James Garfield: The Customs House (1881) James Garfield decided to take on political corruption. He went to war with New York party boss Roscoe Conklin over patronage in the New York Customs House. Conklin attempted to block Garfield’s appointments, but failed. Garfield outmaneuvered the boss in the U.S. Senate and completely defeated Conklin. The Customs House reverted to the federal government. Before he could follow up his political triumph, an assassin murdered President Garfield.
Chester Arthur: Civil Service Reform (1881-1885) An aggrieved office seeker assassinated President Garfield. In response, the new president, Chester Arthur, continued his predecessor’s policies. This shocked many observers because Arthur was a product of the corrupt spoils system. Despite this, he supported the Pendleton Act, which created the civil service. From Arthur’s Administration on, federal office holders had to pass tests and won promotion through merit as opposed to political connections. Arthur’s independence and reformist spirit cost him a chance at the 1884 nomination. The party bosses blocked his candidacy in retaliation for civil service reform.
Grover Cleveland: two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889, 1893-1897) President Cleveland survived a dirty 1884 campaign and deserved re-election after a successful first term. In 1888, he accumulated more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison, but lost the electoral college. He and his wife swore to return and they managed to defeat Harrison in 1892. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the economy faltered and his second term was a disaster.
Benjamin Harrison: The Panic of 1893 (1889-1893) After defeating Cleveland for the presidency, Harrison reworked the American economy. The economy stopped expanding and Harrison’s policy pushed it over the edge. The president increased tariff rates to nearly 50%. He also signed the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act, which allowed silver to be purchased for paper notes that could be redeemed for gold or silver. This act led to inflation, speculation, and drained the nation’s gold reserves. Harrison lost his re-election bid and his policies led to a financial panic that crippled the nation and his successor.
William McKinley: The Spanish-American War (1897-1901) President McKinley did not want to go to war. When the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, he had no choice. Everyone believed the Spanish attacked the battleship. McKinley led the nation through the most successful war in American history. The U.S. thoroughly defeated the Spanish, freed Cuba, and added territory in the Pacific, Far East, and Caribbean. The war made America a global power for the first time in its history.