PRESIDENTS OF THE PERIOD
Although the plump, stuffy, walrus-mustached presidents who ran the country from the Civil War to the end of the 1800s may not seem very heroic, their very lack of conflict gave the nation time to heal and grow. Their ability for dramatic action was limited by Congress, which was usually pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
James Garfield, Chester Arthur, and William McKinley
James Garfield didn't get to be president long; he was shot in the back by a man from one of the factions in Garfield's own Republican Party. After that, even the corruption-challenged Republicans had had enough.
With the help of Chester Arthur, a newly reformed vice president turned president, Republicans surprised even themselves by passing the Magna Carta for civil-service reform, the Pendleton Act (1883). This law required people to have qualifications and pass tests to get government jobs. Extorting political "contributions" from government workers became illegal, even if the president had appointed them.
William McKinley got to preside over the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. He rolled back civil service reforms to benefit his own Republican party. Civil-service reform was great, but it had two drawbacks:
- Politicians couldn't fire incompetent government employees who had slipped through the system.
- Because elected officials couldn't pay back political contributors with jobs, these politicians had to pay them back with legislation.
The voters thanked the Republicans for finally getting honest by electing a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War. Grover Cleveland was no progressive, but he was honest. He vetoed a bill to provide seeds to drought-stricken farmers. "Although the people support the government," he said, "the government should not support the people."
Cleveland lowered the tariff to save citizens money on imported goods and force American manufacturers to compete. The big industrialists didn't like competing. In the next election, they raised a war chest and managed to beat Cleveland by a few votes. It was the first big-business-money election in American history; many more would follow.