Sunday, December 9, 2007

Number 21: Chester A. Arthur

Years in office: 1881-1885
Pre-service occupations: lawyer, principal, chief engineer and quartermaster general for the state of New York, collector of the New York Customhouse, vice president
Key events during his administration: Standard Oil founded (1882), Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883). Brooklyn Bridge opens (1883), International Meridian Conference (1884)

Presidential rating: Mildly successful and very popular


Who thinks of Chester A. Arthur?

The name of the man who became president after James A. Garfield’s 80-day ordeal does not come readily to mind when thinking of the title “president of the United States.” In fact, when I hear Arthur’s name, I usually think of a silly episode of The Simpsons: The children of Springfield Elementary put on a play depicting the presidents. Millhouse, as Lincoln, is giving the Gettysburg address. Suddenly he cries “John Wilkes Booth!” and runs away from Bart—dressed as The Terminator—who runs after him firing a pop gun and saying “You’re next, Chester A. Arthur!”

Outside of that silly pop culture reference—and the fact that his status as the 21st president is a crucial plot element in the third Die Hard movie—Arthur remains quietly ensconced in the 19th century.

He was a curious man who was fastidious, polite to a fault and absolutely loved the good life. He was struck with personal tragedy (it often seems like the presidents have more than their share, doesn’t it?) and thrust unexpectedly into the White House—and attacked viciously by enemies who believed he had something to do with it.

Having known next to nothing about “Chet” Arthur, I learned that John Kennedy was not the only president who hid a debilitating illness. Also, Arthur was a man who was born of machine politics but became its unexpected foe when he became president. Arthur the political lackey and Arthur the accidental president appeared to be two different men—almost the difference between a reckless teenager and a sober, responsible adult.

He wasn’t the most energetic president. “Workaholic” and “Chester A. Arthur” were mutually exclusive. It’s not that he was lazy; rather, he savored his leisure time and the good life. Business had its proper place. Biographers note that no pressing cause fueled his passions; no vision for America filled his mind with ideas. It’s probably safe to say that Arthur really didn’t want to be president--but as long as he was there, he was going to do a good, fair and honorable job.

Chester A. Arthur was no mere caretaker, but a competent man who rose to the occasion, thrilled society wags with his extravagance, conducted himself honorably and left the stage—ushered out quickly by the party that no longer had a use for him. Yet he presided over a vital shift in American government that forever changed the relationship between the governors and the governed: a shift that we hotly debate to this day.

Rise of a Stalwart
His birth is a minor mystery: exactly where and when Chester A. Arthur was born to his Irish immigrant parents is something of a question mark. Some speculation abounds that he came from Canada, but Arthur never said yea or nay; so, as far as history is concerned, the gentleman president hailed from Vermont in either 1829 or 1830.

Arthur joined the Psi Upsilon fraternity, studied law and became an educator in Vermont. When he moved to New York City to practice law, he vocally opposed slavery and supported equal rights for blacks in transportation. Arthur joined the new Republican Party in the 1850s.

He married Ellen Lewis Herndon in 1859. His beloved “Nell” never quite got used to her husband’s long absences as a political operative, but she loved him dearly. Rumors of affairs sometimes dogged the Arthurs, but whether they were true or not never mattered. Their love for each other remained strong. Nell died of a pneumonia a year before Arthur became vice president. He never remarried.

During the Civil War, New York’s Governor Morgan appointed Chet Arthur as the state’s chief engineer and then quartermaster general (with the rank of brigadier general). He served from 1861-1863 and was widely praised for his service in organizing and supplying New York’s volunteer soldiers for the Union war effort. When the state’s government shifted in the 1862 elections, Arthur lost his position and returned to civilian life, where he practiced law for the remainder of the war.

Arthur soon came under the political patronage of the powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. As a Radical Republican who took a harsh attitude toward the defeated South, Conkling was one of the most powerful men in the country. He also became an ally of Ulysses S. Grant, helping the wildly popular general secure the White House in 1868. Arthur, meanwhile, became quite active in state politics and stayed close to Conkling.

What made Arthur rise to prominence? Biographer Karabell postulates that nothing about Arthur made him presidential material; rather, his acceptable nature made him palatable as vice president. But president? Describing a situation that is equally apropos today, Karabell writes:

“Often, It isn’t the ones who are best suited who rise to prominence but the ones who make the fewest enemies. Arthur never attracted the passionate allegiance that Blaine or Conkling did, but he avoided the passionate animosity they engendered. Much like Garfield, Arthur rose in 1880 because he was still standing. He was never the tallest reed, so he was rarely knocked down. Though he was a skilled organizer a more-than-competent politico, he lacked the x factor usually associated with leadership and greatness. As it turned out, the qualities he did possess allowed him to rise farther than many others who were more intelligent, dynamic and driven. When he ascended to the highest office in the country, he was able to use those qualities to govern more successfully than many had expected.” (p.68)

In 1871, Grant, acting on Conkling’s advice, appointed Chet Arthur to the most lucrative post in the nation: collector of the New York Customhouse.

An uncorrupted man in a corrupted system
As the collector, Arthur drew a salary of $12,000, which itself was a princely sum compared to the pittance most of the rest of men in the nation earned. But the above-the-board “spoils” from the collector raised his income to $50,000. (Think of it this way: the difference between Arthur’s wealth and the average man’s income is roughly akin to that between a typical Hollywood star and an average middle class American today.) The income level didn’t survive for too long, because an act of Congress reduced personal rewards for customs officials.

However, Arthur did not indulge in the underhanded nature of his position. There is no evidence whatsoever that he engaged in kickbacks, skimming, bribes, etc., that ports collectors were openly known for. In fact, Arthur was praised for his honesty, and when the Hayes administration went after the political patronage system, the office of the New York collector, and not Arthur himself was the target. Arthur was clean. Biographer Doenecke suggests that Arthur sometimes encouraged illegal activity, which may or may not be true, but he certainly tolerated it.

Arthur became (to use the modern phrase) a political football when Hayes suspended him in 1878. Senator Conkling, the Stalwart machine and friendly newspapers defended Arthur, for his term had brought efficiency to the customhouse and he himself was not corrupt. But Arthur became the sacrificial lamb to President Hayes’ lukewarm reform efforts (which in the end please no one and wound up hurting the party). Arthur’s suspension became permanent and Hayes-friendly people took over the customhouse in 1879.

Arthur returned to practicing law. He also led the New York Republican Party at Conkling’s behest, which continued to involve him heavily in assessments. Practically the entire federal bureaucracy up until Arthur’s term was made up of political appointees. Party members, bosses, leaders, congressmen, senators, governors and presidents accepted the “spoils system” (so-named by an ally of Andrew Jackson) as legitimate, necessary and both privately and publicly lucrative. None believed it corrupt—none except a small but vocal minority both in and out of government, that is.

The key component of the system were the “assessments,” which were contributions that political appointees were expected to give to the party of the lawmaker or administration official that secured the position.

Reformers chafed the most at this system; baby steps were taken in Grant’s term toward creating a real civil service, but it wouldn’t happen until the public demanded that it happen. Chet Arthur, who had benefited so handsomely from the spoils system, would find himself a strange, half-hearted cheerleader of reform.

Arthur and Conkling, Arthur and Garfield: Unhappy pairings
Chet Arthur’s surprise pairing with James Garfield at the 1880 convention did not please the Stalwarts, especially Roscoe Conkling. When they realized that Grant would not get the nomination for a third term—and took solace in the fact that James G. Blaine wouldn’t get the nod either—they nevertheless didn’t like the fact that Garfield was the party’s man.

Garfield, in what seemed to be a good bit of political peacemaking, offered the VP slot to Arthur. After all, the Republicans would have a difficult time winning without New York. Biographer relates the only known record of the confrontation between party boss and lieutenant—which may be apocryphal, he notes—when the latter informed his patron that the offer had been made:

Conkling: “Well, sir, you should drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge.”

Arthur: “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I have ever dreamed of obtaining. A barren nomination would be a great honor. In a calmer moment you will look at this differently.”

Conkling: “If you wish for my favor and my respect you will contemptuously decline it.”

Arthur: “Senator Conkling, I shall accept the nomination and I shall carry with me a majority of the delegates.” (Karabell, 41-42)

Things were never the same between the two: the student had surpassed the teacher, and the teacher didn’t like it one bit.

Of course, Garfield and Arthur won the 1880 election (but just barely). Their relationship was hardly cordial, though, and was even more strained than Arthur’s was with the senator. On election night Arthur made a huge loose-tongue blunder that, in the internet/YouTube age, would have destroyed the administration before it even started. At a victory celebration at Delmonico’s in New York City, where Arthur loved to do political business, Arthur and several political operatives talked about how they had won Indiana—but Arthur, probably drunk, hinted strongly that “secret” things happened in Indiana that weren’t exactly on the level. A reporter recorded the words at the private party, and the resulting story brought more shame on the men from Indiana, than Arthur, who was very well liked. Nevertheless, the incident was remembered when Arthur became president.

After the inauguration, Arthur and Garfield realized that they opposed each other on several issues. Most notably, when the president took on Conkling’s Stalwart machine over federal appointments, the president knocked the boss hard. Dismayed, Arthur stood with “Lord” Conkling and went so far as to call Garfield a liar. (See last entry for full details.) The president banished his vice president from the White House, and the two never worked together. “Hate” is actually not too strong of a word to describe their mutual feelings.

Arthur was not even permitted to be close to Garfield during the president’s months-long ordeal, as the doctors thought the sight of him would upset Garfield.

“Chet Arthur is now the president?”
The attempted assassination of Garfield in July 1881 created a multi-faceted crisis, in addition to the obvious. Ugly rumors had surfaced the same day Guiteau’s bullets struck Garfield that Arthur, Conkling and other Stalwarts had plotted to murder the president—given fuel by no less than Guiteau himself, who shouted that “Arthur is now president” after shooting Garfield” and leaving a disturbed letter claiming that only the Stalwarts could save the party and the nation.

When Garfield died thanks to doctor incompetence, Arthur took over an office he really never wanted. During his first weeks in office, public confidence was quite low:

“Arthur’s lack of national experience did little to establish public confidence; the circumstances of his vice presidential nomination, the Delmonico’s speech, the deliberate undercutting of President Garfield, and the continual closeness of the New York Stalwarts offered even less. In addition, he had inherited a divided and factionalized party, with Blaine, [John] Sherman and other leading Republicans all hoping to receive the presidential nomination in 1884.” (Doenecke, p.75)
However, while some people may have moaned to God that “Chet Arthur is now president?!” the nation actually had someone in the White House who did his best to cast off partisan ties and govern as an above-the-fray president—no matter what he felt about actually holding down the job. He didn’t want to be there, but while he was there, he would do that job well.

The new president gets started
While setting out to get a new cabinet, Arthur also sent his first message to Congress. Naturally, the message spent some time on the late president.

Arthur also discussed civil service reform in some of the strongest terms yet uttered in Washington, though Arthur’s words would become the zenith of his efforts. He also made several proposals, none of which came to fruition at that time because Congress was occupied with other matters; yet they merit a brief mention. His suggestions included the line-item veto, building a home for the Library of Congress, a smoother process for presidential succession, the regulation of interstate commerce (Arthur charged railroads of conspiring on prices and discriminating on rates), and reforming the counting of electoral votes to prevent another Hayes-Tilden mess.

Even though Congress largely ignored his ideas, the hordes off office-seekers didn’t ignore him. Old friends and strangers descended upon the White House looking for jobs. They called him “Chet” and assumed a familiarity that the easy going Arthur found offensive.

He soon dismissed the cabinet and got a new one. No realistically expected a Stalwart to keep James G. Blaine on as secretary of state. Blaine had served well, making movements toward furthering U.S. ambitions in the longed-for dream of a passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. He would serve at that post again during the next Republican administration.

Of course, Arthur’s New York friends were figuratively licking their chops at having one of their own as president. Since they couldn’t have Grant in the White House again, Arthur would have to do. But Arthur the president was not the same man as Arthur the cog in the political machine:

“For someone so identified with partisan politics, Arthur himself was remarkably equitable and nonpartisan. He had a strong sense of fair play, and he did not have an exaggerated sense of self. He respected that other people of other parties and factions held strong beliefs and desires, and in the interests of order and national unity he intended to construct an inclusive administration. He seems to have come to come to that conclusion automatically, and it dictated his response to Conkling and the Stalwarts when they turned to him in October and expected an open door and a warm embrace.

“It had not yet dawned on Conkling that his day had passed.” (Karabell, p.68-69)
The fashionable gentleman president
The nation already knew a little bit about Chester A. Arthur before he became president: they knew he was wealthy and lived extravagantly. When he assumed the presidency, the era’s version of the celebrity media couldn’t get enough of the widower president’s lifestyle. Arthur loved to live well. His wealth let him do so, both materially and gastronomically. Biographer Karabell describes Arthur as “fashion forward”—always trendy but within acceptable exquisite tastes. Observers saw Arthur as always fastidiously dressed, but never outlandishly so. His carriage was the most handsomely appointed one in the capitol. And the White House witnessed a refurbishing it had never before seen. Arthur stripped the executive mansion of old furniture, heavy curtains, old gifts and more.

Historians regret the house cleaning, because many precious items were lost—save for such things as presidential portraits—but the White House had never looked better. Arthur hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the executive mansion, and this he did with style. Tiffany, of course, would earn great fame designing lamps.

The newspapers loved Arthur’s style, and the bachelor president was watched closely whenever he traveled in his carriage. Karabell claims that Arthur, with all of his exquisite tastes, “was the closest thing to Jacqueline Kennedy that Washington would see until Jacqueline Kennedy.” (p. 79)

Chet Arthur also loved food. While dining had long been part of his political life, he simply liked to eat fine food, and his wealth let him do so. He wasn’t exactly fat—but he wasn’t slender, either. His love of food, though, led to his ill health. The impeccably mannered president kept a closely guarded secret throughout his term: he was quite ill—another Kennedy connection, if you will—and his health faded rapidly during his term. The president had contracted Bright’s disease, a term no longer used to describe a form of kidney disease. Arthur would die from complications of this disease in 1886. (The poet Emily Dickenson died that same year from the same disease; Bright’s disease also claimed the first wives of fellow presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the wife of Warren G. Harding.)

Arthur successfully kept the debilitating illness from journalists and even from many of his staff, showing no signs of being sick at public events such as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in 1883.

A Stalwart no more, and the final step to civil service reform
As mentioned, President Arthur made early moves that made him appear favorable to the reformists: he urged civil service reform and he refused to dole out patronage positions like candy to the New York machine.

However, Arthur was not a great champion of reform. Despite the strong stance in his 1881 message to Congress, he took no initial strong actions other than keeping his former Stalwart allies at bay with appointments. He did use his patronage powers to cement political alliances—such as with Virginia’s William Mahone—but “kept aloof,” to use Karabell’s phrase, from Conkling, Grant and other Stalwarts who peppered him with suggestions and expectations of appointments. Arthur used his head and set his own course on appointing positions rather than following the expected course of “to the victor go the spoils,” the time-honored tradition since Andrew Jackson. Conkling became so dismayed at his onetime protégé that he remarked that the dearth of offices being given to Stalwarts made the Hayes administration “respectable, if not heroic,” in comparison.” (Doeneke, p.76)

It may not have been smart politics, but it was presidential leadership.

To the disappointment of reformers, nothing really got done on civil service reform during 1882. Arthur took tepid steps, but nothing truly groundbreaking. Elites such as Henry Adams believed that Arthur represented more of the same, and in truth, he did. Arthur urged reform, be he wasn’t going to lead the charge. Congress would need to do that itself. Two earthshaking events—one of them purely political—finally pushed the government into reform.

The first had, of course, already happened: Garfield’s death. He was shot by a lunatic who history mislabels a “disgruntled office-seeker.” The second event was the devastating Republican political losses in the 1882 elections. To understand the magnitude of Republican losses, think of the Democratic losses in 1994. Although the Republicans held on to a slim majority in the Senate, their numbers had all but reversed in the House. State elections were bad all over, especially New York, where Democrat candidate Grover Cleveland overwhelmed an Arthur ally, wresting the governor’s office away from the Republicans in a humiliating defeat for boss politics.

Why was there a “Democrat cyclone,” as one newspaper termed it? Biographer Doeneke explains that boss politics was falling apart, the Democrats were unusually organized, corruption taints hurt them (they always hurt the party in power far more than the party out of power) and the public wanted the reform done in the wake of the shocking shooting of Garfield (p.99). Republicans had definitely underestimated public desire for reforming civil service, and even though both parties used the spoils system to great effect, the Republicans took a hit for lack of action.

The lame-duck Congress realized that it could secure real civil service reform in 1883 before the new Congress took over. This would led Republicans take credit for the reform—and also give some tenure protection to Republican officeholders. Politically, it was definitely cynical. But nevertheless, Congress dusted off the bill that Democrat George Pendleton had previously proposed, and went to work.

Arthur’s role was more of a sideliner than a headliner: He approved the act in January 1883, but he wasn’t its driving force. In fact, had he unwisely vetoed the bill—if he had suddenly decided to cling to bossism, for example—his veto would have easily been overturned, and Arthur would have lost a lot of ground. But he signed it, if not cheerfully, then at least prudently.

The 1883 Pendleton Act was quite limited in scope: it only covered 11 percent of federal employees (14,000 out of 131,600 in 1883). And it didn’t even touch the postal service (an area where Arthur suffered some embarrassment, when the investigations into the Star Route frauds produced not convictions, but acquittals). However, the act did establish a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, eliminated assessments against office holders and made certain offices competitive—not political giveaways.

Yet even this limited scope marked a tremendous change in the basic function of government. No longer would the federal government be subject to mere political whims—“to the victor go the spoils,” as an ally of Andrew Jackson stated shortly after Old Hickory’s victory in 1828. Starting in 1883, the federal government would take a new direction:

“For those who bemoan the growth of government in our day, the Pendleton Act might be seen as a step down the road to perdition. After all, it facilitated the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy. Even those who don’t like government, however, can probably appreciate that insofar as some government is a necessary evil, it’s better for society that it be administered in a professional manner.” (Karabell, p.110)

Protectionism in the Gilded Age I
Another political battle of Arthur’s term came over the tariff (tax on goods at the time of importation). Tariffs were fought over during the 1800s like tax rates are fought over today. Grossly simplifying, businesses and manufacturers often favored a high (protection) tariff while agrarian and other rural communities generally favored a lower tariff, allowing the importation of goods at a cheaper price. Doenecke explains that supporters of high tariffs believed that their way kept American wages high and in turn benefited farmers, who could find customers among higher-wage earners. Supporters of the low tariff believed that their way opened the doors to lower prices while granting Americans access to more markets worldwide.

The reform-minded public demanded action on the tariff, and President Arthur agreed. Arthur, though urging caution, believed having a repeated annual federal budget surplus from revenue tariffs was an embarrassment and needed to be fixed. (Wildly different from today’s politics, wouldn’t you agree?) Arthur established a commission—dominated by protectionists—who returned a surprising endorsement for a substantial reduction of tariffs.

After the 1882 elections, the lame-duck Republican-led Congress rammed a bill through Congress to address tariff reform, hoping to do the same thing with tariff reform that they did with civil service. Arthur signed the bill without comment at the last hour of the lame-duck Congress’ session. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near what Arthur had wanted and a far cry from what his commission had recommended. High tariffs were reduced by a mere 1.47 percent average. Biographer Doenecke writes that:

“The legislative monstrosity was so illogical that the bill soon became known as the Mongrel Tariff. …(T)he measure throughout possessed
more dangling modifiers and convoluted jargon than an undergraduate term paper. The bill backfired, winning few supporters the GOP.”
Arthur wasn’t blamed, because he took the issue seriously and so did his commission. The power-hungry and politically minded Congress, however, blew it. The GOP would pay for it in the next presidential election, as farmers and westerners turned toward the Democrats for relief.

Protectionism in the Gilded Age II
Money and foreign goods weren’t the only protectionist inclinations that concerned Congress during Arthur’s term. Congress passed—and Arthur approved—laws excluding “paupers” (extremely poor people), criminals and the mentally insane from immigrating to America.

During President Hayes’ term, Congress attempted to pass a law restricting Chinese immigration. Hayes vetoed the bill for practical reasons: the bill violated a prior treaty with the Chinese. Now Arthur faced a similar situation. Anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow in the west, especially as Chinese laborers turned from constructing railroads to other pursuits. Now, there was nothing unusual per-say in the anti-Chinese sentiment in that they were the latest immigrant wave to feel the wrath of the “old-timers,” much the way the Irish and Dutch had been laid into as lazy, drunk Catholics in the 1840s. Competition for low-paying jobs—becoming a familiar battle between old and new immigrant waves—coupled with unfamiliarity with Chinese ways, and the fact that most of the Chinese were men—there were very few women and children—fueled suspicions and tainted the mess with racism.

West coast legislators again crafted a bill against Chinese immigration, this time much tougher than the previous attempted bill. The Chinese Exclusion Act was intended to forbid any immigration from China for 20 years and placed many restrictions on those already in the states. President Arthur, to his great credit, vetoed the bill, using the same reasons as Hayes: it was a bad faith gesture to the Chinese government.

Congress, however, overcame Arthur’s veto by passing a softer version of the bill (10 years, not 20), but not much less punitive than its predecessor. Here, though, Arthur faltered—and to his great detriment signed the bill into law in May 1882. Karabell explains that he knew he didn’t have the votes to sustain a veto and public sentiment was running against the Chinese.

“Another president might have vetoed the bill again and forced Congress to overturn him. Clearly, Arthur’s sympathies lay in that direction. He had been raised by a father with strong religious convictions against slavery, and he himself ad been squarely in the antislavery camp as a young adult in the 1850s. In that sense, he was a true Republican in the mold of Lincoln and the founders of the party. At the same time, his political career was not built on the passion of his ideals; it had been based on his loyalty, diligence and effectiveness as an operator. He was never a demagogue, and one reason why he had made so few enemies was that he was rarely petty venal or hateful. The Chinese exclusion bill was all three, but Arthur would not fight a fight he knew he would lose. Rather than be a martyr to principle, he submitted to the will of the political majority and pragmatically signed the ten-year exclusion act.” (Karabell, p.85-86)
In other words, Chester A. Arthur was not one to find hills to die on.

The pork barrel veto
While President Arthur tepidly let the Chinese exclusion act go through, he exercised his veto authority prominently on a piece of legislation properly derided then as “pork barrel.” The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 was a $19 million boondoggle specifically designed as a sop for congressmen and senators whose districts would be affected by river and port improvements—with money taken from the federal surplus.

Although some of the improvements could be justified, President Arthur vetoed the bill. Doeneke explains:

“Arthur was not opposed to internal improvements in general or to southern improvements in particular. In April, he had endorsed a report of the Mississippi River Commission that called for improvements on the whole length of the river. But in his veto message to Congress, he claimed that the rivers and harbors grants would only benefit ‘particular localities.’ Such parochial appropriations did not advance the common defense, interstate commerce or the general welfare and hence went ‘beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.’ In addition, they set a bad precedent: further demands could only lead to ‘extravagant expenditure of public money,’ thereby demoralizing the nation.” (p.81)
Congress quickly overturned his veto, but Arthur enjoyed increased public approval for his actions.

The “Father of the Steel Navy,” Gulf movements and the issue of time
The president moved to modernize the navy, most of which was filled with hulks left over from the war. The navy that McKinley used to win the Spanish-American War had its beginnings in Arthur’s term. He ordered the construction on new steel-clad steamers, although only three cruisers were built. But the secretary of the Navy, William Chandler, established the Naval War College in Rhode Island and the office of Naval Intelligence. It was a start.

Meanwhile, President Arthur’s choice to replace James G. Blaine at State, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, seemed like a decent enough choice. A longtime Republican with a strong interest in foreign affairs—he had chaired the Senate’s committee on foreign relations and had even been appointed to the ministry to Great Britain by U.S. Grant (declined)—Frelinghuysen would serve Arthur ably if not outstandingly.

He wasn’t as aggressive as Blaine, but through him Arthur pursued familiar movements in Nicaragua to secure land for the future construction of a canal. The Senate refused to ratify a treaty with Nicaragua because it went against a prior treaty with England. Frelinghuysen also sought reciprocal trade agreements with Spain, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but protectionists prevented those agreements from becoming law.

For the most part, Arthur’s foreign policy was a bust, except for one major event. In 1884, President Arthur organized the International Meridian Conference in Washington to determine the world’s prime meridian—in other words, decide what time was the standard time on which all clocks would be set, rather than continue to have a bunch of competing meridians wafting about. The conference established that the time in Greenwich, England, would be the meridian from then on. (It did not establish time zones, however.)

The 1884 election marked the first time since 1857 that the Democrats regained the White House, and the man who did it—Grover Cleveland—would be the only Democrat to hold the office until Woodrow Wilson more than a decade after Cleveland’s second term ended. By 1884, the Republican Party had recovered from the shellacking of 1882. The party got some credit for the Pendleton Act but was stung by the public over the party’s protectionism.

At that moment, grassroots public sentiment favored the Democrats, and for once, the Democrats coalesced around an excellent, if not exciting candidate. Cleveland appealed to enough people in enough sections of the country that he was an acceptable candidate.

The Republicans were in trouble not because of Arthur, but because the party no longer had a “big name” to gather around. Grant was out of the picture. (Grant would be dead the following year, and in his final gesture to bossism, Arthur reversed his prior stance and approved a measure restoring the ailing Grant to rank and giving him a handsome pension for which the hero of the Union lived on during his final months.) Conkling was also persona non gratis, so that left Arthur himself, James G. Blaine, John Sherman and few other wannabes as possible contenders.

But President Arthur had no real intention of standing for election in his own right, although he did figuratively throw his hat in the ring. Though still a closely guarded secret, his health was increasingly fragile. The president did not aggressively seek the nomination, though he was popular enough to go into the convention with enough support right behind James G. Blaine. Other men considered for the nomination included John Sherman’s brother, William T., who famously remarked “If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.” President Arthur could almost say as much, considering his health.

However, Blaine quickly won the nomination, much to the dismay of many in the party. He was too polarizing and, more liberal members were afraid, unappealing to larger swaths of the country. They were right. Blaine lost the close election to Cleveland.

The popular Arthur left the White House in good spirits in March 1885 for New York City. He died the following year and was buried next to his wife.

Final Assessment

Chester A. Arthur proved to be one of the better presidents we’ve ever had. A man who never wanted the job, he turned his back on the mechanisms—and the people—that brought him prominence and attempted to govern ably, honestly, skillfully and thoughtfully.

Arthur wasn’t always a leader. Many of the major issues of the day were handled with his support and sometimes reluctant approval, but he wasn’t the one out in front and leading the charge. Civil service reform occurred as much from Republican electoral disaster as it did from Garfield’s death. Sometimes, though, Arthur did stand athwart Congress, such as when he vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act. A wealthy man who loved the good life, he nevertheless understood the tugs and pulls of the American economy, and his commission’s proposed reform’s of the tariff system were much better than what Congress ultimately enacted.

He had a number of ideas he proposed to Congress, but when Congress ignored them, he didn’t follow through. His foreign policy went nowhere, but his term came at a time of peace with the world.

Biographer Karabell writes that Arthur was a different president than Tyler and Johnson, who practically wrecked their parties after assuming the presidency. Arthur, however, was a pleasant surprise:

“Arthur had become president with perilously low expectations, which he then exceeded. In essence, most people concluded that the Arthur administration hadn’t been half bad. Considering that they had thought it would be all bad, Arthur was widely acclaimed for having done a respectable job.” (p.137)
In the end, Chester A. Arthur was a man thrust unexpectedly into the presidency who, in the modern vernacular, rose to the occasion and functioned well. His decisions weren’t always the best, and he often went along more than he led, such as when he ultimately signed the wretched Chinese Exclusion Act. But overall, he succeeded in serving the nation well.

Final assessment: Mildly successful and very popular


Both of my primary resources for this report were quite useful: The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University of Kansas American Presidency Series) by Justus D. Doenecke (1981), and Chester A. Arthur by Zachary Karabell (2004, The American Presidents series). Both draw upon the definitive volume of Arthur’s entire life, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves (1975).


All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.

1 President Chester A. Arthur was photographed by C.M. Bell in 1882.

2 Ellen Herndon Arthur was photographed sometime between 1857 and 1870.

3 An Oct. 19, 1881, Puck cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper shows President Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Customs House.

4 “Our nation’s choice—Gen. James Abram Garfield, Republican candidate for President, Gen. Chester A. Arthur, Republican Candidate for Vice-President” was an 1880 campaign poster complete with patriotic images and an American eagle.

5 Justice John R. Brady, Justice of New York State Supreme Court, administers the oath of office to Vice President Arthur in a private ceremony in Arthur's residence at 123 Lexington Ave. in New York City, as depicted in the Oct. 8, 1881, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.

6 “On the threshold of office—what have we to expect of him?” Joseph Keppler created this cartoon for the Sept. 28, 1881, issue of Puck. Seven men (presumably party leaders) behold Chester Arthur; on the wall are portraits of the previous men to succeed a dead president, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore and John Tyler.

7 “A presidential conjuror—What Mr. Arthur must be to satisfy all the politicians” is the caption of this Joseph Keppler cartoon for the Oct. 12, 1881, issue of Puck. The new President Arthur takes on the role of a stage musician and throws out titles of political offices, “soft soap,” “promises,” etc., to a crowd of men.

8 President Chester Arthur rides in his handsome in horse-drawn carriage in 1884, as depicted in the Sept. 6, 1884, Harper’s Weekly.

9 Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwarts group of the Republican Party, playing “The great presidential puzzle” game in this lithograph published in 1880 by Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann of New York City. Conkling overplayed his hand with both Garfield and Arthur. As president, Arthur would turn his back on the Conkling machine, and Conkling would never again play the kingmaker.

10 A Puck cartoon from June 28, 1882, showing Chester Arthur, dressed as a Roman standing next to “Republican scales” and holding the “patronage” sword with Mitchell “independent reps.” on one end of the scales and James Donald Cameron “bossism” on the other end of scales. The cartoon is more hopeful than accurate, because although Arthur was deft over patronage issues, his stance against “bossism,” and hence for civil service reform, only went so far.

11 Arthur is depicted as a vice presidential candidate.

12 President Arthur and party cross the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

13 President Chester A. Arthur is depicted in a full-length photo.