The process of cabinet making, not completed until after the inauguration, foreshadowed trouble. For secretary of state, Garfield chose Blaine, first extracting from him a promise not to make the office "the camping ground for fighting the next presidential battle." Blaine gave his word, but temperamentally incapable of keeping it, he was soon busily meddling in Garfield's other appointments. Conkling expected as his reward the right to name the head of the Treasury Department, which carried with it control of the patronage of the customhouses. But Garfield rejected Conkling's candidate, the banker Levi P. Morton, and instead gave New York the position of postmaster general in the person of Thomas L. James, much to Conkling's annoyance.
Other choices reflected a sensible desire to build needed harmony within the contentious party. The War Department went to Robert Todd Lincoln, who was not only the son of the Great Emancipator but the protégé of Senator John A. Logan, an Illinois Stalwart. The choice of Wayne MacVeagh as attorney general pleased the Pennsylvania boss Senator J. Donald Cameron, who had gone to the 1880 convention as a Grant man. William Hunt, who got the navy portfolio, was from the dwindling ranks of southern Republicans. The Treasury and Interior departments went to a pair of moderate midwesterners, William Windom of Minnesota and Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa.
Cabinet selection was an exhaustive process, not completed until Garfield had actually delivered his inaugural address, a compendium of platitudes. The only possible hint of future policy was in the reference to the blacks of the South. They were praised for earning "the blessings that gather around the homes of the industrious poor" and were promised that their future would be assured by "the saving influence of universal education."
But with the cabinet completed, Garfield could not yet escape the importunings of hundreds of other office seekers, whose demands caused him to exclaim wearily, "My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it!" While his wife, daughter, and four sons seemed to settle happily into the White House, he was finding it a harder battleground than any he had known in uniform.
Shortly after his inauguration, Garfield met with Conkling. The New York senator, never easy to deal with, was especially eager to be placated. He resented Blaine's eminence in the cabinet and influence on Garfield. What was worse for him was a deepening split in the ranks of his own state machine. He wanted Garfield's assignment of federal jobs in New York to reward the friends, and punish the enemies, of Roscoe Conkling. Garfield promised the rewards, but not the punishments, and named five Conkling associates to federal jobs, including the lucrative spot of United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, on 22 March. The news brought an agitated Secretary Blaine rushing to the White House for a mid-dinner conference. He persuaded Garfield to redress the pro-Stalwart balance by some additional appointments, and the centerpiece of his plan was to replace the collector of the Port of New York, a reformer who had succeeded Chester A. Arthur in the job, with William H. Robertson, the chief New York backer of Blaine in 1880.
When Robertson's name was sent to the Senate for confirmation the next morning, it not only stung reform-minded Republicans but was denounced by Conkling as "perfidy without parallel." To lose control of the customhouse would wreck his machine, and he promised, "There will be hell before Judge Robertson is confirmed." Garfield, who had previously shown no disposition for conflict, suddenly dug in his heels. For a long time he had disliked the practice of "senatorial courtesy," the informal veto allowed each senator over appointments within his state. In 1872 he described it as a "corrupt and vicious" practice that gave the Senate the irresponsible power to thwart the president. The issue, as he saw it, was "whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States." He announced that Robertson might be "carried out of the Senate head first or feet first," but he would not withdraw the nomination.
In pressing what simply appeared to be a shabby intraparty battle on Blaine's behalf, Garfield adorned his short administration with its only achievement. He wooed and threatened, and in the end, a majority of Republican senators realized that the prudent course was to follow him. Confronting defeat, Conkling and the other New York senator, Thomas Platt, resigned in mid-May, just before Robertson's confirmation. They hoped to be vindicated through reelection by the New York state legislature. They failed in that, too.
In winning the battle over Robertson, Garfield had helped to replenish the reservoir of executive power, thoroughly depleted by Congress in Andrew Johnson's day. He had taken a step toward the modern presidency. As Garfield's latest biographer, Allan Peskin, puts it, Blaine and Conkling had more or less forced him into the fight, but "the path upon which he had been pushed led straight to the twentieth century."
The political situation in the Senate was also responsible for a sketchy Garfield initiative on a new southern policy. The Republicans and Democrats were exactly balanced in voting strength there, but the Republicans would be able to organize and control the committees if they could win the vote of a newly elected independent member, Virginia's scrappy little William Mahone. He was a former Confederate general and a former Democrat who had run on the ticket of the Readjusters, a group of dissenters, black and white, from both major parties who wanted to lighten the huge burden of bonded indebtedness that the Reconstruction governments had incurred for the benefit of railroads and other corporations. Mahone could be induced to vote Republican if rewarded with patronage in the Senate and cooperation back in Virginia. Garfield approved the deal, though with misgivings. It meant a partial abandonment of the traditional and heavily black Republican machines in the South in order to woo discontented white Democrats, which accelerated the incoming tide of black disfranchisement. The president consoled himself for this desertion with the thought that the key to the freed-men's future, as he had said on taking office, might be in the schoolhouse rather than the ballot box.
Garfield had time for only one completed domestic achievement. He directed Secretary Windom to refund the national debt, by calling in outstanding United States bonds issued at 6 percent and giving holders the option of cashing them in or holding on to them at 3.5 percent, which was more in line with existing interest rates. The move, it was estimated, saved the taxpayers $10 million—a number better appreciated when set against the fact that total federal expenditures in 1881 were under $261 million.
While the battles over appointments were raging, Secretary Blaine plunged enthusiastically into a new, aggressive hemispheric diplomacy. He threatened to intervene in disputes between Chile and Peru and between Mexico and Guatemala, he brandished the Monroe Doctrine in Great Britain's face, and he proposed a Pan-American conference that would have been dominated by the United States. He also made overtures toward prying open markets for American goods in Europe, Asia, and Africa. None of these adventurous and uncoordinated initiatives was supported by adequate power, and none reached a level where it became the concern of the president before 2 July 1881.