CAA: A Brief Run-up.
Very brief, in fact. Chet Arthur had never been elected to anything before. The New York attorney was a behind-the-scenes politician only well known within his own state, allied strongly with NY Senator Roscoe Conkling, whose best claim to fame was his close relationship with President Grant.
The only other thing notable about Chet Arthur (other than his whiskers) was that he was summarily dismissed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as Collector of the Port of New York in a mega “clean-up” campaign. Arthur was never accused of misdoings or malfeasance, but massive corruption had been committed on his watch. He was thus tainted, and a head had to roll.
In the late 1870s, a growing rift had developed between factions of the Republican Party. The differences mainly concerned patronage (very boring), but the antipathies were huge. The “Stalwarts” were strongly in favor of the old spoils system of political patronage; the “Half-Breeds” understood the benefits of patronage, but supported mild civil service reform.
Anyway, the feud between factions far surpassed any differences between the Republicans and Democrats, who seemed happy enough to sit and watch the GOP implode.
In 1880, after 36 futile ballots, dark horse James Garfield of Ohio was named Republican candidate. To mend fences, an even darker horse, Chester Alan Arthur, was named VP candidate. Again, no one was more surprised than he was. His pal Conkling advised him to decline, but in a rare moment of independence, Arthur accepted, saying it was a greater honor than he had ever received.
Garfield and Arthur squeaked by. Really squeaked. Barely 10,000 votes separated them from the Democrats.
VP Arthur: 1881
In an odd coincidence, there was a tie in the Senate: 37 Republicans; 37 Democrats, and two Independents. Constitutionally, the VP (President of the Senate) can only vote in the event of a tie. There were several of those, and the new VP was truer to his old New York political factions than he was to his new Administration.
Ergo, the President and his cabinet considered him a traitor, and certainly not to be trusted.
The first four months of Garfield’s Presidency were deeply divided over generally petty political and patronage issues. The new President was by nature an accommodating man, inclined to oblige whenever he could. He obliged frequently, but after a while, a line had to be drawn: Either he was going to be President, or merely a rubber stamp for the Senate. He chose President.
Exhausted from the political nit-picking, the President finally had his way, and prepared to take a much needed vacation in New England for the 4th of July. The entire cabinet had accepted an invitation to accompany him. Chet Arthur was not invited. (But then again, in 1881, the Vice President was never considered part of a President’s cabinet.)
Enter Guiteau the Assassin
If the Presidency/Vice Presidency was a surprise to both men involved, nothing could have surprised them more than Charles Julius Guiteau, a strange little fellow who showed up at the train station to pump two bullets into the President. After a tragi-comedy of medical ineptitude, the stricken POTUS was brought back to the White House, amid genuine concern that he might not survive the night.
Of course the attack was widely communicated via the telegraph, and the VP was notified of the shooting within an hour of the incident. He was stunned.
Garfield’s cabinet members wired Arthur to come to Washington. He took the night train from New York, and arrived early the next morning. He paid his respects to Mrs. Garfield, and was relieved to learn that the President, while still in serious condition, was resting comfortably.
He attended a Cabinet meeting, where he was totally ignored. So he returned to New York.
CAA: Locked Door And Lowered Shades
There had been dozens of witnesses to Garfield’s shooting. A policeman had immediately been summoned, apprehended the assailant and marched him off to jail. But not before Guiteau uttered some memorable (and widely circulated) words: “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts, and now Arthur will be President.”
Chester Alan Arthur was an attorney of solid legal repute. He was also a decently moral man, certainly not one to plot assassination. He neither expected nor wanted to be President. But Guiteau’s words were reported in all the newspapers and passed along by word-of-mouth. CAA was thus linked to the horrific deed.
It was fifteen years since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – a documented conspiracy. If people believed in another conspiracy of some kind, it was understandable. CAA knew that part immediately. He was now tainted (once again) by accusations that were not true. This time, he feared for his personal safety, perhaps his life. Vigilante mobs were not uncommon.
He locked himself in his New York townhouse, admitting few visitors, and only going outside after dark. He categorically insisted he would make no presidential decisions as long as Garfield lived – which was only ten weeks.
His public decorum elevated his reputation. He was commended for his restraint.
A year later, Guiteau was brought to trial, and his defense attorney presented an insanity plea. Now-President Chester Alan Arthur submitted a written deposition. He had indeed seen Guiteau numerous times at the Republican Headquarters in New York during the Presidential campaign. He added that his “personal” acquaintance was limited only to the pleasantries: Good Morning, Nice Day….
He also added that he did not believe Guiteau was of sound mind. Dozens of other well-regarded politicians were called to testify and said the same thing. “Not all there in the head.”
Nevertheless, history recounts that crazy or not, Guiteau was executed as a “disgruntled office seeker.” In 1881, the American People wanted to dispose of presidential assassins as quickly as possible.
Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
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