I was pleasantly surprised reading about Chester Arthur: I had an inkling from Candice Millard’s biography of Garfield that Arthur would prove to be an interesting figure, but I was not expecting myself to feel so sympathetic towards him. He is, deservedly, one of the more easily forgotten presidents on this list and his achievements were modest, but I left feeling he acquitted himself respectably.
Arthur never really wanted to be president, an unusual state of affairs in itself. No matter how often other presidential candidates (and ex-presidents) sought to appear reluctant to accept the nomination of their party, almost to a man the people I have read about in this project have had clear ambitions for power. Arthur seems cut from a completely different mould. Having started life as a teacher, and then as a lawyer, he showed a sustained commitment to working towards the public good and once he reached the highly lucrative post of Collector of the Port of New York, he seemed pretty satisfied.
The Port of New York was a significant battleground for reform-minded politicians. As one of the biggest sources of customs revenue in the country, it attracted a great deal of corruption, both in the form of political manipulation (a party in charge could raise funds by levying a charge on their employees) and personal kickbacks (Arthur himself became wealthy from the post as he earned a proportion of any fines incurred by people caught on his watch trying to evade the tariff. Thus his salary of $6,500 became a yearly income of around $50,000). Following the highly corrupt Grant administration, Hayes sought to reduce political patronage in the civil service, and to tackle corruption more generally, turning his attention on New York. The consequence was that Arthur was fired from his job but remained a Republican, albeit aligned more closely with the New York politics of Roscoe Conkling than with the reformers.
In the election of 1880, Roscoe Conkling’s focus was on trying to get Grant the nomination of the Republican party, competing against the reformers who preferred James G. Blaine. Neither man was elected with the convention preferring Garfield, something of a dark horse. But Garfield’s campaign needed New York support, which Conkling was unprepared to provide but Arthur was amenable to so doing. And thus Arthur ended up on Garfield’s ticket: he was a handy name to recruit political support from an important constituency and then to discard.
While Garfield lay dying (for many months), the thought of Arthur as president terrified some people. They feared he would reintroduce corrupt practices and encourage political patronage. But Arthur proved them wrong. He continued Garfield’s reforming intentions and ended up running a perfectly competent administration.
Sadly, competence isn’t sexy and Arthur had a number of detractors at the time who ensured his legacy was unimpressive in the years following his death (within a year of leaving office). So a decent man and respectable president slipped into obscurity. Modern studies of Arthur seem to be doing a good job of emphasising the favourable elements of his presidency and Karabell’s potted biography gave a clear and readable summary of Arthur’s life, and critical opinion on his life. That said, although I was pleasantly surprised to read good things about Arthur, I was happy that my time spent doing so was brief.