Monday, February 15, 2010
President's Day Tribute: Chester A. Arthur
President Chester A. Arthur ranks among one of America's least known Presidents. Arthur is little known for good reason.
Elected Vice President of the United States in 1880, Arthur had served in no other elected office. Instead, Arthur was known as a lawyer and political hack whose political achievement previously had been serving as the scandal ridden tax collector at the Port of New York during the Grant Administration.
The Republican Convention of 1880 was a wild affair. After the "stalwarts" section of the GOP failed to nominate former President U.S. Grant, the convention broke down. The convention voted 36 times before it settled with Congressman James Garfield as its Presidential nominee and Chester A. Arthur as is Vice Presidential nominee. Arthur was nominated to calm down the stalwarts. Garfield was a reformer.
The Garfield-Arthur ticket won a close election in 1880, keeping the Presidency in Republican hands. However, on July 2, 1881 Charles J. Guiteau, a stalwart, shot President Garfield. The best and brightest were brought into to aide the President, including Alexander Graham Bell with his metal detector to find the bullets. However, President Garfield died due to his wounds on September 9, 1881, making Chester A. Arthur, a man of little accomplishment, the President of the United States.
The nation was only 16 years removed from a Civil War and the thought that a fanatic of the Vice-President's section of the Republican Party shot the President had to enter the national conscious. Considerable scandal could have ensued had Arthur followed the stalwart line. Arthur pursued some of Garfield's ideas thus making himself independent of whatever notions the assassin might have had. The Pendleton Act reforming civil service especially stated Arthur's independence from the stalwarts.
President Arthur had little chance of nomination or election is in own right. Again, his selection as Vice President was done to placate a faction of his party during a complicated and confusing convention. Greater men starting eying the job the day Arthur was sworn in. Further, Arthur seemed obsessed with the memory of his late wife, who had died months before Arthur was nominated for Vice President.
President Arthur did have his effect upon American history. He oversaw a renovation of the White House and of the United States Navy. The improvement of the United States Navy help set the United States to become a world military power. His support of civil service reform began re-shaping the idea of political patronage. Arthur appointed two United States Supreme Court Justices.
Indeed, President Garfield and President Arthur come from a time that is just foreign to today's American Presidential politics. It is hard to imagine a major party of the United States repeating the Republican convention of 1880 in today's political world. It is unimaginable that a confused and divided convention would produce a relatively unknown lawyer as its Vice Presidential nominee and that person would go on to be President of the United States. But, as a man and President of his time, Arthur rose to the occasion, and though defeated for the nomination of the GOP in 1884, was well respected by commentators of his time such as Mark Twain.
Arthur would live only a few months after leaving office in March of 1885, ordering his personal papers destroyed shortly before his death. Arthur had a line former President Clinton perhaps should have borrowed, " I may be the President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damn business."