Chester Alan Arthur was never presidential material.
Only through a series of most improbable events did the New York City man (another coincidence!) become our 21st president in September 1881. The learned men and women of America expected only the worst.
To be blunt, Arthur was a political hack to that point. He had spent years thriving as a grinder in New York City machine politics. When Republican candidates needed money, or votes, Arthur the capo delivered both.
His methods were surely suspect, but mostly unrecorded by history. In the months before his early death from kidney disease, Arthur ordered much of his correspondence burned.
A political reform movement began percolating in the 1870s. The corrupt Spoils System had existed for decades and it seemed unlikely to change. Arthur was a product of that system and it earned him perhaps the biggest patronage prize in the country: collectorship of the Port of New York.
In pre-civil service days, the port collectors had virtual license to line their pockets with fees (bribes) from manufacturers wishing to move goods quickly. Seven years as collector of the busiest port made Arthur a very rich man, although he was never stained by improbity.
Fast forward to 1880 and the Republican Convention in Chicago. Arthur was on the losing side of a party bloodletting that saw James Garfield emerge with the nomination. He was also in need of a job (President Rutherford B. Hayes dismissed him from the port two years earlier).
As a sop to delegate-rich New York, the party paired Arthur with Garfield. They would win in the fall, no thanks to Arthur, at times openly hostile to his boss.
Then Garfield was shot in June 1881. It quickly became apparent that he was dying a slow death and the presidency would go to Arthur.
His New York friends were giddy; Arthur was contemplative. Few of his own words survive, but we know Arthur was deeply humbled by the responsibility of being president. He became a changed man.
Arthur became an outspoken supporter of civil service reform. He moved quickly to create the landmark Civil Service Commission, ensuring the momentum and eventual success of the movement. Arthur gave very few jobs to his disappointed former associates.
Interestingly, one of his biggest “problems” as president was figuring out how to reduce the government’s hefty surplus revenues. Cutting tariff revenues was fraught with political intrigue, while cutting liquor taxes would be seen as weak on morality. It was a different time, for sure!
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending as Arthur became a man without a party. Old-guard Republicans hated him for abandoning them, while party reformers still didn’t trust him.
Arthur made a feeble attempt at the 1884 nomination, but was rudely brushed aside by Republicans.
But that’s not the story for us today. It’s about a man profoundly changed by the power of the presidency. It’s about a belief and a hope that timeless tradition can make a man better.
That walking the halls that Lincoln walked and staring at portraits of Roosevelt and Reagan will humble a man. That carrying the weight of the country on your shoulders prompts compassion and conciliation.
It’s about finding the belief that Donald J. Trump can be a good president.
There’s some precedent here.
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at email@example.com.
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