February 15th, 1879 – Women, Attorneys, & the Supreme Court

Today-In-History

On February 15th, 1879, American President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill allowing female attorneys to argue cases before the Supreme Court of the United States; one of many social reforms he enacted while in office.

Rutherford B. Hayes

President Rutherford B. Hayes

Hayes took office determined to reform the system of civil service appointments, which had been based on the spoils system since Andrew Jackson was president. Instead of giving federal jobs to political supporters, Hayes wished to award them by merit according to an examination that all applicants would take. Immediately, Hayes’s call for reform brought him into conflict with the Stalwart, or pro-spoils, branch of the Republican party. Senators of both parties were accustomed to being consulted about political appointments and turned against Hayes. Foremost among his enemies was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who fought Hayes’s reform efforts at every turn.

To show his commitment to reform, Hayes appointed one of the best-known advocates of reform, Carl Schurz, to be Secretary of the Interior and asked Schurz and William M. Evarts, his Secretary of State, to lead a special cabinet committee charged with drawing up new rules for federal appointments. John Sherman, the Treasury Secretary, ordered John Jay to investigate the New York Custom House, which was stacked with Conkling’s spoilsmen. Jay’s report suggested that the New York Custom House was so overstaffed with political appointees that 20% of the employees were expendable.

Rutherford B. Hayes Cartoon

Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Custom House

Although he could not convince Congress to outlaw the spoils system, Hayes issued an executive order that forbade federal office holders from being required to make campaign contributions or otherwise taking part in party politics. Chester A. Arthur, the Collector of the Port of New York, and his subordinates Alonzo B. Cornell and George H. Sharpe, all Conkling supporters, refused to obey the president’s order. In September 1877, Hayes demanded the three men’s resignations, which they refused to give. He submitted appointments of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., L. Bradford Prince, and Edwin Merritt—all supporters of Evarts, Conkling’s New York rival—to the Senate for confirmation as their replacements. The Senate’s Commerce Committee, which Conkling chaired, voted unanimously to reject the nominees, and the full Senate rejected Roosevelt and Prince by a vote of 31–25, confirming Merritt only because Sharpe’s term had expired.

Belva Lockwood

Belva Lockwood, the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar on March 3rd, 1879.

Hayes was forced to wait until July 1878 when, during a Congressional recess, he sacked Arthur and Cornell and replaced them by recess appointments of Merritt and Silas W. Burt, respectively. Conkling opposed the appointees’ confirmation when the Senate reconvened in February 1879, but Merritt was approved by a vote of 31–25, as was Burt by 31–19, giving Hayes his most significant civil service reform victory. For the remainder of his term, Hayes pressed Congress to enact permanent reform legislation and fund the United States Civil Service Commission, even using his last annual message to Congress in 1880 to appeal for reform. While reform legislation did not pass during Hayes’s presidency, his advocacy provided “a significant precedent as well as the political impetus for the Pendleton Act of 1883,” which was signed into law by President Chester Arthur. Hayes allowed some exceptions to the ban on assessments, permitting George Congdon Gorham, secretary of the Republican Congressional Committee, to solicit campaign contributions from federal office-holders during the Congressional elections of 1878.

Hayes also dealt with corruption in the postal service. In 1880, Schurz and Senator John A. Logan asked Hayes to shut down the “star route” rings, a system of corrupt contract profiteering in the Postal Service, and to fire Second Assistant Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady, the alleged ring leader. Hayes stopped granting new star route contracts, but let existing contracts continue to be enforced. Democrats accused Hayes of delaying proper investigation so as not to injure Republican chances in the 1880 elections but did not press the issue in their campaign literature, as members of both parties were implicated in the corruption. As historian Hans L. Trefousse later wrote, Hayes “hardly knew the chief suspect [Brady] and certainly had no connection with the [star route] corruption.” Although Hayes and the Congress both investigated the contracts and found no compelling evidence of wrongdoing, Brady and others were indicted for conspiracy in 1882. After two trials, the defendants were found not guilty in 1883.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

Comments are closed.

Skip to toolbar