December 28, 2012

Chet Arthur as president. Good God!

This is where Chester Arthur worked until Rutherford B Hayes fired him. He was the customs collector at the New York Customs House, a coveted position because of its power and potential for embezzlement. The customs house system was the largest source of income for the federal government until income tax was instated. It was also notoriously corrupt, in a time when every federal system was corrupt. Although Arthur's official salary was about $10,000 a year, he routinely took home about $60,000 in kickbacks, "bonuses," and outright theft, making more than the president ($50,000). Rutherford B Hayes was trying to clean up the civil service, and targeted Arthur as a high-profile scapegoat. Unfortunately, Arthur couldn't be removed without the approval of Congress (remember the Tenure of Office Act?), and Arthur's brofriend Senator Roscoe Conkling kept blocking it in committee. The Hayes administration finally succeeded after months of battle (Arthur was suspended and reinstated once or twice during the process) and Arthur was out.

The problem with this move, politically, was that Hayes and Arthur were both Republicans. So was Conkling! The Republican party was bitterly divided into factions - the Radicals, the Stalwarts, and the moderates in between (sometimes called Mugwumps, a term which also included Democrats). Although Congress was usually split quite evenly between parties, there hadn't been a Democratic president since Buchanan. The Republicans would fight amongst themselves during a presidency, but every 4 years would have to figure out a way to back the same person for president.

This is Roscoe Conkling and he was The Main Problem. As a senator from New York he led the Stalwart faction using fear and bribery. His deputies (Arthur among them) were extremely loyal but sometimes cautious because he was a megalomaniac, one of a long line of New York political bosses (M Van Buren, Thurlow Seed, William Seward) who were just the worst.

But Arthur had tied his fortunes to Conkling early on. The son of a poor preacher who moved around a lot, he seemed to want the opposite — a steady job, wealth, and moral bankruptcy. He started out idealistic, but shed his idealistic friends as he got older and more ambitious.

Arthur was a young lawyer in New Yorker when governor Edwin Morgan took a shine to him and appointed him as the state's quartermaster general during the Civil War. This meant he was in charge of all the logistics for New York's troops (who numbered more than any other state's) such as housing, clothing, supplies, and food. [He may have taken this job, rather than fighting, because his wife and her family were from Virginia and sided with the South.] Either way, he was very, very good at his job. Whatever his motivations at any of his jobs, he remained an excellent administrator.

His work brought him to the attention of the party bosses, and he was ever after heavily involved in New York politics. He was especially good at coercing campaign donations out of government employees by threatening to fire them.

So he eventually runs the customs house and he's super rich and really fat and undoubtedly corrupt. He gets fired, and his friends the Stalwarts are really mad. The 1880 election is just around the corner, however, and the Radicals and Stalwarts will need to find a way to agree on a candidate. Conkling wanted Grant to run for a third term, which was bananas, the Radicals wanted Blaine. After they stalemated over that for a few days Garfield was chosen as a compromise candidate, and, as a concession to the Stalwarts, and to ensure their support, the Radicals told them they could pick the vice presidential candidate. They did not expect them to pick Chester Arthur, a man the sitting president had just fired in disgrace.

They also did not expect Garfield to die, and for Chester Arthur - a corrupt businessman who had never held elected political office - to become president. As one newspaper editor put it, while Garfield was dying: "Chet Arthur as president. Good God!"

I want to stop and point out that Arthur is one of the most fascinating men I've read about for At Times Dull. His story is so unpredictable and unlikely, and himself so enigmatic, and I was truly eager to see how it all worked out for him. I emailed Thomas C. Reeves to thank him for writing such a fascinating account, and I would recommend it. It's not only a great biography, but provides my best understanding of post-bellum politics, the civil service wars, and the national mood at this time.

So anyway, Arthur becomes president and everyone is wringing their hands. Surely he will just be a puppet for Conkling. Surely he will undo civil service reform and entrench the spoils system. Surely he will split the Republican party in two once and for all. Arthur read all of this bad press and was determined to prove it false. I wouldn't say he felt chastised by it, but perhaps abashed. He went public with the idea that he was simply there to see through the aims of the Garfield administration, of which he was now the executor. A lot of his Republican cronies, who thought they were going to cash in favors with him, eventually broke up with him because he wasn't being corrupt enough. He offered Conkling a few mid-level appointments, but certainly didn't hand him the reins of the country (thank God).

He wasn't a great or bad president. He passed civil service reform measures (the newspapers went to town with the irony of that), approved the rebuilding of the Navy, and his biggest problem, for real, was what to do with the gigantic federal budget surplus.

Also, he was recently widowed, and quite lonely. He spent a lot of money on entertaining and decorating, and hosted dinners for the bachelor Congressmen. He did his work as president dutifully, but never enjoyed it. He got a lot of flak for showing up to work late (like after lunch) and delegating too much. What his critics didn't know was that he had a SECRET FATAL DISEASE! I'm not kidding, it's just like The West Wing. Shortly after becoming president he was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney condition now called nephritis. For most of his term he felt ill, had no energy, and was losing weight. He declined a run for re-election (because he knew about his secret disease) and died a year and a half after leaving office.

There were a lot of people in the country who thought Arthur had no business being president, and Arthur was first among them. Never has a forgettable presidency been such a high achievement.

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