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After James Garfield’s election, opposing factions of the Republican Party jockeyed to have their favorite candidates appointed to Cabinet and other patronage jobs. Garfield remained unmoved about his choices, even ignoring appeals by his own vice president, Chester Arthur. While in Mexico City, Grant criticized the sitting president’s choices in a letter sent via Nevada Senator John P. Jones. Two days after receiving the letter, Garfield wrote Grant a blistering response, stating he would appoint whom he wanted. The following day, New York Senators Conkling and Platt resigned in protest and Vice President Arthur was banished from Cabinet meetings. The Grant-Garfield controversy played out in the press for months, ending only after Garfield was assassinated in July. ULYSSES S. GRANT.
Autograph Letter Signed, to [John P.] Jones. [Mexico City] [April 24, 1881]. 2 pp., 4½ x 6¾ in.
I write to you in answer to the letter of the 30th of March, signed by the Vice President, Senator Conkling, & yourself, and only just rec’d. I regret exceedingly I did not get it at Galveston, in time possibly to have had some effect.—Please read my letter to you, and the one to Garfield, to the signers of the letter of the 30th, and use your combined judgment as to whether the latter should be delivered or not. I am likely to remain here another month. The work I am engaged upon is one which I believe is to result in great benefits to my own country, and of course to this. No personal consideration would tempt me to engage in what I am now doing, but I believe sincerely that by building these people up we will establish a market for our products which will stave off, for years at least, a panic which is otherwise inevitable from the rapidity with which we are going in.—My kindest regards to all my friends in Wton [?][Washington].
We believe that this is an unrecorded, private note from U.S. Grant to Nevada Senator John P. Jones written while Grant was in Mexico City. It accompanied two official letters written on April 24, 1881. One letter was to President Garfield and the other is a formal letter to “Senator Jones.” Both are mentioned here: “Please read my letter to you, and the one to Garfield, to the signers of the letter of the 30th, and use your combined judgment as to whether the latter should be delivered or not.” Both letters are recorded in the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 30: October 1, 1880-December 31, 1882.
Although Grant did not receive the “letter of the 30th of March, signed by the Vice President, Senator Conkling, & yourself” (Chester Arthur, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, and Jones) in a timely fashion, he nevertheless agreed to write to President James Garfield regarding his political appointments. With this letter, the former president and Union general inserted himself into a feud over political patronage that stemmed from the Republican presidential nominating convention of 1880.
The 1880 Republican convention was deeply divided between the “Half-Breed” faction candidate Maine Senator James Blaine and the “Stalwart” faction’s attempt to nominate Grant for an unprecedented third term. The nomination eventually went to dark horse candidate James Garfield of Ohio after 29 ballots. To balance the ticket, the delegates added New York Stalwart Chester Arthur as vice presidential candidate. After his election, Garfield had the unenviable task of putting together a Cabinet that would unite the fragmented Republican Party.
Attempts by Arthur and Stalwart leader Conkling to convince Garfield to appoint (mostly) New York Stalwart Republicans to political office largely failed, with Garfield instead filling most positions with Midwestern and Southern Republicans. (New York Stalwarts got the Postmaster Generalship as small consolation.) Further fanning the flames, Garfield’s appointment of Conkling’s nemesis Blaine as Secretary of State was particularly onerous. The situation came to a head on March 23 when Garfield, at Blaine’s urging, nominated William Robertson, another of Conkling’s political enemies, as Customs Collector of the Port of New York—a position previously held by Arthur.
With the sitting president on one side and the vice president and Conkling on the other, Grant wrote to Garfield on the problem of appointing the “wrong” Republicans to patronage jobs. The former president urged Garfield to fill the offices with the type of Republicans who would help the Republican party retain power in the 1884 presidential election. In this private note to Senator Jones, Grant left it to the three to decide if they thought it worth delivering: “Please read my letter to you, and the one to Garfield, to the signers of the letter of the 30th, and use your combined judgment as to whether the latter should be delivered or not.” Apparently they did, as Jones personally delivered Grant’s letter to Garfield on May 13. 1881.
Grant had concluded the letter to Garfield with his reason for sending it through Jones: “I shall send this letter through my friend Senator Jones, of Nevada, to insure it reaching your hands without going through the hands of a Secretary, to be read perhaps before it reaches you.” On May 15, Garfield responded to Grant and affirmed that “Yours of the 24th April was handed to me by Senator Jones the night before last.” The president then launched into an uncompromising and lengthy rebuttal in which he asserted he would not be bound by the spoils system and would appoint anyone worthy of Republican service regardless of special interests. Conkling and fellow New York Stalwart Thomas Platt resigned in protest the following day, and Garfield forbade his vice president from attending Cabinet meetings out of spite.
Regarding the railroad, Grant had been interested in developing Mexican rail lines since his visit to Mexico the previous year. On April 3, 1881, Grant departed Galveston, Texas, for Mexico to negotiate a contract for the Mexican Southern Railroad Company. He was joined by former Mexican Treasury Secretary (and future Mexican minister to the United States) Matias Romero in the railroad project. A year earlier, in September 1880, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz began granting concessions to American railroad builders. At Grant’s urging, Romero had wined and dined about 20 railroad magnates at Delmonico’s in New York City in November 1880. The group agreed to form a committee with Grant as its chairman, and proceeded to work developing Mexican rail lines. On March 23, 1881, the Mexican Southern Railroad Company was incorporated with Grant as its president, and on May 11, 1881, Grant signed a contract with Mexican government official laying out terms and gaining concessions for the railroad. As he stated, he earnestly believed that the proposition would improve the economies of both nations: “I believe sincerely that by building these people up we will establish a market for our products which will stave off, for years at least, a panic which is otherwise inevitable”and help mitigate the effects of the financial panics so prevalent in late 19th century America.
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 30 pp. 197-227, esp. pp. 203-211. http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/USG_volume/id/27377/rec/31
Earle B. Young, Tracks to the Sea: Galveston and Western Railroad Development, 1866-1900 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 1999) pp. 56-59.