Twenty-first President of the United States
History has little noted nor long remembered the three-and-one-half year presidency of Chester Alan Arthur. It is not simply because he was one of the accidental holders of the office, a vice president catapulted into office by his predecessor's death—that could also be said of Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman but, unlike them, Arthur neither lived in eventful times nor sought the spotlight. Moreover, he took office in 1881—a time when the authority of the presidential office was slowly recovering from its lowest Reconstruction-era ebb. His most-often cited achievement was the signing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, but that has been highlighted largely because such endorsement came so unexpectedly from a politician who had benefited so richly from the spoils system. His other significant deeds in office linger in the shadows of specialized monographs. He played a peacemaker's role between factions of the Republican Party, made a modest effort to reduce the bloated tariffs that had become the foundation of Republican fiscal policy, and initially vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, without its making much of an impact on anti-Asian immigration policies. Probably his most important act was to sign the legislation that began the creation of a modern U.S. Navy.
Unspectacular as this record may be, even a president of more vigor, ambition, and skill might have accomplished little more in the particular framework in which Arthur operated.
The presidency itself was in an anemic state following Andrew Johnson's disastrous term. The leadership authority that Ulysses S. Grant had brought to the office had been dissipated in clouds of scandal. Rutherford B. Hayes owed his election to a House and Senate joint committee that had been formed to settle the disputed election of 1876; he had only the shaky mandate of a man many regarded as a fraudulent claimant to the White House.
Congress itself was not set up for resolute actions. The restoration of the Democratic South in 1877 decreased Republican majorities in Congress without giving Democrats clear majorities of their own. Narrow control of both chambers swung back and forth with each election, and little positive change could be achieved in the climate of stalemate. The clearly polarizing issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction period were fading; the attempt to create a Republican South supported by black votes had been abandoned—a "new" South appeared, more friendly to commercial and manufacturing interests; and battles over tariff and monetary policies did not produce sharply and clearly differentiated camps. The issues that were so challenging in the 1890s—immigration, poverty, labor unrest, agrarian depression, the trusts, the governance of cities—had yet to come into focus. Politics did not command the attention of talented and ambitious men, who were more attracted to the world of business. The strongest emotional reactions were produced by growing awareness of widespread corruption in office that grew out of the alliances between business and politics. But booming growth awakened national pride that trumped both class and regional antagonisms and, in addition, was sanctioned by a widespread Social Darwinist consensus that held that inequality was a natural by-product of the struggle for existence—thus, millionaires and paupers, like extant and extinct species, were features of the social environment unchangeable by human political will or actions.
The loudest political squabbles of 1880 raged among factions of the dominant Republican Party, known as "Stalwarts" and "Half Breeds" (depending on their loyalty to the expiring programs of the Grant years) and "Mugwumps" or "Independents"—reformers who wished to replace the regime of political bosses and patronage-fueled "machines" with their version of effective and honest government. In popular understanding, the Stalwarts were most closely linked with the spoils system at the heart of machine politics, and so Chester A. Arthur, an important player on New York's team of Stalwarts, was viewed with deep suspicion by almost all opponents of pay-to-play politics.
Arthur's early life was that of millions of young Americans who left rural areas for urban opportunities. Born in 1829 in Vermont and raised in a Baptist parsonage, he had the means to attend Union College in nearby upstate New York, and then move to New York City where, in 1854, he completed studies for the bar. He entered political life as a member of the new Republican Party; by 1861, he was important enough in its ranks to be appointed quartermaster general of the state at the start of the Civil War. Although he never smelled powder in battle, he did a competent job in outfitting and supplying the Empire State's troops, and won the sponsorship of Sen. Roscoe Conkling, New York's Republican "boss." Through Conkling's influence, he was named collector of customs of the Port of New York in 1871 and held the job until 1878. The collectorship was a prized and lucrative job, for the collector received various fees on the huge volume of imports pouring into one of the nation's busiest ports; he also may well have received contributions to himself and the party for sometimes "overlooking" shipments on which duty was owed. No proof of such malfeasance has come to light, but Arthur was a discreet man who burned his personal papers before his death; he admitted that he could make trouble if he revealed what he knew and had witnessed and countenanced. Conkling, who did not simply disagree with reformers but despised them as "carpet-knights and man milliners," was happy to put his clear stamp of approval on this faithful lieutenant.
Accordingly, reformers were dismayed as they followed the proceedings of the 1880 Republican convention. As neither Stalwarts nor Half Breeds had the votes to nominate their favored candidates (Grant and James G. Blaine), the choice fell to an alliance of moderates who compromised on James A. Garfield. To prevent a Stalwart bolt, Arthur was nominated for vice president. The practice of nominating some undistinguished figure as vice president as a consolation prize or a ticket-strengthening maneuver to appeal to critical sectional or special-interest constituencies was a fact of political life, with rare exceptions, until midway through the twentieth century. Although three presidents had died or been assassinated between 1840 and 1880, the assumption persisted that the vice president would almost always spend four to eight years entombed in harmless insignificance. Hence, unhappy as reformers might be at Arthur's elevation, they shared the conviction that his ability to do damage would be minimal
The Republican ticket prevailed by a mere whisker in the popular vote and victory in the Electoral College was made possible by the vote of New York, for which Roscoe Conkling held himself responsible and entitled to grateful recognition. Instead, Garfield provoked him by ignoring his recommendations for federal appointments in New York (breaching the custom of "Senatorial courtesy") and especially by naming a Half Breed, William H. Robertson, as next collector of the Port of New York. Conkling resigned from the Senate in a fury.
Garfield's victory was shatteringly upset on July 2, 1881, when Charles Guiteau mortally wounded him as the new president was entraining for a New England vacation. Lingering in agony through the summer, Garfield died on September 19. Guiteau was a man of many self-important fantasies, only one of them being that he deserved an appointment for campaign work. But when arrested just after the shooting, he had reportedly said: "I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President"—so it was publicly assumed that Garfield had fallen as a martyr to the spoils system. And now, it appeared, one of the great exemplars of the evils of that very system had become president.
Arthur, probably out of a sense of political reality, chose to calm those fears. He conducted no wholesale purge of Half-Breed officeholders and, most notably, left Collector Robertson untouched. In the Cabinet, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen replaced James G. Blaine in the State Department, but he was no less dedicated than Blaine to the expansion of America's diplomatic and commercial reach. William E. Chandler took over at the Navy Department—firmly convinced of the nonpartisan and almost undeniable proposition that the fleet needed an overhaul. Recognizing also, as did the Congress, the pressure of an outraged electorate for some kind of response to and strong turning away from spoilsmanship, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, thereby sharing somewhat undeservedly in the credit for some fifteen years of effort by earlier reformers. The act itself placed only some 11 percent of federal offices within the jurisdiction of the new Civil Service Commission and had important exceptions. Nevertheless, it was the first step on a journey toward a stable and trained bureaucracy and places Arthur in the probably unsought role of a modernizer. He also acknowledged the strength of the reform movement by authorizing the continued prosecution of Post Office officials who had awarded fraudulent contracts for mail carriage during the Grant administration.
Arthur also showed willingness to challenge another tenet of Stalwart orthodoxy, the steep "protective" tariff that had long benefited certain politically well-connected American industries and, by eliminating foreign competition, had become a system of legitimized giveaways to special interests. Congressional logrolling resulted in inflated schedules that heavily favored producers over consumers. The swollen duties agreeably filled the Treasury, but were passed along in prices that jacked up the cost of living for all Americans—although many skilled workers in the North favored the tariff because it raised their wages. Arthur's 1883 message to Congress supported reduction of the tariff on a number of basic items—what emerged, however, after months of the customary trade-offs on Capitol Hill was a bundle of reductions and increases aptly dubbed the Mongrel Tariff.
Arthur struck again at congressional perquisites when he vetoed a Rivers and Harbors bill of 1882 on the grounds of extravagance. Such measures for "internal improvements" were and remain a warehouse of political "pork" as senators and representatives vie to bring contracts (and jobs) into their home states. The veto itself not only reflected fiscal conservatism, it also signaled that Arthur, like Hayes and Garfield before him, was pushing the boundaries of presidential power back toward their more generous pre-Reconstruction lines.
A more widely noted veto was that of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put a twenty-year ban on the "importation of Chinese laborers," denied citizenship to already resident Chinese immigrants, and imposed burdensome requirements on visiting Chinese officials, businessmen, and students. Behind the new law lay a surge, located mostly in the West, of racism and labor resentment at being pitted against "coolie labor." Arthur had no trouble with the act's exclusionary racial components—he had no perceptible problem with black disfranchisement in the South—but he found stumbling blocks with its possible precedent-setting 1intrusion into the presidential realm of diplomacy. In effect, the Chinese Exclusion Act overrode the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between China and the United States; this treaty had guaranteed the free movement of each signatory's nationals in each other's territory. The purpose of that pact was to let American businessmen share in the commercial privileges wrung from China by other nations and open the door to further American penetration of Asian markets. Arthur agreed with that goal and thought that congressional reworking of the agreement was unconstitutional, unwise, and ultimately counterproductive. In the end, however, he settled for a version of the bill that called for an exclusion period of only ten years (but was later several times renewed). Once again, he showed a tendency to take the middle road as the safest and most practical. However, as heir to the Whig-Republican tradition of seeking overseas trade, he continued to support his secretary of state's ambitions for treaties with Korea and the still-independent kingdoms of Indo-China (never realized) and for reciprocity agreements with Spain, Mexico, and Santo Domingo as part of a Pan-American outreach.
Only in the area of naval history does Arthur show an appreciably visible profile, inasmuch as American expansion in the realm of global commerce required the demonstration of sea power, both to impress weaker nations with the wisdom of coming to terms and to fend off European rivals. But the U.S. Navy of 1881 could only be described as a ruin, consisting mainly of obsolete wooden sailing vessels and a few aging Civil War "ironclad monitors" useless on the high seas. With Arthur's full backing, Secretary Chandler pushed for replacement of the old fleet of some forty ships with a new one of nearly seventy steel-hulled, well-armored fighting vessels. By the end of Arthur's term, Congress had only authorized the immediate construction of three fast, armored cruisers and the scrapping of many superannuated warships. But the door was opened to the succeeding decades of promoting the concept and reality of a big navy to sustain the nation's dreams of expansion; these plans were fueled in part by the theories of Adm. Alfred T. Mahan, president of the Naval War College—an academy, established during Secretary Chandler's modernization program, that trained naval high commanders in the latest techniques of war at sea.
These accomplishments were the highlights of Arthur's administration—one not especially noted for energy. The president worked a ten-to-four, five-day-a-week schedule, did not court publicity, lived comfortably and well as a widower in the White House, and showed no signs of more than token interest in renomination in 1884, possibly already aware that he was ill with a kidney disorder of which he died in 1886.
Arthur was basically a placeholder in the transitional period that was the Gilded Age—a time that produced no creative presidents. Not a man to rock boats, he damped down the violence of partisan conflict, resisted further erosion of the power of the executive, and left a milepost or two on the road to the ages of progressivism and empire. Given the political circumstances of the time, he was probably the right man for years that were filled with social and economic ferment, but politically unremarkable.
- The American Commonwealth 1891. Reprint, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995. .
- New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. .
- The Politicos 1938. Reprint, New York: Harcourt, 1963. .
- Chester Alan Arthur New York: Henry Holt/Times Books, 2005. .
- Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. .
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