Life: October 5, 1829 – November 18, 1886
Presidential Years: 1881-1885
Vice President: None
The book: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves (500 pages)
Date finished: May 22, 2017
A man no one wanted to be president becomes president. The public has very little faith in him, thinking he’s corrupt and in the pockets of businessmen from New York. Will it turn out OK?
As Arthur ascended to office, one of the prevailing quotes of the day was, “Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.”
Before that, he was the son of a preacher. He was born in Vermont and grew up in Albany, N.Y. He joined the Union Army but never really saw battle, getting close while examining troops in the South in 1862. He spent most of his time in the military building political connections.
After the war, he became connected with New York’s governor and was elected to the Century Club, where he “could now meet the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan, the actor Edwin Booth” and others. His election “undoubtedly involved Arthur’s literary proficiency but it mostly bore evidence of his increasing status within the Republican party.”
And that was a positive for Arthur, as it was a time when Tammany Hall had a firm grip on all of New York’s politics.
“The postwar years were infected with corruption; the decay of standards seems to have been triggered by the cynicism that followed the crusade to end slavery and the emergence of Big Business. … The Gilded Age was fire with thievery, bribery, fraud and personal irresponsibility.”
And though by all accounts, Arthur, a snappy dresser who was devoted to his wife even after she died in 1880 and was fervently anti-slavery, was hardly an irresponsible man, he did partner with some of the shadiest, self-promoting characters in the country. His rise up the Republican Party ranks after the war set the stage for two lifelong relationships — a friendship with the irascible Roscoe Conkling and a rivalry with James G. Blaine.
His partnership with Conkling began in earnest 1868 upon Arthur’s appointment as chairman of the New York City Republican executive committee. Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur to the “lucrative and politically powerful” New York port Collector, solidifying him as a member of the Republican Party’s Stalwart faction. Collector was an important job, but also one that lined his and many others’ pockets, as he took a cut from every item that came through the port.
The Stalwarts controlled the majority of the party and reigned in a machine that doled out jobs through patronage. In fact, their only real platform was keeping the spoils system intact. But when Rutherford B. Hayes became president, he aimed to remove the patronage system as he had removed liquor from the White House — quickly and with much fanfare. He fired Arthur from his post and issued an executive order forbidding federal employees from managing political campaigns and requiring “donations” to campaigns. This set up a huge fight with Conkling, who initially was going to run for president in 1880, and James Blaine, a reform-minded senator who also was running.
The 1880 Republican convention was a stalemate until votes started moving over for James Garfield. To placate the Stalwarts in the party, he offered the vice presidency to Arthur. Conkling tried to persuade Arthur to decline, but Arthur, saying “the office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” accepted.
The race was close, but Garfield prevailed. Arthur used his connections–and more importantly, his money–to secure victory in New York and, likely, the country.
Arthur wanted Garfield to fill federal jobs with Stalwarts and worked hard to secure the secretary of treasury for the Stalwarts, but not only would Garfield not agree (even though the Stalwarts claimed he had promised them a position upon his nomination), he appointed Blaine as secretary of state. To make matters worse for the Stalwarts, Democrats had an advantage in the Senate due to four vacancies. With their newfound, if not permanent, majority, the Democrats moved fast to establish a speaker and gain control of the Senate. Conkling continued to try to influence the process, trying to delay votes and get his cronies nominated to important posts. When Garfield continued to refuse him, he and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned in protest. It didn’t work, and their careers were over.
And Arthur’s was just beginning. He was in Albany on July 2 when Garfield was shot and laid low while Garfield hung onto life for the next few months. No one seriously believed that Charles Guiteau had shot Garfield to get Arthur in office, but there were still rumblings that patronage would make a comeback under President Arthur.
To everyone’s surprise—and especially Conkling’s—that didn’t happen. Though many assumed he’d revert back to his ways, especially after he was linked to the 1870s Star Route scandal, in which remote post offices were set up with low bids and grossly overpaid for their services, he came to champion civil service reform. In fact, he was preparing to be a good legislator while Garfield suffered. After attending Garfield’s funeral, he sent a sealed envelope requesting a special session of Congress to name a President Pro Tempore in the event that he died en route to Washington, since there was no vice president. He later destroyed the envelope and though the Senate did fill its empty seats, he never had a vice president.
Arthur worked with Congress on immigration reform and vetoed a measure to severely restrict Chinese immigration to the US. The Senate propose an all-out ban of 20 years, but Arthur said it was too harsh. He did approve a revised ban of 10 years and signed that into law, however. He also worked to build up the navy, establish relations with Central and South America and brokered peace between Mexico and Guatemala.
Arthur’s sister, Mary Arthur McElroy served as White House hostess. Arthur liked fancy dress, a good drink and a good party and threw many shindigs as president.
But he also was a sound legislator. Or as Journalist Alexander McClure wrote, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”
Shortly after his inauguration, he was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a serious kidney ailment that he was able to keep secret until 1883 when he began to show signs of weakness and weight loss. He began to take trips to Florida in the hopes that he’d get better. He decided against running for election in 1884 and retired to New York, where the Stalwarts tried to get him to run for Senate, but he declined. He died in 1886.
States Admitted to the Union: None