An Insignificant Upbringing
Nothing in his background remotely suggested that Chester Alan Arthur (1829-86) would ever be president. Of course that could be said about many of our chief executives. But nothing in his background would ever suggest he would be a man of high style and fastidious taste either.
He grew up in rural Vermont, one of a large family headed by a minister-farmer. They moved to upstate New York when Chet was a boy. They were poor, hardworking and religious. Chet became wealthy, generally lazy and casual in his observances.
Having received a basic local education, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, read law, and went to seek his fortune in New York City.
Chet in the Big Apple
NYC drew CAA like a fly to honey. He was made for big city living and all its excitement and high life pleasures.
Having passed the bar, he joined a prestigious law firm and proceeded to impress his higher-ups with his impeccable appearance, manners, diligence and obvious administrative talents. Considered handsome, he wooed and won a pedigreed Virginia belle, Ellen Herndon. Advancement in opportunities, contacts and compensation followed as well.
When the Civil War began, Union governors were tasked to provide and equip volunteer soldiers. Thirty-two year old Arthur, in the right place at the right time, was offered a plum position that solved two problems: first, due to his happy acquaintance with New York Governor Edwin Morgan, he was appointed Quartermaster General for the State of New York where his administrative skills were valuable and appreciated.
NY recruits, prior to being mustered into proper army divisions, needed clothing, boots, mess kits, blankets, tents and numerous supplies. Wagons, horses and mules needed to be procured and foraged. With tens of thousands of volunteers, provisioning them was a daunting challenge. Arthur did not disappoint.
The second problem it solved kept him from the fighting front, thus avoiding physical conflict with his new and cherished Southern in laws.
The decade following the Civil War, nicknamed the Gilded Age, changed the political playing field dramatically. Countless lawyers and politicians had been officers, and learned to appreciate military chain of command. They began applying those precepts to politics.
One of the key players in political bossism was Roscoe Conkling, a Utica attorney-turned Republican Congressman-turned US Senator, and especially turned good pal of General U.S. Grant, now President.
Conkling met Chester A. Arthur and the two became close friends as well as political allies. Even more fortuitously, Arthur had no particular interest in seeking elective office himself. He was strictly behind-the-scenes, devoted to the mechanisms of politics: selecting candidates, financing party coffers, filling offices and making life easier for Conkling. Any corruption in these areas did not seem to taint his management.
As Conkling’s indispensable political administrator, Chet Arthur was a regular at all the dinners at Delmonico’s, after-hours partying at high end private clubs, and late night sessions where champagne and bourbon flowed. He was glad to participate.
It was a lifestyle easy to like, and once CAA was appointed Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative position the federal government could offer, he was able to indulge all his happily acquired tastes, including a fastidiously tailored wardrobe. It is said he purchased trousers by the dozens, along with suitable coats and cravats, hats, canes, boots, gold watches and even a fur-collared overcoat.
The POTUS as Dandy
The election of Chester Alan Arthur as Vice President and his subsequent elevation to the Presidency is a nifty story of its own, But once duly sworn in, he began to place his own stamp on the White House.
The mansion, left a general shambles following Lincoln, had been given a lick and a promise by the unpopular Andrew Johnson. Flush with Gilded Age money and a generous Congress, the Grants redecorated in the conventionally opulent Victorian style, which some suggested looked more like a Saratoga Springs hotel lobby. The modest Hayeses did very little redecorating. The six-months of Garfield’s Administration (three months of which he spent dying), saw no decor changes.
Now, President Arthur, a widower for more than a year, decided the White House was far beneath his considered snuff for what the President’s House should be. Taking personal charge, a task agreeable to his many talents, he sent for Louis Comfort Tiffany, the artistic son of the well-known New York jeweler, en route to making a considerable name for himself, and tasked him with an elegant renovation of the public spaces. CAA even absorbed a fair amount of the costs personally.
As part of the project, more than a dozen wagons of outdated “junk” from past administrations was carted off and disposed of it sans detailed record keeping or even objections.
In addition to the house cleaning and new decor, President Arthur put his gourmand stamp on the presidential table, which was lavish. While he had invited his sister Mary McElroy to stand-in for the deceased First Lady, it was the President himself who assumed the role of host – and arrangement maker.
The best of wines, liquors and champagne always flowed, and temperance lobbyists were politely but firmly advised to mind their own business. Oysters, pheasant and sumptuous cuisine was standard fare – paid out of pocket.
Perhaps the most elegant addition to the White House decor was the magnificent stained glass screen that Louis Comfort Tiffany designed and created for the entrance hall. Sadly, once electric lighting was installed during the Benjamin Harrison administration, the subtle lighting effect of the screen was negated, and it was removed (and possibly destroyed) in 1902.
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974
Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017