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The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The first President to be turned out of office by the voters was John Adams. Although deeply wounded in spirit, he grimly plowed ahead with unfinished business during his last weeks. Congress, dominated by other lame-duck Federalists, co-operated. Adams arranged and the Senate ratified a diplomatic convention that settled a number of outstanding problems with France. But Adams also used his appointive powers in a way that aroused partisan controversy. John Marshall, a Federalist tower, was made Chief Justice. On Adams’ recommendation, Congress expanded the federal judiciary, creating twenty-three new judgeships in which Federalists were promptly installed. Minor executive and judicial appointments took care of a number of other Federalists, including both a nephew and a son-in-law of the President. As late as March 2, Adams nominated forty-three justices of the peace for the District of Columbia; they were confirmed on the third. That evening, Adams signed the commissions for these appointees and left town without waiting for his successor’s inauguration. Although Federalists maintained that in making these appointments Adams was merely doing his duty, the “midnight judges” were viewed quite differently by Republicans, many of whom expressed indignation.
Ironically, the second President rejected for re-election by the voters was the son of the first. John Quincy Adams started his Presidency under a cloud of controversy over an alleged “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay that had put him in the White House- the offer of a job as Secretary of State in return for Clay’s support. After experiencing heavy political weather for four years, Adams was beaten decisively by Jackson in 1828. Perhaps recalling his father’s experience, he avoided further serious controversy between November and March; his administration, as the historian James Schouler put it, “preserved a dignified composure before the country.” The President proposed little and Congress did little except to bestow, in favored states, liberal subsidies for canals and other internal improvements. Congress declined to confirm most of Adams’ appointments, and the outgoing President was keenly disappointed at its failure to approve one of his pet projects, a proposed exploring expedition to the South Seas. President-elect Jackson arrived in Washington the day Congress counted the electoral vote, but, embittered by political attacks on his late wife, he declined to call on the President, and Adams declined to make the first move. Thus another party turnover occurred without amenities between old and new Presidents; like his father, Adams did not attend the inauguration of his successor.
Perhaps the longest tenure in lame-duck status was that of Andrew Johnson, who fought with Congress during most of his time in the White House and was left virtually powerless for almost a year after his narrow escape from conviction following his impeachment in the spring of 1868. The Republican party, dominated by the Radicals, rushed to nominate General Grant, and although Johnson nursed hopes for the Democratic nomination, his own party considered him untouchable. After the election, tensions seemed to be relaxed and Johnson enjoyed a considerable amount of personal if not political good will. Apparently with nothing else to do, he presided over several splendid social events at the White House that winter; he had many visitors, and even some of those who had led the impeachment came around to shake his hand. Five thousand people turned up at Johnson’s last reception, two days before the end. President-elect Grant, though, was not welcome, and Johnson avoided the inauguration.
At best, however, presidential turnovers during the Gilded Age were accompanied by an undignified amount of scrambling for office and preferment both in Congress and the executive. “This is the moment,” said Henry Adams in Democracy , “when the two whited sepulchres at either end of the Avenue reek with the thick atmosphere of bargain and sale.”
Another accidental President who spent almost four years in limbo was Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded after the assassination of Garfield in 1881. A former New York machine politician whose rise to the Presidency dismayed many, Arthur surprised both friends and enemies by the uprightness of his administration. He made some excellent appointments, urged tariff reform, and vetoed pork-barrel bills—which were passed over his veto. After Democratic victories in the 1882 congressional elections, there was an interesting demonstration of what a lame-duck Congress could do: in recognition of demands for reform, and not incidentally to protect some Republican appointees against the Democratic storm that was coming, Con- gress passed the Pendleton Act, which laid the foundation for the civil service merit system. By 1884 Arthur was a half-success—which of course was fatal, and he was passed over for renomination.