Hancock's First Term was rather quiet, and he took a hand's off approach in regards to governing the country, handing the reigns over the Democratic Congress.
Civil Service Reform
In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission which forbade levying political assessments against officeholders and provided for a "classified system" that made certain government positions obtainable only through competitive written examinations. The system protected employees against removal for political reasons.
Winfield Hancock signed the Edmunds Act that banned bigamists and polygamists from voting and holding office. The act was specifically enforced in Utah, a highly populated Mormon territory and establishes a five-man "Utah commission" to prevent bigamists and polygamists from voting. Interestingly, Hancock himself did not sign or veto the legislation.
The Hancock Administration enacted the first general Federal immigration law. Arthur approved a measure in 1882 excluding paupers, criminals, and the mentally ill.
In response to anti-Chinese sentiment in the West, Winfield Scott signed a Chinese Exclusion Act. The act made illegal the immigration of Chinese laborers for twenty years and denied American citizenship to Chinese Americans currently residing in the United States.
Hancock was in a bind in regards on how to deal with the rights of African-Americans in the South. While he did support the 15th Amendment, and was disgusted by the "Jim Crow" laws that had been put in place to prevent African-Americans from voting, he did not want to risk losing the South as a Democratic stronghold. As a result, nothing was really done.
Another contentious financial issue at the time was the protective tariff. Hancock's opinion on the tariff was that of most Democrats: that the tariff ought to be reduced. Republicans generally favored a high tariff to protect American industries. American tariffs had been high since the Civil War, and by the 1880s the tariff brought in so much revenue that the government was running a surplus.
In 1882, a bill to reduce the tariff was narrowly defeated in the House. The tariff issue was emphasized in the Congressional elections that year, and the forces of protectionism increased their numbers in the Congress. Nevertheless, Democrats continued to advocate tariff reform. As the surplus grew, Reformers called for a tariff for revenue only. Republicans, as well as protectionist northern Democrats like Samuel J. Randall, believed that without high tariffs American industries would fail, and continued to fight reformers' efforts. Dispute over the tariff would carry over into the 1884 presidential election.
In relation to Asia and Asians, President Arthur was also in office when the United States became the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations in modern times with Korea, which was then a unified, independent kingdom under the rule of the Joseon Dynasty. This was achieved in 1882 with the signing of the Shufeldt Treaty, named after Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt (1822–95), the principal U.S. negotiator. Korea had existed in a state of virtual hermetic isolation for centuries until 1876, when it was forced to establish diplomatic relations with Japan on an unequal basis. The US maintained full diplomatic relations with Korea until 1905, when the latter became an unwilling protectorate of Japan following the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held in Washington, D.C. at President Arthur's behest. This established the Greenwich Meridian and international standardized time, both in use today.
In 1884, at the request of President Hancock, Congress passed a Treaty in which the United States would build a canal through Nicaragua, cutting across the Isthmus of Rivas. Hancock had become worried about the development of the Panama Canal under France, and did not wish to depend upon a European-controlled canal for American Naval movements and commerce.
Campaign for Re-election
During his Second Term in office, Hancock took a much more active role in the running of his administration, as he had demonstrated in his last year during his previous term. Still, it would largely be relegated to the role of foreign affairs.
In 1887 he signed an act creating the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC's purpose was to regulate railroads, to ensure fair rates, to eliminate rate discrimination, and to regulate other aspects of common carriers.
One of the most volatile issues of the 1880s was whether the currency should be backed by gold and silver, or by gold alone. The issue cut across party lines, with western Republicans and southern Democrats joining together in the call for the free coinage of silver, and both parties' representatives in the northeast holding firm for the gold standard. Because silver was worth less than its legal equivalent in gold, taxpayers paid their government bills in silver, while international creditors demanded payment in gold, resulting in a depletion of the nation's gold supply.
Hancock remained on the sidelines for the entire fight, and order that the limits set by the Bland-Allison Act be strictly followed, unless dictated otherwise by Congress.
After significant gains for the Democratic Party in Congress following the 1884 elections, Congress narrowly passed a bill that cut the tariff from 47% to 30%. It was promptly signed into law by President Hancock. Later attempts to further decrease the tariff would be unsuccessful.
The Rights of African Americans, both politically and socially, were treated with the same indifference as they had during Hancock's first term as President. Instead, he promoted in Congress funds to send former slaves to the US-sponsored nation of Liberia, at their behest. The Democrats were initially skeptical, but enough were brought over to allow significant finacial support of the endeavour.
Congress passed the Scott Act, written by Congressman William Lawrence Scott, which would prevent Chinese immigrants who left the United States from returning. The Scott Act easily passed both houses of Congress, and Hancock signed it into law on October 1, 1888.
Congress passed the Dawes Act, which provided for distribution of Indian lands to individual members of tribes, rather than having them continued to be held in trust for the tribes by the federal government. While a conference of Native leaders endorsed the act, in practice the majority of Native Americans disapproved of it. Hancock believed the Dawes Act would lift Native Americans out of poverty and encourage their assimilation into white society, but its ultimate effect was to weaken the tribal governments and encourage sale of Indian land to white speculators.
While the Berlin Conference had started during his first term, the fruits were not seen until well into the second. At the Berlin Conference concerning Africa, Hancock wanted to wanted three major goals to be achieved; that the borders of Liberia be expanded according to their claims, that American interests in the Congo be preserved, that an American Military Base be established on the Congolese Coast. The fact that these goals represented such a large depature from those outlined in the Monroe Doctrine (expanding the role of the United States outside of the America's) raised the ire of many Republicans and some Northern Democrats, one of his most vocal opponents being New York Governor Grover Cleveland. However, Hancock managed to justify the base as a safeguard of American commerce in the African continent, and the American Commonwealth State of Liberia. The treaties would narrowly be approved by the Senate, allowing for the construction of a military installation at the Congo River Mouth near Banana, in the American Congo.
While the treaty was approved in 1884, funds were not granted until 1886. A later treaty specified that the Canal would remain jointly under the control of the United States and Nicaragua as a condiminium territory, and that the United States has a right to station military forces within that condiminium. The canal itself would not be finished until 1893.
Supreme Court Appointments
During his first term, Hancock successfully appointed two justices to the Supreme Court of the United States. The first, Lucius Q.C. Lamar, was a former Mississippi Senator. When William Burnham Woods died, Hancock nominated Lamar to his seat in late 1887. While Lamar had been well-liked as a Senator, his service under the Confederacy two decades earlier caused many Republicans to vote against him. Lamar's nomination was confirmed by the narrow margin of 34 to 26.
Chief Justice Morrison Waite died a few months later, and Hancock nominated Melville Fuller to his seat on April 30, 1888. Fuller accepted the Supreme Court nomination, and the Senate Judiciary Committee spent several months examining the little-known nominee. Finding him acceptable, the Senate confirmed the nomination 48 to 13.