Chester Alan Arthur, known only by his distinctive and imposing whiskers, is one of the least known and least studied of our Presidents.
Chester Alan Arthur: The Basic Facts
Chester Alan Arthur (1830-1886) was a clergyman’s son, born in Vermont and educated at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He became a successful lawyer and gravitated easily into the Republican party hierarchy, mostly due to his diligence and superb organizational and administrative skills.
During the Civil War, he served as Quartermaster General for New York, and was well regarded for those same organizational skills.
Early in his political career, Chet Arthur came to the attention of Utica attorney and congressman Roscoe Conkling, the political boss of the New York Republicans. The two men became fast friends, and it became obvious to all that Arthur was Conkling’s prime go-to man.
Arthur was a man of decidedly elegant tastes. He enjoyed a cultured lifestyle, epicurean meals, and was said to possess an extensive wardrobe of more than two dozen pairs of trousers. His manners were impeccable, his bearing almost aristocratic.
Notwithstanding, the “Gentleman Boss,”as he is frequently called, remained apart from the throngs, barely known outside his intimates and New York Republican hierarchy.
The Port of New York
Chet’s buddy Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888) cemented his strong control over New York patronage by being elected United States Senator after the Civil War. He also became fast friends with General Ulysses S. Grant, a shoo-in for the presidency in 1868.
During Grant’s administration, at the urging of Conkling, Chet Arthur was appointed to the plum position of Collector of the Port of New York. It was the most lucrative of all the political offices within the federal purview.
The Port of New York controlled the collection of all the tariffs and duties on all products coming in and out of the country’s largest port. It was also literally awash in corruption. Arthur himself was an honest man, and no taint of personal malfeasance was ever charged against him. Nevertheless, under President Rutherford B. Hayes, a reformer (and thereby a sworn enemy of spoilsman Conkling) the Port of New York was subject to a major housecleaning. Chester Alan Arthur was summarily dismissed. Personally honest or not, mismanagement had occurred on his watch. Someone’s head had to roll.
Chester Alan Arthur: The Surprising Vice President
It came as a total surprise to everyone when Chet Arthur, the ex-Collector of the Port of New York was tapped as a Vice Presidential candidate to James A. Garfield of Ohio for the Republican ticket in 1880. It was strictly a geopolitical maneuver to obtain New York’s large bloc of electoral votes, and Conkling was personally opposed to it. Arthur was honored however, and in a rare moment of independence, accepted.
If the Garfield-Arthur ticket was a surprise, the assassination of James Garfield only four months into his presidency stunned the country completely. Chester Alan Arthur, a perceived political hack and groveling henchman of Boss Conkling, was now President.
The White House that Chet Arthur inherited was not nearly up to the new President’s snuff. He had wagonloads of old furniture carted off, to be replaced by the elegant designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The sophisticated New Yorker was also a widower. His wife Ellen Herndon had died ony a few months earlier, and his daughter was much too young to serve as hostess. Naturally this created an understandable stir in Washington, with every society matron in town vying to introduce him to an eligible relation. The fresh flower that the President kept in his bedroom was said to be replaced daily in Ellen’s memory. When asked about it, the personally reticent president commented, “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damn business.”
This is probably the only quote attributed to Arthur that anyone remembers – other than subsequent presidents.
Then again, there are some who believe that Arthur uttered those dismissive words to a delegation of temperance advocates, who urged the new President to ban spirits in the White House and lectured him on the evils of John Barleycorn. The epicurean Arthur was known to have a personal collection of excellent French wines and brandies, and was seriously miffed at the impertinence.
Either way, the message was sent: the urbane president with the imposing mutton-chop whiskers was not a man to permit personal liberties. If he preferred that remote image, that was his own damn business, too. And he did a surprisingly credible job as president.
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974