An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

May 3, 2013 by

Chester Arthur

Chester Arthur

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Chester Arthur, the twenty-first president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

Chester Arthur was born October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont. His father was a teacher, and the family moved quite frequently as he sought new positions. In spite of having to change schools frequently, Arthur excelled academically. Indeed, he was admitted to Union College in Schenectady, New York at the age of sixteen. In his senior year at Union College, Arthur was Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, Arthur emulated his father by becoming a teacher. Shortly after entering the teaching profession, Arthur began to study law. He would pursue his legal studies on a part-time basis until 1853, when he moved to New York City to undertake the study of law full time under Erastus Culver.

A year later he passed the state bar examination, and he and Culver formed a law firm. As he built his legal practice, Arthur also became involved in the newly formed Republican Party in New York. Because of his efforts, he was appointed in 1860 by Governor Edwin Morgan to a position as a state militia staff officer. This was normally just a patronage position, but when the Civil War began Arthur was called upon to help recruit and outfit New Yorkers for military service. Arthur proved to be very effective at these tasks, and received the rank of brigadier general in the New York state militia for his services. But in the state election in the fall of 1863 a Democrat won the gubernatorial race, and Arthur lost his position on the military staff. Arthur then returned to his private legal practice. He also resumed his activities involving the Republican Party, and was rewarded in 1868 with an appointment as the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Republican Party.

A year later he became the counsel to the New York City Tax Commission, and in 1871 he was appointed the Collector of the Port of New York. This was a position of authority that involved overseeing 1000 employees, most of whom were appointed by Arthur. For six years Arthur fulfilled the duties of his office without controversy, but when Hayes became president things quickly changed. Hayes was in favor of civil service reform, and saw the Port of New York as one part of the federal government most in need of change. He therefore asked Arthur to resign, but Arthur refused. Undeterred, Hayes appointed a person to replace Arthur and sent that person’s name to the Senate for confirmation. The Senate, however, refused to confirm Hayes’ choice, so Arthur continued in his role with the Port of New York.

Hayes eventually did fire Arthur in 1878, using his ability under the Constitution to make appointments without the consent of the Senate when Congress went into recess. Arthur returned to private life, and threw himself into Republican politics by supporting party leaders who opposed the efforts of Hayes to advance the cause of civil service reform. There were quite a few like-minded individuals in New York, and by 1880 Arthur was recognized as one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.

This proved to be important for him because of the upcoming presidential election. Hayes had announced that he would not seek re-election, and the Republican Party leaders knew that they needed a balanced ticket to be able to keep their hold on the White House. Garfield, the nominee of the party, was assumed to be pro-reform, so the Republican National Convention chose Arthur as the vice-presidential candidate to appeal to supporters of the patronage system. The ticket of Garfield and Arthur won, and that set the stage for Arthur’s ascendancy to the presidency when Garfield was assassinated.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

In a sad irony, Arthur is best known for embracing something as president that he was diametrically opposed to before assuming that office. Once it became known that Garfield had been assassinated by a frustrated office seeker, a groundswell of support developed for the concept of civil service reform. Rather than oppose the idea, Arthur supported it. In his first address as president, Arthur called upon Congress to enact civil service reform, and when it passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act he immediately signed it. Moreover, he acted promptly to appoint capable individuals to serve on the Civil Service Commission that the act had created. We thus remember Chester Arthur as a reformer, when prior to becoming president he had been on the opposite side of the issue.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Arthur was a very intelligent person, and proved to be a quick learner. He was also hard working, and inspired loyalty among his associates.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

It is perhaps a sad commentary on American politics, but the fact that Arthur did change his mind on the issue of civil service was most likely his undoing. He alienated those Republicans who favored the concept of political patronage, while those who supported reform were unsure of how deep Arthur’s commitment to the idea was. This meant that he could not command enough support from these factions in 1884 to win his party’s nomination to run for president on his own in 1884. In addition, since Arthur was a widower, it was rumored that Arthur was spending more time as president socializing with women than in attending to the duties of office.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Arthur’s involvement in civil service reform clearly is the one thing that Arthur is remembered for, but he should also be commended for his progressive stance on immigration. After thousands of Chinese had been allowed to emigrate to the United States in the mid-1800s without issue, by the 1880s a movement had developed to ban further Chinese immigration. Congress passed a bill in 1882 to stop Chinese immigration for 20 years; in addition, the act would have denied citizenship to those of Chinese ancestry. Arthur vetoed the bill, feeling that it was unfair to deny a path to citizenship for a particular group of people. Congress would eventually prevail in its efforts to restrict immigration and prevent Chinese immigrants from obtaining citizenship, but Arthur still deserves credit for his principled stance.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Historians have held a very consistent view of Arthur. While recognizing that he did not accomplish everything that he had hoped to, historians feel that Arthur was able to put the United States on a positive path. He is currently ranked 26th out of the 44 presidents.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

While Arthur will always be best remembered for his stance on civil service reform, he also should be recognized for his position on citizenship for Chinese immigrants. He also believed that Native Americans should receive individual allotments of land, an idea that was very progressive at that time.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our twenty-first President?

Arthur is an example of a president who is solid but unspectacular. He may not have been great, but at least he was good as a president.

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