No Vice President, indeed no President, was more unlikely than Chester Alan Arthur.
Chester Alan Arthur (1830-1886) was a minister’s son, who through his own efforts became a successful New York attorney. On the way, he acquired style, sophistication, stunning mutton-chop whiskers and a passion for politics.
In the 1850s, he had been a Whig. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, he became a Republican, and during the Civil War was appointed Quartermaster General for New York, a position that seemed tailor made for a man with Arthur’s excellent administrative abilities and political ambition.
He became a close friend and protégé of Roscoe Conkling, the urbane Utica politician and U.S. Senator and powerful political boss – not necessarily in that order. During the Grant Administration, Chet Arthur was appointed the Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative political patronage position in the country. The port, which collected all the tariffs on incoming overseas goods, was rife with opportunity and corruption – not necessarily in that order either. While Arthur was never accused of personal malfeasance or dishonesty, he was notoriously adept at turning a blind eye.
When Rutherford B. Hayes became President, and reform was the watchword, Arthur was summarily dismissed. Rampant corruption had happened on his watch. Someone’s head had to roll.
Chester Alan Arthur Becomes Vice President
The semi-disgraced Chet Arthur returned to private law practice and administrative politics, seemingly none the worse for wear.
In 1880, Senator Conkling fed up with the Hayes do-goody administration, sought to re-nominate and re-elect his old friend, ex-President Grant to a third term. Grant had spent two years abroad, and the scandals of his own administration had been forgiven, if not forgotten entirely. This time however, the Hero of Appomattox had opposition within his own party, splitting the Republicans into two diametrically opposed factions: the pro-Grant “Stalwarts”, and the anti-Grant reformers, or “Half-Breeds.”
It would be a surprise to everyone when James Garfield, a barely-known Ohio Congressman, became the Republican Presidential candidate after several days of intense balloting. Garfield was a decent enough compromise. Even though he leaned toward the reform “Half-Breed” faction, he had always maintained a reasonable relationship with the powerful Conkling.
The problem would be to balance a ticket that could win. New York, with its huge block of electoral votes, was imperative. And reuniting the Stalwart and Half Breed factions was just as essential.
Chester Alan Arthur was way down on the list of potential Vice Presidential candidates. In those days, that office was an honorable position, with little responsibility. It had always been used as a geopolitical accommodation to balance a ticket. After other prominent New York Republicans had declined the nomination, Arthur was approached. When he discussed it with his mentor, Conkling advised him to decline also.
But the Vice Presidency was an honor far greater than Chester Alan Arthur had ever dreamed of. He accepted. It was the first time he did not acquiesce to Conkling. It would not be the last.
Vice President Arthur Non Grata
Chet Arthur indeed balanced the ticket and served actively as national chairman. The Republicans carried New York, but just barely. It was enough, however, to swing the election.
It had been hairline close – so close that the Senate was evenly split between the Republicans and the Democrats. According to the Constitution, in the event of a tie, the Vice President casts the deciding vote. Garfield’s first months were a morass of political in-fighting, as he tried to assemble a Cabinet acceptable to all factions and regions of the country.
As appointment after appointment became mired in the Republican quarrels, the Democrats just sat back and laughed. They tied every vote. The Vice President, obliged to cast the deciding vote, loyally cast his lot with his old friend Conkling.
Garfield and his Cabinet became increasingly annoyed at what they perceived as complete disloyalty to the President. As such, Chet Arthur was never invited to meetings, nor was his opinion or input sought. He was, for all intents and purposes, ignored.
President Garfield Is Assassinated
When President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, only four months into his presidency, Congress had adjourned for the summer.
The wounded President had been taken back to the White House, where it appeared he might not survive the night. Vice President Arthur, who had returned to his New York town house, was immediately summoned, and took the next train to Washington. He went at once to the White House to pay his respects, and was invited to an emergency Cabinet meeting, where again, he was all but ignored.
Then Arthur did something that raised his esteem immeasurably: he went back to New York. He said in no uncertain terms that as long as President Garfield was alive, he would make absolutely no presidential decisions or assume any responsibilities. For this restraint, Chet Arthur was universally applauded. He kept a low profile for the next ten weeks, avoiding newspaper reporters, the politicians, and Conkling.
There was no Constitutional or even legislative mechanism for a Vice President to assume Presidential duties for a disabled President. Had Chester Alan Arthur made any effort in that regard, it would have created a true Constitutional crisis that would have tied the country into knots. The same situation would occur again during Woodrow Wilson’s illness, nearly forty years later.
Chester Alan Arthur Becomes President
If being Vice President was beyond the wildest dreams of Chester Alan Arthur, he would be overwhelmed at becoming President when Garfield died ten weeks after the fatal shooting. The country knew very little about him other than the whiskers, and what they did know raised eyebrows. He had been dismissed as the Collector of the Port of New York. He was a Conkling henchman. He was a “spoilsman” all the way.
During the next three and a half years, Chet Arthur would establish himself as a fair, honest and independent President, and ranks moderately well in the pantheon. His most notable achievement was the introduction and passage of solid Civil Service reform, guaranteeing that qualification and merit would replace the old political patronage way of dispensing government jobs. It was the polar opposite of how he had been coached by the now-former Senator Conkling. The two men would never openly quarrel, or even exchange sharp words, but once Chester Alan Arthur became President, Conkling never spoke to him again.
President Arthur’s sense of fairness had won over his sense of personal loyalty. While he is arguably one of our least known Presidents, and Civil Service reform is not a particularly “sexy” issue, Mr. Arthur deserves some historic respect.
- Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003