Today is Presidents’ Day, and I decided to celebrate it by randomly selecting a President and writing about him. My mouse fell on Chester A. Arthur, a Republican who was President from 1881-1885. Here’s the wikipedia article about him.
Where was he in history? He was President a little after the Civil War. Arthur was Vice-President under James Garfield, a big-time Civil War general. And the Secretary of War in Arthur’s administration was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Honest Abe.
Here are some thoughts I had as I read Arthur’s story:
1. Wikipedia states the following about Arthur’s reputation: “Publisher Alexander K. McClure wrote, ‘No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired…more generally respected.’ Author Mark Twain, deeply cynical about politicians, conceded, ‘It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.'”
Arthur did not exactly become President with the best reputation. He was a stalwart in the Republican Party, meaning he supported cronyism and the spoils system. For Arthur, it wasn’t what you know that got you a political position, but whom you know!
Arthur was a part of Roscoe Conkling’s political machine in New York, and, when he served as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, his removal by President Rutherford P. Hayes was considered a reform! Arthur later became the Vice-President to James Garfield, who didn’t really like him. In 1881, Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, who exclaimed, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts… Arthur is president now!” I wonder if there were conspiracy theories about the Garfield assassination!
But Arthur changed, probably in response to the national grief over Garfield’s death. He helped pass the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which replaced the spoils system with a meritocracy for certain positions. Arthur angered many of his old stalwart friends in the process!
The lesson here is that people can surprise you! Harry Truman was once in the Ku Klux Klan, but he integrated the Armed Forces as President. Earl Warren as governor of California placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, but he was the Chief Justice who spearheaded Brown vs. the Board of Education. And many wonder if Barack Obama will be a reformer. Here was a man who may have been part of Chicago’s political machinery, who supported earmarks as U.S. Senator. Yet, as President, he has supposedly banned earmarks from his stimulus package, and he has tried to reduce the influence of lobbyists in government. Is Obama someone who has changed? Or are his reforms smoke-and-mirrors, as detractors have argued?
2. Arthur could be pretty bold as President because he knew he was dying of a kidney disease. He didn’t know if he had a political future or not, so whom he offended was not that important to him. That makes me wonder if a President should only serve one term, since that would free him from continually running for re-election and appeasing lobbyists in the process. At the same time, it would also make him a lame-duck, who’d be accountable to no one.
His kidney disease notwithstanding, Arthur still ran for the Republican nomination in 1884, a race that he lost. That kind of reminds me of the West Wing, in which the Republicans investigated Democratic President Josiah Bartlett to see if he hid his multiple sclerosis from the American people when he ran for President. Scandal? I guess the Republicans’ reasoning was that the American people should be fully informed about a candidate’s capacity when they made their decision.
3. Arthur had an attractive wife who died before he became President. Many women wanted to marry him, but he resolved never to marry again. That reminds me of the movie The American President, in which Michael Douglas plays a widower President.
If someone re-marries after a spouse has died, does that mean he or she loves the spouse less? Arthur may have felt that his wife was irreplaceable, since she was special to him in a unique way! But I’m reminded of something a new pastor said on an episode of The Waltons: “I’m not trying to ‘replace’ your old pastor, since he can’t be replaced. But I hope to find my own place in your community.” So maybe one can remarry without loving the departed spouse less.
4. Like many people, Arthur was a man of contradictions. As a lawyer, he defended a black woman who was denied seating on a streetcar, a case that led to the desegregation of the New York City public transportation system. Yet, as President, he signed a law that restricted Chinese immigration to the United States. Add to this his personal story: His mom was partly Native American, and there was controversy about whether Chester Arthur was even born in the United States, which would seriously impact his qualifications for the Presidency. Did Arthur’s “outsider” status lead him to empathize with other outsiders? In some cases, perhaps. In others, no.
5. The discussion on Arthur’s birth in the U.S. sounds like similar debates about Barack Obama, but here’s another similarity: both had to do the oath of office all over again. Arthur did so because he was initially sworn in by a New York justice. Obama retook it because John Roberts got the words wrong.
6. Arthur used to take solitary walks late at night to relax. I’ve done that before. When I lived in Indiana, I sometimes took walks late at night, and that really calmed my mind. Those were some of my best prayer times! But I don’t go out late at night nowadays unless I absolutely have to. It’s a matter of personal safety! Still, I miss those walks.
I hope you enjoyed our journey through the life of Chester A. Arthur. Happy Presidents Day!