Over the last 70 years, numerous scholarly surveys have been conducted to identify the best and worst Presidents of the United States. Oftentimes the same names appear at the top of the list: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few. Meanwhile, the bottom of the list has its own usual suspects, including Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Presidential greatness is commonly thought of as being defined by aspects such as crisis management and leadership, rousing rhetoric and vision, significant achievement and sticking power in the public memory. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranked presidents usually share scandals, crises happening on their watch and poor leadership as common factors.
But how suitable are these frameworks really for “ranking” Presidents? Is it fair to deem a president as mediocre on the grounds that he didn’t lead the nation through a major crisis, such as a war? Criticizing the notion of presidential rankings, Curtis Amlund says that “to say…that a president was average or near-great does not tell us much about anything”. In the same way that you cannot always compare the crises of the past to today’s challenges, you cannot necessarily compare one President to another operating in a different time, as you will only get a partial picture.
Today I would like to discuss a particular President whom is often considered mediocre, but whom I feel is very much underrated. I will be considering his Presidency, his legacy, and what we could possibly learn from him. But not only is this President underrated, he is also oft-forgotten; a 2014 study found him to be the least-memorable President. And yet, Mark Twain is quoted as having said “it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration”.
Chester Alan Arthur is a difficult man to biographise, on account of the fact he ordered his personal and official papers be burned on his death. However, I will attempt to discuss his background, presidency and legacy here. Chester A. Arthur ascended to the Presidency on September 19th, 1881 following the death of President James Garfield, 79 days after Garfield had been shot by Charles Guiteau. Arthur was not really a politician; rather, he was a career civil servant, and by all accounts was an able administrator. If we exclude serving as Garfield’s Vice President for a whole 199 days and a brief stint as Chairman of the New York Republican Party, the only real political office Arthur had held was Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. It was the civil service ladder, rather than the political ladder, that Arthur climbed to the Presidency.
In the approach to the 1880 Presidential Election, the Republican Party was divided between two factions: the Stalwarts, led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, opposed civil service reform, generally preferring they system of political patronage (the act of rewarding people, either financially or with things like political positions or government contracts, for their electoral support). Meanwhile, the Half-Breeds favoured reform, looking to build the civil service upon a merit system, as opposed to a spoils system, which was essentially patronage or cronyism. Stalwarts had opposed the attempts at reform made by Rutherford B. Hayes, and sought to re-nominate former President Ulysses S Grant for an unprecedented third term, while Half-Breeds supported Maine Senator James G Blaine’s campaign for the nomination.
During America’s Gilded Age – the term given to the period of rapid economic growth, increased immigration and expanding industrialisation in the later part of the 19th Century – corruption was a part of American political life, and the spoils system was openly advocated by some of the political establishment. As Port Collector, Arthur himself was not immune: “Back in the days before income tax”, Sybil Schwartz writes, “the customs provided the federal government’s chief source of revenue. As collector in New York, Arthur presided over an “industry” that grossed five times more than the nation’s largest corporations”. Customs House employees under Arthur were encouraged to make “voluntary” pro bono nostro (“for the common good”) contributions “to the Stalwart cause”; this practice was perfectly legal until it was outlawed in 1872. Arthur was ultimately removed from his position in 1878 by President Hayes, a reformer who had the support of the Half-Breeds, on the grounds that reform of the Customs House would be impossible as long as Arthur was in post. Who better then than Arthur to champion Conkling’s cause?
After thirty-five ballots between Grant and Blaine, the longest-ever Republican National Convention finally concluded on June 8th, 1880, after six days. With both the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds accepting that neither of their candidates would win, the convention ended in a compromise: a Half-Breed, Ohio Representative James Garfield, was nominated for President, with Arthur, a Stalwart now serving as chair of the New York Republican Party, for Vice President. While Garfield supported civil service reform, the Stalwarts had hoped that, by putting Arthur on the ticket, he would temper or moderate any attempt by Garfield to enact any reforms. Indeed, part of Guiteau’s motive in assassinating President Garfield was that his successor would appoint him to a consular position through the spoils system (Guiteau lived under the delusion that he had aided Garfield’s victory in the 1880 Presidential Election, and was therefore owed a position). Or so the Stalwarts had hoped, when Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States in the early hours of September 19, 1881.
Early on in his presidency, Arthur appointed Stalwart figures to his Cabinet, including Frederick Frelinghuysen replacing James G Blaine as Secretary of State. However, to the surprise of the Stalwarts, the reform-supporting staff at the Post Office and Customs House were largely left as they were. In fact, beyond surprising the Stalwarts, Arthur made it clear he was cutting ties with his previous cronies: indeed, the President’s refusal to replace the then-incumbent Collector of the Port of New York, the reformer William H. Robertson, with a Stalwart candidate carved a deep rift between Arthur and Conkling which would never heal.
Aside from simply falling out with his former friend and mentor, however, as President, Arthur had become committed to the cause of civil service reform. When news of the Star Route Scandal broke during Garfield’s presidency in April 1881, some thought that Arthur, the friend of the Stalwarts, would sweep the scandal under the rug. The Star Route Scandal was a scam whereby contractors looking to operate inland mail routes (or star routes) would, usually in collaboration with Post Office officials, look to artificially drive the price of the mail contract beyond the price that the US Treasury would normally pay contractors for the route. Having overcharged the Treasury, the contractors and Post Office officials would then pocket the “profits” between them. However, once in office Arthur pushed ahead with the investigation begun by the Garfield administration, which resulted in the resignations of some of his former allies, including Thomas Brady, the Assistant Postmaster General.
Beyond scandals within the Post Office, however, the achievement for which Arthur is probably best remembered during his presidency is the signing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. While the Act, named for its author, Ohio Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton, began under President Garfield, Arthur – against the wishes of the Republican Congressional majority – sought $25,000 in order to fund the Civil Service Commission which would advise on reform (Congress would ultimately agree to provide $15,000). Furthermore, Arthur appointed reformers to the seats on the Commission, and by 1884 the spoils system began to disappear from the civil service, with half of Post Office employees and three quarters of Customs House jobs being awarded based on merit.
Arthur also had notable accomplishments outside the realms of civil service reform: aside from rejuvenating the US Navy, Arthur was also a proponent of racial equality, calling for increased federal funding for education among black and Native American communities (although his efforts did not gain ground with Southern whites). Arthur was also critical of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875; while Arthur favoured replacement Civil Rights legislation, he was not able to get anything through Congress. While Arthur’s personal feelings on these issues are largely unknown due to the burning of his personal papers, he demonstrated a definite commitment to racial equality at a time where the United States were still healing and deeply divided following the Civil Ward and failed reconstruction attempts. One negative point from Arthur’s presidency is the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a ban on the immigration of Chinese labourers for a period of 10 years. However, in truth Congress forced Arthur’s hand on the issue with a veto-proof majority, but not before Arthur had managed to veto the previous attempt to get the Act passed, which sought to establish a 20-year exclusion period.
Ultimately, despite his attempts at reform being well-received, his change in stance came at a cost: as the 1884 Presidential Election neared, Arthur found himself rejected by the former allies among the Stalwarts, while Half-Breeds and reformers were turning towards James G. Blaine for the Republican nomination. With little support from anywhere in the Republican Party, President Arthur bowed out of the running for a full term as President, congratulating Blaine but not playing an active role in the campaign after that. Arthur’s health began to decline towards the end of his Presidency, and he died on November 18th, 1886, less than two years after leaving office.
The Presidency of Chester A. Arthur was not the most illustrious, but he is definitely a woefully underrated and under-discussed President. Thomas C Sutton argues that, as President, Arthur “focused on maintaining stability rather than on launching his own ambitious program”. But does a President really need to have an ambitious program to enable him to get on with the job? Is it not enough that, immediately following the assassination of a President and during a period of rampant corruption, Arthur provided some much-needed stability and reform? Amlund argues that Presidents in office at significant periods in US history, or “great times” are unfairly judged using the same criteria as Presidents who served during quiet periods. “The term “great times”…”, Amlund writes, “implies ordinarily the existence of a war, or an economic depression of considerable magnitude; it most definitely suggests a crisis period of some kind”. Therein, for me, lies the barrier between Arthur and the perceived notion of “greatness”: Arthur’s presidency was one with fairly modest but reasonably consistent achievement, one free of drama or scandal, and – perhaps as a result – one which quietly slipped from public memory.
Chester A Arthur may not be a memorable – or even a “great” – President, but he certainly deserves praise and a reputation beyond that which he usually gets. The Arthur presidency saw no new major scandals, wars or crises; instead, Arthur simply got on with the job he never really wanted in the first place. Despite his career being built through patronage, and despite being seen as a man who was made by – and who could have championed – the corrupt civil service spoils system, President Arthur turned his back on the system, becoming an advocate for reform, a fighter of corruption, a man committed to racial justice and running an honest administration. He left office with a reputation as an honest and decent man.
And in our present era of stark partisanship, media soundbites and the notion of the “celebrity president”, are those not good characteristics to have in a President?
 Amlund, Curtis Arthur, “President-Ranking: A Criticism” in The Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 8, No. 3, August 1964, p309-315, p311
 Newcomer, Lee. “Chester A. Arthur: The factors involved in his removal from the New York Customhouse” in New York History, vol. 18, no. 4, 1937, p401–410, p403
 Schwartz, Sybil. “In Defense of Chester Arthur” in The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4, 1978, p180–184, p182
 Newcomer, p407
 Theriault, Sean M. “Patronage, the Pendleton Act, and the Power of the People.” In The Journal of Politics, vol. 65, no. 1, 2003, p50–68, p56
 Howe, George F, Chester A. Arthur, A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics, 1966: New York: F. Ungar Publishing Company, p209-210
 Sutton, Thomas C. “Chester A. Arthur” in Gormley, Ken ed., The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History, 2016, New York: New York University Press, p276-287, p279
 Schwartz, p183
 Amlund, p310