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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 377

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This is the grave of Chester Arthur.

Born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. A minister’s son, the family moved around a lot in his early years, finally settling in Schenectady, New York. He was a Whig from an early age and idolized Henry Clay as a child. He went to college at Union in Schenectady. There’s a big statue of him on campus, which excited me a great deal when I saw it. That campus is also the only place I’ve ever personally witnessed a bird regurgitating food into its chicks’ mouths and the only place I’ve seen a hockey game. But I digress.

Arthur was a teacher for a few years and moved around to different schools in New York and Vermont, coincidentally teaching at the same school as James Garfield, though a few years apart. He then decided the law was for him. He was admitted to the bar in 1854 and established himself in New York City. There, he got hired for a firm that did a lot of abolitionist work. He played a minor role in Lemmon v. New York, which successfully argued that any slave brought to New York was automatically free. He was also the lead lawyer on a case that desegregated New York’s streetcar lines. He was a restless guy though and moved to Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas years, not so much to fight as to buy some land and start a law firm. But he quickly found out he was a confirmed New Yorker and moved back after only a short time on the frontier.

During the Civil War, Arthur wasn’t exactly the fighting kind of guy. But he was very good as a manager. Being a highly connected Republican, he was commissioned as a brigadier general and worked for the state militia’s quartermaster department. He proved extremely adept at getting supplies and moving people and material around and was promoted to inspector general of the state militia in 1862 and then to quartermaster general. He actually did receive opportunities for combat, but he refused them. This was a political appointment. In 1862, the odious Horatio Seymour won the governor’s race and Arthur was gone. Then, in 1864, a Republican won, but it was from a different faction and Arthur was offered nothing. Instead, he started his own law firm. Well connected, it did very well. Arthur would eventually ride those connections all the way to the Oval Office.

Arthur was a member of Thomas Murphy’s Republican machine, an organization that was also friendly to Boss Tweed‘s Tammany Hall, even as the latter was a Democrat. There were many opportunities for a good lawyer with these people. Arthur was really just a hack. In this way, he might be the most unlikely person ever to rise to the presidency, including the current occupant (if anything, I’m surprised a loud rich TV star racist hasn’t bullied his way to the presidency earlier). He expressed no political views. He gave no speeches. He ran for no offices. He just did his work. Roscoe Conkling took a liking to him and gave him plum patronage posts. In 1869, he became counsel to the New York Tax Commission. And then in 1872 came the real prize. Grant gave Conkling control over New York patronage. That was real power. Conkling could dispense this basically any way he chose. At first this went poorly. The real plum was the Collector of the New York Custom House. This was all corrupt as hell. Employees had to give kickbacks and the first choice was so corrupt that finally it was too much even for the Gilded Age. After a couple of other people turned it down, Conkling gave his boy Arthur the job. And while I don’t know of a lot of evidence suggesting Arthur was personally corrupt per se, there were lots and lots of perks to this job, including a cut of all fines. This meant that while Arthur’s actual salary was $6,500 a year, he was actually pulling in more than $50,000, a huge amount of money for the time and more than Grant was making in the White House. Arthur started living a lavish, luxurious lifestyle. All of this though eventually got the attention of Congress, who doubled the salary of Arthur and future collectors, but also cut away all the perks. Finally, the Hayes administration investigated all of this and Arthur came under a lot of criticism. Hayes fired him in 1878.

These battles were in part about the divide in the Republican Party between the Old Guard, led by Grant and Conkling, and reformer Half-Breeds (yes, I know), who included Hayes. Corruption and patronage was the big issue between them. The 1880 presidential nomination was a huge battle between the two sides. The Stalwarts, including Arthur, fought for Grant. The reformers wanted James Blaine, which was somewhat hilarious given this was no shining knight of reform, but he would have signed a civil service bill. With neither side able to win a majority of delegates, James Garfield, who was a well-liked moderate on these issues, despite his own corrupt past with the Credit Mobilier scandal, was the compromise candidate.

Given how often people died for random reasons in the 19th century, it’s amazing that more thought was taken on who the VP would be. But usually, it was just some compromise candidate no one cared about. Occasionally, they stumbled into the Oval Office. Such was the case with Chester Arthur, a man who literally had never run for office before and who had no interest in holding electoral office. Conkling actually advised Arthur not to accept the offer because he thought Democrats would win in 1880, but for once, Arthur went his own way. Arthur was a complete irrelevancy as VP. He has absolutely no sway over appointments. Garfield came down pretty heavily on the side of the Half-Breeds when he named Blaine Secretary of State.

But then Garfield got shot by Charles Guiteau. Moreover, it was over the patronage issue that was at the heart of the Republican divide. Guiteau shouted, “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President.” After the doctors basically murdered Garfield through their incompetence, Arthur all of a sudden became president. Most of the Cabinet resigned within the first year, not wanting to work for a Stalwart. Only Robert Lincoln at Interior remained to 1885. There was much fear that Arthur would not support civil service reform. After all, his whole career was based on the sketchiness of Gilded Age patronage. But Garfield’s assassination changed the national mood. Now it became the political smart play for all to support at least some reform. So Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883, one of the most underrated important laws in American history, starting to professionalize government and give workers job protections that wouldn’t result in their firing when another party won power. Arthur then vigorously enforced it, named real reformers to the Civil Service Commission, and major gains were made on this issue during his term.

On other issues, Arthur was pretty much a standard Republican. He was all about a strong tariff. The government actually had a surplus and Congress passed a big internal improvements bill to spend the money. Arthur vetoed it but Congress overrode it. So that’s one exception to his party loyalty. Very much not to his credit was signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. He didn’t like the denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, but he signed it anyway. This was not inevitable. Hayes had vetoed such a bill in 1879. His foreign policy was pretty bad. Blaine was working on a lot of treaties to push American interests globally, but when he left, they all just withered on the vine. Arthur was basically moderately indifferent about civil rights. He criticized the Supreme Court overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and tried to extend more patronage to black Republicans in the South, but like other Gilded Age Republican presidents, it was more about managing the issue rather than pushing for greater rights. He was typically terrible on Native issues, pushing what would become the Dawes Act in 1887, which stole land rights from tribes and opened reservations to white settlers.

Arthur was interested in running for his own term in 1884. But his health wasn’t good. James Blaine won the nomination and then lost to Grover Cleveland. He returned to New York and his law practice in 1885, but his health failed. Before he died, he committed what to a historian is an unconscionable act for a public official: he burned all his personal papers. He died in 1886.

Chester Arthur is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Woodrow Wilson is in Washington, D.C. and Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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