The Assassin Who Helped Create the Deep State
By now it is abundantly clear that President Trump faces furious opposition not just from the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the mainstream media, but from a shadowy, determined cabal of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who are deeply embedded in the government: the “deep state.” Paradoxically, the ability of such a cabal to grow and operate freely can be traced back in American history to well-meaning efforts to end government corruption -- as well as to the evil act of one deranged assassin.
As Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster explains, today’s deep state is a result of efforts to reform what was known as the “spoils system.” In 1828, Andrew Jackson was elected president on promises to end the hegemony of a privileged aristocracy, and to drain that swamp, he would need his own men in key positions. He removed a large number of civil service employees and replaced them with men of his own faction, which came to be known as the Democracy, or Democratic Party. This came to be known as the spoils system, after the old adage “To the victor belong the spoils.” This practice led to numerous incompetent people being placed in positions of responsibility; after the Civil War, a movement grew to remedy that problem by making civil service jobs based on merit rather than party affiliation.
In 1880, a champion of civil service reform, James A. Garfield, was nominated for president by the Republicans; to mollify the Stalwarts, or Republicans who favored the spoils system, the vice-presidential nod went to Chester Alan Arthur, a man who had been fired from his job as Collector of the Port of New York by President Rutherford B. Hayes for ignoring Hayes’s civil service reform executive order forbidding forcing federal officers to make campaign contributions.
The Garfield/Arthur ticket won, and immediately as president, Garfield pushed for measures that would end it. When a scheme to steal the public revenues was discovered in the Post Office Department, he moved swiftly, firing those implicated and calling for the prosecution of anyone involved, no matter how high a position he occupied. Accompanying this was his insistence on adopting a merit-based system that would, he hoped, reduce corruption by removing federal offices from the realm of partisan politics. He did not live to see this come to fruition.
Garfield had only been president for four months when, on July 2, 1881, he and Secretary of State James G. Blaine were walking through the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, on their way to board a train to spend part of the summer in New Jersey, away from the heat of the capital. Just then, a man stepped up behind Garfield and fired his gun twice at the president, hitting him in the back and arm, and crying, “I am a Stalwart and now Arthur is President!”
That man was Charles Guiteau, who has been described in so many history books as a “disappointed office seeker” that the label has practically become a Homeric epithet. A disappointed office seeker Guiteau undeniably was, but he was much more than that. After repeatedly pressing Chester Arthur for a chance to campaign for the Garfield/Arthur ticket during the 1880 campaign, Arthur relented, likely just to end his harassment, and Guiteau delivered his speech, “Garfield against Hancock,” a single time. Guiteau thought he was owed a federal office as a result and had pestered White House officials repeatedly for a chance to see Garfield, who did meet with him at least once, and then Blaine in order to make his case for an appointment as consul to France.
Guiteau was, however, not an ordinary office seeker. He wanted a position in France but did not speak French. His sister recounted that in 1875, six years before the assassination, he had raised an axe to her with a look on his face “like a wild animal.” She explained: “I had no doubt then of his insanity. He was losing his mind.” In 1881, before the assassination, he also pressured Senator John Logan of Illinois for a federal job; Logan recounted: “I must say I thought there was some derangement of his mental organization.”
There was. As he bought a pistol and hatched his plan to murder Garfield, Guiteau wrote: “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to someone else, because I had the brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.”
On September 19, 1881, Garfield died. At his murder trial, Guiteau stated that he was pleading “insanity, in that it was God’s act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not responsible for my act.”
Guiteau was not a “disappointed office seeker” first and foremost; he was a madman. That he has gone down in history as the former rather than the latter can be attributed to attempts to discredit the spoils system and advance the merits of civil service reform. Although Guiteau thought that by elevating Arthur to the presidency he was protecting the spoils system, his crime had the opposite effect: national revulsion over the killing of Garfield made civil service reform the most pressing issue of the day. The time for that reform had come at last, even as the Stalwart Arthur took the oath of office.
Rating America’s Presidents details how, when he became president, Arthur proceeded to shock the entire nation, and especially his Stalwart friends, by supporting civil service reform. His determination that he had a responsibility to do what Garfield would have done outweighed his commitment to the Stalwarts. He declared his support for civil service legislation, explaining that not he, but Garfield, had been elected president, and that he consequently had a responsibility to carry out his policies. On January 16, 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which mandated that some employees of the government would be hired on the basis of written tests, not political affiliation, and forbade the firing of government employees for political purposes.
Arthur demonstrated immense personal courage and honor in choosing to carry out the wishes of his slain predecessor rather than implement his own contrary agenda. His decision to do this effectively ended his political career, as he almost certainly knew it would, and yet he stood firm.
Whether his stance was entirely wise in the long run is a separate question. Historians take for granted that civil service reform was good for the country, and there has been no significant indication that it wasn’t until quite recently, when a president has been thwarted in numerous endeavors by an army of unelected bureaucrats within the various departments and agencies of the government, who are determined to impede his agenda in every way possible.
The proponents of civil service reform never envisioned a situation in which deeply entrenched opponents of a sitting president in the FBI, the Justice Department, and elsewhere would be determined to destroy the president -- or at very least make it impossible for him to carry out his policies -- and could not be removed from their jobs because of civil service regulations.
Would not government work more smoothly, and the executive branch be able to operate more effectively in the way the Founding Fathers envisioned it would, if the president were able to clear out the employees of these agencies who opposed him and replace them with people more in line with his vision?
Charles Guiteau’s madness helped pave the way for the deep state. The spoils system has no defenders today and has had none for over a century. It should have more.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.