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chester alan arthur

20 september 2008

Chester Alan Arthur is possibly the most obscure American President, though if you are as big a fan of Presidents as I am, that's like a baseball fanatic calling somebody the most obscure inductee into the Hall of Fame. (Vic Willis? Rick Ferrell?) In a highly sympathetic study for the Times Books American Presidents series, Zachary Karabell tries to restore Arthur to some measure of respect. He was an indolent and powerless President, for sure, but he did his best to raise the office above the fray of the "spoils system." That great biennial movement of pigs to the public trough had made Arthur, the prize hog among them, first a minor celebrity and then Vice President of the United States. Becoming President upon the death of James Garfield, Arthur ended up signing the Pendleton Act, the bill that was the beginning of the end for the spoilsmen.

Karabell admires Arthur, in a measured way, because Arthur never aspired to be President. He aspired instead to be the unofficial chief executive of the New York State political machine in the 1870s. In that realm, Arthur rose from almost nowhere to become pre-eminent overnight. A young lawyer from modest origins as an upstate preacher's son, Arthur, in his early 30s, was appointed quartermaster general of the State of New York in the first years of the Civil War.

Arthur spent much of his pre-Presidential career at the nexus of money and stuff. Bounced from his quartermaster gig when Democrats took control of the state legislature in 1862, he became a Manhattan lawyer and Republican party organizer. He resurfaced in public office in 1871 as Collector of the Port of New York, the insanely lucrative executive position that granted him both a huge salary and half of all the contraband his agents could seize. (Arthur was never even suspected of taking criminal kickbacks, but the position of Collector was arguably an institutionalizing of criminal kickbacks.)

As Collector in the New York Customs House, Arthur certainly never personally cracked a packing crate. Nor did he spend much time supervising the supervisors of those who did. His main job description was to organize massive "assessments" on the incomes of all his many subordinates, all of whom were operatives in Conkling's "Stalwart" wing of the Republican political machine. The system was undeniably efficient. The G.O.P. got people jobs; the job-holders got the G.O.P. money, which the G.O.P. used to win elections and get people jobs. The "spoils system" was functional with a vengeance.

In 1878, Rutherford Hayes, tired of the shenanigans of Arthur and his Senatorial patron Roscoe Conkling, fired Arthur from the Collectorship. Depending on how people felt about Conkling, Arthur was either the pattern of everything corrupt about the Federal Government, or a poster child for decent public servants thrust into the cold by a demagogic, hypocritical President.

When the 1880 Republican Presidential nomination went to Garfield, the leader of a provisional anti-Conkling coalition, it made sense to offer the Vice-Presidential nomination to a Conkling man. But even some of the most cynical of the Stalwart horse-traders (including Conkling himself) were amazed when Garfield tapped Chet Arthur for the VP line on the ticket. Conkling advised Arthur to "drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge" (41). But Chet Arthur hadn't gotten to the top of New York politics by dropping valuable commodities.

As President, Arthur did three major things of note, says Karabell. His use of the veto reduced the term of exclusion in a xenophobic anti-Chinese-immigration act from twenty years to ten. Inspired by his years on the docks, he laid the keels for the first all-steel cruisers of a modernized Navy. And, of course, in one of the great Nixon-to-China reversals, he signed the Pendleton Act.

In 1882, the Democratic Party won one of the great midterm Congressional landslides in American history. At last, the thousands of patronage jobs that had been in the grant of the G.O.P since 1861 were theirs for the taking. Except that the bizarre parliamentary rules of the U.S. Congress require, as they do to this day, a "lame-duck" legislative session featuring the clowns who have just been voted out of office. (You may remember lame-duck sessions from the Clinton impeachment of 1998.)

With their cookie jar rudely snatched away, the Republicans decided it was a good time to put the whole country on a diet. They passed, and Arthur signed, the first bill to provide for a permanent, meritocratic, professional civil service. The Pendleton Act had only mild repercussions, but its momentum never faltered. The huge federal bureaucracies of the 20th century, as Karabell notes, are its lineal descendants.

With that behind him, Arthur seemed to spend most of his last two years in office on vacation. He sunned in Florida and fished in Yellowstone (where, legend has it, he was nearly abducted by bandits). So, he wasn't exactly Lincoln. But he lived in times that needed no Lincoln, with the nation at peace and the Treasury running in the black. And Arthur was a dying man, subject to chronic, progressive kidney failure that killed him less than two years after his Presidential term ended.

Karabell points out that Arthur now has no reputation at all. But in some ways, surviving three-and-a-half years in the Presidency without anyone noticing is a significant historical achievement.

Karabell, Zachary. Chester Alan Arthur. New York: Times Books, 2004.