Vice President Chester Alan Arthur became President following the assassination and death of James A. Garfield.
CAA: The Basics
Born in Vermont and raised in upstate New York, Chester Alan Arthur (183o-1886) was a preacher’s son who attended Union College, read law, established himself in New York City, and became the epitome of a sophisticated and well-to-do gentleman attorney with excellent administrative talents.
He became active in Republican politics, and met Senator Roscoe Conkling, a Utica attorney and the unquestioned Republican political boss of New York. Conkling would became Arthur’s mentor and close personal friend, and rewarded him in the 1870s by being named him Collector of the Port of New York, a prestigious and lucrative federal appointment.
The Port, along with the Customs House, was fraught with corruption. In the clean-sweep, reform-minded Hayes Administration, the overhaul of the Port was its cause celebre, and Chester Alan Arthur was its chief victim. He was personally honest, and no charges of malfeasance were ever brought, but he had turned a blind eye. He had to go. So he returned to private law practice and politics-as-usual.
The Surprising Nomination and Candidacy of Chet Arthur
The nomination and election of 1880 was one of the most fractious in Republican history, wrestled between spoils-system advocates called “Stalwarts,” and the “Half-Breeds”, just a tad more reform-minded. Spoilsman Conkling, a close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, had convinced the reluctant General to run for a third term. That nomination failed after days of maneuvering, posturing and balloting. James Garfield, a moderate and nominal Half-Breed, won the nod.
In an effort to mend fences, Garfield sought to appease an irate Conkling by offering the Vice Presidency to a New Yorker. It was an honorable, but non-substantive office, important only for geopolitical accommodation. When Chester Alan Arthur was approached, he sought Conkling’s counsel. “I would advise against it,” said the Senator.
But in a rare moment of independence, Arthur claimed that the Vice Presidency was a higher honor than he had ever dreamed of, and accepted.
James Garfield and Chester Alan Arthur won the election, which was a squeaker. But they carried New York.
The VP vs. the Cabinet
The Constitution stipulates that the Vice President presides over the Senate, and only votes in the event of a tie. In an odd occurrence, the Senate was equally divided between the Republicans and the Democrats, thus there were many ties, mostly of an administrative nature. VP Arthur consistently voted with the Conkling faction – frequently in opposition to the President’s wishes. There was a serious rift forming in the official family.
President Garfield sincerely tried to accommodate, but he was becoming disenchanted with his Vice President. The Cabinet was even more sour on him, believing Arthur to be no more than Conkling’s henchman.
The Assassination of Garfield
Only four months into his administration, President Garfield was shot by an assassin. He would linger in pain for ten weeks until he expired.
The very first night – when there was concern that Garfield might die within hours, the Vice President was summoned from his New York townhouse. He took the night train to Washington and arrived the following morning. He paid his respects to Mrs. Garfield, and attended a Cabinet meeting, where he was promptly ignored. He had become anathema to the team that the President had laboriously cobbled together. Assured that Garfield’s prognosis had improved, Chet Arthur went back to New York.
Meanwhile, Charles Julius Guiteau, the certifiably insane assassin, had been apprehended and jailed, where he announced to the newspapers that he “was a Stalwart of the Stalwarts, and now Arthur will be President.”
CAA: The Guiteau Connection?
Chester Alan Arthur was as horrified by the chain of events as the rest of the country.
As Campaign Chairman, headquartered in New York during the election, Chet Arthur had regularly “seen” the peculiar little man who haunted the waiting room nearly every day, pestering the politicians. The gentlemanly chairman usually tipped his hat to all, and murmured the “good morning” or “good afternoon” pleasantries. Guiteau was convinced in his diseased mind, that Arthur was his “friend.”
Thus the Vice President was inexorably liked to Guiteau, the assassin. Rumors spread like wildfire. Some people believed that Arthur had been complicit – or had even masterminded the horrific deed. Guiteau lost no opportunity for public fanfare (and the general public, then as now, were insatiable in their desire for news) and expected a reward for “president-making.” Chet Arthur became understandably fearful of reprisals or even lynching.
He made no statements or left his town house.
VP Arthur Refuses to Assume Duties
So why didn’t the Vice President assume the duties of a President who was critically ill and would never rise from his sickbed? Three prior Vice Presidents had assumed office upon the death of a President, but never for the incapacity of an ailing one.
There was no constitutional or legislative mechanics for such a step.
In addition, it was summer. Congress had adjourned and its members had gone home. Few people stayed in sultry Washington if they could avoid it. President Garfield had even been en route to a well-needed vacation himself.
Finally strange as it may seem today, very little presidential business transpired that summer of 1881. In the ten weeks that Garfield lay dying, his signature was only needed once – for a routine matter.
Vice President Arthur had categorically refused to assume any presidential responsibilities as long as Garfield was alive. And for this, he was heartily applauded for his restraint.
As the evidence of Guiteau’s insanity became more and more apparent, the estimation of the impeccably behaved Chet Arthur rose in the eyes of his countrymen. As President, he continued to assert his independence and gradually disassociated himself from Conkling’s influence. He brought his sophistication and style to the White House, as well as a competent and fair-minded, albeit not inspired, administration.
Kenneth D. Ackerman – The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield – Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
Barzman, Sol – Madmen and Geniuses: The Vice Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974