JAMES GARFIELD (1881)
As the last of the log cabin Presidents, James A. Garfield
attacked political corruption and won back for the
Presidency a measure of prestige it had lost during the
He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Fatherless
at two, he later drove canal boat teams, somehow earning
enough money for an education. He was graduated from
Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned
to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram
College) in Ohio as a classics professor. Within a year he
was made its president.
Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession crisis,
he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the Union.
In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle
Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general,
two years later a major general of volunteers.
Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to
resign his commission: It was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective
Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won reelection
for 18 years, and became the
leading Republican in the House.
At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield failed to win the Presidential nomination for
his friend John Sherman. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the "dark
By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, Gen.
Winfield Scott Hancock.
As President, Garfield strengthened Federal authority over the New York Customs House,
stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was leader of the Stalwart Republicans and
dispenser of patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted to the Senate a list of
appointments including many of Conkling's friends, he named Conkling's archrival
H. Robertson to run the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried to
persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its
(3) of (12)
But Garfield would not submit: "This...will settle the question whether the President is
registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.... shall the principal port
of entry ... be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional
Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm Garfield's uncontested nominations and
adjourn without acting on Robertson. Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations
except Robertson's; the Senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments
of Conkling's friends.
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellowSenator
from New York resigned,
confident that their legislature would vindicate their stand and reelect
them. Instead, the
legislature elected two other men; the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield's victory was
In foreign affairs, Garfield's Secretary of State invited all American republics to a conference
to meet in Washington in 1882. But the conference never took place. On July 2, 1881, in a
Washington railroad station, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post shot the
Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell,
inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an inductionbalance
electrical device which he had designed. On September 6, Garfield was taken to the New
Jersey seaside. For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he
died from an infection and internal hemorrhage.
CHESTER ARTHUR (18811885)
Dignified, tall, and handsome, with cleanshaven
chin and sidewhiskers,
Chester A. Arthur "looked like a President."
The son of a Baptist preacher who had emigrated from Northern
Ireland, Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, in 1829. He was
graduated from Union College in 1848, taught school, was
admitted to the bar, and practiced law in New York City. Early in
the Civil War he served as Quartermaster General of the State of
President Grant in 1871 appointed him Collector of the Port of
New York. Arthur effectively marshalled the thousand Customs
House employees under his supervision on behalf of Roscoe Conkling's Stalwart Republican
Honorable in his personal life and his public career, Arthur nevertheless was a firm believer
(4) of (12)
in the spoils system when it was coming under vehement attack from reformers. He insisted
upon honest administration of the Customs House, but staffed it with more employees than it
needed, retaining them for their merit as party workers rather than as Government officials.
In 1878 President Hayes, attempting to reform the Customs House, ousted Arthur. Conkling
and his followers tried to win redress by fighting for the renomination of Grant at the 1880
Republican Convention. Failing, they reluctantly accepted the nomination of Arthur for the
During his brief tenure as Vice President, Arthur stood firmly beside Conkling in his
patronage struggle against President Garfield. But when Arthur succeeded to the Presidency,
he was eager to prove himself above machine politics.
Avoiding old political friends, he became a man of fashion in his garb and associates, and
often was seen with the elite of Washington, New York, and Newport. To the indignation of
the Stalwart Republicans, the onetime Collector of the Port of New York became, as
President, a champion of civil service reform. Public pressure, heightened by the
assassination of Garfield, forced an unwieldy Congress to heed the President.
In 1883 Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established a bipartisan Civil Service
Commission, forbade levying political assessments against officeholders, and provided for a
"classified system" that made certain Government positions obtainable only through
competitive written examinations. The system protected employees against removal for
Acting independently of party dogma, Arthur also tried to lower tariff rates so the
Government would not be embarrassed by annual surpluses of revenue. Congress raised
about as many rates as it trimmed, but Arthur signed the Tariff Act of 1883. Aggrieved
Westerners and Southerners looked to the Democratic Party for redress, and the tariff began
to emerge as a major political issue between the two parties.
The Arthur Administration enacted the first general Federal immigration law. Arthur
approved a measure in 1882 excluding paupers, criminals, and lunatics. Congress suspended
Chinese immigration for ten years, later making the restriction permanent.
Arthur demonstrated as President that he was above factions within the Republican Party, if
indeed not above the party itself. Perhaps in part his reason was the wellkept
secret he had
known since a year after he succeeded to the Presidency, that he was suffering from a fatal
kidney disease. He kept himself in the running for the Presidential nomination in 1884 in
order not to appear that he feared defeat, but was not renominated, and died in 1886.
Publisher Alexander K. McClure recalled, "No man ever entered the Presidency so
profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected."
(5) of (12)
GROVER CLEVELAND (18851889,
The First Democrat elected after the Civil War, Grover
Cleveland was the only President to leave the White House
and return for a second term four years later.
One of nine children of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland
was born in New Jersey in 1837. He was raised in upstate
New York. As a lawyer in Buffalo, he became notable for
concentration upon whatever task faced
At 44, he emerged into a political prominence that carried
him to the White House in three years. Running as a reformer, he was elected Mayor of
Buffalo in 1881 and later, Governor of New York.
Cleveland won the Presidency with the combined support of Democrats and reform
Republicans, the "Mugwumps," who disliked the record of his opponent James G. Blaine of
A bachelor, Cleveland was ill at ease at first with all the comforts of the White House. "I
must go to dinner," he wrote a friend, "but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring a Swiss
cheese and a chop at Louis' instead of the French stuff I shall find." In June 1886 Cleveland
Frances Folsom; he was the only President married in the White House.
Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. Vetoing
a bill to appropriate $10,000 to distribute seed grain among droughtstricken
Texas, he wrote: "Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the
part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character. . . . "
He also vetoed many private pension bills to Civil War veterans whose claims were
fraudulent. When Congress, pressured by the Grand Army of the Republic, passed a bill
granting pensions for disabilities not caused by military service, Cleveland vetoed it, too.
He angered the railroads by ordering an investigation of western lands they held by
Government grant. He forced them to return 81,000,000 acres. He also signed the Interstate
Commerce Act, the first law attempting Federal regulation of the railroads.
In December 1887 he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs. Told that he had
given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted, "What is the use
of being elected or reelected
unless you stand for something?" But Cleveland was defeated
in 1888; although he won a larger popular majority than the Republican candidate Benjamin
Harrison, he received fewer electoral votes.
(6) of (12)
Elected again in 1892, Cleveland faced an acute depression. He dealt directly with the
Treasury crisis rather than with business failures, farm mortgage foreclosures, and
unemployment. He obtained repeal of the mildly inflationary Sherman Silver Purchase Act
and, with the aid of Wall Street, maintained the Treasury's gold reserve.
When railroad strikers in Chicago violated an injunction, Cleveland sent Federal troops to
enforce it. "If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a post card in
Chicago," he thundered, "that card will be delivered."
Cleveland's blunt treatment of the railroad strikers stirred the pride of many Americans. So
did the vigorous way in which he forced Great Britain to accept arbitration of a disputed
boundary in Venezuela. But his policies during the depression were generally unpopular. His
party deserted him and nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
After leaving the White House, Cleveland lived in retirement in Princeton, New Jersey. He
died in 1908.
BENJAMIN HARRISON (18891893)
Nominated for President on the eighth ballot at the 1888
Republican Convention, Benjamin Harrison conducted one
of the first "frontporch"
campaigns, delivering short
speeches to delegations that visited him in Indianapolis. As
he was only 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Democrats called him
"Little Ben"; Republicans replied that he was big enough to
wear the hat of his grandfather, "Old Tippecanoe."
Born in 1833 on a farm by the Ohio River below Cincinnati,
Harrison attended Miami University in Ohio and read law in
Cincinnati. He moved to Indianapolis, where he practiced
law and campaigned for the Republican Party. He married Caroline Lavinia Scott in 1853.
After the Civil Warhe
was Colonel of the 70th Volunteer InfantryHarrison
became a pillar
of Indianapolis, enhancing his reputation as a brilliant lawyer.
The Democrats defeated him for Governor of Indiana in 1876 by unfairly stigmatizing him as
"Kid Gloves" Harrison. In the 1880's he served in the United States Senate, where he
championed Indians. Homesteaders and Civil War veterans.
In the Presidential election, Harrison received 100,000 fewer popular votes than Cleveland,
but carried the Electoral College 233 to 168. Although Harrison had made no political
bargains, his supporters had given innumerable pledges upon his behalf.
When Boss Matt Quay of Pennsylvania heard that Harrison ascribed his narrow victory to
(7) of (12)
Providence, Quay exclaimed that Harrison would never know "how close a number of men
were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him President."
Harrison was proud of the vigorous foreign policy which he helped shape. The first Pan
American Congress met in Washington in 1889, establishing an information center which
later became the Pan American Union. At the end of his administration Harrison submitted to
the Senate a treaty to annex Hawaii; to his disappointment, President Cleveland later
Substantial appropriation bills were signed by Harrison for internal improvements, naval
expansion, and subsidies for steamship lines. For the first time except in war, Congress
appropriated a billion dollars. When critics attacked "the billiondollar
Thomas B. Reed replied, "This is a billiondollar
country." President Harrison also signed the
Act "to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and
monopolies," the first Federal act attempting to regulate trusts.
The most perplexing domestic problem Harrison faced was the tariff issue. The high tariff
rates in effect had created a surplus of money in the Treasury. Lowtariff
that the surplus was hurting business. Republican leaders in Congress successfully met the
challenge. Representative William McKinley and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich framed a still
higher tariff bill; some rates were intentionally prohibitive.
Harrison tried to make the tariff more acceptable by writing in reciprocity provisions. To
cope with the Treasury surplus, the tariff was removed from imported raw sugar; sugar
growers within the United States were given two cents a pound bounty on their production.
Long before the end of the Harrison Administration, the Treasury surplus had evaporated,
and prosperity seemed about to disappear as well. Congressional elections in 1890 went
stingingly against the Republicans, and party leaders decided to abandon President Harrison
although he had cooperated with Congress on party legislation. Nevertheless, his party
renominated him in 1892, but he was defeated by Cleveland.
After he left office, Harrison returned to Indianapolis, and married the widowed Mrs. Mary
Dimmick in 1896. A dignified elder statesman, he died in 1901
WILLIAM MCKINLEY (18971901)
At the 1896 Republican Convention, in time of depression, the
wealthy Cleveland businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna ensured the
nomination of his friend William McKinley as "the advance agent
of prosperity." The Democrats, advocating the "free and unlimited
coinage of both silver and gold"which
would have mildly inflated
William Jennings Bryan.
(8) of (12)
While Hanna used large contributions from eastern Republicans frightened by Bryan's views
on silver, McKinley met delegations on his front porch in Canton, Ohio. He won by the
largest majority of popular votes since 1872.
Born in Niles, Ohio, in 1843, McKinley briefly attended Allegheny College, and was
teaching in a country school when the Civil War broke out. Enlisting as a private in the Union
Army, he was mustered out at the end of the war as a brevet major of volunteers. He studied
law, opened an office in Canton, Ohio, and married Ida Saxton, daughter of a local banker.
At 34, McKinley won a seat in Congress. His attractive personality, exemplary character, and
quick intelligence enabled him to rise rapidly. He was appointed to the powerful Ways and
Means Committee. Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who served with him, recalled that he
generally "represented the newer view," and "on the great new questions .. was generally on
the side of the public and against private interests."
During his 14 years in the House, he became the leading Republican tariff expert, giving his
name to the measure enacted in 1890. The next year he was elected Governor of Ohio,
serving two terms.
When McKinley became President, the depression of 1893 had almost run its course and with
it the extreme agitation over silver. Deferring action on the money question, he called
Congress into special session to enact the highest tariff in history.
In the friendly atmosphere of the McKinley Administration, industrial combinations
developed at an unprecedented pace. Newspapers caricatured McKinley as a little boy led
around by "Nursie" Hanna, the representative of the trusts. However, McKinley was not
dominated by Hanna; he condemned the trusts as "dangerous conspiracies against the public
Not prosperity, but foreign policy, dominated McKinley's Administration. Reporting the
stalemate between Spanish forces and revolutionaries in Cuba, newspapers screamed that a
quarter of the population was dead and the rest suffering acutely. Public indignation brought
pressure upon the President for war. Unable to restrain Congress or the American people,
McKinley delivered his message of neutral intervention in April 1898. Congress thereupon
voted three resolutions tantamount to a declaration of war for the liberation and independence
In the 100day
war, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Santiago harbor in
Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico.
"Uncle Joe" Cannon, later Speaker of the House, once said that McKinley kept his ear so
close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers. When McKinley was undecided what to
do about Spanish possessions other than Cuba, he toured the country and detected an
(9) of (12)
imperialist sentiment. Thus the United States annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto
In 1900, McKinley again campaigned against Bryan. While Bryan inveighed against
imperialism, McKinley quietly stood for "the full dinner pail."
His second term, which had begun auspiciously, came to a tragic end in September 1901. He
was standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo PanAmerican
Exposition when a deranged
anarchist shot him twice. He died eight days later.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT (19011909)
With the assassination of President McKinley, Theodore
Roosevelt, not quite 43, became the youngest President in the
Nation's history. He brought new excitement and power to the
Presidency, as he vigorously led Congress and the American
public toward progressive reforms and a strong foreign policy.
He took the view that the President as a "steward of the people"
should take whatever action necessary for the public good unless
expressly forbidden by law or the Constitution." I did not usurp power," he wrote, "but I did
greatly broaden the use of executive power."
Roosevelt's youth differed sharply from that of the log cabin Presidents. He was born in New
York City in 1858 into a wealthy family, but he too struggledagainst
triumph became an advocate of the strenuous life.
In 1884 his first wife, Alice Lee Roosevelt, and his mother died on the same day. Roosevelt
spent much of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory. There he
mastered his sorrow as he lived in the saddle, driving cattle, hunting big gamehe
captured an outlaw. On a visit to London, he married Edith Carow in December 1886.
During the SpanishAmerican
War, Roosevelt was lieutenant colonel of the Rough Rider
Regiment, which he led on a charge at the battle of San Juan. He was one of the most
conspicuous heroes of the war.
Boss Tom Platt, needing a hero to draw attention away from scandals in New York State,
accepted Roosevelt as the Republican candidate for Governor in 1898. Roosevelt won and
served with distinction.
As President, Roosevelt held the ideal that the Government should be the great arbiter of the
conflicting economic forces in the Nation, especially between capital and labor, guaranteeing
justice to each and dispensing favors to none.
(10) of (12)
Roosevelt emerged spectacularly as a "trust buster" by forcing the dissolution of a great
railroad combination in the Northwest. Other antitrust suits under the Sherman Act followed.
Roosevelt steered the United States more actively into world politics. He liked to quote a
favorite proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick. . . . "
Aware of the strategic need for a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific, Roosevelt
ensured the construction of the Panama Canal. His corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
prevented the establishment of foreign bases in the Caribbean and arrogated the sole right of
intervention in Latin America to the United States.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the RussoJapanese
War, reached a Gentleman's
Agreement on immigration with Japan, and sent the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of
Some of Theodore Roosevelt's most effective achievements were in conservation. He added
enormously to the national forests in the West, reserved lands for public use, and fostered
great irrigation projects.
He crusaded endlessly on matters big and small, exciting audiences with his highpitched
voice, jutting jaw, and pounding fist. "The life of strenuous endeavor" was a must for those
around him, as he romped with his five younger children and led ambassadors on hikes
through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
Leaving the Presidency in 1909, Roosevelt went on an African safari, then jumped back into
politics. In 1912 he ran for President on a Progressive ticket. To reporters he once remarked
that he felt as fit as a bull moose, the name of his new party.
While campaigning in Milwaukee, he was shot in the chest by a fanatic. Roosevelt soon
recovered, but his words at that time would have been applicable at the time of his death in
1919: "No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way."
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT (19091913)
Distinguished jurist, effective administrator, but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent
four uncomfortable years in the White House. Large, jovial, conscientious, he was caught in
the intense battles between Progressives and conservatives, and got scant credit for the
achievements of his administration.
Born in 1857, the son of a distinguished judge, he graduated from Yale, and returned to
Cincinnati to study and practice law. He rose in politics through Republican judiciary
appointments, through his own competence and availability, and because, as he once wrote
facetiously, he always had his "plate the right side up when offices were falling."
(11) of (12)
But Taft much preferred law to politics. He was appointed
a Federal circuit judge at 34. He aspired to be a member of
the Supreme Court, but his wife, Helen Herron Taft, held
other ambitions for him.
His route to the White House was via administrative posts.
President McKinley sent him to the Philippines in 1900 as
chief civil administrator. Sympathetic toward the Filipinos,
he improved the economy, built roads and schools, and
gave the people at least some participation in government.
President Roosevelt made him Secretary of War, and by
1907 had decided that Taft should be his successor. The
Republican Convention nominated him the next year.
Taft disliked the campaign"
one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life." But he
pledged his loyalty to the Roosevelt program, popular in the West, while his brother Charles
reassured eastern Republicans. William Jennings Bryan, running on the Democratic ticket for
a third time, complained that he had to oppose two candidates, a western progressive Taft and
an eastern conservative Taft.
Progressives were pleased with Taft's election. "Roosevelt has cut enough hay," they said;
"Taft is the man to put it into the barn." Conservatives were delighted to be rid of Rooseveltthe
Taft recognized that his techniques would differ from those of his predecessor. Unlike
Roosevelt, Taft did not believe in the stretching of Presidential powers. He once commented
that Roosevelt "ought more often to have admitted the legal way of reaching the same ends."
Taft alienated many liberal Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by
defending the PayneAldrich
Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates. A trade
agreement with Canada, which Taft pushed through Congress, would have pleased eastern
advocates of a low tariff, but the Canadians rejected it. He further antagonized Progressives
by upholding his Secretary of the Interior, accused of failing to carry out Roosevelt's
In the angry Progressive onslaught against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his
administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the states
amendments for a Federal income tax and the direct election of Senators. A postal savings
system was established, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was directed to set
In 1912, when the Republicans denominated Taft, Roosevelt bolted the party to lead the
(12) of (12)
Progressives, thus guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Taft, free of the Presidency, served as Professor of Law at Yale until President Harding made
him Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held until just before his death in 1930.
To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I don't remember that I ever was