Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Snow . . . and a bit of history

Images of Madison Square Park (and the Flatiron Building) after yesterday's snow. The statue is Chester A. Arthur, who rose to the presidency in 1881 after the assassination of James A. Garfield by a disaffected - and deranged - office seeker. It's ironic that Arthur would have to support and preside over passage of the resulting Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. As the base of the statue points out, Arthur served in the most lucrative - and perhaps most corrupt - position available in the pre-Pendleton civil service system: collector of customs for the port of New York. Traditionally, collector of customs posts around the country were handed out to the most prominent of local party leaders as rewards for significant service. Although the federal government had established a schedule of regular fees to be paid at its customs houses, the collectors presided over a shadow system of bribes and kickbacks that offered the potential for great wealth in the larger port cities. Moreover, collectors usually controlled appointments for a small army of subordinate positions, from assistant collectors down to weighers and measurers who handled incoming goods. In performing this role, customs collectors thus reinforced party loyalty at the local level.

Always the pragmatic politician, Chester A. Arthur understood that the public outcry for civil service reform following Garfield's death could not be ignored. Sure, Garfield had enjoyed little time in office (two months) before being shot by Charles Guiteau in a Washington railroad station. Nevertheless, his death four months later sparked a national outcry, and, in all likelihood, reopened the emotional wounds inflicted by Abraham Lincoln's assassination just 16 years earlier. (Ironically, Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was with Garfield at the station when Guiteau shot the president.)

Mind you, this issue was hardly a new one and promised to be a key issue during the Garfield administration even without the assassination. Reform-minded politicians and critics of the highly politicized civil service system had advocated creation of a merit-based system for decades. Civil service appointments usually dominated presidents' first months in office, and often proved a vexing process. As an editor with the Papers of James K. Polk, I remember Polk's oft-stated complaints about the incessant parade of office seekers who appeared at the White House, hats in hands, letters of introduction at the ready, begging for consideration. Indeed, a majority of the correspondence to Polk during his fist several months in office was penned by desperate citizens soliciting positions at every level, from consulships to village postmasters.

Ok, this doesn't have much to do with snow in Madison Square Park, but the statue of Arthur reminded me of the Garfield assassination and the campaign for civil service reform!



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1 comment:

Barbara said...

Cool lesson and awesome photos! It's chilling to think that between 1865 and 1901 three presidents were assassinated, all by gun shots.