Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why You Should Care About Chester Arthur

It began while I was furiously debating my friend Alyssa about our nation's best and worst presidents.

At first the conversation yielded few surprises, with me providing the responses one would expect from a liberal (Franklin Roosevelt as the best, Ronald Reagan as the worst) and her offering the answers one would predict from a conservative (Ronald Reagan as the best, Franklin Roosevelt as the worst). Given my respect for Alyssa's intelligence and my enjoyment of her online company, the dialogue remained friendly - that is, until she made a selection for the slot of "Fifth Worst President". It was one by which I simply could not abide.
"5. Chester Arthur - I can never remember that he was even president!"
Unbeknownst to her, more than four years earlier, I had written an op-ed piece in my college newspaper called "Why You Should Care About Chester Arthur". Before she could write another word, I used my feline Googling reflexes to find, copy, and paste that entire editorial into our Instant Messenger conversation.

Why You Should Care About Chester Arthur
By Matthew Rozsa
September 27, 2005

When you flip through the pages of a history textbook, you will come across a funny-looking man with muttonchops. His hair is black with a silver hue, and his skin is pasty white; his cheeks are chubby, his lips are thick, and his eyes and nose both seem to project that air of aloof sophistication which conjures up all of the most unpleasant feelings one gets from the elitism of Victorian America.

Why should you care about this man? Further research will tell you that his name was Chester Alan Arthur, that he was the 21st President of the United States, and that he served for just under four years, from September 20, 1881, to March 4, 1885, but the question still remains – why should you care about him?
The answer to this question lies in his story. The early years of Chester Arthur's life yield nothing extraordinary about his character. He was born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont, the first son in a family of nine. His father was a Northern Irish immigrant named William who – in his career as a pedagogue and Baptist minister – moved his family through dozens of small villages in Vermont and upstate New York. Young Chester developed into a very good student with a passionate interest in politics, so much so that, when he was fourteen, he found himself fervently supporting Whig statesman Henry Clay in the 1844 presidential election. By the age of eighteen, Chester Arthur had graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, and by the time he was twenty-four he had become a partner in a New York City law firm. Soon Arthur's political activism began to bear fruit. In 1854 Arthur attended an important meeting that helped establish the New York chapter of the burgeoning Republican party. One year later, Arthur made a name for himself as a rising young attorney when he won a landmark case in New York City that granted African-Americans the right to ride on all of the city's streetcars. By 1859, Arthur's political connections and prestige had landed him a position as state engineer-in-chief with the rank of brigadier general in the administration of newly-elected Republican governor Edwin D. Morgan.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Arthur served the state of New York in various political capacities, first helping to outfit the New York militia and later serving as the state quartermaster general. It wasn't until the Civil War ended that a darker side of Arthur's character emerged. It was at this time that Arthur became friends with Roscoe Conkling, a New York Senator of unsavory reputation and vast influence throughout the Empire State. As the head of the state's Republican party, Conkling was known for his widespread application of the highly corrupt spoils system, and Conkling clearly saw in Arthur a man who could be used to further his own political goals. In 1871 Conkling convinced President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint Arthur to the position of collector of the New York Custom House. With more than 1,000 employees, the New York Custom House was the largest federal office in America, and Arthur's position as supervisor of import duty collection gave him enormous power within that institution.
It was a power that Arthur used for gross political ends. Arthur used his newfound authority to give most of the jobs under his jurisdiction to Republican party workers, and required that all customs employees pay a portion of their salaries to Republican funds. Money collected for customs violations often found its way into the Republican treasury, and through his position as chairman of the Republican state committee, Arthur managed to transform a vital artery in America's economic system into his own personal fiefdom. It wasn't until Arthur was suspended (and then fired) by President Rutherford Hayes in 1878 that his fiefdom was dissolved.

It seemed that Arthur's political career had ended in disgrace, and indeed nothing that occurred prior to his presidency seemed to indicate otherwise. In 1880 Arthur was nominated to the Vice-Presidential slot of the Republican party solely to appease Roscoe Conkling, whose efforts to get the corrupt Ulysses S. Grant nominated for a third term had failed. Running alongside the moderate James Garfield, Arthur stood on the sidelines as the Ohio Senator-elect won in a squeaker against the Democratic candidate, General Winfield S. Hancock. Arthur knew that he had been selected merely as a sop to the resentful Conkling faction of his party, and it was widely assumed that when Garfield's first term in the White House had ended, Arthur would be dumped from the ticket and replaced with a more palatable choice.

Then President Garfield was shot. The would-be assassin was Charles Guiteau, a madman whose support of the Stalwarts (the faction of the Republican party that supported the spoils system) had led him to believe that he was entitled to an appointment as consul of Paris. When this appointment was denied, he became convinced that he had been betrayed by Garfield, and that only a Stalwart could be relied upon to appoint him. So it was that, on July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield in the back. Upon being apprehended, Guiteau shouted out ""I am a Stalwart and Arthur is president now!"

For more than two months Garfield languished in agony as surgeons unsuccessfully attempted to remove the bullet from his back. Arthur spent the larger portion of this time in his house in New York City, speaking only to those closest to him and blaming himself for Garfield's situation. When Garfield finally died on September 19, 1881, the news was rushed over to Arthur's home, and the distressed man was inaugurated at 2:15 am the next day.

The nation held its breath. What kind of president would this product of the spoils system become? Would he betray the moderate policies that his two predecessors had gradually begun to embrace?

Contrary to popular presumption, Arthur became a liberal. He soon passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which dealt a body-blow to the spoils system, and cracked down hard against rampant postal route fraud, in spite of the fact that some of the scandals involved his friends. He even vetoed a bill that was intended to improve America's waterways, accurately perceiving that the funds proposed for allocation were extravagant. His other positions likewise found him on the side of the angels: His foresight in modernizing the American navy; his attempts (somewhat unsuccessful) to protect American consumers by lowering import tariff rates; and his efforts to permit Chinese immigration when Congress attempted to ban it for twenty years (he eventually wheedled them down to ten). His only significant failure as president occurred about one year into his term, when he decided not to disclose the fact that he had been diagnosed with Bright's Disease. Bright's Disease is a severe ailment of the kidneys, and the prognosis was bleak for one afflicted with it at Arthur's time. Despite possessing this knowledge, Arthur sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1884, but was defeated by popular Senator James Blaine. Arthur eventually succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage, and died in 1886, less than two years after his presidency had ended.

This brings me back to the original question: Why should you care about Chester Arthur? One obvious reason lies in the fact that he helped to sow the seeds that would eventually grow into the Progressive Era. More subtle than that, however, is the manner in which he epitomizes the complicated anatomy of the human soul. In the course of his life he demonstrated both the manner in which good men can be corrupted by wealth and power, and how these men can redeem themselves from their vices. Arthur may not be the most virtuous of American presidents, but he possessed greatness when he needed it the most, both for himself and for his country. That is why I believe that the man in the picture you see in your history textbook – the obscure man with a bland name and a snobbish aura all-too-common among Gilded Age politicians – deserves to be remembered as more than just a footnote in the litany of obscure American presidents. He deserves to be remembered, not just for who he was, but for what he can teach us about America, and about ourselves.

"I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country's population, it would be hard to better President Arthur's administration. But don't decide till you hear from the rest."
- Mark Twain

Alyssa's response to this:

"AHHHH! What are the odds that I'd pick the one president that you wrote about?"

Actually, I've written absurdly detailed articles about quite a few of our presidents (and presidential history in general)... but I figured I'd tortured the poor girl enough.

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