Chester Arthur: The 21st Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Chester Arthur was removed in disgrace as Chief Collector of the NY Custom House in 1878. Three years later he would become President. Only in America.
While Arthur was a native of Vermont, he was every bit a New Yorker. He was fashionable, loved food and drink, and “was about that Gilded Age life.” With sideburns as a distinguishing feature, he celebrated his VP nomination with a shopping spree.
In fact, the move to the White House was a social demotion for Arthur. He got a young designer named Tiffany to redecorate the White House for he refused to live in it as was when he moved in.
President Chester Arthur was the product of a corrupt New York political machine. He had to convince the nation he wasn’t just a hack, so he became a reformer even separating from Conkling and the Stalwarts. His argument is that a representative of the old system is someone who is in the best position to change it. When he signed the Pendleton Act, it was remarked by his former friends and cronies that he was no longer Chet Arthur but President.
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
Established in 1883, it decided that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation. The act provided selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government officials for political reasons and prohibited soliciting campaign donations on Federal government property.
To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission. This board would be in charge of determining the rules and regulations of the act. The Act also allowed for the president, by executive order to decide which positions could be subject to the act and which would not. A crucial result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls.
Arthur severely upgraded the Navy, building a modern fleet of sleek ships with rifled gun terrets. We couldn’t effectively fight the Spanish-American War in 1898 without Arthur’s naval foundation in 1882 and 1883.
Arthur ascended to the presidency via assassination. He never got the opportunity to win his own nomination as he was denied his party’s nomination in 1884 and died two years later from a kidney ailment he battled throughout the Presidency.
Arthur was a competent president during a time when all Americans wanted out of the President was competent. There is no doubt that Arthur was a party apparatchtik whose political rise was benefitted by being rich, having the right friends, and going to and hosting the right parties in New York City. He is an example of a crony who became a reformer much like what Donald Trump is purporting to do today.
We are now 20 years from the Civil War, and the Presidency has been tested as the public bitched about scandal, assassination and impeachment. Arthur marks how irrelevant the presidency had become as much of the power of the executive was ceded to Congress.
James A. Garfield preceded him
Grover Cleveland would follow him.
It all started with Washington.