“No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired … more generally respected.” Alexander McClure
Have you ever completely misjudged someone you didn’t really know? Maybe they had a less than stellar background and it didn’t occur to you that people can change? Or maybe you simply heard things you didn’t like about that person, and although you hadn’t met them, you automatically dismissed them as someone you wouldn’t get along with? Unfortunately, I’m guilty as charged over here.
That’s kind of how I felt about Chester Arthur. When I read about him in The Destiny of the Republic, I thought “Uhg! Who is this guy? He didn’t deserve to be president!” But after reading more about him and actually learning more about who he was as a person, I’ve changed my tune a bit.
It turns out Chester Arthur, our president of the week, is quite the interesting fellow. And if you can look past his mutton chops, you might kind of like him. Sure, the little qualifying experience he had was thanks to connections and not his own merits. But, that’s politics for you.
Chester Arthur’s Background
Chester Arthur was born in 1829 in a little town in Vermont called Fairfield. The son of a Baptist minister who was always aspiring to something greater, the Arthurs moved around quite a bit.
A story goes that when Arthur was a boy, after a rainstorm he’d go outside to watch boys build a mud dam in the road. After observing, he would start ordering boys to bring various sticks and stones and stick them where he wanted. The boys would do it without question. All the while, Arthur would sit back watching them and not get any of the dirt on his own hands. It’s said this story is a perfect illustration of his own political style.
Arthur showed an interest in politics at an early age. As young as 10, he could be heard outside chanting campaign slogans for various candidates.
Education and Political Start
Chester Arthur graduated from Union College in 1848, passed the bar, became a Republican, and eventually settled in New York City.
He was a huge advocate for the rights of fugitive slaves. He even won a case establishing their right to ride on any streetcar in New York. After working on a gubernatorial race in New York, he was awarded the job of New York’s engineer-in-chief. During the Civil War, he was appointed the position of quartermaster general for New York (he was in charge of equipping the troops).
Chester Arthur’s Political Career
During his time in New York, Chester Arthur was becoming quite close friends with the political boss of the day, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling was a senator from New York who ran the show in both New York and Washington. He was the ultimate example of bestowing political offices on friends who had done favors for him. In other words, he was also the ultimate example of corruption and what was wrong in Washington. He was so powerful that other lawmakers were literally terrified of him. He used that power to manipulate and twist things to get his way.
In 1871, Conkling convinced President Grant to appoint Arthur to the most coveted position in the country: Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. This was a job where the person in power had the opportunity to make a lot of money. Whenever a shipment came through that hadn’t paid enough taxes, Arthur was awarded a percentage of their fee, along with a portion of any smuggled goods.
At the time, the average American man was making around $500 a year. Arthur’s lucrative job’s salary was around $6,500. But thanks to his supplemented income, he made around $50,000 a year. Pretty impressive.
Another perk to Arthur’s job was the ability to control nearly 1,000 other federal positions. Arthur, of course, hired other Republican party operatives who he finagled political contributions from, further corrupting the system.
When President Hayes (who was making $25,000 a year as president) came into office, he investigated the corruptions into the New York Customs House. Chester Arthur was fired on the spot.
Chester Arthur’s Style
This is a good place to mention the lavish style of Chester Arthur. The man apparently had good taste and was known to be a fabulous dresser. He also liked to spend money, which he had plenty of, thanks to his job. The Library of Congress has old receipts of Arthur’s showing that after accepting the vice presidential nomination, he celebrated by racking up a bill at Brooks Brother’s (a tailor who made men’s suits) for over $600! More than a year’s salary for most people in those days. Sheesh!
It’s said that Arthur owned about 80 pairs of pants. That’s a lot for today’s standards, but back then it was unheard of. The man liked clothes. Also, as we’ll get into later, Arthur wouldn’t even consider moving into the White House until it had been lavishly redecorated to his taste.
Chester Arthur: Vice President
So how did Chester Arthur end up as the candidate for vice president in the first place? Well, it all goes back to the man who pulled the strings, Roscoe Conkling. Republicans knew they needed New York’s votes for their candidate, James Garfield, to win. Since Conkling was such a key player, they knew they had to have his support in order to win. Plus, since they’d shot down Conkling’s choice for president (Ulysses S. Grant, yep, he tried to run again), they had to do something to make him happy. Enter Chester Arthur.
Ironically, when Republicans offered him the VP slot, Conkling told Arthur not to take it. Obviously, he took it anyway, telling Conkling “The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.” It was a dream no one ever expected Arthur to attain, that’s for sure.
Apparently Americans had already forgotten that, though unlikely, it is possible for the vice president to become president at any moment. Republicans thought their pick in VP was safe and that Arthur would play such a small role in the country that all would be well.
It goes without saying, that given Arthur’s background, he wasn’t at all liked in America. In fact, when he was made the VP candidate, a lot of Americans protested. No one liked Roscoe Conkling and they didn’t trust anyone who associated with him. Arthur was one of his closest associates. Needless to say, Americans were horrified at the thought of him holding such a high office.
In fact, he was so disliked that Americans tried to find reasons for him not to be eligible for the office. He wasn’t the first president to have accusations that he wasn’t a natural born citizen. Since his family moved around so much, some argued that Arthur was either a Canadian or Irish citizen. None of the accusations were true, of course, but apparently Americans liked a good rumor even back then.
Imagine the uproar when President Garfield was shot. Americans were outraged at the thought of Arthur being president. They were completely up in arms.
To make matters worse, when Garfield was shot, his assassin shouted out that “Arthur is president now!” This led many Americans to suspect that Arthur was behind the assassination. This, of course, made him even more distrusted and disliked.
To stay out of the spotlight, Arthur kept an extremely low profile during the time Garfield was shot and the time he died. This almost enraged Americans even more. They thought he was being a coward and were angry he wasn’t stepping up to the plate. Arthur, who was apparently also a super emotional man, was seen bawling like a baby constantly during this time.
The Letters that Changed His Life
“Remember that you are President of the United States—work only for the good of the country. And bear in mind, that, in a free country, the only bulwark of power worth trusting, is the affection of the people.” Julia Sand
Then something remarkable happened. Arthur started receiving letters from an invalid woman named Julia Sand. Over the course of his presidency, Sand wrote him nearly two dozen letters—letters that changed his life.
So, here’s the deal with Sand’s letters. Sand was basically the 19th century version of a political junkie. She had followed New York state politics for years and was quite familiar with Chester Arthur. For some reason, she saw something in him that no one else did: the potential to rise above petty politics and be someone great.
Julia Sand was super blunt with Arthur. In one of her first letters she stated ““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.”
She inspired him with words like “They say you won’t succeed because ‘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.”
She inspired him to be the great person she knew he could become. Her letters transformed Chester Arthur. He started steering away from the corrupted politics that had made him. Then he refused to affiliate with Roscoe Conkling and his old pals any longer.
That was a super big deal.
You can read more of her story here.
Chester Arthur’s Presidency (September 19, 1881 – March 4, 1885)
Ironically, Chester Arthur, a man who rose to power only through political favors, became a huge champion for civil service reform during his presidency. He knew the American people loved President Garfield and what he was trying to accomplish. He vowed to finish what Garfield started and civil service reform became a main focus of his presidency. Since Arthur was a bi-product of the old “stalwart” ways, his change of tune both shocked and delighted the American people.
In 1883, thanks to Arthur, Congress passed the Pendleton Act. It was what Hayes and Garfield had been trying to accomplish for years. Basically, the Pendleton Act started Civil Service on the road to where it is today. It made competitive written examinations the first step in obtaining a federal position with a more “classified system.” It also protected federal employees against being fired from their jobs for political reasons.
In addition to Civil Service reform, Arthur presided over the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Also in attendance was New York Governor Grover Cleveland who later becomes our next president.
Also on Chester Arthur’s to-do list as president was lowering tariff rates and immigration laws. In 1882, the Arthur Administration became the first to pass a federal immigration law. The measure excluded paupers (very poor people who require government assistance–in case you needed a definition like I did), criminals, and lunatics.
Under Garfield’s watch, Congress also suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, which later became permanent. Like I said, history repeats itself. So if you thought the current administration’s restriction on immigration was the first, you were wrong.
Chester Arthur’s wife, Ellen Arthur, who he called Nell, passed away of pneumonia just a year before he became president, at age 42. The two met from a mutual friend and had similar tastes in the lavish lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Chester was away for quite a lot of their marriage so it’s a little unclear how strong their marriage actually was.
A story goes that Ellen was pretty close to her mom and when her mother died unexpectedly on a trip to France, Ellen was tasked with retrieving her body. She begged Chester to go with her but finally went alone when he told her he wouldn’t leave his work. There’s some speculation that it was emotionally traumatizing for her and she held it against her husband for the rest of their marriage. A grandson even reported years later that she had contemplated leaving Chester over it.
The Arthurs had three children, one who died suddenly at the age of 3, which was also super traumatizing for Nell.
Chester Arthur’s sister Mary Arthur McElroy served as his First Lady. She also helped take care of his two surviving children who were ages 16 and 9 at the time their father became president.
Chester Arthur’s White House Renovations
The White House was in absolute shambles when Chester Arthur took over as president. It was declared by the commissioner of federal buildings in Washington “unfit for habitation and in need of replacement.” Apparently it looked fine on the outside but the inside was a disaster. Several times there were plans to demolish the building entirely and move the president’s home somewhere else. But Congress wouldn’t pay for it.
The White House should have been renovated years before but all prior presidents just kind of put up with its condition thinking it might make them look bad to complain about it. However, it wasn’t good enough for Chester Arthur. For most presidents, moving to the White House is a major step up. As with the current president, it was a major step down from his ornate, lavish home.
So, Arthur had it completely renovated before he moved in. It’s said he held a yard sale of sorts and sold off all sorts of odds and ends to raise money. He needed it because the person he hired to do the renovations was Louis Comfort Tiffany, as in Tiffany and Co. The changes didn’t last long though. Just over 60 years later, the White House was in such awful conditions that the chief usher was too embarrassed to give President Truman a tour (rotting drapes and floors that looked unsafe to walk on, etc.).
Why Chester Arthur Didn’t Win a Second Term
When it came time for re-election, Chester Arthur was more popular than he had been at the beginning of his takeover of the presidency. But when campaigning season started, Arthur only gave it a half-hearted effort.
Why the reluctance to win another term? He wasn’t like President Hayes who only promised one term. But he had his reasons. A pretty good one, in fact, that he had been keeping secret from the American people. Just a year or so into his presidency, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney disease.
He knew he was dying. Had he won a second term, he would have died in office. Just two years later, he was dead.
Why He’s Cool
It’s rare to see a politician get off their high horse and change in such a substantial way based on something said by a constituent, just a plain old American. That fact alone makes Chester Arthur remarkable. He is evidence that even someone tainted by political scandal can rise to the occasion of the office they hold. It’s a shame not every politician is so humbled by the office they are elected.
We are often encouraged to write our elected officials. Today, staff sorts through their mail and it’s less likely the actual politician will ever see our letters. However, Julia Sand’s gumption and example of writing to Chester Arthur should inspire us. Our leaders should hear from us. And if what you have to say is compelling enough, you just never know who will see it and be inspired to change.
Encourage your kids to write a letter to one of their elected officials. It’s likely they’ll receive a response, even though it may not come from the politician personally.
In addition, although we are often told “we are who we are” we also know that change for the better is possible. Chester Arthur was proof. Talk with your children about how you’re never too old to change for the better.
The Washington Post has the BEST podcast titled Presidential. In Chester Arthur’s episode, the host discusses the Julia Sand letters and also interviews the Library of Congress’ Michelle Krawl who discusses interesting tidbits about Arthur, like receipts from various extravagant purchases.
WhiteHouse.gov has great brief bios on each president and First Lady as well. I also learned a lot about him reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic. If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for!
And, as always, here’s my favorite documentary on all the presidents. The History Channel put together a mini-documentary on each president and they’re fascinating. Here’s the longer (more expensive version) and here’s the shorter version.
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Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.