15. "The Best Secretary of War since Jefferson Davis"
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

235 15 “The Best Secretary of War since Jefferson Davis” When he assumed the presidency in September 1881, Chester A. Arthur had no experience in national politics and absolutely no desire to be president of the United States. He was a part of New York State machine politics, a loyal partisan supporter of powerful state boss U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. In his youth, Arthur had been a teacher and lawyer in New York City and then served as quartermaster general of the State of New York during the Civil War, ending his service with the rank of brigadier general. In 1871, President Grant appointed Arthur collector of the port of New York, a lucrative and politically influential position. Arthur was an honest man who ran the Customs House well administratively, but as a firm believer in political spoils, he used his position to the utmost to reward Republican party loyalists with jobs and other emoluments. He was ousted from office in 1878 by President Rutherford B. Hayes’s government reform efforts. Arthur’s nomination as vice president in 1880 was an attempt to mollify the Stalwart wing of the Republican Party, loyal to Grant and Conkling, rather than a reward to Arthur. As one biographer wrote, “That happened less because of Arthur’s skills and ambition than because he was acceptable.”1 In fact, after Garfield was shot, politicians and journalists were terrified at the idea that such an overt partisan and spoilsman as “Chet” Arthur might become president. The new president surprised his critics and supporters alike, however, by being a respectable, nonpartisan leader who eschewed his previous cronyism and championed civil-service reform. But upon his ascension to office, he first had to create his own cabinet. A total overhaul of Garfield’s cabinet was expected, although it was generally accepted that whatever Arthur decided, he would not dare remove the son of Abraham Lincoln. But did Robert Lincoln want chapter fifteen 236 to stay? He was unhappy as a politician and longed to return to the private life of a Chicago attorney; he even mused aloud if it would be in his family’s best interest for him to resign. He told a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle he was considering the financial aspects of the issue, saying he made $12,000 a year as an attorney compared to $8,000 as a cabinet member, and Washington was far more expensive to live in than Chicago.2 But Robert Lincoln was a man who believed in civic duty and party loyalty, so when President Arthur asked him to remain at the War Department, he could not refuse.3 Few people believed Secretary Lincoln was retained for anything more than his name; but true to his personal principles and dignity, Robert later wrote that he would have resigned if he felt Arthur had retained him for anything less than his job performance.4 Yet, even after agreeing to stay in the Cabinet, he wrote to John Hay that he was in a “near rut” and having no fun. “I long for the independence of Chicago,” he lamented.5 Robert Lincoln’s tenure as secretary of war under President Arthur could, as with any and every presidential cabinet member, be the subject of its own book. In general, it is a record of unexciting administrative duties, although it does have certain interesting highlights. The most common question about Secretary Lincoln’s term in office was his role in handling the western Indian wars. Despite his title of secretary of war, Robert Lincoln actually had very little to do with the issue. Indian policy was the purview of the Office of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department, not the War Department, and so Secretary Lincoln had little, if any, input on that policy.6 He was in charge of the army, and as such he was responsible for sending troops and commanding officers out to the western territories to implement the policy decided by others in the government. In fact, Robert relied on his commanders in the field and General of the Army William T. Sherman to handle most logistics of western troops deployments, knowing they, as professional soldiers, understood it better than he, who had only four months of military experience in 1865. By 1883, the “Indian wars,” as they were called, were over, and the army switched from fighting the Native Americans to protecting them and their reservation lands from encroachment by white settlers. Robert’s papers...


pdf

Subject Headings

  • Lawyers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Lincoln, Robert Todd, 1843-1926.
  • Children of presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ambassadors -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1933.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access