Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chester Arthur and James G. Blaine: The Conference of American States

When Chester Arthur became the twenty-first president of the United States upon the death of James A. Garfield he announced that he would retain his predecessor's cabinet. The move was part of an image makeover effort. Long regarded as a party hack with his hands in the cookie jar, Arthur had to demonstrate to the American people that he was up to the task of being president. He acted judiciously during his first few months of office and tried to display calm, conservative, competent judgement. Arthur's first public action as president was to appear at the centennial celebration of the Battle of Yorktown in October 1881. Like presidents before and after, he used a good military show and some patriotic flag waving to bolster his standing as commander-in-chief.

James G. Blaine was more than James A. Garfield's Secretary of State. He was the slain president's closest political friend, an advisor on domestic, as well as foreign matters, and major political figure in his own right. Blaine had his share of baggage, and allegations of corruption dogged him for years, but he had one of the sharpest political minds of his era and possessed an enormous store of charisma, an uncommon trait in the late nineteenth century. Blaine was an established leader of the Half Breed faction of the Republicans and long battled Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Arthur was a friend and ally to Conkling and belonged to the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party. As vice president Arthur supported Conkling against Garfield in a nasty patronage battle over the New York Customhouse.

Now there was an uncomfortable situation in Washington. Blaine had to work for a man he detested, but he didn't want to rock the boat and be blamed for Arthur losing any public confidence. Arthur was stuck with someone who could easily overshadow him and one he did not like to boot. Perhaps in the uncomfortable pirouette Blaine got the upper hand. In November 1881, just a week before he resigned as secretary of state, Blaine prevailed on President Arthur to invite the nations of Central and South America to a conference to be held in the United States.

Blaine would have sought this conference had Garfield lived. He was long concerned about the growth of British trade, and what we today call soft power in Latin America. It greatly bothered him that the the British had more trade in our continent than we did. A conference would solidify the relationships between each the Latin American nations and the United States. In addition, it would create a more peaceful environment -- an important objective considering there was currently one war in South America and a threat of a least one more in Central America. Peace, especially if brokered by the United States, would  greatly improve trade prospects. Peace and cooperation would also reduce the possibility of any European intervention.

Although Arthur agreed to send the invitations out in November, he changed his mind in January 1882, citing as his reason a concern that such a meeting would anger the European powers. Blaine went ballistic when he heard this, he wasn't known as "Jingo Jim" for nothing. Blaine wrote a 13 page letter in the tone of the schoolmaster he used to be lecturing Arthur on the folly of his decision and the foreign policy disaster it would create. Blaine called it a "voluntary humiliation." Blaine made sure this did not remain a private dispute. He gave the letter to his friend Whitelaw Reid who published in the newspaper he edited, the New York Tribune. Arthur could not expect any help from Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen who told a guest at a Washington dinner party, "Blaine may quarrel with me if he likes but I shall not with him." One imagines Frelinghuysen declining invitations from "Meet the Press", "This Week", and "Face the Nation".

Blaine wasn't the only one critical of Arthur. Diplomats criticized the president for leaving them hanging and others chimed in how weak it looked to cave in the face of imagined European opposition. Didn't they have their meetings and conferences also? It seemed a psychological violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Arthur started to back peddle again. In April he told Congress it was their problem. He argued the situation was too tense in the Americas, but if the American people expressed a desire, through their elected representatives, then there should be a conference. When Congress did not vote on the conference by August 1882 Arthur officially withdrew the invitations, even though nine countries had already accepted.

On the one hand, this is a presidential abdication of foreign policy power that would have made any late twentieth or early twenty-first century president cringe. On the other hand, Arthur knew Congress unlikely to support the conference and it gave him the cover to wiggle out of it. Why did he want out of the conference so bad? Most likely to embarrass and discredit James G. Blaine.

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