Great Emergencies — Profile: Chester A. Arthur

Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and Hayes… were the lost Americans: their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea depths of a past intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable as the buried city of Persepolis. And they were lost. For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life? Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement? Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? Where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: Which was which? Were they not lost?

In his 1934 short story, “The Four Lost Men,” Thomas Wolfe reflects on his father’s life and wonders if the oft-forgotten Republican presidents of his era ever really existed. Almost 90 years later, these men are even further removed from our historical memory. The presidents of the Gilded Age are stuck between two pillars of American history, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and Teddy Roosevelt and American Imperialism. That is not to say that they did not face important issues. The North and South remained divided while industrialization and globalization reshaped the country. Presidential elections at the time were some of the fiercest and closest in American history. But, outside of a few notable exceptions, presidents of the Nineteenth Century largely deferred to Congress to set policy. The Executive Branch simply did not have the power that it does today. Furthermore, the four men named by Wolfe were particularly average in performance, failing to inspire intense love or hate from the public. Yet, one of these men stands out to me. Chester A. Arthur was president from 1881 to 1885. He was the only one of the four not from the Midwest, and the only one to have not won a presidential election of his own. Arthur rose to power as the loyal crony of crooked party bosses, but he never intended to achieve the highest office. Once there, however, the most corrupt politician in the country had a change of heart.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield approached the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, DC, accompanied by his sons, Secretary of State James Blaine, and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln. He intended to travel to the vacation town of Long Branch, New Jersey, to meet his wife, Lucretia. As he entered, a man with a pistol ambushed him from behind. Garfield was shot twice, once in the shoulder, and once in the back. A crowd gathered while the President’s companions tended to him. Still conscious, he was eventually taken back to the White House. A police officer effortlessly stopped the assassin from fleeing the scene. When he informed the man that he would be arrested, the man replied, “Alright. I did it and I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be president.”

Vice President Chester A. Arthur was selected to join Garfield on the 1880 presidential ticket to appease the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party. The Stalwarts were ardent defenders of the Spoils System, under which government jobs were handed out as favors to political allies by the party in power. They believed these “patronage” jobs were democratic and necessary for good governance. Of course, those employed in these positions were often required to make monetary contributions to the party, an important component of campaign fundraising. Attempts at reform, such as civil service exams, were either rigged or completely ignored. Although the system had been in place for decades, it reached its height under President Ulysses S. Grant. While he remained popular as a hero of the Civil War, Grant’s misguided loyalty to his political allies allowed corruption to run rampant within his administration. Stalwarts thrived under his leadership.

In his previous position as Collector of the Port of New York, Arthur sat at the very top of the Spoils System. He oversaw the New York Custom House, a source of hundreds of patronage jobs. Prior to the creation of the income tax in 1913, most government revenue came from taxing imports. New York, being the busiest port in the country, provided two-thirds of that money. As Collector, Arthur received a commission on the fines imposed by his inspectors. He earned more than $50,000 annually (about $1 million in today’s dollars), making him the highest paid government employee. Custom House workers were also known to “lose” up to 25% of the imported goods in their possession. In reality, these items were sold for additional profits, which were shared with Custom House officials. All of this income allowed Arthur to live a high-class lifestyle. He wore the latest fashions and dined at New York’s finest restaurants. But his frequent late nights spent socializing with the New York elite came at an expense. Friends and family noted the strain that Arthur’s lifestyle had on his relationship with his wife, Nell.

The leader of the Stalwarts was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Conkling was hot-headed, flamboyant, and arrogant. He was best known for his aggressive, yet effective, speeches. As the party boss of the most populous state, he had a huge influence over the Republican Party, and Arthur was his most loyal lieutenant. When Grant finally left office, Conkling and Arthur found themselves at odds with his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes. Although he was a Republican, Hayes was committed to ending the corruption of the Grant years. He ordered a full investigation into the practices of Arthur’s Custom House. The reports that followed revealed shady hiring practices, widespread incompetence, and forced political contributions. Hayes fired Arthur during a Congressional recess, the only time he could circumvent Conkling’s grip on the Senate. Before Arthur could be re-appointed, Republicans lost their majority to the Democrats in the midterm elections. Arthur returned to his law practice and consulting for the state party. In January 1880, while he was in Albany, Nell contracted pneumonia. Arthur rushed home, but she was already sedated when he arrived. She died the next day.

President Hayes vowed to only served one term, leaving the 1880 Republican nomination wide open. Stalwarts hoped to unite the party under a third term for Grant. Moderate reformers, known as Half-Breeds, backed Conkling’s arch-nemesis, Senator (and rhyme enthusiast) James Blaine from Maine. Instead, the party coalesced around a dark-horse candidate, ohio Representative James A. Garfield. Although the Half-Breeds were happy to have defeated Conkling yet again, they understood that appeasing swing-state New York was necessary to win the general election. Conkling, still bitter, declined their offer to select Garfield’s running mate. When Arthur learned of the job opening, however, he side-stepped his boss and seized the opportunity.

Garfield continued to compromise with the Stalwarts during his campaign. It was their understanding that he would provide their faction with high-level cabinet positions. The Republican ticket won the 1880 presidential election, but when Garfield began staffing his administration, Stalwarts were outraged to discover that he had no intention of fulfilling their job requests. Half-Breeds dominated the appointments — including James Blaine for Secretary of State! But the most offensive choice of all was for Arthur’s old job. Garfield nominated a reformer as Collector of New York, the ultimate insult to Conkling. Always the drama-queen, Conkling retaliated by resigning from the Senate in protest, believing that he would be quickly re-appointed by the New York state legislature (senators were not directly elected until 1913). To his surprise, he did not actually have the support necessary to return to the Senate. Conkling was forced to travel to Albany and campaign for his old job. In what was perceived as a shocking abuse of power, Vice President Arthur joined him. When Garfield was shot on July 2nd, Conkling and Arthur were in New York City plotting the (former) Senator’s comeback.

Put simply, Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a disgruntled office seeker. He gave one campaign speech on behalf of the 1880 Republican presidential ticket, and he believed it entitled him to a foreign consulship of his choice. But Guiteau had a long history of strange behavior. He dropped out of the University of Michigan and was rejected from a Communist-Christian-sex-cult (who nicknamed him Charles Get-out). He visited the White House daily to ask for a job, but was largely ignored. In one particularly hostile interaction, Secretary Blaine ordered him, “Never speak to me again.” That’s when Guiteau realized he had shoot the President.

President Garfield survived for over two months. His health varied week by week. Stalwart critics placed blame on the Spoils System and dreaded the possibility of an Arthur presidency. Many even believed that Conkling and Arthur were complicit in the crime. After all, Guiteau had named Arthur directly. These accusations deeply troubled the Vice President. Friends compared his emotional state with that of Nell’s death. Only one supporter, someone whom he had never met, was able to break through to him. Julia Sand, a single, 31-year-old New Yorker, was mostly homebound due to a series of aliments. In her free time, she read newspapers and closely followed politics. Soon after Garfield’s death, she wrote Arthur a seven-page letter.

The hours of Garfield’s life are numbered — before this meets your eye, you may be President. The people are bowed in grief; but — do you realize it? — not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor. What president ever entered office under circumstances so sad! The day he was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce? Your best friends said: “Arthur must resign — he cannot accept office, with such a suspicion resting upon him.” And now your kindest opponents say: “Arthur will try to do right” — adding gloomily, “He won’t succeed, though — making a man President cannot change him.” But making a man President can change him! Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.

Library of Congress / Manuscript Division / Chester Alan Arthur Papers

President Garfield died on September 19th. Arthur took the oath of office at his home in New York. He traveled to Washington on the train carrying Garfield’s body. Public perception towards Arthur’s presidency had improved due to his clear resistance towards taking power, but suspicion still persisted that it was the corrupt Conkling who was really in control. Most of Garfield’s cabinet, including Blaine, soon resigned. But something had changed in Arthur. While the Stalwarts certainly received their share of appointments throughout his term, Arthur was not afraid to stand up to his old boss. He denied Conkling the choice of Custom House Collector, and refused to select him as Secretary of State. In his Annual Message to Congress (now known as the State of the Union), Arthur firmly endorsed civil service reform. He signed the resulting bill, the Pendleton Act, in early 1883 — putting an end to the very political machinery that propelled his career. Arthur later attempted to mend his friendship with Conkling by nominating him to the Supreme Court, but Conkling never forgave him.

Outside of civil service reform, Arthur had a relatively drama-free term. He tackled the tariff, pork-and-barrel spending, and the modernization of the navy. The biggest stain on his record, from today’s point of view, was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Anti-immigrant sentiment was extremely high during the Gilded Age, especially in Western states. Arthur initially vetoed Congress’ 20-year ban on Chinese immigration, but backed down when the time period was reduced to 10 years. Julia Sand continued to write Arthur throughout his presidency. She advised him on several policy issues, referring to herself as his “little dwarf.” On bills like the Chinese Exclusion Act, she was not afraid to express her frustrations with the President. In 1882, Arthur paid a surprise visit to her home in New York. Julia was shocked. Unlike in her letters, she was intimidated by the President, especially in the presence of her family. Their hour-long conversation mostly consisted of small-talk. In response to Julia’s sole policy critique, Arthur argued that she only knew what she read in untrustworthy newspapers. Julia later expressed regret over their misspent interaction, but hoped that it would begin a new phase of their friendship. Sadly, there is no record that Arthur ever replied to her letters, nor visited her again.

Arthur had little support for a second term. He had betrayed the Stalwarts, but had not quite earned the Half-Breeds’ trust. He did not make a serious effort for the 1884 Republican presidential nomination. Secretly, the true cause of his inaction was his health. Arthur suffered from an inflammation in his kidneys, known at the time as Bright’s Disease. His condition was worsening, and he knew it was unlikely that he could complete a second term. In the general election, Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated James Blaine. It was a particularly dirty campaign. Although Blaine opposed Conkling and the Stalwarts, his own connections to the Grant-era scandals ensured his defeat. Cleveland was the first Democrat to win the presidential election in 28 years. After his term ended, Arthur returned to his home in New York City. His health deteriorated over the next two years, removing him from public life. On his deathbed, Arthur ordered his son and a former Custom House colleague to burn most of his personal and official papers. He died on November 18, 1886.

In 1937, following the death of Arthur’s son, Chester Arthur III inherited what was left of his grandfather’s records. Among them were the previously undiscovered letters from Julia Sand.

Additional Resources
Greenberger, Scott S. The Unexpected President. Da Capo Press, 2017.
Reeves, Thomas C. Gentleman Boss. American Political Biography Press, 1975.
Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005.