By Michael Gerhardt
It is hard to imagine there is anything worth knowing about Chester Arthur. Many Americans might not even recognize that he was a president of the United States. By almost any measure, he is one of our most forgotten presidents: Never elected to the office in his office and a political hack before becoming Garfield’s Vice President, he was a terrible speaker, carried little influence within his own party, had become Vice President to appease his political mentor Roscoe Conkling (and his wing of the Republic party), ranks near the bottom of presidents in the numbers of books written about his presidency, and burned most of his personal papers the day before he died. Yet, there are at least five interesting, even memorable things worth knowing about Arthur.
The first is that no person ever became president with lower expectations than Arthur did. The highest political office Arthur held becoming Garfield’s running mate in 1880 was the Collector for the Port of the City of New York. His only qualification for the job was that he had been the political lieutenant for Roscoe Conkling, a colorful New York senator who led the Stalwart wing of the Republican party. Even so, President Hayes had dismissed Arthur for corruption. Thus, Arthur was unemployed and disgraced by the time of the 1880 presidential convention. Against Conkling’s wishes, Arthur agreed to be a compromise candidate for Vice President to placate Conkling’s wing of Party. The thinking was that Arthur was the least obnoxious Stalwart that could be found that he could be counted on to do nothing once Garfield got into office.
As Vice President, Arthur had done nothing except once to side with Conkling in a battle between the latter and Garfield over whom to appoint to head the Customs House in New York, Arthur’s old job. After Garfield outmaneuvered Conkling, Arthur receded to obscurity until Garfield died as a result of doctors’ incompetence in handling a gun shot wound from a would-be assassin. Everyone expected that, as president, Arthur would merely continue to be the political hack he had always been — to continue to do, in other words, Conkling’s bidding.
The second, surprising thing about Arthur is that he proved not to be what everyone had expected. He never did Conkling’s bidding. Indeed, shortly after becoming president, he met privately with Conkling, apparently to make a deal that got Conkling out of his way (including unsuccessfully offering him a seat on the Supreme Court). Arthur committed himself throughout his presidency (nearly a full term) to making appointments based on merit. The Senate rejected none of his major appointments, which included two excellent appointments to the Supreme Court.
Third, Arthur took advantage of Garfield’s death (which had been publicly understood to be an assassination by a frustrated office-seeker) to do something every other nineteenth century presidency had promised but failed to do. Most presidents before Garfield as well as Garfield had promised civil service reform, but none had achieved it. The opposition was largely based on concerns that diluting the president’s ability to remove people who worked in the civil service would weaken him and allow for a permanent class of elitists working for the government. With Garfield’s death, Arthur saw the writing on the wall. He urged Congress to enact civil service reform, and he became the first American president to sign a landmark law enacting such reform, the Pendleton Act.
The fourth is that Arthur was honest as president. Though he had spent his pre-vice presidential career steeped in the world of political corruption and known widely as Conkling’s “creature,” his administration was free of any political scandals, a rare accomplishment for a president of that era.
Finally, Arthur defended presidential prerogatives from being encroached upon by Congress. Early into his presidency, Arthur realized he had little chance to be elected to the office in his own right and thus was not hesitant to push back against efforts, even from within his own party, to strengthen Congress at the expense of the president. Instead, he helped to veto the President’s nominating, veto, and other powers throughout his time in office.
It is possible that none of these things might not impress some contemporary Americans. They may dismiss them as unimportant and archaic. Yet, they might also suggest, as I urge students and others to consider, that Arthur helped to demonstrate how the presidential office itself can transform someone. In Arthur’s case, the office drew him into defending its prerogatives and caring about leaving it at least as well off as he had found it. Arthur, in other words, rose to the occasion of being president, which ought to give pause to anyone who is cynical about politics.
Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published five books, including The Forgotten Presidents and The Power of Precedent. Read his previous blog posts on the American presidents.
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Image credit: Chester Alan Arthur. 1881-1885. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.