The Inauguration of 1881

From the Chester Arthur Presidential Library and Museum Collection

Friday, March 4, 1881 was a bright, brisk, and clear day. Washington D.C. had a fresh inch of snow on the ground. The weather was fair enough that the Vice President-Elect of the United States, Chester Alan Arthur, used an open carriage to travel from the home where he was staying to the US Capitol building for his swearing in. (President-Elect James Garfield stayed at a hotel the night of March 3, and took a separate carriage.)  Recently made a widower with the death the previous year of his beloved wife, Ellen (Nell), Arthur made the ride with his breakfast mate, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling.

The feeling of members of the crowd of about 50,000 who gathered to watch the inauguration ceremonies was more watchful and hopeful than anticipatory. The transition from the Rutherford Hayes administration, while between members of the Republican party, had not gone well.
Garfield, as a compromise candidate between the “Stalwarts” (supporters of a third term for Ulysses Grant, and beneficiaries of the patronage system) and James Blaine’s “Half Breed” faction, had only received the Republican nomination on the 36th ballot after bitter fighting and ardent horse trading among the two factions and groups of reformers interested in ending what they viewed as the corrupt practices of the Republican machines. Arthur was given the Vice Presidential nomination as an intended sop to the Stalwart faction, but without the consent and pre-approval of the head of the Stalwart faction, Conkling, previously Arthur’s champion and political boss.

Arthur casts his ballot.

The subsequent general election campaign against civil war hero General Winfield Scott Hancock (the only contest in US history with former generals at the top of both tickets; Garfield, like Arthur, had served as a brigadier for two years during the war) was the closest contest in United States electoral history. The final ballot tally, out of nearly 9 million votes cast, gave Garfield a majority in the popular vote of only 1,898 votes — 48.27 to 48.25%. Each candidate won 19 states; with the exception of a few small electoral-count far Western states, the split between parties was entirely along the same sectional lines between the Union and Confederate states of the late war. The electoral vote was 214 to 155, but the results swung on the outcome of two states, Indiana (15 electoral votes) and New York (35 electoral votes), both of which were closely divided between Democratic and Republican parties and machines. Garfield won New York by just over 21,000 votes out of 1.1 million cast, thanks to a strong showing upstate and a closer than expected margin in New York City, where Arthur’s Republican party was neck and neck with the Democratic Tammany Hall machine. That contest won the election for Garfield.

The outcome of the election was largely Chet Arthur’s doing. Garfield, a scholar and intellectual from a “Western” state (Ohio was then considered one), had little direct experience with hardscrabble national politics and even less with the machinations at the local level, having been a Congressman gaining easy re-election for 9 terms prior to obtaining the nomination for President. Arthur, on the other hand, was deeply steeped in the patronage system, by which in exchange for votes and mandatory campaign contributions to the party, supporters were given Federal jobs and contracts in fairly direct quid pro quos.

1880 Republican Campaign literature, with the names of the electors to be chosen included as an insertion. This was mailed to a private home in Brooklyn.

Arthur arranged speaking tours through Indiana for Conkling (as Garfield’s “surrogate”, in modern parlance), meetings with local bosses, handled the transfer of funds from national coffers to local races (where you could get a dollar and a drink of whiskey for attending a political speech), and in general greased the electoral wheels. He directed these efforts from the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel, his preferred place of doing business and the de facto National Campaign Headquarters.

Invitation to the inaugural reception and “Promenade Concert”. From the Chester Arthur Presidential Library and Museum Collection.

Immediately following the narrow victory, squabbling began in the incoming administration. Garfield, very much a novice on the national stage, began picking cabinet nominees without reference to political payoffs of appointments he had promised when securing the nomination. The cabinet nominees were the front row of the patronage system; through the Postmaster General, postal routes and contracts were award; through the Secretary of the Navy, jobs at Navy yards and provisioning contracts were made; and so on through the posts. A particular plum was the job of Secretary of State, which came with the perqs of naming ambassadors and the pedigree of being a stepping stone to the Presidency itself.

Admission ticket to the Inauguration

The Stalwart faction of Conkling and Arthur took exception to this lack of gratitude to their machine on the part of Garfield, and a significant struggle over the cabinet appointments ensued, with Arthur being Conkling’s point man within the administration. Famously wary of the press, Arthur nevertheless used selective leaks to reporters to undercut Garfield’s picks and seemed to be actively undermining the President Elect even before he came to office. (Garfield did not, in the end, submit his cabinet picks to the Senate for confirmation until March 5, 1881. the day after his inauguration.) This came to a head with the infamous Delmonico’s dinner of February 11th, 1881, held in New York City.

“Lady Liberty”. Liberty was a common allegorical figure on US coinage, depicted often with a torch and shield. Creation of the more iconic Statue of  Liberty was a few years in the future.

Ostensibly in honor of Stephen Dorsey of Indiana, a key political ally in the 1880 campaign, the dinner was very much a victory party. The attendees included most Republican Stalwart luminaries of the day, and a who’s who of the business establishment and “billionaires” of the day, including Jay Gould, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John Jacob Astor.Former President Grant was seated at the head of the center table, flanked by Dorsey on one side, and Arthur on the other, in a lavishly decorated private dining hall.

Map and guide to the Inauguration Ball. Note the rules, upper left!

Following the lead of both Grant and Dorsey in their opening remarks, the dinner quickly became a fete for the Vice President Elect and his political prowess.  Arthur, perhaps emboldened by the friendly company, or by plentiful victuals and drink, while fully aware there were reporters in the room, proceeded to recap the details of the successful election campaign, in perhaps too much detail. (He also made joking asides about the “birther” campaign which had sought to claim he had been born in Canada, and was thus ineligible for executive office, saying “I don’t mean to say anything about my birthplace, be it in Canada or elsewhere.”) In addition to celebrating what seemed like the least savory aspects of electoral politics, Arthur could not resist adding pointed jibes at the absent members of James Blaine’s Half-Breed faction, none of whom were present, including celebrating other candidates’ defeat in the struggle for the nomination.

The press present, of course, could not help but print the remarks. A contemporary commentator. “The cynicism of this, coming from such a veteran Machinist as Mr. Arthur, was not surprising, but people were rather shocked — though we do not see why they should have been — when they remembered that it came from the lips not of Mr. Conkling’s ‘lieutenant’ in this city, but of the Vice-President-Elect of the United States.”

The inauguration festivities were a brief respite from this background of machination and intraparty fighting.  Arthur took the oath of office in the Senate chambers at about 11:30, gave brief remarks (which were not recorded), administered the oath of office in turn to

Souvenir ribbon.

the newly-elected Senators present, and the entire Senate party then decamped to the steps of the Capitol for the outdoor swearing-in of President Garfield. He did, however, make a strong impression, as ever. From biographer Thomas Reeves:


Arthur, dressed in light trousers, a Prince Albert Coat, a colored necktie, and light gloves, stood next to former Vice-President Wheeler, and drew considerable attention. A reporter observed, “Gen. Arthur, strong, keen-eyed, and handsome as ever, and because of his commanding form and military bearing, [was] a central attraction.”

Arthur, always more comfortable around many people and friends, must have been feeling particularly lonely without his wife’s companionship, but took great public delight in the evening inauguration ball. This event was held at the newly-constructed National Museum Buliding, better known today as the Smithsonian Institution “Castle”.  Decorated with patriotic bunting and a replica of “Lady Liberty”, the entire museum floor was given over to guests. Garfield and Arthur arrived after 9 PM and shook hands with the receiving line until nearly midnight.  A full orchestra played into the wee hours of the night. Refreshments included 1500 pounds of turkey, 50 hams, 100 gallons of oysters,  and 15,000 cakes. After the teetotaling Hayes administration (Mrs. Hayes is known yet to history as “Lemonade Lucy” for her preferred beverage at the White House), alcohol in many forms once again flowed freely at a Presidential event.

The National Museum, March 4, 1881, in preparation for the inaugural promenade and ball. The statue of Lady Liberty is seen through the archway. (See map, above.)

The next day, a Saturday, Vice President Arthur presided over a special session of the new Senate. The Senate was evenly divided with 37 Republicans, 37 Democrats, and two independents. The arch-rival of the Stalwarts, Senator James Blaine, was present, but only temporarily: he had been appointed Secretary of State. It was a very short post-inaugural honeymoon.