegates voted against a resolution binding all to support the nominee whoever that nominee might be, he offered a resolution that those who had voted in the negative “do not deserve and have forfeited their vote in this convention.” The feeling excited by this condemnatory motion was so strong that Conkling was obliged to withdraw it. He also made a contest in behalf of the unit rule but was defeated, as the convention decided that every delegate should have the right to have his vote counted as he individually desired. Notwithstanding these defeats of the chief manager of the movement in his favor, Grant was the leading candidate with 304 votes on the first ballot, James G. Blaine standing second with 284. This was the highest point in the balloting reached by Blaine, while the Grant vote made slight gains. Besides Grant and Blaine, four other candidates were in the field, and the convention drifted into a deadlock which under ordinary circumstances would have probably been dissolved by shifts of support to Grant. But in the preliminary disputes a very favorable impression had been made upon the convention by General Garfield, who was not himself a candidate but was supporting the candidacy of John Sherman, who stood third in the poll. On the twenty-eighth ballot, two votes were cast for Garfield; although he protested that he was not a candidate and was pledged to Sherman. But it became apparent that no concentration could be effected on any other candidate to prevent the nomination of Grant, and votes now turned to Garfield so rapidly that on the thirty-sixth ballot he received 399, a clear majority of the whole. The adherents of Grant stuck to him to the end, polling 306 votes on the last ballot and subsequently deporting themselves as those who had made a proud record of constancy.

The Democratic national convention nominated General Hancock, which was, in effect, an appeal to the memories and sentiments of the past, as their candidate’s public distinction rested upon his war record. The canvass was marked by listlessness and indifference on the part of the general public, and by a fury of calumny on the part of the politicians directed against their opponents. Forgery was resorted to with marked effect on the Pacific coast, where a letter–the famous Morey letter–in which Garfield’s handwriting was counterfeited, was circulated expressing unpopular views an the subject of Chinese immigration. The forgery was issued in the closing days of the canvass, when there was not time to expose it. Arrangements had been made for a wide distribution of facsimiles which exerted a strong influence. Hancock won five out of the six electoral votes of California and came near getting the three votes of Oregon also. In the popular vote of the whole country, Garfield had a plurality of less than ten thousand in a total vote of over nine million.

The peculiarities of the party system which has been developed in American politics, forces upon the President the occupation of employment agent as one of his principal engagements. The contention over official patronage, always strong and ardent upon the accession of every new President, was aggravated in Garfield’s case by the factional war of which his own nomination was a phase. The factions of the Republican party in New York at this period were known as the “Stalwarts” and the “Half-Breeds,” the former adhering to the leadership of Senator Conkling, the latter to the leadership of Mr. Blaine, whom President Garfield had appointed to be his Secretary of State. Soon after the inauguration of Garfield it became manifest that he would favor the “Half-Breeds”; but under the Constitution appointments are made by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and both the Senators from New York were “Stalwarts.” Although the Constitution contemplates the action of the entire Senate as the advisory body in matters of appointment, a practice had been established by which the Senators from each State were accorded the right to dictate appointments in their respective States. According to Senator Hoar, when he entered public life in 1869, “the Senate claimed almost the entire control of the executive function of appointment to office…. What was called ‘the courtesy of the Senate’ was depended upon to enable a Senator to dictate to the executive all appointments and removals in his territory.” This practice was at its greatest height when President Garfield challenged the system, and he let it be understood that he would insist upon his constitutional right to make nominations at his own discretion. When Senator Conkling obtained from a caucus of his Republican colleagues an expression of sympathy with his position, the President let it be known that he regarded such action as an affront and he withdrew all New York nominations except those to which exception had been taken by the New York Senators, thus confronting the Senate with the issue whether they would stand by the new Administration or would follow Conkling’s lead.

On the other hand, Senator Conkling and his adherents declared the issue to be simply whether competent public officials should be removed to make room for factional favorites. This view of the case was adopted by Vice-President Arthur and by Postmaster-General James of Garfield’s own Cabinet, who, with New York Senators Conkling and Platt, signed a remonstrance in which they declared that in their belief the interests of the public service would not be promoted by the changes proposed. These changes were thus described in a letter of May 14,1881, from the New York Senators to Governor Cornell of New York:

“Some weeks ago, the President sent to the Senate in a group the nominations of several persons for public offices already filled. One of these offices is the Collectorship of the Port of New York, now held by General Merritt; another is the consul generalship at London, now held by General Badeau; another is Charge d’Affaires to Denmark, held by Mr. Cramer; another is the mission to Switzerland, held by Mr. Fish, a son of the former Secretary of State…. It was proposed to displace them all, not for any alleged fault of theirs, or for any alleged need or advantage of the public service, but in order to give the great offices of Collector of the Port of New York to Mr. William H. Robertson as a ‘reward’ for certain acts of his, said to have aided in making the nomination of General Garfield possible…. We have not attempted to ‘dictate,’ nor have we asked the nomination of one person to any office in the State.”

Except in the case of their remonstrance against the Robertson appointment, they had “never even expressed an opinion to the President in any case unless questioned in regard to it.” Along with this statement the New York Senators transmitted their resignations, saying “we hold it respectful and becoming to make room for those who may correct all the errors we have made, and interpret aright all the duties we have misconceived.”

The New York Legislature was then in session. Conkling and Platt offered themselves as candidates for reelection, and a protracted factional struggle ensued; in the course of which, the nation was shocked by the news that President Garfield had been assassinated by a disappointed once seeker in a Washington railway station on July 2, 1881. The President died from the effects of the wound on the 19th of September. Meanwhile, the contest in the New York Legislature continued until the 22d of July when the deadlock was broken by the election of Warner Miller and Elbridge G. Lapham to fill the vacancies.

The deep disgust with which the nation regarded this factional war, and the horror inspired by the assassination of President Garfield, produced a revulsion of public opinion in favor of civil service reform so energetic as to overcome congressional antipathy. Senator Pendleton’s bill to introduce the merit system, which had been pending for nearly two years, was passed by the Senate on December 27, 1882, and by the House on January 4, 1883. The importance of the act lay in its recognition of the principles of the reform and in its provision of means by which the President could apply those principles. A Civil Service Commission was created, and the President was authorized to classify the Civil Service and to provide selection by competitive examination for all appointments to the service thus classified. The law was essentially an enabling act, and its practical efficacy was contingent upon executive discretion.


President Garfield’s career was cut short so soon after his accession to office, that he had no opportunity of showing whether he had the will and the power to obtain action for the redress of public grievances, which the congressional factions were disposed to ignore. His experience and his attainments were such as should have qualified him for the task, and in his public life he had shown firmness of character. His courageous opposition to the greenback movement in Ohio had been of great service to the nation in maintaining the standard of value. When a party convention in his district passed resolutions in favor of paying interest on the bonds with paper instead of coin, he gave a rare instance of political intrepidity by declaring that he would not accept the nomination on such a platform. It was the deliberate opinion of Senator Hoar, who knew Garfield intimately, that “next to the assassination of Lincoln, his death was the greatest national misfortune ever caused to this country by the loss of a single life.”

The lingering illness of President Garfield raised a serious question about presidential authority which is still unsettled. For over two months before he died he was unable to attend to any duties of office. The Constitution provides that “in case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President.” What is the practical significance of the term “inability”? If it should be accepted in its ordinary meaning, a prostrating illness would be regarded as sufficient reason for allowing the Vice-President to assume presidential responsibility. Though there was much quiet discussion of the problem, no attempt was made to press a decision. After Garfield died, President Arthur, on succeeding to the office, took up the matter in his first annual message, putting a number of queries as to the actual significance of the language of the Constitution–queries which have yet to be answered. The rights and duties of the Vice-President in this particular are dangerously vague. The situation is complicated by a peculiarity of the electoral system. In theory, by electing a President the nation expresses its will respecting public policy; but in practice the candidate for President may be an exponent of one school of opinion and the candidate for Vice-President may represent another view. It is impossible for a voter to discriminate between the two; he cannot vote for the candidate for President without voting for the candidate for Vice-President, since he does not vote directly for the candidates themselves but for the party electors who are pledged to the entire party ticket. Party conventions take advantage of this disability on the part of the voter to work an electioneering device known as a “straddle,” the aim of which is to please opposite interests by giving each a place on the ticket. After Garfield was nominated, the attempt was made to placate the defeated faction by nominating one of its adherents for Vice-President, and now that nominee unexpectedly became the President of the United States, with power to reverse the policy of his predecessor.

In one important matter there was, in fact, an abrupt reversal of policy. The independent countries of North and South America had been invited to participate in a general congress to be held in Washington, November 24, 1881. James Gillespie Blaine, who was then Secretary of State, had applied himself with earnestness and vigor to this undertaking, which might have produced valuable results. It was a movement towards closer relations between American countries, a purpose which has since become public policy and has been steadily promoted by the Government. With the inauguration of President Arthur, Blaine was succeeded by Frederick T. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who practically canceled the invitation to the proposed Congress some six weeks after it had been issued. On February 3, 1889, Blaine protested in an open letter to the President, and the affair occasioned sharp discussion. In his regular message to Congress in the following December, the President offered excuses of an evasive character, pointing out that Congress had made no appropriation for expenses and declaring that he had thought it “fitting that the Executive should consult the representatives of the people before pursuing a line of policy somewhat novel in its character and far-reaching in its possible consequences.”

In general, President Arthur behaved with a tact and prudence that improved his position in public esteem. It soon became manifest that, although he had been Conkling’s adherent, he was not his servitor. He conducted the routine business of the presidential office with dignity, and he displayed independence of character in his relations with Congress. But his powers were so limited by the conditions under which he had to act that to a large extent public interests had to drift along without direction and management. In some degree, the situation resembled that which existed in the Holy Roman Empire when a complicated legalism kept grinding away and pretentious forms of authority were maintained, although, meanwhile, there was actual administrative impotence. Striking evidence of the existence of such a situation is found in President Arthur’s messages to Congress.

In his message of December 6, 1881, the President mentioned the fact that in the West “a band of armed desperadoes known as ‘Cowboys,’ probably numbering fifty to one hundred men, have been engaged for months in committing acts of lawlessness and brutality which the local authorities have been unable to repress.” He observed that “with every disposition to meet the exigencies of the case, I am embarrassed by lack of authority to deal with them effectually.” The center of disturbance was in Arizona, and the punishment of crime there was ordinarily the business of the local authorities. But even if they called for aid, said the President, “this Government would be powerless to render assistance,” for the laws had been altered by Congress so that States but not Territories could demand the protection of the national Government against “domestic violence.” He recommended legislation extending to the Territories “the protection which is accorded the States by the Constitution.” On April 26, 1882, the President sent a special message to Congress on conditions in Arizona, announcing that “robbery, murder, and resistance to laws have become so common as to cease causing surprise, and that the people are greatly intimidated and losing confidence in the protection of the law.” He also advised Congress that the “Cowboys” were making raids into Mexico, and again begged for legal authority to act. On the 3rd of May, he issued a proclamation calling upon the outlaws “to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.” In his regular annual message on December 4, 1882, he again called attention “to the prevalent lawlessness upon the borders, and to the necessity of legislation for its suppression.”

Such vast agitation from the operations of a band of ruffians, estimated at from fifty to one hundred in number, and such floundering incapacity for prompt action by public authority seem more like events from a chronicle of the Middle Ages than from the public records of a modern nation. Of like tenor, was a famous career which came to an end in this period. Jesse W. James, the son of a Baptist minister in Clay County, Missouri, for some years carried on a bandit business, specializing in the robbery of banks and railroad trains, with takings computed at $263,778. As his friends and admirers were numerous, the elective sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, and judges in the area of his activities were unable to stop him by any means within their reach. Meanwhile, the frightened burghers of the small towns in his range of operations were clamoring for deliverance from his raids, and finally Governor Crittenden of Missouri offered a reward of $10,000 for his capture dead or alive. Two members of his own band shot him down in his own house, April 3, 1882. They at once reported the deed and surrendered themselves to the police, were soon put on trial, pleaded guilty of murder, were sentenced to death, and were at once pardoned by the Governor. Meanwhile, the funeral ceremonies over Jesse James’s remains drew a great concourse of people, and there were many indications of popular sympathy. Stories of his exploits have had an extensive sale, and his name has become a center of legend and ballad somewhat after the fashion of the medieval hero Robin Hood.

The legislative blundering which tied the President’s hands and made the Government impotent to protect American citizens from desperadoes of the type of the “cowboys” and Jesse James, is characteristic of Congress during this period. Another example of congressional muddling is found in an act which was passed for the better protection of ocean travel and which the President felt constrained to veto. In his veto message of July 1, 1882, the President said that he was entirely in accord with the purpose of the bill which related to matters urgently demanding legislative attention. But the bill was so drawn that in practice it would have caused great confusion in the clearing of vessels and would have led to an impossible situation. It was not the intention of the bill to do what the President found its language to require, and the defects were due simply to maladroit phrasing, which frequently occurs in congressional enactments, thereby giving support to the theory of John Stuart Mill that a representative assembly is by its very nature unfit to prepare legislative measures.

The clumsy machinery of legislation kept bungling on, irresponsive to the principal needs and interests of the times. An ineffectual start was made on two subjects presenting simple issues on which there was an energetic pressure of popular sentiment–Chinese immigration and polygamy among the Mormons. Anti-Chinese legislation had to contend with a traditional sentiment in favor of maintaining the United States as an asylum for all peoples. But the demand from the workers of the Pacific slope for protection against Asiatic competition in the home labor market was so fierce and so determined that Congress yielded. President Arthur vetoed a bill prohibiting Chinese immigration as “a breach of our national faith,” but he admitted the need of legislation on the subject and finally approved a bill suspending immigration from China for a term of years. This was a beginning of legislation which eventually arrived at a policy of complete exclusion. The Mormon question was dealt with by the Act of March 22, 1882, imposing penalties upon the practice of polygamy and placing the conduct of elections in the Territory of Utah under the supervision of a board of five persons appointed by the President. Though there were many prosecutions under this act, it proved so ineffectual in suppressing polygamy that it was eventually supplemented by giving the Government power to seize and administer the property of the Mormon Church. This action, resulting from the Act of March 3, 1887, created a momentous precedent. The escheated property was held by the Government until 1896 and meanwhile, the Mormon Church submitted to the law and made a formal declaration that it had abandoned polygamy.

Another instance in which a lack of agreement between the executive and the legislative branches of the Government manifested itself, arose out of a scheme which President Arthur recommended to Congress for the improvement of the waterways of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The response of Congress was a bill in which there was an appropriation of about $4,000,000 for the general improvements recommended, but about $14,000,000 were added for other special river and harbor schemes which had obtained congressional favor. President Arthur’s veto message of August 1, 1882, condemned the bill because it contained provisions designed “entirely for the benefit of the particular localities in which it is proposed to make the improvements.” He thus described a type of legislation of which the nation had and is still having bitter experience: “As the citizens of one State find that money, to raise which they in common with the whole country are taxed, is to be expended for local improvements in another State, they demand similar benefits for themselves, and it is not unnatural that they should seek to indemnify themselves for such use of the public funds by securing appropriations for similar improvements in their own neighborhood. Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable it secures more support.” The truth of this last assertion Congress immediately proved by passing the bill over the President’s veto. Senator Hoar, who defended the bill, has admitted that “a large number of the members of the House who voted for it lost their seats” and that in his opinion the affair “cost the Republican party its majority in the House of Representatives.”

Legislation regarding the tariff was, however, the event of Arthur’s administration which had the deepest effect upon the political situation. Both national parties were reluctant to face the issue, but the pressure of conditions became too strong for them. Revenue arrangements originally planned for war needs were still amassing funds in the Treasury vaults which were now far beyond the needs of the Government, and were at the same time deranging commerce and industry. In times of war, the Treasury served as a financial conduit; peace had now made it a catch basin whose excess accumulations embarrassed the Treasury and at the same time, caused the business world to suffer from a scarcity of currency. In his annual message on December 6, 1881, President Arthur cautiously observed that it seemed to him “that the time has arrived when the people may justly demand some relief from the present onerous burden.” In his message of December 4, 1882, he was much more emphatic. Calling attention to the fact that the annual surplus had increased to more than $145,000,000, he observed that “either the surplus must lie idle in the Treasury or the Government will be forced to buy at market rates its bonds not then redeemable, and which under such circumstances cannot fail to command an enormous premium, or the swollen revenues will be devoted to extravagant expenditures, which, as experience has taught, is ever the bane of an overflowing treasury.”

The congressional agents of the protected industries were confronted by an exacting situation. The country was at peace but it was still burdened by war taxes, although the Government did not need the accumulating revenue and was actually embarrassed by its excess. The President had already made himself the spokesman of the popular demand for a substantial reduction of taxes. Such a combination of forces in favor of lightening the popular burden might seem to be constitutionally irresistible, but by adroit maneuvering the congressional supporters of protection managed to have the war rates generally maintained and, in some cases, even increased. The case is a typical example of the way in which advantage of strategic position in a governmental system can prevail against mere numbers.

By the Act of May 15, 1882, a tariff commission was created to examine the industrial situation and make recommendations as to rates of duty. The President appointed men who stood high in the commercial world and who were strongly attached to the protective system. They applied themselves to their task with such energy that by December 4, 1882, they had produced a voluminous report with suggested amendments to customs laws.

But the advocates of high protection in the House were not satisfied; they opposed the recommendations of the report and urged that the best and quickest way to reduce taxation was by abolishing or reducing items on the internal revenue list. This policy not only commanded support on the Republican side, but also received the aid of a Democratic faction which avowed protectionist principles and claimed party sanction for them. These political elements in the House were strong enough to prevent action on the customs tariff, but a bill was passed reducing some of the internal revenue taxes. This action seemed likely to prevent tariff revision at least during that session. Formidable obstacles, both constitutional and parliamentary, stood in the way of action, but they were surmounted by ingenious management.

The Constitution provides that all revenue bills shall originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate has the right to propose amendments. Under cover of this clause the Senate originated a voluminous tariff bill and tacked it to the House bill as an amendment. When the bill, as thus amended, came back to the House, a two-thirds vote would have been required by the existing rules to take it up for consideration, but this obstacle was overcome by adopting a new rule by which a bare majority of the House could forthwith take up a bill amended by the Senate, for the purpose of non-concurrence but not for concurrence. The object of this maneuver was to get the bill into a committee of conference where the details could be arranged by private negotiation. The rule was adopted on February 26, 1883, but the committee of conference was not finally constituted until the 1st of March, within two days of the close of the session. On the 3rd of March, when this committee reported a measure on which they had agreed, both Houses adopted this report and enacted the measure without further ado.

In some cases, rates were fixed by the committee above the figures voted in either House and even when there was no disagreement, changes were made. The tariff commission had recommended, for example, a duty of fifty cents a ton on iron ore, and both the Senate and the House voted to put the duty at that figure; but the conference committee fixed the rate at seventy-five cents. When a conference committee report comes before the House, it is adopted or rejected in toto, as it is not divisible or amendable. In theory, the revision of a report is feasible by sending it back to conference under instructions voted by the House, but such a procedure is not really available in the closing hours of a session, and the only practical course of action is either to pass the bill as shaped by the conferees or else to accept the responsibility for inaction. Thus pressed for time, Congress passed a bill containing features obnoxious to a majority in both Houses and offensive to public opinion. Senator Sherman in his “Recollections” expressed regret that he had voted for the bill and declared that, had the recommendations of the tariff commission been adopted, “the tariff would have been settled for many years,” but “many persons wishing to advance their particular industries appeared before the committee and succeeded in having their views adopted.” In his annual message, December 4, 1883, President Arthur accepted the act as a response to the demand for a reduction of taxation, which was sufficiently tolerable to make further effort inexpedient until its effects could be definitely ascertained; but he remarked that he had “no doubt that still further reductions may be wisely made.”

In general, President Arthur’s administration may therefore be accurately described as a period of political groping and party fluctuation. In neither of the great national parties was there a sincere and definite attitude on the new issues which were clamorous for attention, and the public discontent was reflected in abrupt changes of political support. There was a general feeling of distrust regarding the character and capacity of the politicians at Washington, and election results were apparently dictated more by fear than by hope. One party would be raised up and the other party cast down, not because the one was trusted more than the other, but because it was for a while less odious. Thus a party success might well be a prelude to a party disaster because neither party knew how to improve its political opportunity. The record of party fluctuation in Congress during this period is almost unparalleled in sharpness.*

* In 1875, at the opening of the Forty-fourth Congress, the House stood 110 Republicans and 182 Democrats. In 1881, the House stood 150 Republicans to 131 Democrats, with 12 Independent members. In 1884, the Republican list had declined to 119 and the Democratic had grown to 201, and there were five Independents. The Senate, although only a third of its membership is renewed every two years, displayed extraordinary changes during this period. The Republican membership of 46 in 1876 had declined to 33 by 1880, and the Democratic membership had increased to 42. In 1882, the Senate was evenly balanced in party strength, each party having 37 avowed adherents, but there were two Independents.

In state politics, the polling showed that both parties were disgusted with their leadership and that there was a public indifference to issues which kept people away from the polls. A comparison of the total vote cast in state elections in 1882 with that cast in the presidential election of 1880, showed a decline of over eight hundred thousand in the Republican vote and of nearly four hundred thousand in the Democratic vote. The most violent of the party changes that took place during this period occurred in the election of 1882, in New York State, when the Republican vote showed a decline of over two hundred thousand and the Democratic candidate for Governor was elected by a plurality of nearly that amount. It was this election which brought Grover Cleveland into national prominence.


Popular dissatisfaction with the behavior of public authority had not up to this time extended to the formal Constitution. Schemes of radical rearrangement of the political institutions of the country had not yet been agitated. New party movements were devoted to particular measures such as fresh greenback issues or the prohibition of liquor traffic. Popular reverence for the Constitution was deep and strong, and it was the habit of the American people to impute practical defects not to the governmental system itself but to the character of those acting in it. Burke, as long ago as 1770, remarked truly that “where there is a regular scheme of operations carried on, it is the system and not any individual person who acts in it that is truly dangerous.” But it is an inveterate habit of public opinion to mistake results for causes and to vent its resentment upon persons when misgovernment occurs. That disposition was bitterly intense at this period. “Turn the rascals out” was the ordinary campaign slogan of an opposition party, and calumny formed the staple of its argument. Of course no party could establish exclusive proprietorship to such tactics, and whichever party might be in power in a particular locality was cast for the villain’s part in the political drama. But as changes of party control took place, experience taught that the only practical result was to introduce new players into the same old game. Such experience spread among the people a despairing feeling that American politics were hopelessly depraved, and at the same time it gave them a deep yearning for some strong deliverer. To this messianic hope of politics may be ascribed what is in some respects the most remarkable career in the political history of the United States. The rapid and fortuitous rise of Grover Cleveland to political eminence is without a parallel in the records of American statesmanship, notwithstanding many instances of public distinction attained from humble beginnings.

The antecedents of Cleveland were Americans of the best type. He was descended from a colonial stock which had settled in the Connecticut Valley. His earliest ancestor of whom there is any exact knowledge was Aaron Cleveland, an Episcopal clergyman, who died at East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1757, after founding a family which in every generation furnished recruits to the ministry. It argues a hereditary disposition for independent judgment that among these there was a marked variation in denominational choice. Aaron Cleveland was so strong in his attachment to the Anglican church that to be ordained he went to England–under the conditions of travel in those days a hard, serious undertaking. His son, also named Aaron, became a Congregational minister. Two of the sons of the younger Aaron became ministers, one of them an Episcopalian like his grandfather. Another son, William, who became a prosperous silversmith, was for many years a deacon in the church in which his father preached. William sent his second son, Richard, to Yale, where he graduated with honors at the age of nineteen. He turned to the Presbyterian church, studied theology at Princeton, and upon receiving ordination began a ministerial career which like that of many preachers was carried on in many pastorates. He was settled at Caldwell, New Jersey, in his third pastorate, and there Stephen Grover Cleveland was born, on March 18, 1837, the fifth in a family of children that eventually increased to nine. He was named after the Presbyterian minister who was his father’s predecessor. The first name soon dropped out of use, and from childhood he went by his middle name, a practice of which the Clevelands supply so many instances that it seems to be quite a family trait.

In campaign literature, so much has been made of the humble circumstances in which Grover made his start in life that the unwary reader might easily imagine that the future President was almost a waif. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He really belonged to the most authentic aristocracy that any state of society can produce–that which maintains its standards and principles from generation to generation by the integrity of the stock without any endowment of wealth. The Clevelands were people who reared large families and sustained themselves with dignity and credit on narrow means. It was a settled tradition with such republican aristocrats that a son destined for a learned profession–usually the ministry–should be sent to college, and for that purpose heroic economies were practiced in the family. The opportunities which wealth can confer are really trivial in comparison with the advantage of being born and reared in such bracing conditions as those which surrounded Grover Cleveland. As a boy he was a clerk in a country store, but his education was not neglected and at the age of fifteen he was studying, with a view to entering college. His father’s death ended that prospect and forced him to go to work again to help support the family. Some two years later, when the family circumstances were sufficiently eased so that he could strike out for himself, he set off westward, intending to reach Cleveland. Arriving at Buffalo, he called upon a married aunt, who, on learning that he was planning to get work at Cleveland with the idea of becoming a lawyer, advised him to stay in Buffalo where opportunities were better. Young Cleveland was taken into her home virtually as private secretary to her husband, Lewis F. Allen, a man of means, culture, and public spirit. Allen occupied a large house with spacious grounds in a suburb of the city, and owned a farm on which he bred fine cattle. He issued the “American Short-Horn Herd Book,” a standard authority for pedigree stock, and the fifth edition, published in 1861, made a public acknowledgment of “the kindness, industry, and ability” with which Grover Cleveland had assisted the editor “in correcting and arranging the pedigrees for publication.”

With his uncle’s friendship to back him, Cleveland had, of course, no difficulty in getting into a reputable law office as a student, and thereafter his affairs moved steadily along the road by which innumerable young Americans of diligence and industry have advanced to success in the legal profession. Cleveland’s career as a lawyer was marked by those steady, solid gains in reputation which result from care and thoroughness rather than from brilliancy, and in these respects it finds many parallels among lawyers of the trustee type. What is exceptional and peculiar in Cleveland’s career is the way in which political situations formed about him without any contrivance on his part, and as it were projected him from office to office until he arrived in the White House.

At the outset nothing could have seemed more unlikely than such a career. Cleveland’s ambitions were bound up in his profession and his politics were opposed to those of the powers holding local control. But the one circumstance did not shut him out of political vocation and the other became a positive advantage. He entered public life in 1863 through an unsought appointment as assistant district attorney for Erie County. The incumbent of the office was in poor health and needed an assistant on whom he could rely to do the work. Hence Cleveland was called into service. His actual occupancy of the position prompted his party to nominate him to the office; and although he was defeated, he received a vote so much above the normal voting strength of his party that, in 1869, he was picked for the nomination to the office of sheriff to strengthen a party ticket made up in the interest of a congressional candidate. The expectation was that while the district might be carried for the Democratic candidate for Congress, Cleveland would probably fail of election. The nomination was virtually forced upon him against his wishes. But he was elected by a small plurality. This success, reenforced by his able conduct of the office, singled him out as the party’s hope for success in the Buffalo municipal election; and after his term as sheriff he was nominated for mayor, again without any effort on his part. Although ordinarily the Democratic party was in a hopeless minority, Cleveland was elected. It was in this campaign that he enunciated the principle that public office is a public trust, which was his rule of action throughout his career. Both as sheriff and as mayor he acted upon it with a vigor that brought him into collision with predatory politicians, and the energy and address with which he defended public interests made him widely known as the reform mayor of Buffalo. His record and reputation naturally attracted the attention of the state managers of the Democratic party, who were casting about for a candidate strong enough to overthrow the established Republican control, and Cleveland was just as distinctly drafted for the nomination to the governorship in 1882 as he had been for his previous offices.

In his career as governor Cleveland displayed the same stanch characteristics as before, and he was fearless and aggressive in maintaining his principles. The most striking characteristic of his veto messages is the utter absence of partisan or personal designs. Some of the bills he vetoed purported to benefit labor interests, and politicians are usually fearful of any appearance of opposition to such interests: His veto of the bill establishing a five cent fare for the New York elevated railways was an action of a kind to make him a target for calumny and misrepresentation. Examination of the record reveals no instance in which Cleveland flinched from doing his duty or faltered in the full performance of it. He acted throughout in his avowed capacity of a public trustee, and he conducted the office of governor with the same laborious fidelity which he had displayed as sheriff and as mayor. And now, as before, he antagonized elements of his own party who sought only the opportunities of office and cared little for its responsibilities. He did not unite suavity of manner with vigor of action, and at times he allowed himself to reflect upon the motives of opponents and to use language that was personally offensive. He told the Legislature in one veto message that “of all the defective and shabby legislation which has been presented to me, this is the worst and most inexcusable.” He once sent a scolding message to the State Senate, in which he said that “the money of the State is apparently expended with no regard to economy,” and that “barefaced jobbery has been permitted.” The Senate having refused to confirm a certain appointee, he declared that the opposition had “its rise in an overwhelming greed for the patronage which may attach to the place,” and that the practical effect of such opposition was to perpetuate “the practice of unblushing peculation.” What he said was quite true and it was the kind of truth that hurt. The brusqueness of his official style and the censoriousness of his language infused even more personal bitterness into the opposition which developed within his own party than in that felt in the ranks of the opposing party. At the same time, these traits delighted a growing body of reformers hostile to both the regular parties. These “Mugwumps,” as they were called, were as a class so addicted to personal invective that it was said of them with as much truth as wit that they brought malice into politics without even the excuse of partisanship. But it was probably the enthusiastic support of this class which turned the scale in New York in the presidential election of 1884.

In the national conventions of that year, there was an unusually small amount of factional strife. In the Republican convention, President Arthur was a candidate, but party sentiment was so strong for Blaine that he led Arthur on the first ballot and was nominated on the fourth by a large majority. In the Democratic convention, Cleveland was nominated on the second ballot. Meanwhile, his opponents had organized a new party from which more was expected than it actually accomplished. It assumed the title Anti-Monopoly and chose the notorious demagogue, General Benjamin F. Butler, as its candidate for President.

During this campaign, the satirical cartoon attained a power and an effectiveness difficult to realize now that it has become an ordinary feature of journalism, equally available for any school of opinion. But it so happened that the rise of Cleveland in politics coincided with the artistic career of Joseph Keppler, who came to this country from Vienna and who for some years supported himself chiefly as an actor in Western theatrical companies. He had studied drawing in Vienna and had contributed cartoons to periodicals in that city. After some unsuccessful ventures in illustrated journalism, he started a pictorial weekly in New York in 1875. It was originally printed in German, but in less than a year it was issued also in English. It was not until 1879 that it sprang into general notice through Keppler’s success in reproducing lithographed designs in color. Meanwhile, the artist was feeling his way from the old style caricature, crowded with figures with overhead loops of explanatory text, to designs possessing an artistic unity expressive of an idea plain enough to tell its own story. He had matured both his mechanical resources and his artistic method by the time the campaign of 1884 came on, and he had founded a school which could apply the style to American politics with aptness superior to his own. It was Bernhard Gillam, who, working in the new Keppler style, produced a series of cartoons whose tremendous impressiveness was universally recognized. Blaine was depicted as the tattooed man and was exhibited in that character in all sorts of telling situations. While on the stump during the campaign, Blaine had sometimes literally to wade through campaign documents assailing his personal integrity, and phrases culled from them were chanted in public processions. One of the features of a great parade of business men of New York was a periodical chorus of “Burn this letter,” suiting the action to the word and thus making a striking pyrotechnic display.* But the cartoons reached people who would never have been touched by campaign documents or by campaign processions.

* The allusion was to the Mulligan letters, which had been made public by Mr. Blaine himself when it had been charged that they contained evidence of corrupt business dealings. The disclosure bad been made four years before and ample opportunity had existed for instituting proceedings if the case warranted it, but nothing was done except to nurse the scandal for campaign use.

Notwithstanding the exceptional violence and novel ingenuity of the attacks made upon him, Blaine met them with such ability and address that everywhere he augmented the ordinary strength of his party, and his eventual defeat was generally attributed to an untoward event among his own adherents at the close of the campaign. At a political reception in the interest of Blaine among New York clergymen, the Reverend Dr. Burchard spoke of the Democratic party as “the party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Unfortunately Blaine did not hear him distinctly enough to repudiate this slur upon the religious belief of millions of American citizens, and alienation of sentiment caused by the tactless and intolerant remark could easily account for Blaine’s defeat by a small margin. He was only 1149 votes behind Cleveland in New York in a poll of over 1,125,000 votes, and only 23,005 votes behind in a national poll of over 9,700,000 votes for the leading candidates. Of course Cleveland in his turn was a target of calumny, and in his case the end of the campaign did not bring the customary relief. He was pursued to the end of his public career by active, ingenious, resourceful, personal spite and steady malignity of political opposition from interests whose enmity he had incurred while Governor of New York.

The situation which confronted Cleveland when he became President was so complicated and embarrassing that perhaps even the most sagacious and resourceful statesman could not have coped with it successfully, though it is the characteristic of genius to accomplish the impossible. But Cleveland was no genius; he was not even a man of marked talent. He was stanch, plodding, laborious, and dutiful; but he was lacking in ability to penetrate to the heart of obscure political problems and to deal with primary causes rather than with effects. The great successes of his administration were gained in particular problems whose significance had already been clearly defined. In this field, Cleveland’s resolute and energetic performance of duty had splendid results.

At the time of Cleveland’s inauguration as President, the Senate claimed an extent of authority which, if allowed to go unchallenged, would have turned the Presidency into an office much like that of the doge of Venice, one of ceremonial dignity without real power. “The Federalist”–that matchless collection of constitutional essays written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay–laid down the doctrine that “against the enterprising ambition” of the legislative department “the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” But some of the precautions taken in framing the Constitution proved ineffectual from the start. The right conferred upon the President to recommend to the consideration of Congress “such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” was emptied of practical importance by the success of Congress in interpreting it as meaning no more than that the President may request Congress to take a subject into consideration. In practice, Congress considers only such measures as are recommended by its own committees. The framers of the Constitution took special pains to fortify the President’s position by the veto power, which is treated at length in the Constitution. By a special clause, the veto power was extended to “every order, resolution or vote… except on a question of adjournment”–a clause which apparently should enable the President to strike off the “riders” continually put upon appropriation bills to coerce executive action; but no President has ventured to exercise this authority. Although the Senate was joined to the President as an advisory council in appointments to office, it was explained in “The Federalist” that “there will be no exertion of choice on the part of Senators.” Nevertheless, the Senate has claimed and exercised the right to dictate appointments. While thus successfully encroaching upon the authority of the President, the Senate had also been signally successful in encroaching upon the authority of the House. The framers of the Constitution anticipated for the House a masterful career like that of the House of Commons, and they feared that the Senate could not protect itself in the discharge of its own functions; so, although the traditional principle that all revenue bills should originate in the House was taken over into the Constitution, it was modified by the proviso that “the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills.” This right to propose amendments has been improved by the Senate until the prerogative of the House has been reduced to an empty form. Any money bill may be made over by amendment in the Senate, and when contests have followed, the Senate has been so successful in imposing its will upon the House that the House has acquired the habit of submission. Not long before the election of Cleveland, as has been pointed out, this habitual deference of the House had enabled the Senate to originate a voluminous tariff act in the form of an amendment to the Internal Revenue Bill voted by the House.

In addition to these extensions of power through superior address in management, the ascendancy of the Senate was fortified by positive law. In 1867, when President Johnson fell out with the Republican leaders in Congress, a Tenure of Office Act was passed over his veto, which took away from the President the power of making removals except by permission of the Senate. In 1869, when Johnson’s term had expired, a bill for the unconditional repeal of this law passed the House with only sixteen votes in the negative, but the Senate was able to force a compromise act which perpetuated its authority over removals.* President Grant complained of this act as “being inconsistent with a faithful and efficient administration of the government,” but with all his great fame and popularity he was unable to induce the Senate to relinquish the power it had gained.

* The Act of April 5, 1869, required the President, within thirty days after the opening of the sessions, to nominate persons for all vacant offices, whether temporarily filled or not, and in place of all officers who may have been suspended during the recess of the Senate.

This law was now invoked by Republicans as a means of counteracting the result of the election. Such was the feeling of the times that partisanship could easily masquerade as patriotism. Republicans still believed that as saviors of the Union they had a prescriptive right to the government. During the campaign, Eugene Field, the famous Western poet, had given a typical expression of this sentiment in some scornful verses concluding with this defiant notice:

These quondam rebels come today
In penitential form,
And hypocritically say
The country needs “Reform!”
Out on reformers such as these;
By Freedom’s sacred powers,
We’ll run the country as we please; We saved it, and it’s ours.

Although the Democratic party had won the Presidency and the House, the Republicans still retained control of the Senate, and they were expected as a matter of course to use their powers for party advantage. Some memorable struggles, rich in constitutional precedents, issued from these conditions.


As soon as Cleveland was seated in the presidential chair, he had to deal with a tremendous onslaught of office seekers. In ordinary business affairs, a man responsible for general policy and management would never be expected to fritter away his time and strength in receiving applicants for employment. The fact that such servitude is imposed upon the President of the United States shows that American political arrangements are still rather barbaric, for such usages are more suitable to some kinglet seated under a tree to receive the petitions of his tribesmen than they are to a republican magistrate charged with the welfare of millions of people distributed over a vast continent. Office seekers apparently regard themselves as a privileged class with a right of personal access to the President, and any appearances of aloofness or reserve on his part gives sharp offense. The exceptional force of such claims of privilege in the United States may be attributed to the participation which members of Congress have acquired in the appointing power. The system thus created imposes upon the President the duties of an employment agent, and at the same time engages Congressmen in continual occupation as office brokers. The President cannot deny himself to Congressmen, since he is dependent upon their favor for opportunity to get legislative consideration for his measures.

It was inevitable that numerous changes in office should take place when the Democratic party came into power, after being excluded for twenty-four years. It may be admitted that, in a sound constitutional system, a change of management in the public business would not vacate all offices any more than in private business, but would affect only such leading positions as are responsible for policy and discipline. Such a sensible system, however, had existed only in the early days of the republic and at the time of Cleveland’s accession to office federal offices were generally used as party barracks. The situation which confronted President Cleveland he thus described in later years:

“In numerous instances the post-offices were made headquarters for local party committees and organizations and the centers of partisan scheming. Party literature favorable to the postmaster’s party, that never passed regularly through the mails, was distributed through the post-offices as an item of party service; and matter of a political character, passing through the mails in the usual course and addressed to patrons belonging to the opposite party, was withheld; disgusting and irritating placards were prominently displayed in many post-offices, and the attention of Democratic inquirers for mail matter was tauntingly directed to them by the postmaster; and in various other ways postmasters and similar officials annoyed and vexed those holding opposite political opinions, who, in common with all having business at public offices, were entitled to considerate and obliging treatment. In some quarters, official incumbents neglected public duty to do political work and especially in Southern States, they frequently were not only inordinately active in questionable political work, but sought to do party service by secret and sinister manipulation of colored votes, and by other practices inviting avoidable and dangerous collisions between the white and colored population.”*

*Cleveland, “Presidential Problems,” pp. 42-43.

The Administration began its career in March, 1885. The Senate did not convene until December. Meanwhile, removals and appointments went on in the public service, the total for ten months being six hundred and forty-three which was thirty-seven less than the number of removals made by President Grant in seven weeks, in 1869.

In obedience to the statute of 1869, President Cleveland sent in all the recess appointments within thirty days after the opening of the session. They were referred to various committees according to the long established custom of the Senate, but the Senate moved so slowly that three months after the opening of the session, only seventeen nominations had been considered, fifteen of which the Senate confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Senate had raised an issue which the President met with a force and a directness probably unexpected. Among the recess appointments was one to the office of District Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, in place of an officer who had been suspended in July 1885, but whose term of office expired by limitation on December 20, 1885. Therefore, at the time the Senate took up the case, the Tenure of Office Act did not apply to it, and the only question actually open was whether the acting officer should be confirmed or rejected. Nevertheless, the disposition to assert control over executive action was so strong that the Senate drifted into a constitutional struggle over a case that did not then involve the question of the President’s discretionary power of removal from office, which was really the point at issue.

On December 26, 1885, the Judiciary Committee notified the Attorney-General to transmit “all papers and information in the possession of the Department” regarding both the nomination and “the suspension and proposed removal from office” of the former incumbent. On January 11, 1886, the Attorney-General sent to the Committee the papers bearing upon the nomination, but withheld those touching the removal on the ground that he had “received no direction from the President in relation to their transmission.” The matter was debated by the Senate in executive session and on January 25, 1886, a resolution was adopted which was authoritative in its tone and which directed the Attorney-General to transmit copies of all documents and papers in relation to the conduct of the office of District Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama since January 1, 1885. Within three days, Attorney-General Garland responded that he had already transmitted all papers relating to the nomination; but with regard to the demand for papers exclusively relating to the suspension of the former incumbent he was directed by the President to say “that it is not considered that the public interests will be promoted by a compliance.”

The response of the Attorney-General was referred to the Judiciary Committee which, on the 18th of February, made an elaborate report exhibiting the issue as one which involved the right of Congress to obtain information. It urged that “the important question, then, is whether it is within the constitutional competence of either House of Congress to have access to the official papers and documents in the various public offices of the United States, created by laws enacted by themselves.” The report, which was signed only by the Republican members of the Committee, was an adroit partisan performance, invoking traditional constitutional principles in behalf of congressional privilege. A distinct and emphatic assertion of the prerogative of the Senate was made, however, in resolutions recommended to the Senate for adoption. Those resolutions censured the Attorney-General and declared it to be the duty of the Senate “to refuse its advice and consent to proposed removals of officers” when papers relating to them “are withheld by the Executive or any head of a department.”

On the 2nd of March, a minority report was submitted, making the point of which the cogency was obvious, that inasmuch as the term of the official concerning whose suspension the Senate undertook to inquire had already expired by legal limitation, the only object in pressing for the papers in his case must be to review an act of the President which was no longer within the jurisdiction of the Senate, even if the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act should be granted. The report also showed that of the precedents cited in behalf of the majority’s contention, the applicability could be maintained only of those which were supplied by cases arising since 1867, before which time the right of the President to remove officers at his own discretion was fully conceded.

The controversy had so far followed the ordinary lines of partisan contention in Congress, which public opinion was accustomed to regard with contemptuous indifference as mere sparring for points in the electioneering game. President Cleveland now intervened in a way which riveted the attention of the nation upon the issue. Ever since the memorable struggle which began when the Senate censured President Jackson and did not end until that censure was expunged, the Senate had been chary of a direct encounter with the President. Although the response of the Attorney-General stated that he was acting under the direction of the President, the pending resolutions avoided any mention of the President but expressed “condemnation of the refusal of the Attorney-General under whatever influence, to send to the Senate” the required papers. The logical implication was that, when the orders of the President and the Senate conflicted, it was the duty of the Attorney-General to obey the Senate. This raised an issue which President Cleveland met by sending to the Senate his message of March 1, 1886, which has taken a high rank among American constitutional documents. It is strong in its logic, dignified in its tone, terse, direct, and forceful in its diction.

Cleveland’s message opened with the statement that “ever since the beginning of the present session of the Senate, the different heads of the departments attached to the executive branch of the government have been plied with various requests and documents from committees of the Senate, from members of such committees, and at last from the Senate itself, requiring the transmission of reasons for the suspension of certain officials during the recess of that body, or for papers touching the conduct of such officials.” The President then observed that “though these suspensions are my executive acts, based upon considerations addressed to me alone and for which I am wholly responsible, I have had no invitation from the Senate to state the position which I have felt constrained to assume.” Further on, he clinched this admission of full responsibility by declaring that “the letter of the Attorney-General in response to the resolution of the Senate… was written at my suggestion and by my direction.”

This statement made clear in the sight of the nation that the true issue was between the President and the Senate. The strength of the Senate’s position lay in its claim to the right of access to the records of public offices “created by laws enacted by themselves.” The counterstroke of the President was one of the most effective passages of his message in its effect upon public opinion. “I do not suppose,” he said, “that the public offices of the United States are regulated or controlled in their relations to either House of Congress by the fact that they were ‘created by laws enacted by themselves.’ It must be that these instrumentalities were enacted for the benefit of the people and to answer the general purposes of government under the Constitution and the laws, and that they are unencumbered by any lien in favor of either branch of Congress growing out of their construction, and unembarrassed by any obligation to the Senate as the price of their creation.”

The President asserted that, as a matter of fact, no official papers on file in the departments had been withheld. “While it is by no means conceded that the Senate has the right, in any case, to review the act of the Executive in removing or suspending a public officer upon official documents or otherwise, it is considered that documents and papers of that nature should, because they are official, be freely transmitted to the Senate upon its demand, trusting the use of the same, for proper and legitimate purposes, to the good faith of that body; and though no such paper or document has been especially demanded in any of the numerous requests and demands made upon the departments, yet as often as they were found in the public offices they have been furnished in answer to such applications.” The point made by the President, with sharp emphasis, was that there was nothing in his action which could be construed as a refusal of access to official records; what he did refuse to acknowledge was the right of the Senate to inquire into his motives and to exact from him a disclosure of the facts, circumstances, and sources of information that prompted his action. The materials upon which his judgment was formed were of a varied character. “They consist of letters and representations addressed to the Executive or intended for his inspection; they are voluntarily written and presented by private citizens who are not in the least instigated thereto by any official invitation or at all subject to official control. While some of them are entitled to Executive consideration, many of them are so irrelevant or in the light of other facts so worthless, that they have not been given the least weight in determining the question to which they are supposed to relate.” If such matter were to be considered public records and subject to the inspection of the Senate, the President would thereby incur “the risk of being charged with making a suspension from office upon evidence which was not even considered.”

Issue as to the status of such documents was joined by the President in the sharpest possible way by the declaration: “I consider them in no proper sense as upon the files of the department but as deposited there for my convenience, remaining still completely under my control. I suppose if I desired to take them into my custody I might do so with entire propriety, and if I saw fit to destroy them no one could complain.”

Moreover, there were cases in which action was prompted by oral communications which did not go on record in any form. As to this, Cleveland observed, “It will not be denied, I suppose, that the President may suspend a public officer in the entire absence of any papers or documents to aid his official judgment and discretion; and I am quite prepared to avow that the cases are not few in which suspensions from office have depended more upon oral representations made to me by citizens of known good repute and by members of the House of Representatives and Senators of the United States than upon any letters and documents presented for my examination.” Nor were such representations confined to members of his own party for, said he, “I recall a few suspensions which bear the approval of individual members identified politically with the majority in the Senate.” The message then reviewed the legislative history of the Tenure of Office Act and questioned its constitutionality. The position which the President had taken and would maintain was exactly defined by this vigorous statement in his message:

“The requests and demands which by the score have for nearly three months been presented to the different Departments of the government, whatever may be their form, have but one complexion. They assume the right of the Senate to sit in judgement upon the exercise of my exclusive discretion and executive function, for which I am solely responsible to the people from whom I have so lately received the sacred trust of office. My oath to support and defend the Constitution, my duty to the people who have chosen me to execute the powers of their great office and not relinquish them, and my duty to the chief magistracy which I must preserve unimpaired in all its dignity and vigor, compel me to refuse compliance with these demands.”

There is a ringing quality in the style of this message not generally characteristic of President Cleveland’s state papers. It evoked as ringing a response from public opinion, and this effect was heightened by a tactless allusion to the message made at this time in the Senate. In moving a reference of the message to the Judiciary Committee, its chairman, Senator Edmunds of Vermont, remarked that the presidential message brought vividly to his mind “the communication of King Charles I to the Parliament, telling them what, in conducting their affairs, they ought to do and ought not to do.” The historical reference, however, had an application which Senator Edmunds did not foresee. It brought vividly to mind what the people of England had endured from a factional tyranny so relentless that the nation was delighted when Oliver Cromwell turned Parliament out of doors. It is an interesting coincidence that the Cleveland era was marked by what in the book trade was known as the Cromwell boom. Another unfortunate remark made by Senator Edmunds was that it was the first time “that any President of the United States has undertaken to interfere with the deliberations of either House of Congress on questions pending before them, otherwise than by message on the state of the Union which the Constitution commands him to make from time to time.” The effect of this statement, however, was to stir up recollections of President Jackson’s message of protest against the censure of the Senate. The principle laid down by Jackson in his message of April 15, 1834, was that “the President is the direct representative of the American people,” whereas the Senate is “a body not directly amenable to the people.” However assailable this statement may be from the standpoint of traditional legal theory, it is indubitably the principle to which American politics conform in practice. The people instinctively expect the President to guard their interests against congressional machinations.

There was a prevalent belief that the Senate’s profession of motives, of constitutional propriety, was insincere and that the position it had assumed would never have been thought of had the Republican candidate for President been elected. A feeling that the Senate was not playing the game fairly to refuse the Democrats their innings was felt even among Senator Edmunds’ own adherents. A spirit of comity traversing party lines is very noticeable in the intercourse of professional politicians. Their willingness to help each other out is often manifested, particularly in struggles involving control of party machinery. Indeed, a system of ring rule in a governing party seems to have for its natural concomitant the formation of a similar ring in the regular opposition, and the two rings maintain friendly relations behind the forms of party antagonism. The situation is very similar to that which exists between opposing counsel in suits at law, where the contentions at the trial table may seem to be full of animosity and may indeed at times really develop personal enmity, but which as a general rule are merely for effect and do not at all hinder cooperation in matters pertaining to their common professional interest.

The attitude taken by the Senate in its opposition to President Cleveland jarred upon this sense of professional comity, and it was very noticeable that in the midst of the struggle some questionable nominations of notorious machine politicians were confirmed by the Senate. It may have been that a desire to discredit the reform professions of the Administration contributed to this result, but the effect was disadvantageous to the Senate. “The Nation” on March 11, 1886, in a powerful article reviewing the controversy observed: “There is not the smallest reason for believing that, if the Senate won, it would use its victory in any way for the maintenance or promotion of reform. In truth, in the very midst of the controversy, it confirmed the nomination of one of Baltimore’s political scamps.” It is certainly true that the advising power of the Senate has never exerted a corrective influence upon appointments to office; its constant tendency is towards a system of apportionment which concedes the right of the President to certain personal appointments and asserts the reciprocal right of Congressmen to their individual quotas.

As a result of these various influences, the position assumed by the Republicans under the lead of Senator Edmunds was seriously weakened. When the resolutions of censure were put to the vote on the 26th of March, that condemning the refusal of the Attorney-General to produce the papers was adopted by thirty-two ayes to twenty-six nays–a strict party vote; but the resolution declaring it to be the duty of the Senate in all such cases to refuse its consent to removals of suspended officials was adopted by a majority of only one vote, and two Republican Senators voted with the Democrats. The result was, in effect, a defeat for the Republican leaders, and they wisely decided to withdraw from the position which they had been holding. Shortly after the passage of the resolutions, the Senate confirmed the nomination over which the contest started, and thereafter the right of the President to make removals at his own discretion was not questioned.

This retreat of the Republican leaders was accompanied, however, by a new development in political tactics, which from the standpoint of party advantage, was ingeniously conceived. It was now held that, inasmuch as the President had avowed attachment to the principle of tenure of office during good behavior, his action in suspending officers therefore implied delinquency in their character or conduct from which they should be exonerated in case the removal was really on partisan grounds. In reporting upon nominations, therefore, Senate committees adopted the practice of noting that there were no charges of misconduct against the previous incumbents and that the suspension was on account of “political reasons.” As these proceedings took place in executive session, which is held behind closed doors, reports of this character would not ordinarily reach the public, but the Senate now voted to remove the injunction of secrecy, and the reports were published. The manifest object of these maneuvers was to exhibit the President as acting upon the “spoils system” of distributing offices. The President’s position was that he was not accountable to the Senate in such matters. In his message of the 1st of March he said: “The pledges I have made were made to the people, and to them I am responsible for the manner in which they have been redeemed. I am not responsible to the Senate, and I am unwilling to submit my actions and official conduct to them for judgement.”

While this contest was still going on, President Cleveland had to encounter another attempt of the Senate to take his authority out of his hands. The history of American diplomacy during this period belongs to another volume in this series,* but a diplomatic question was drawn into the struggle between the President and the Senate in such a way that it requires mention here. Shortly after President Cleveland took office, the fishery articles of the Treaty of Washington had terminated. In his first annual message to Congress, on December 8, 1885, he recommended the appointment of a commission to settle with a similar commission from Great Britain “the entire question of the fishery rights of the two governments and their respective citizens on the coasts of the United States and British North America.” But this sensible advice was denounced as weak and cowardly. Oratory of the kind known as “twisting the lion’s tail” resounded in Congress. Claims were made of natural right to the use of Canadian waters which would not have been indulged for a moment in respect of the territorial waters of the United States. For instance, it was held that a bay over six miles between headlands gave free ingress so long as vessels kept three miles from shore –a doctrine which, if applied to Long Island Sound, Delaware Bay, or Chesapeake Bay, would have impaired our national jurisdiction over those waters. Senator Frye of Maine took the lead in a rub-a-dub agitation in the presence of which some Democratic Senators showed marked timidity. The administration of public services by congressional committees has the incurable defect that it reflects the particular interests and attachments of the committeemen. Presidential administration is so circumstanced that it tends to be nationally minded; committee administration, just as naturally, tends to be locally minded. Hence, Senator Frye was able to report from the committee on foreign relations a resolution declaring that a commission “charged with the consideration and settlement of the fishery rights… ought not to be provided for by Congress.” Such was the attitude of the Senate towards the President on this question, that on April 13, 1886, this arrogant resolution was adopted by thirty-five ayes to 10 nays. A group of Eastern Democrats who were in a position to be affected by the longshore vote, joined with the Republicans in voting for the resolution, and among them Senator Gorman of Maryland, national chairman of the Democratic party.

* See “The Path of Empire,” by Carl Russell Fish (in “The Chronicles of America”).

President Cleveland was no more affected by this Senate resolution than he had been by their other resolutions attacking his authority. He went ahead with his negotiations and concluded treaty arrangements which the Senate, of course, rejected; but, as that result had been anticipated, a modus vivendi which had been arranged by executive agreements between the two countries went into effect, regardless of the Senate’s attitude. The case is a signal instance of the substitution of executive arrangements for treaty engagements which has since then been such a marked tendency in the conduct of the foreign relations of the United States.

A consideration which worked steadily against the Senate in its attacks upon the President, was the prevalent belief that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional in its nature and mischievous in its effects. Although Senator Edmunds had been able to obtain a show of solid party support, it eventually became known that he stood almost alone in the Judiciary Committee in his approval of that act. The case is an instructive revelation of the arbitrary power conferred by the committee system. Members are loath to antagonize a party chairman to whom their own bills must go for approval. Finally, Senator Hoar dared to take the risk, and with such success that on June 21, 1886, the committee reported a bill for the complete repeal of the Tenure of Office Act, the chairman–Senator Edmunds–alone dissenting. When the bill was taken up for consideration, Senator Hoar remarked that he did not believe there were five members of the Senate who really believed in the propriety of that act. “It did not seem to me to be quite becoming,” he explained, “to ask the Senate to deal with this general question, while the question which arose between the President and the Senate as to the interpretation and administration of the existing law was pending. I thought, as a party man, that I had hardly the right to interfere with the matter which was under the special charge of my honorable friend from Vermont, by challenging a debate upon the general subject from a different point of view.”

Although delicately put, this statement was in effect a repudiation of the party leadership of Edmunds and in the debate which ensued, not a single Senator came to his support. He stood alone in upholding the propriety of the Tenure of Office Act, arguing that without its restraint “the whole real power and patronage of this government was vested solely in the hands of a President of the United States and his will was the law.” He held that the consent of the Senate to appointments was an insufficient check if the President were allowed to remove at his own will and pleasure. He was answered by his own party colleagues and committee associates, Hoar and Evarts. Senator Hoar went so far as to say that in his opinion there was not a single person in this country, in Congress or out of Congress, with the exception of the Senator from Vermont, who did not believe that a necessary step towards reform “must be to impose the responsibility of the Civil Service upon the Executive.” Senator Evarts argued that the existing law was incompatible with executive responsibility, for “it placed the Executive power in a strait-jacket.” He then pointed out that the President had not the legal right to remove a member of his own Cabinet and asked, “Is not the President imprisoned if his Cabinet are to be his masters by the will of the Senate?” The debate was almost wholly confined to the Republican side of the Senate, for only one Democrat took any part in it. Senator Edmunds was the sole spokesman on his side, but he fought hard against defeat and delivered several elaborate arguments of the “check and balance” type. When the final vote took place, only three Republicans actually voted for the repealing bill, but there were absentees whose votes would have been cast the same way had they been needed to pass the bill.*

* The bill was passed by thirty yeas and twenty-two nays, and among the nays were several Senators who while members of the House had voted for repeal. The repeal bill passed the House by a vote of 172 to 67, and became law on March 3, 1887

President Cleveland had achieved a brilliant victory. In the joust between him and Edmunds, in lists of his adversary’s own contriving, he had held victoriously to his course while his opponent had been unhorsed. The granite composure of Senator Edmunds’ habitual mien did not permit any sign of disturbance to break through, but his position in the Senate was never again what it had been, and eventually he resigned his seat before the expiration of his term. He retired from public life in 1891, at the age of sixty-three.

From the standpoint of the public welfare, it is to be noted that the issue turned on the maintenance of privilege rather than on the discharge of responsibility. President Cleveland contended that he was not responsible to the Senate but to the people for the way in which he exercised his trusteeship. But the phrase “the people” is an abstraction which has no force save as it receives concrete form in appropriate institutions. It is the essential characteristic of a sound constitutional system that it supplies such institutions, so as to put executive authority on its good behavior by steady pressure of responsibility through full publicity and detailed criticism. This result, the Senate fails to secure because it keeps trying to invade executive authority, and to seize the appointing power instead of seeking to enforce executive responsibility. This point was forcibly put by “The Nation” when it said: “There is only one way of securing the presentation to the Senate of all the papers and documents which influence the President in making either removals or appointments, and that is a simple way, and one wholly within the reach of the Senators. They have only to alter their rules, and make executive sessions as public as legislative sessions, in order to drive the President not only into making no nominations for which he cannot give creditable reasons, but into furnishing every creditable reason for the nomination which he may have in his possession.”*

* “The Nation,” March 11, 1888.

During the struggle, an effort was made to bring about this very reform, under the lead of a Republican Senator, Orville H. Platt of Connecticut. On April 13,1886, he delivered a carefully prepared speech, based upon much research, in which he showed that the rule of secrecy in executive sessions could not claim the sanction of the founders of the government. It is true that the Senate originally sat with closed doors for all sorts of business, but it discontinued the practice after a few years. It was not until 1800, six years after the practice of public sessions had been adopted, that any rule of secrecy was applied to business transacted in executive sessions. Senator Platt’s motion to repeal this rule met with determined opposition on both sides of the chamber, coupled with an indisposition to discuss the matter. When it came up for consideration on the 15th of December, Senator Hoar moved to lay it on the table, which was done by a vote of thirty-three to twenty-one. Such prominent Democratic leaders as Gorman of Maryland and Vest of Missouri voted with Republican leaders like Evarts, Edmunds, Allison, and Harrison, in favor of Hoar’s motion, while Hoar’s own colleague, Senator Dawes, together with such eminent Republicans as Frye of Maine, Hawley of Connecticut, and Sherman of Ohio voted with Platt. Thus, any party responsibility for the result was successfully avoided, and an issue of great constitutional importance was laid away without any apparent stir of popular sentiment.


While President Cleveland was successfully asserting his executive authority, the House of Representatives, too, was trying to assert its authority; but its choice of means was such that it was badly beaten and was reduced to a state of humble subordination from which it has never emerged. Its traditional procedure was arranged on the theory that Congress ought to propose as well as to enact legislation, and to receive recommendations from all quarters without preference or discrimination. Although the Constitution makes it the right and duty of the President to “recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” measures proposed by the Administration stand on the same footing under the rules as those proposed by the humblest citizen of the United States. In both cases, they are allowed to reach Congress only in the form of a bill or resolution introduced by a member of Congress, and they go on the files without any distinction as to rank and position except such as pertains to them from the time and order in which they are introduced. Under the rules, all measures are distributed among numerous committees, each having charge of a particular class, with power to report favorably or adversely. Each committee is constituted as a section of the whole House, with a distribution of party representation corresponding to that which exists in the House.

Viewed as an ideal polity, the scheme has attractive features. In practice, however, it is attended with great disadvantages. Although the system was originally introduced with the idea that it would give the House of Representatives control over legislative business, the actual result has been to reduce this body to an impotence unparalleled among national representative assemblies in countries having constitutional government. In a speech delivered on December 10, 1885, William M. Springer of Illinois complained: “We find ourselves bound hand and foot, the majority delivering themselves over to the power of the minority that might oppose any particular measures, so that nothing could be done in the way of legislation except by unanimous consent or by a two-thirds vote.” As an instance of legislative paralysis, he related that “during the last Congress a very important bill, that providing for the presidential succession… was reported from a committee of which I had the honor to be a member, and was placed on the calendar of the House on the 21st day of April, 1884; and that bill, which was favored by nearly the entire House, was permitted to die on the calendar because there never was a moment, when under the rules as they then existed, the bill could be reached and passed by the House.” During the whole of that session of Congress, the regular calendar was never reached. “Owing to the fact that we could not transact business under the rules, all business was done under unanimous consent or under propositions to suspend the rules upon the two Mondays in each month on which suspensions were allowed.” As a two-thirds majority was necessary to suspend the rules, any considerable minority had a veto power.

The standing committees, whose ostensible purpose was to prepare business for consideration, were characterized as legislative cemeteries. Charles B. Lore of Delaware, referring to the situation during the previous session, said: “The committees were formed, they met in their respective committee rooms day after day, week after week, working up the business which was committed to them by this House, and they reported to this House 8290 bills. They came from the respective committees, and they were consigned to the calendars of this House, which became for them the tomb of the Capulets; most of them were never heard of afterward. From the Senate there were 2700 bills…. Nine tenths of the time of the committees of the Forty-eighth Congress was wasted. We met week after week, month after month, and labored over the cases prepared, and reported bills to the House. They were put upon the calendars and there were buried, to be brought in again and again in succeeding Congresses.”

William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania bluntly declared: “No legislation can be effectually originated outside the Committee on Appropriations, unless it be a bill which will command unanimous consent or a stray bill that may get a two-thirds vote, or a pension bill.” He explained that he excepted pension bills “because we have for several years by special order remitted the whole subject of pensions to a committee who bring in their bills at sessions held one night in each week, when ten or fifteen gentlemen decide what soldiers may have pensions and what soldiers may not.”

The Democratic party found this situation extremely irritating when it came into power in the House. It was unable to do anything of importance or even to define its own party policy, and in the session of Congress beginning in December, 1885, it sought to correct the situation by amending the rules. In this undertaking it had sympathy and support on the Republican side. The duress under which the House labored was pungently described by Thomas B. Reed, who was just about that time revealing the ability that gained for him the Republican leadership. In a speech, delivered on December 16, 1885, he declared: “For the last three Congresses the representatives of the people of the United States have been in irons. They have been allowed to transact no public business except at the dictation and by the permission of a small coterie of gentlemen, who, while they possessed individually more wisdom than any of the rest of us, did not possess all the wisdom in the world.”

The coterie alluded to by Mr. Reed was that which controlled the committee on appropriations. Under the system created by the rules of the House, bills pour in by tens of thousands. A member of the House, of a statistical turn of mind, once submitted figures to the House showing that it would take over sixty-six years to go through the calendars of one session in regular order, allowing an average of one minute for each member to debate each bill. To get anything done, the House must proceed by special order, and as it is essential to pass the appropriations to keep up the government, a precedence was allowed to business reported by that committee which in effect gave it a position of mastery. O. R. Singleton of Mississippi, in the course of the same debate, declared that there was a “grievance which towers above all others as the Alps tower above the surrounding hills. It is the power resting with said committee, and oftentimes employed by it, to arrest any legislation upon any subject which does not meet its approval. A motion to go into committee of the whole to consider appropriation bills is always in order, and takes precedence of all other motions as to the order of business.”
The practical effect of the rules was that, instead of remaining the servant of the House, the committee became its master. Not only could the committee shut off from any consideration any measure to which it was opposed, but it could also dictate to the House the shape in which its own bills should be enacted. While the form of full consideration and amendment is preserved, the terms of a bill are really decided by a conference committee appointed to adjust differences between the House and the Senate. John H. Reagan of Texas stated that “a conference committee, made up of three members of the appropriations committee, acting in conjunction with a similar conference committee on the part of the Senate, does substantially our legislation upon this subject of appropriations.” In theory, the House was free to accept or reject the conference committee’s report. Practically the choice lay between the bill as fixed by the conference committee or no bill at all during that session. Mr. Reagan stated the case exactly when he said that it meant “letting six men settle what the terms are to be, beyond our power of control, unless we consent to a called session of Congress.”