Term in Office: 21st president, 1881-1885
Political Party: Republican
Home State: New York
“Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!” This was the reaction, even among his fellow Republicans, when Chester Alan Arthur became president after James Garfield succumbed, after weeks of agony, to a gunshot wound compounded by multiple infections from his doctors’ unsterile fingers. Their incredulity over President Arthur is quite understandable.
Early in his career, Chester Arthur attached himself to one of the greatest practitioners of machine politics in the Gilded Age, becoming a disciple of the powerful Roscoe Conkling, leader of the faction of Republicans called the Stalwarts. As Conkling’s fortunes rose, so did Arthur’s, and by the 1870s, he was the Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative job on the federal payroll, earning more money than even the president. But the collection of duties and the dispensing of jobs lent themselves to wholesale corruption, and the Port of New York was virtually synonymous with all manners of sordid and unsavory practices. Machine politics and graft were the lifeblood of politics at this time– you got ahead by aligning yourself to a machine, serving loyally, getting perhaps a good job at the post office or something, and you were expected to give some money back to the people who put you there, as an act of good faith, and as a way of funding future elections. There is no smoking gun establishing that Arthur himself took part in bribery or kickbacks, but it is a near-certainty that he tolerated or winked at or facilitated these practices in some other way. The Port of New York became such a public embarrassment that honest old Rutherford Hayes fired Arthur, a bold move that nonetheless made a dangerous enemy of Conkling.
When the Republicans met to nominate a president in 1880, Hayes was not a serious contender even if he had wanted to be. The various factions between Conkling, Blaine, and even Ulysses Grant, cancelled each other out before the convention settled on dark-horse candidate James Garfield, a Ohio congressman offensive to no one. To thumb their nose at the departing President Hayes, and to appease Roscoe Conkling, his lieutenant, Arthur, was chosen to balance the ticket. Conkling begged Arthur to refuse the honor, but the sidewhiskered politician rebuffed his benefactor and accepted the nomination. Garfield and Arthur won, but tragedy soon struck. Garfield was shot by a deluded office-seeker and unsuccessful theologian named Charles Guiteau who thought he would be rewarded with a plumb diplomatic posting if a Stalwart like Arthur was president. When Garfield died, Arthur became president.
To put this state of affairs in perspective, consider that Arthur had no meaningful executive experience (he was never a governor or a cabinet member), nor had he ever served in Congress. You can make a case that Chester Arthur was the least qualified president in American history. Add to this, Arthur’s close links with graft, sleaze, and machine politics. If you knew nothing about any of the presidents, looked over each one of their resumés before assuming office, and were asked: “pick out which guy you think would be the worst one,” chances are, you would say Arthur. Chester Arthur exceeded the public’s very low expectations, but that is like being slightly more sober than Charlie Sheen.
Nevertheless, the manner in which James Garfield died made one matter especially pressing: civil service reform, clamping down on the spoils system, and making at least some attempt to make sure qualified people were given federal jobs. Arthur surprised the country by slowly coming around to civil service reform despite graft and bossism placing him in his present position. No major scandal touched his administration, and while he may have given a larger-than-average share of Cabinet positions to Stalwarts, they were all qualified individuals who served ably. Congress, too, got on the civil service reform bandwagon after Garfield’s demise. The result was the Pendleton Act, which Arthur signed into law. It allowed for competitive exams to determine the truly qualified for all jobs in federal departments, as well as larger customs houses and post offices which employed more than fifty people. It was a modest half-measure, but nonetheless a step forward in supplying the machinery of government with competent workers.
But good heavens– the spoils system? If we step back for a moment and consider the larger picture, this is silly, even if we take Garfield’s death into account. That was the major issue of the day that roused the national dander? That was what caught the attention of prominent men and moral reformers? Men, women and children were working twelve hours a day in fetid conditions, monopolies were beginning to coalesce, farmers were being robbed blind by collusion among the railroads, the South was by now a cruel mockery of an egalitarian society, and the spoils system was what made people angry? This is decadent bourgeois morality. I say this not to put down Arthur– Arthur’s priorities are but a symptom of a lopsided worldview that was upset by small, petty, and in some ways ultimately harmless one-hand-washes-the-other politics, but ignored more pressing problems that did not affect the well-to-do class of federal officeholders. How sad that the Republican Party, a genuinely radical force in American politics during its first decade, calcified into a morally disingenuous racket within twenty years.
At any rate, one decent law does not a good presidency make. Arthur’s problem isn’t corruption; he was far cleaner than the public would have ever predicted. The presidency can, at times, make the man in office better, and the weight of the office turned Arthur from a crook into something much closer to the honest end of the spectrum. However, the majesty of the presidency was not enough to turn a sluggard into a worker. See, the biggest drawback with Arthur is the paucity of any kind of work ethic, and his reluctance to do any more than the bare minimum to execute the law of the land. It is hard to think of a president who put in fewer hours-per-day on the job than Chester A. Arthur. He often retired early in the afternoon, and lazed about. There are a few reasons for his lack of energy, one of which is quite justified: unbeknownst to the public, Arthur was battling Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney ailment that took his life a mere 18 months into his retirement.
But even taking the disease into account, Arthur had a history as a serial delegator who gave most of the spadework to his subordinates and cabinet and kept precious little in his own portfolio. If you go back and read the Federalist Papers, you’ll see an expectation by Hamilton and Madison that the presidency would be held by ambitious and energetic men. Arthur is, in his way, an antithesis of that vision. He was placed in his office by accident, showed little gumption, and was only on a presidential ticket in the first place because he was tickled pink at being so honored. Even in an age where the president was not expected to do very much and the momentum was with Congress (or rather, the industrialist stooges who really controlled Congress), you just hate to see a president who wasn’t interested in carrying out the job to the fullest.
Instead, Arthur dedicated what energy he had to his wardrobe and a life of luxury. Called “Elegant Arthur” he combed his side whiskers carefully, and wore the finest of tailored clothes. His alma mater, Union College of Schenectady, New York, has on exhibition some of the eighty pairs of trousers Arthur owned. To compound this, Arthur was a middle-class man with aristocratic diffidence. He did not enjoy meeting ordinary Americans, and he rarely met with the press. Unlike the best presidents– for that matter, unlike several average ones– Chester Arthur did not care to spend time with the public, or take the slightest effort to communicate with them beyond a few routine audiences every now and then.
Back when we discussed Herbert Hoover, I listed my Mount Rushmore of Hard Workers. Arthur earns a place on the Mount Rushmore of Slothful, Nap-Taking, Stop-Working-at-Five-to-Play-Canasta Presidents, alongside William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan. (Speaking of Sloth, maybe I should come up with a Mount Rushmore for each of the Seven Deadly Sins….).
The only other major bill from this era does not reflect well on Arthur: it became known to history as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The original version of the bill, put forth by nativist West-coast legislators fearful of “oriental hordes” undercutting white free labor, banned all immigration from China for 20 years. Arthur rightly vetoed the bill, and Congress huddled, putting forward a bill that banned all immigration from China for only 10 years. Somehow, this change was enough to meet Arthur’s standards; he signed it, the only bill in American history that specifically targeted a nation and prevented its people from immigrating. This travesty was expanded for another ten years in 1892 and made permanent in 1902 before being repealed in the 1940s, but Arthur can scarcely be held accountable for that.
Arthur was not renominated for the presidency, the most recent sitting president to be denied this honor. His erstwhile opponent, James G. Blaine, was chosen by the Republicans instead, and the Maine politician lost to Grover Cleveland, ending the Republicans’ string of presidential election victories (some more decisive than others) that stretched all the way back to 1860 and Lincoln’s first election.
To conclude, I need to address Arthur’s rather lower than average ranking, and in particular, why I put him below Millard Fillmore. Both were lackluster upstate New Yorkers who were suddenly catapulted to the presidency by the death of their respective predecessors, but traditionally, Arthur ranks several spots ahead of Fillmore. In my judgment, this is faulty; you have to rank the president, and not the times in which they served. Fillmore, through no fault of his own, had to make a possibly no-win decision on the Compromise of 1850. Arthur, in contrast, presided over relatively prosperous times and lived through a tranquil Pax Britannica with no major foreign policy crises. If the two men switched terms, I have difficulty seeing Arthur being anything more than an unmotivated, even less effectual, version of Millard Fillmore. Imagining President Arthur is difficult. Imagining President Arthur during a crisis situation, though, is horrifying. There was not any real conviction driving him, there was not any real devotion to public service. He exceeded the country’s very low expectations of his presidency, and he did sign some important civil service reform into law, but, ever the procrastinator, he left a bevy of problems for future administrations to resolve. A shame. Arthur is a sartorial success, and his side-whiskers are a wonder to behold, but looking past these superficials, he is little more than empty carriage in refined decoration.
*Incidentally, Fillmore and Arthur share something else in common: we do not have access to many of their records; both men had their correspondence destroyed shortly after their deaths. Perhaps as a consequence of this, they are probably our two most obscure presidents. Zachary Taylor, too, suffers from this paucity of archival material, but this was not his fault: his Louisiana manse was sacked during the Civil War, and most of his written records met a fiery end.