The year is 1881. The party founded by Abraham Lincoln has prevailed in five consecutive Presidential elections. But tensions have developed in the Republican Party, between the “Stalwarts” who adamantly supported Ulysses S. Grant throughout his occasionally corrupt Administration, and the “Half-Breeds,” who are more open to reform and cooperation with Southern Democrats. This story explains how the Stalwarts, chagrined by the election of James A. Garfield, learn that inflammatory political rhetoric can have unanticipated consequences, and why no one calls themselves a Stalwart any longer.
The first gathering of the Stalwarts was, of necessity, an intimate one. It had been far too long since the social business of politics had occurred under the supervision of Kate Chase. Mary Todd Lincoln being of a sour disposition, and unattractive besides, the great Washington salon of the war years had not been the White House, but the Chase residence. Now, the Chase estate at Edgewood was perhaps too far from the city to serve as the site of general entertainment, but fortunately that was not what Kate had in mind. The Stalwarts of the Republican Party would be better served by a gathering place close, but not too close, to the environs of a Half-Breed administration. And the occasion of a grande soirée held by the new Secretary of State, James Blaine, offered an excellent opportunity to gather unobtrusively.
Kate would have preferred to dine alone with Senator Roscoe Conkling, but it was essential that Chester Arthur be present as well. Arthur was their man on the inside, ordinarily so irrelevant a presence as Vice-President-elect that Garfield’s men spoke freely in front of him, as if he were not there. But Arthur heard everything and, even better, appreciated fine cuisine. One of Senator Conkling’s party men, Thomas Platt, had invited himself along, but Kate was nothing if not a gracious hostess. She seated herself across from Conkling, leaving Platt and Arthur to stare into each other’s vacant faces.
“I pity the d_____d souls in Blaine’s inferno,” Conkling said, carefully dabbing the corners of his mouth with a linen napkin.
“To Dante’s ninth circle,” Kate raised a glass of sherry to toast Conkling, “reserved for the traitors.”
The three men raised their glasses in response. Conkling merely touched the sherry to his lips, Platt sipped a polite amount, and Arthur drained his glass and signaled for another.
“If we do not act promptly, we shall lose the Cabinet to the Half-Breeds.” Platt turned to Conkling. “You must attend to Garfield the moment he returns to Washington.”
“Of course I shall,” Conkling replied irritably, “but the problem is not merely Garfield, nor Blaine —the difficulty is that I can scarcely call upon every man in the capitol who might accept a position in the Cabinet before Garfield offers one to them.”
Arthur gazed down at the linen cloth covering the table and said nothing, for Conkling’s words were a veiled admonition that he had accepted the position of Vice-President. From time to time Arthur wished that Conkling might drink with him, at least once in a while, for wine and whiskey can tear down the barriers between men, but Conkling was not that sort of man, and so it fell to Kate to serve as the architect of their reconciliation. Fortuitously, the steak arrived, along with another glass of sherry.
“Nor should you,” Kate replied. “Every man dreams of being offered the position of Secretary of the Treasury, now that State is given to Blaine.”
“Perhaps,” Conkling allowed, leaning forward, his auburn hair glinting in the candlelight. “Although there are some who shall undoubtedly be the subject of Half-Breed overtures whom I cannot leave unattended.”
“But you must press General Garfield directly upon the matter of appointments to the Court,” Platt urged. “It is imperative that he be kept to his word. He shall have three appointments, and the current tendency of the Court must be reversed.”
“I hope no decision of my father’s is within your sights.” Kate arched an eyebrow.
“Of course not!” Conkling assured her. “The trouble lies with that addled Waite fellow, for the most part. While the Electoral Commission was engaged on deliberations, the Court was quite short-handed, and Waite was asked to bite off more than he could chew.”
At this remark, Arthur paused and thoughtfully cut his steak into smaller pieces.
“The Court revisits its precedents from time to time,” Kate said bitterly. “They reversed Father in the Legal Tender Cases, out of sheer spite. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
“We have already taken action, Mrs. Sprague,” Platt interjected, much to Kate and Conkling’s annoyance. Even Arthur momentarily ceased his placid mastication to look up.
“Chase,” Kate muttered, for she had lately abjured the use of the name that she acquired by marriage.
“Chet and I met with Garfield at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in August,” Platt said. “We urged him to nominate not only Stalwarts to the Cabinet, but also Justices more favorable to business to the Court.”
“Did he agree?” Kate enquired.
“Of course.” Platt looked far too pleased with himself. Kate glanced at Conkling. In a letter to Arthur, Kate had advised him to press for the selection of Platt as the next Senator from the State of New York. But Platt had an unfortunate tendency to betray the confidence reposed in him.
“I did not attend,” Conkling said, “as I was otherwise engaged.” He did not elaborate, for Kate knew precisely where he had been. “But Garfield knows that Platt and Arthur spoke for me.”
“All in all, it was a great success.” Platt toasted himself with the sherry. “Wasn’t it, Chet?”
“Indeed,” Arthur averred. He and Platt had come away with extravagant promises of consultation from Garfield, and in return joined an enormous torchlit rally that evening in support of the ticket, with extended orations from all manner of Republicans, Half-Breed and Stalwart. Garfield spoke to great acclaim, Arthur rose above his usual mumble to attract some applause, Edwards Pierrepont and Benjamin Harrison both delivered credible addresses, and some strange and persistent fellow from Illinois named Charles Guiteau, whom no one had ever heard of before, declaimed furiously in favor of the ticket.
“Whether Garfield agreed with you is one thing,” Kate observed. “Whether he can be relied upon is another.”
“Have you any faith in Garfield?” Platt turned to Conkling.
“Not much!” Conkling snorted. “But we will try him out. Until then, it is up to Chet here to plumb the sacred penetralia of the autocrat’s cabinet.”
One of Kate’s servants materialized beside her and whispered in her ear.
“The next course shall surprise and delight you,” Kate announced. She rang a small bell next to her plate and, within seconds, her black servants cleared the table, and returned with four plates, each bearing a single oyster shell, nearly closed.
“Only one each?” Arthur inquired, half joking.
Kate gave a sunny laugh, for the manner of presentation had been calculated to induce that very reaction.
“Yes! Only one each!” she exclaimed. “For this oyster contains a very particular pearl.”
The men exchange quizzical glances.
“Open it!” Kate urged, and, taking her knife, neatly sprang her oyster open.
Conkling, wiser to the ways of Kate’s whimsies than the other men, proceeded first, and opened his oyster in a similar manner. He gazed inside, tilted his head in mild confusion, then cackled with amusement. Platt then opened his, to the same effect. Arthur was flummoxed, for he enjoyed oysters, and regretfully suspected that the mollusk would not yield that delectable morsel of briny flesh. He seized his table-knife and inserted it between the lips of the shell. Gently turning his wrist, he opened the shell to reveal a pin encrusted with diamonds that, upon closer inspection, had been arranged to form the number 306.
“Three hundred and six?” Arthur muttered.
“Three hundred and six,” said Conkling, who by now had affixed the pin to his lapel. “The number of delegates who voted Grant until the bitter end. A brilliant gift from a brilliant woman.”
Kate blushed, and she replaced her broach with the bejeweled pin.
“I have made one for each man who stayed loyal to Grant over Garfield,” she said. “And one for me. It shall forever serve as a badge of honor, and loyalty to country. May we never forget the crime of that convention!”
“To the three hundred and six Stalwarts!” cried Platt, raising his glass.
“To the three hundred and seven Stalwarts!” cried Kate and Conkling, as one.
Fumbling with his pin, Arthur struggled to join the toast.
Some weeks later, Arthur rose to his feet with effort. The meal had surely been Delmonico’s finest. They began with consommé châtelaine and bisque d’écrevisses. The fish course was a superb bass a la régence with eperlans dauphine, followed by a meat course of filet de boeuf a la Florentine, and selle de mouton a l’anglaise. The appetites of the gentlemen duly whetted, Delmonico’s harried waiters produced enormous plates of côtelettes de pigeonneaux a l’Albufera, ris de veau a la Toulouse, and a delightfully clever terrapin a l’Indiana, for that state had acquitted itself admirably in the election. The celebrants had then cleansed their palates with a cold course of aspic de foie-gras and bastion de gibier before sampling a delectable array of sorbet, plum pudding, strawberries, bombe japonaise, Gelée orientale, and too many more desserts to count.
Arthur was accustomed to extensive feasting, but the wine list nearly finished him off. There had been a Haut Saternes for the soup, a ’thirty-four Amontillado for the hors d’ouevres, a Johannesberger Red Seal for the beef and a Pommery Sec for the entrees, a ’sixty-eight Latour for the cold dishes, and a Chateau Yquem for the desserts. And as Vice-President-elect, there was scarcely any reason for Arthur to be sober.
“Gentlemen!” Arthur shouted, setting off a symphony of spoons tapping against glasses. Delmonico’s finest private room was full to nearly bursting with Republican grandees, the occasional Democrat who would not let party get in the way of business, a smattering of reliable journalists, and, most importantly, the money men of the party, for whom this dinner was a way of giving thanks. The walls being decorated principally with mirrors, Arthur perceived an endless army of men of formal wear, with clouds of cigar smoke stretching from every point of the horizon. General Grant was there, for he now called New York City his home, as well as Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan, neither of whom partook of the wine with Arthur’s customary vigor.
Arthur swayed a trifle too perilously, and his Negro valet Aleck appeared behind him, lifting Arthur’s arms from behind and fixing them upon the back of the chair, before resuming his place against the gilded wallpaper and heavy curtains.
“I can scarcely find adequate words to thank you for your support!” Arthur bellowed, to a tumultuous chorus of “Hear! Hear!”
“It is so very good to be here in New York” — the men of that state erupting with excitement at the mention of their domicile — “for it is not only my home, but one of the very essential states that won the election!”
There was thunderous applause now, which, as it eventually died down, was interrupted with protestations from the men of Indiana who were also present. Arthur waved his hand to be heard, prompting Aleck to place his hands upon Arthur’s waist, lest the Vice-President topple over.
“I do not mean to ignore the contributions of the great state of Indiana!” Arthur exclaimed, drawing a new round of cheers. “I don’t know if we had better go into the minute secrets of the campaign, so far I know them — ”
There was deep amusement at this remark.
“Indiana was really, I suppose, a Democratic state. It had always been put down as a State that might be carried by perfect organization and a great deal of . . .”
Arthur paused meaningfully and raised one eyebrow, to general merriment.
“Soap!” someone called out, prompting further waves of laughter. Arthur wobbled, waved his hand, and went on:
“I see the reporters here, and therefore I will simply say that everybody showed a great deal of interest in the occasion, and distributed tracts and political documents all through the country! If it were not for the reporters I would tell you the truth, because I know you are intimate friends and devoted adherents to the Republican Party!”
At this the gathering dissolved into laughter and applause. The more Arthur waved for quiet, the less the crowd heeded him, and it was not long before the walls of Delmonico’s rang with cries of
For he’s a jolly good fellow
For he’s a jolly good fellow
For he’s a jolly good fellow
Which nobody can deny!
* * *
Senator David Davis of Illinois might be forgiven for wondering whether he had made a terrible mistake. His resignation from the Court had come at the least propitious time for that institution, but one that was personally convenient — by resigning from the Court to accept his nomination to the Senate, he had avoided serving as the deciding vote upon the Electoral Commission. But he was now in the same quandary. The legislatures of the thirty-eight states had elected precisely thirty-seven Republican Senators, thirty-seven Democratic Senators, and two independents — Davis of Illinois, who tended to side with the Democrats, and Mahone from Virginia, who tended to side with the Republicans. With Senators occasionally absent due to illness or the press of other business, Davis became over the past few months the fulcrum of the Senate, whose vote was absolutely essential to some cause or another, the very role he had abjured upon the Court.
“Good evening, sir,” Senator Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi intoned in his ear. Davis was startled at first, then placed his arm around Lamar, for there was no point in being personally unpleasant, and the sight of two antagonists treating one another like brothers on the floor of the Senate might be a sanguinary sight. The day’s business having been concluded, the chamber was emptying now, and only a few observers remained in the gallery.
Davis sighed. “Perhaps for you!”
Lamar held one hand to his heart in mock offense, then gave a slight bow. “My ears must deceive me, for Illinois has ordinarily been adamant that Mississippi must be gracious in defeat. Ought we not expect the same?”
Now Davis laughed. “Matthews is entirely a pawn of the railroad interests, and the very last man we need upon the Court at this moment. I was so entirely opposed to the Matthews nomination that I would sooner ask to be sent back to the Court in his stead.”
“We would miss you too dreadfully,” Lamar drawled.
“I suppose it is better that I remain here than serve on the Court with Matthews,” Davis shrugged. The day had been a disappointing one. After inveighing against Matthews for several hours, Davis had been outmaneuvered by Lamar, who was as always less unfriendly to the railroad interests, and the Senate had confirmed Matthews to the Supreme Court by a single vote.
“Senator Davis!” came a stentorian cry from across the chamber.
Lamar and Davis turned toward the origin of the voice and were not surprised to see Conkling had assumed an oratorical pose, one hand upon his desk and the other at his waist, baring the most garishly pink waistcoat in the history of the Senate.
“Senator?” Davis replied, for mocking Conkling was always good sport.
“I notice that you go across the fence very often,” Conkling sneered. “Do you get mileage for this?”
The jibe being a tired one, the only Senator who laughed at Conkling’s remark was Platt, who in his first few months as the junior Senator from the State of New York had proven, consistent with every expectation, to be Conkling’s toady.
“Hang you!” Davis shouted back. The severity of this rejoinder, softened by Davis’s general air of bonhomie, occasioned much greater amusement, although there was a pink parasol in the gallery that shook with indignation.
Conkling shook his mane of golden red curls and strode down the aisle toward Davis and Lamar. Platt slouched behind him.
Conkling was profoundly aggrieved. He had stood immediately behind Garfield at the inauguration, but his influence had declined ever since. The installation of Arthur as a sort of watchdog had been an utter failure. Garfield had proven as reliable as a weather-vane and turned to Blaine for advice in all matters, leaving Arthur speculating what had been said behind closed doors. The Matthews confirmation was a dark omen. Garfield had plainly connived some sort of bargain with the Half-Breeds and the Democrats. Conkling was obliged to put an end to it before it was too late, but he did not know how. Conkling now stood directly before Davis, whose air of bemusement was not thereby dispelled.
“I have little doubt that, if the full extent of your perfidy were known to the entire Republican Party, that you might be hanged yourself.”
“I am constrained to observe,” Lamar replied, sharply, “that even though we are not in session at present, the floor of the Senate is no place for such intemperate language.”
“Have no fear, Senator,” Davis shot back, “there is no tree strong enough to hold me.” He laughed, and his enormous belly shook with delight.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.” Conkling, being incapable of humor, had no rejoinder to Davis and could reply only to Lamar. “I shall endeavor to improve my deportment in the future.”
“You would do well to do so,” Lamar said. “Because with the Matthews nomination confirmed, I expect that we shall consider the Robertson nomination tomorrow.”
“Robertson!” Conkling nearly spat. The very name was offensive to him. Against all precedent, Garfield had nominated William Robertson, one of Conkling’s many nemeses, to the position of Collector of the Customs House in New York. “The President did not obtain my agreement, or that of Senator Platt’s, before making that nomination. He has not obtained it since, and the nomination cannot proceed.”
“The President was not obliged to do so.”
“Of course he was! The post is in my state!”
“The Customs House collects duties for the federal treasury, Senator,” Lamar sighed. “The position of Collector is not some petty functionary of the Republican Party of New York.”
Here Davis burst out laughing, for that was precisely the role the Collector had served, certainly when Arthur had held the post.
Davis’s show of amusement only angered Conkling further.
“Garfield would not be President were it not for me!” He raised himself to his full height and glared at Davis. “I delivered the State of New York for him, and he owes me a full measure of solicitude.”
“The President does not owe anybody anything,” Davis offered sympathetically, for it was ever his tendency to appeal to the better angels of our nature. “His only obligation is to the American people.”
“Do not burden me with your pieties!” Conkling pointed an angry finger at Davis.
“Now, now, Senator,” Lamar said. Conkling lowered his accusatory digit, for while Davis was slow to take offense, Lamar was not.
“The nomination of Mr. Robertson as Collector is an outrage!” Conkling preened. “It is the result, sir, of a perfidy without parallel. It should never be confirmed by an assemblage of American Senators — or gentlemen.”
“Perhaps we can work this matter out.” Now Platt appealed to Davis. “Perhaps Robertson will instead be made the United States Attorney for the Southern District.”
“Woodford has been nominated for that position.”
“He could be made Ambassador to Rome instead.”
“But that position has been promised to Phelps.”
“Oh, Woodford can go to Portugal, then.” Platt swatted the suggestion away. “The important point is that Robertson will not become Collector.”
“We have been arguing about these nominations for months and it is high time we finish,” Lamar pressed.
“How can you call yourself a Republican and permit this to happen?” Conkling accused Davis, so loudly that it caught the ears of the few remaining in the chamber.
“Sir, these are Republican nominations from a Republican President,” Davis replied sharply, for Conkling was growing tiresome.
“But they give no reward to those of us who made this President!” Conkling snarled. “So those men that basely violated their pledges of loyalty and abandoned Grant for Garfield — they shall be rewarded, sir? But those who stayed true to Grant until the very end — the three hundred and six — and only at the very end, did they bow to the wishes of the party and then devote every effort to ensuring the election of a man they opposed — which they did for the good of the party! — shall they receive nothing?”
Conkling was now gasping with anger, the Hyperion curl on the middle of his forehead quivering with indignation.
“If Lincoln and I had failed to secure his nomination in ‘sixty,” Davis said pointedly, “we would have supported any of the other candidates — whether Seward, Stanton, or Chase. You deserve no great reward for merely doing your duty.”
The pink parasol in the gallery quivered with indignation at this remark.
“There is support among Democrats and Republicans for the President’s nominations, including Robertson for Collector of Customs,” Lamar said. “You are outnumbered on every side.”
Conkling seethed for several moments, turning his glare from Lamar to Davis and back again.
“If you go down, sir, to the Five Points in New York City,” he muttered finally, “you may witness the most barbarous sport of rat-baiting. Nearly one hundred rats are loosed into a pit dug for this purpose, wherein they scamper, crawl, and gnaw at one another. After the excitement of the rats has worn down, a fox-terrier is introduced, and men wager at how long the terrier will take to defeat the rats. Once the wagers have been placed, the terrier is dropped into the pit. The rats set upon him mercilessly, insistently, biting him upon every inch of his hide. Often the dog is entirely buried beneath the assault of the rats. But the terrier, although alarmed at first, methodically takes each rat into his teeth, one by one, and tears it into pieces or throws it against the wall of the pit.”
Neither Lamar nor Davis spoke.
“There are terriers who do not survive the ordeal. However, most dogs are able to dispose of the rats within thirty to forty-five minutes. And there are terriers, whose entire lives have been trained for this purpose, who can defeat all of the rats in ten minutes.”
Conkling assumed a great show of satisfaction at the delivery of these remarks, but Lamar merely shrugged.
“These are mere words, Senator, not deeds. You do not have the votes,” he said.
“Mere words!” Conkling said. “When this great nation declared its independence, were those mere words? When our first Republican President proclaimed the emancipation of the freedmen, were those mere words? When General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, were those mere words?”
“What would you know about war, Senator?” Lamar purred. The outcome of his time in the service of the Army of the Confederacy was bad enough; it was unacceptable to hear these remarks from a non-combatant fire-eater.
“I know,” Conkling seethed, “that when I prevail in this battle, Garfield shall bite the dust!”
The day having concluded with such animosity, it was altogether unexpected that Conkling, along with Platt, appeared in the Senate the next morning serene, and in apparent good humor. Davis took note of Conkling’s demeanor at once.
“Well! You were right!” Davis whispered to Lamar. “He is all bluff, and the moment you call his bluff he pretends he never made the threat to begin with!”
Vice-President Arthur assumed his position presiding over the Senate and called that body to order.
“Any Senator with business to present shall do so at once!” called a clerk. Several Senators, among them Conkling, raised their hands, and an array of pages scampered forward to courier their bills and other matters forward to the clerk. The clerk began to sort through the competing demands.
Lamar furrowed his brow. “The Robertson nomination is already on the calendar,” he muttered. “We can proceed with that straightaway.” He snapped his fingers for a page.
Arthur, at the front podium in the Senate chamber, coughed politely.
“I am now directed to lay before the Senate the communication which the clerk will now read.”
“What is this?” Lamar hissed.
Arthur handed a letter to the clerk, who began to read.
Will you please announce to the Senate that my resignation as Senator of the United States from the State of New York has been forwarded to the Governor of the State? I have the honor to be, with great respect, your obedient servant,
— Roscoe Conkling
There were gasps in the Senate as another note saying the same thing, now from Platt, was read out loud.
“He has capitulated completely!” Lamar whispered to Davis. A confused murmur arose from the floor of the Senate.
Davis shook his head. “Not exactly. I expect he and Platt think that the New York State legislature shall reelect them to the Senate, and they shall return in a stronger position. But,” here Davis began laughing, “why should we care?”
Lamar contented himself with a broad smile, which could not be seen beneath his enormous moustache, that facial adornment ever a boon to masking a lapse in good manners.
Meanwhile, the murmurs had increased in volume to all manner of cries and exclamations. Conkling and Platt sat at their desks, arms crossed and smirking.
“I should now like to read a report,” Senator Burnside, of the enormous whiskers, rose at his desk, “of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — ”
He was drowned out by protests.
“The Senate must go into secret session!” cried one Democrat. “There is now an outright Democratic majority!”
“The vacancies are merely temporary!” objected one Republican.
“We cannot proceed in this manner!”
“Mr. Vice-President, you must adjourn!”
“You cannot adjourn, Mr. Vice-President!”
Arthur stood and gaveled the session out of order. Davis sought to glimpse his face as he departed the podium, and saw trepidation, and nothing of the confidence that marked the visages of Conkling and Platt. Davis departed the floor of the Senate and proceeded to the cloakroom, which was already bursting with the gentlemen of the press, badgering every Senator for their views.
“Conkling has made a fool of himself,” wagered one Senator.
“Senator Conkling acts like a boy,” opined another.
“It’s bad enough without discussing it, and I don’t care to say anything,” ventured a third.
Naturally there was enormous interest as to what Davis might say, and he soon found himself surrounded by the scriveners of the press.
“Senator Davis, sir?”
“Well,” Davis began, and soon his rotundity became convulsed with drollery. “You all know the poem!
There was a little girl
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
When she was good
She was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid!
The reporters whistled and laughed. “May we quote you, Judge?”
“You most certainly cannot!” Davis roared.