Wednesday, September 20

Change of Heart

Although the nomination and election of the dark-horse candidate for president, James Garfield, surprised many Americans, the nomination and election of Chester A. Arthur (1830-1886) as his running mate was even more of a shock. Many a citizen feared the worst when Garfield was assassinated with three and a half years of his term remaining. And for good reason.

Arthur, who loved fine clothes and elegant living, had been associated with the corrupt New York political machine for almost twenty years. In 1878 he had even been removed from his post as Collector of the Port of New York by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had become alarmed at his brazen misuse of patronage.

But in spite of his questionable record, Arthur was nominated to run for vice-president--largely to appease the powerful party establishment. Thus, when Arthur became president on this day in 1881, following the death of Garfield, there was every expectation that the free-wheeling spoils system that had reigned in New York would be firmly established in Washington.

But Chester Arthur fooled everyone--friends and enemies alike. Somehow, the responsibilities of that high office seemed to transform this corrupt, petty politician into a man sincerely dedicated to the good of the country. Courageously, he established his independence by vetoing a graft-laden rivers-and-harbors bill, by breaking with his former machine cronies, and by vigorously prosecuting members of his own party accused of defrauding the government. And, most important, instead of a spoils system, he supported a Federal Civil Service based on competitive examinations and a non-political merit system.

By his change of heart--evidenced by these courageous acts--Arthur won over many who had first feared his coming to power, but he lost the support of the political bosses. Although he was not an inspiring leader of men, he earned the nation’s gratitude as the champion of the Civil Service system.

7 comments:

covenantpromise said...

Dr Grant - What is the "spoils system" you made mention of in your blog? Thanks - Jason Parolini

Lawrence Underwood said...

One has to wonder if his Godly prior boss had anything to do with his turnaround.

George said...

Jason: The spoils system is essentially based on the old "spoils of war" concept that allowed winners to take whatever they wanted. In politics that meant all the offices, all the perks, and all the privileges went to the families, cronies, and posses of the winners!

George said...

Lawrence: History is unclear, but it appears God used several means of grace in his life. It was very sobering to him to see Garfield gunned down. In addition, there was his praying grandmother. And then there was a particularly close school chum who wound up becoming an evangelist. It is always interesting to see how the Lord draws us back to Gospel sanity.

David said...

He was indeed the champion of the Civil Service, but that this ought to have earned him America’s gratitude is less certain. In the days of old, an election was a like spring cleaning; the newly elected President gave the various positions under him to trusted subordinates. These people were thus accountable to him. The fundamental effect of his reforms was to move from the idea that loyalty, accountability, and worldview are the most important qualities in an official, to the idea that perceived technical competence, aside from accountability is the most important quality. By signing the Pendleton Act and following legislation into law, he paved the way for the massive, unelected bureaucracy we have today. The full implications of these measures, however, didn’t fully play out until FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s New Society put these Civil Service Employees into policy setting as well as policy implementing positions. Now, the various life-tenure political activists who inhabit said Civil Service do as they please, rather than carrying out their elected superior’s vision. This means that the president no longer fully controls the executive branch. I could be seriously argued therefore, that one of the most important governmental reforms we could implement today would be the abolishment of the Civil Service. This would allow the President to appoint people accountable to him, so that he can truly be accountable to the American people.

George said...

That provisions like that of the Civil Service might later be abused by the FDRs and LBJs of this world, is by no means reason to denigrate those things. Such an argument would be akin to slighting the value of the First Amendment simply because the ACLU has wrenched it out of its context and used it to do what it was never intended to do.

David said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer me, sir. I greatly respect you and have enjoyed listening to many of your lectures. I think one probably could slight the 1st Ammendment's value (as being redundant in an express powers document), but certainly not, as you say, because of any travesty by ACLU. But I don't think Civil Service was like a sound apple tree that FDR et al grafted crab apple branches into, it was a crab apple from the beginning. The idea that unaccountable 'experts' rather than accountable men should have power couldn't fail to yield bad fruit. It disregards man's total sin nature.

At any rate, I won't speak further as this is not an area in which I am in any sense an authority. For a mature opinion on the matter you could refer to Mr. Howard Phillips, specifically his lectures from the Vision Forum History Conference this past July.