The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur (2017)
Senator James Garfield (OH) had come to the convention to nominate fellow Ohioan John Sherman (who had sponsored his election as Senator), and Garfield made quite the impression on the delegates in his speech. The results of the first ballot were Grant 304 (75 short), Blaine 284, and Sherman 93. After the 28th ballot: Grant 307, Blaine 279, and Sherman 91. On the 34th ballot, 16 of the 20 Wisconsin delegates switched to Garfield, and on the 36th ballot Garfield’s total swelled to the point where he barely reached the majority needed for the nomination.
Conkling appeared to hide his bitterness and asked the delegates to make Garfield’s nomination unanimous, as was the custom. But Conkling was beyond-upset, since Garfield was a “Half-Breed” (Republican reformer), and without New York’s Electoral Votes, Garfield would have little chance of defeating the Democratic nominee without Conkling and his Stalwart faction of the party.
Arthur was nominated as VP on the first ballot, and yet many Republicans were worried about Arthur, seeing him as nothing more than Conkling’s man. Charles Guiteau, just after the convention, was on a steamboat that ran into another amidships; Guiteau survived the ordeal, and he believed that he was being saved for something special.
In order to defeat Winfield Scott Hancock of the Democrats in the Election of 1880, Garfield would need to unite a fractured Republican Party (the “Half-Breeds” vs. the Stalwarts), at least temporarily. Conkling was over his anger at Arthur accepting the VP slot, and in mid-July 1880 he and Arthur went to Canada to fish for salmon. The main thing that Conkling communicated to Arthur was that it was absolutely mandatory that Garfield accept him and his NY Republican machine.
On 3 August 1880, Garfield was to meet with Conkling in NYC, but when Garfield arrived, Conkling wasn’t there. Arthur and a few other of Conkling’s emissaries were there instead to meet Garfield, and Arthur told Garfield that they would deliver New York. Arthur added that in exchange, Conkling wanted the Garfield administration to be more like Grant and less like Hayes. After Arthur briefed Conkling on the meeting with Garfield, Conkling agreed to make a few speeches for Garfield. Garfield believed that he had held firm against the demands of Conkling, and the gap in their perceptions from that meeting would loom large down the road.
President-Elect Garfield angered the Stalwarts when he named James G. Blaine as Secretary of State, and that Arthur didn’t have very much access/influence with the incoming President. After the inauguration, Garfield filled the rest of his Cabinet, and none were Stalwarts; Arthur was the only one Conkling had in the Garfield administration. Conkling’s hope at that point was that Garfield would at least leave his political machine in New York, and especially the Customs House, alone.
But Garfield nominated an avowed enemy of Conkling to be the new collector of the Customs House, and as far as Conkling was concerned, his nemesis Blaine was behind Garfield’s decision-making. Conkling and the Stalwarts appeared to be locked out of the White House, as well as the Customs House. Arthur counseled against Conkling’s plan, but Conkling, in a “hissy fit”, resigned his Senate seat, hoping that New Yorkers would rally behind him against Garfield. Senator Thomas Platt (NY) did the same, despite only having been recently elected. Neither Conkling or Platt planned on being out of the Senate long, thinking that the NY state legislature would quickly put them back in the Senate, inspired by their courageous protest against Garfield.
The motive for Guiteau for assassinating Garfield was not that he hated Garfield, but rather that he viewed Garfield as an impediment that needed to be removed in order to gain Republican unity. Also, Guiteau mostly blamed Garfield that he was denied the consulship to Paris, a post in which he coveted. After Guiteau shot Garfield in the back, Secretary of War Robert Lincoln called for Dr. Willard Bliss, who had tried to help President Lincoln after he was shot in April 1865. Bliss concluded that it was too dangerous to keep looking for the bullet, since it was an “ugly wound”. What didn’t help Arthur in the immediate aftermath of the shooting was that when Guiteau was arrested, he stated that he was a Stalwart, and that Arthur was to be President.
By then, Arthur was ashamed at what his loyalty to Conkling and the Stalwarts had cost him. It seemed certain that Garfield would die fairly soon, and after consulting others, Arthur decided that he should go to Washington, D.C. Conkling remained in NYC, trying to regain his Senate seat.
Meanwhile, Conkling had been trying to recapture his Senate seat in Albany, but the attempted assassination on Garfield had badly wounded his prospects. On 22 July 1881, on the 56th ballot, Elbridge Lapham was sent to the US Senate to finish Conkling’s term. Many expected Arthur to appear and console Conkling, but Arthur didn’t show up to do so. Garfield’s condition had actually started to improve, and by early-August 1881 his recovery had disappeared from the front pages. With Garfield recovering, and Conkling out of the game, Arthur gratefully slipped back into the shadows and out of the spotlight.
On 15 August 1881 Garfield took a turn for the worse and the press was again all over the story. By 25 August 1881, members of the Cabinet had given up hope, and by 27 August Arthur had secluded himself in a home with Conkling and another Senator. Arthur received a letter from a woman which basically predicted that becoming President would change Arthur for the better. That same woman went on to write that since Arthur hadn’t been elected President, he could wipe the slate clean of his previous unsavory political connections/decisions. When President James Garfield died on 19 September 1881, Arthur went into a room and sobbed like a child . . .