A very unlikely pair of men adorned the Republican Party ticket in the election of 1880; neither of them wanted the office he was running for. James A. Garfield was the party’s choice for president because after more than 30 ballots none of the main candidates could secure the nomination. Chester A. Arthur accepted the second spot on the ticket because he thought that it would be an honor, and because the Vice President didn’t have to really do anything…
In a tight race they won election, and then their troubles began…
Garfield found himself in the midst of a party power struggle in the Congress between the “Stalwarts” and the “Half-breeds”- between those who favored the old patronage system of Federal appointments and those reformers who desired to hire on the basis of competence (horror!). The fight was divisive and brutal in the US Senate and in the end, the leader of the Stalwarts, New York party Boss Roscoe Conkling, resigned in a political stunt and returned to New York where the State Legislature (controlled by him) was supposed to quickly re-appoint him to the Senate. As they left Washington, Conkling and Arthur, ever the dutiful machine hack, were denouncing Garfield for his daring to interfere in what they considered the patronage decisions of the New York party machine.
Then something happened that was amazing and truly shocking: On July 2, 1881, slightly less than four months after becoming president, Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau who promptly told the police that he had killed Garfield and “now Arthur is president.” For good measure the assassin also added that he was a Stalwart. The stunning news was telegraphed all over America within minutes, and suddenly Arthur, who had nothing to do with the shooting, was afraid for his life.
Arthur’s fear came not because he suspected a wider conspiracy, but because he was nothing more than the chief political hack of Roscoe Conkling, and with this juicy news people jumped to the conclusion that Arthur was actually behind the attempt on Garfield’s life. Garfield did not die however, and with decent medical care would have survived, but this was 1881.
Arthur, as it turned out, was utterly mortified; the last thing in the world he wanted was the presidency; he knew that he was not up to the job. He was also sickened at the thought that people would assume that he had wanted Garfield killed; while they were rivals, he held no personal ill-will for him. And the waiting began…
Garfield finally died from his wounds on September 19…
Something interesting happened to Arthur during these 70-plus days that would change the course of history: He got a letter in the mail.
Chet Arthur was considered by those who knew him to be an ‘OK’ guy, but not terribly bright. He was a creature of Conkling’s machine, a good trooper, and as corrupt as anybody in politics at that time. Arthur may well have had a similar view of himself. During that long period of waiting, he was in agony…
The letter he received in the mail came from a lady, herself an invalid, who pointed out to him that if he became president, he would have been put there “by God Himself”. Her whole point was that with this being the case, it would be up to Arthur to govern in a manner that would do something for good, after all God wanted him there for a purpose. Then another thing happened that was amazing: Arthur replied to the letter and asked what the lady considered God’s purpose to be…
More than 20 of the letters that passed between the two still survive. When Arthur finally took the oath of office, he was a different man. Boss Conkling travelled to Washington shortly after Arthur took office to deliver his marching orders for the new president who told him that his demands were “outrageous.” Former President Grant, also a Stalwart, contacted Arthur with his demands, and he also was rejected.
As president, Arthur made a clean break from his old corrupt friends, became known as highly competent and in the way he conducted the office became the first “modern” president. Eventually, he signed the very first Civil Service law which began the process of eliminating patronage from the Executive Branch. As thanks for his actions, his party denied him the nomination for a term in his own right in 1884, and he died of kidney disease in 1886. Roscoe Conkling was never again a force in politics and died in 1888.
Who says that with God, lives cannot change; who says that God cannot affect the course of history?
And, who says that an insignificant invalid with a pen can’t be God’s means of changing the world?
Interesting thought, isn’t it?
I enjoyed reading your blog. I have been having some trouble posting lately. Perhaps you can help.
A few questions:
How did you get back online?
What program are you using to prepare your blogs?
For many years Windows Writer worked for me but it does not anymore. Any suggestions?
The only cause of my online absence was that I ran out of things to say. I use Word to prepare blog posts and paste into WP. Sorry, I’m not familiar with Windows Writer.
Wow! Great story. We just pray for our leaders and raise up new ones .
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