Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.

Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.

The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.

Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and  gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.

After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.

Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.

Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.

Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.

While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone  had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)

The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront.  Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.

Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before  noon.

Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.

The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877.  In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.

Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.

During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.

Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.

On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.

Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.

History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.

Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.

Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)

Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.

DSCF0857

Arthur being sworn in

The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.

Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.

Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.

Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.

Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.

Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.

Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.

Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.

In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….

Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.

In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)

During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.

In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.

However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)

Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)

It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”

Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.

Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

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7 Responses

  1. Nice piece, Bob.

    • Thanks, but could you phrase this comment in the form of a Phillies troll-like comment. I think some of those trolls are related to Charles Guiteau.

  2. Admirer of Henry Clay?

  3. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, in the shadow of Union College, and yet, like most Americans, have no particular opinion about Chester A. Arthur one way or the other.

    Arthur does not get much discussion in the local schools.

    Neither does Kurt Vonnegut, despite being another local boy who made good.

    Vonnegut’s onetime employer, General Electric, gets a lot of play.

  4. Editor’s note: Humma has been barred on DT from talking about trades for the next twelve months.

  5. We acquired a grant to take oral histories from the elderly in Waterville, Vermont. It was striking to us that it seemed like like common knowledge to all that Chester A. Arthur was born in Waterville and the historical storyline was compelling. Dad was the minister in Waterville and was building a house in Fairfield whilst mom stayed in Waterville until the house was complete. While waiting mom had Chester…in Waterville.

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