Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #103: The Unexpected President, The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur
Updated: Feb 20
To the extent that folks think of American Presidents from the second half of the 19th century, most tend to remember Lincoln and then struggle to name another until Teddy Roosevelt clambered over McKinley's corpse into history. Maybe Grant. And even if people can cudgel more names out of their memories, they're usually hard-pressed to recall anything specific about the men or their administrations. Chester Alan Arthur might be the poster boy for these cough-drop chief executives (so named by a UNH history professor of mine for their bearded resemblance to the eponymous Smith Brothers of lozenge fame).
Chet Arthur wasn't a great president. Heck, he wasn't even a great man. A child of an abolitionist New York preacher, Arthur escaped the strict piety of his family to become a loyal cog in the Empire State Republican political machine of the 1870s. He was central casting for the Gilded Age politico - a corrupt local official who lined his own pockets in lucrative gigs like Collector of the Port of New York. As part of the gang that included Thurlow Weed and Roscoe Conkling, Arthur was an enthusiastic participant in the spoils system, making sure that political supporters received plum appointments and that public employees kicked back part of their salary to the machine for use at campaign time. It was a filthy system, and Arthur's hands were as dirty as anyone's. When the 1880 campaign rolled around, much of the nation was astonished that someone with such a well-known track record of unethical behavior became the Republican candidate for Vice President. Ohioan James Garfield allowed Arthur on the ticket because he needed the Conkling gang to win New York. The poor guy didn't know he'd be dead less than half a year into his presidency. (An aside - the story of Garfield's assassination and the subsequent malpractice of his doctors is a riveting tale in its own right - but we'll get to that.)
Arthur assumed the Presidency, and the country rolled its collective eyes. The fox was in the henhouse now, and the movement toward civil service reform would certainly stall. To the surprise of everyone, perhaps most of all Arthur himself, he proved an able and reasonable chief executive. His friends like Conkling who assumed their former toady would be a pushover in the White House received a bit of a shock when the new President supported the Pendleton Act, ushering in sweeping civil service reform. It seems boring now, but boy, was it a big deal. Arthur also proved to be progressive on matters of civil rights and immigration - he vetoed the first attempts to exclude Chinese immigrants, for instance, and supported the Readjusters in Virginia (a more liberal wing of the Republican party in the South that worked to abolish poll taxes and increase education funding for black schools).
Look, Arthur doesn't stand very tall among the crowd of American presidents from the past. His own party didn't renominate him, going instead with James Blaine (the continental liar from the state of Maine), and he died less than two years after leaving office, at the tender age of 57. He wasn't a Lincoln or a Roosevelt. But he did show that a person can grow in the office, can seize the opportunity of the Presidency to become more than what they've been before, can leave behind partisan corruption and personal graft, can attempt to be of service to the country they've been asked to lead instead of the other way around. We could use a man like Chet Arthur today.