Quick. Who’s the most obscure president in US history?
If you said Millard Fillmore, you’re wrong. Everyone remembers Fillmore, if only for being the most unmemorable of all the presidents. Which is sort of a paradox, isn’t it?
Now, if I asked you who Chester Arthur was, would you have said “President of the United States?” I’d say there’s a one in three chance you would. Don’t feel bad. Unless you have at least a passing knowledge of the presidency, you probably don’t know who he was. He’s one of the obscure ones between Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. Even Chester Arthur would not fault you. He didn’t want to be president, and he resented reality-challenged gunman Charles Guiteau for putting him there.
Of all the men who ascended to the presidency upon the death of a sitting president, Arthur was the unlikeliest man to get the job. Consider our first accidental president, John Tyler. Tyler, a former senator, had been educated in the same schools as Jefferson and Madison and had been mentored by those who moved in the same circles as the Founders. Millard Fillmore, party hack he may have been, had held elective office before, not the least of which was the first comptroller for the State of New York. Andrew Johnson, who probably would have made a better wartime president than a postwar one, served in Congress and was military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War. Arthur?
Arthur, like Fillmore, was a party functionary, in this case the Republican Party. Unlike Fillmore, he never held elective office nor did he seek it. His two highest profile positions were quartermaster for New York during the Civil War and customs chief for the Port of New York. Both these jobs were given to him as part of the corrupt spoils system, the latter in exchange for his work on behalf of Senator Roscoe Conkling.
Few people questioned Conkling’s ethics. The man had none worth mentioning. But Arthur distinguished himself as an honest man in a dishonest system. Away from Republican politics, Arthur was an excellent lawyer, beginning as an abolitionist in the 1850’s and making his mark in Gilded Age New York City. Had the Republican convention of 1880 nominated Half-Breed leader James G. Blaine instead of compromise candidate James Garfield, Arthur might have gone on with his law career or possibly taking a post in a Republican-driven federal government.
But this was the 1880’s. Since about 1980, vice presidents have been scrutinized by the public for being “one heartbeat away from the presidency.” George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, and Joe Biden have all mounted serious presidential campaigns prior to their terms as vice president. Dan Quayle’s public gaffes and obvious discomfort in the White House fishbowl aside, probably could have held his own as a caretaker president while Dick Cheney, though not wanting the job for himself, could easily have stepped into the role if called upon. (And I’ll leave you, gentle reader, to make what you will of that. Notice I never said you had to like any of these guys.)
In the Gilded Age, however, the vice presidency served one purpose: Make the losing faction of the nominating party happy. So when Rutherford Hayes’ annointed successor, James Garfield, won the nomination, Arthur was tapped as running mate mainly to shut up Roscoe Conkling, who could be thought of as a demonic version of Henry Clay: All of the ego and power with none of Clay’s charm or pragmatism. Certainly, Arthur never expected to be president. He didn’t really expect Garfield to consult him. After the inauguration, Arthur stayed in New York City, expecting to travel to Washington only when his role as Senate tie-breaker was required.
All that changed when Garfield died of his wounds two months after Guiteau shot him. Arthur, stunned and devastated, joined the Garfield family in New Jersey to escort the slain president back to Washington. He didn’t want the job. In fact, he hated it. But president he was, and he promptly followed his predecessors Hayes and Garfield in poking a finger in the eye of Roscoe Conkling, reminiscent of earlier presidents booting Henry Clay out of the White House. (WH Harrison lived long enough for that to become a minor achievement of his presidency.) President Arthur announced that he intended to replace the spoils system, a system largely responsible for his career, with a merit-based civil service system based on that recently implemented in Britain. A sign of this was that he would not tolerate the casualness of the endless parade of office seekers. One such gentleman strolled into Arthur’s office, propped his feet up on his desk, and began addressing the nation’s chief executive as “Chet.” Arthur made him put his feet down and forced him to address Arthur as “Mr. President.”
His plan, however, stalled in Congress, since Republicans had no real motivation to replace the patronage system that had worked so well for them since the end of the Civil War. This frustrated Arthur, who inherited the presidency at the nadir of its power. But then the GOP got a scare. In 1882, voters shook up Congress in one of those “Throw the bums out” sweeps we could probably stand to see more often. Democrats, disorganized and still seen as a tool of the South since the Civil War ended, suddenly had a majority in the House and a larger slice of the Senate. Lame duck Republicans could not stand the idea that the patronage system responsible for so much of their power and wealth would suddenly be in control of the Democrats. How did they plan to short circuit this?
They sent the Pendleton Act, which addressed many of Arthur’s goals for civil service, to the White House to sign. By no means perfect, it put a dent in the spoils system and marked the beginning of the modern civil service system.
But civil service reform is not sexy. Arthur made it his cause, but he played more of a passive role in its realization. One reason is Arthur came to the White House without any over-arching vision for the nation. He did not share many of Garfield’s views, and with the exception of two Garfield appointees, Arthur found himself replacing most of the cabinet. It did not help that Arthur suffered from Bright’s Disease, a kidney condition caused by high blood pressure. Over his three and a half years as president, Arthur became increasingly frail.
Still, before the end of his term, Arthur did manage one other achievement that does not get much attention. He signed legislation authorizing the first modern warships in the US Navy. Between the end of the Civil War and Arthur’s term, the Navy fell into disrepair, described by many as rotting away. The ships Arthur authorized were not only modern iron-clad steamers, they were offensive weapons, designed to let the American Navy take its place alongside those of Great Britain and Germany.
Arthur’s health precluded him from running for a second term, though he did entertain the notion. Nonetheless, he put up an effort to get the Republican nomination for appearance. The Republicans lost to New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Arthur retired to his New York City home, but died months after leaving office.
Arthur’s reputation suffers from both the reduced power of the presidency in the Gilded Age and his lack of a coherent vision for the nation. However, his efforts for civil service and decision to start rebuilding the Navy make him more than a caretaker president.