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Chester Arthur, Ole Peter Hanson, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
December 15, 2021

The Dude President: Chester Arthur, Civil Rights, and Civil Service Reform

American presidential nicknames have been a phenomenon since the beginning of the republic. Honest Abe and Old Hickory are amongst the more famous presidential monikers. “The Dude,” however, is probably the most contemporary-sounding presidential nickname, yet it belonged to one of the more obscure presidents: Chester Arthur. In 19th century parlance, a dude was essentially a dandy, which is exactly what Arthur was. His love of the finer things in life was no secret, and he made headlines when he purchased numerous fine trousers from England, as well as accumulating an extensive collection of silk top hats and shoes. Though it was the Gilded Age, where conspicuous consumption and luxury abounded in close proximity to poverty, Arthur’s detractors were most likely taking a dig at Arthur’s past, in which he was seen as a champion of the spoils system. But Arthur’s story is one of redemption, both in the sense that he righted wrongs in which he had been complicit, and in the sense that he rose to the occasion when President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. And yet, if Chester Arthur is remembered at all today (and that is a big “if”), it’s more for his outlandish facial hair than his achievements as a president and as a person. In examining Arthur’s path to the presidency, it will become apparent that Arthur’s legacy deserves another look.

Chester Arthur was born in Vermont in 1829 to an American-born mother and a father who had immigrated from Ireland. His father, a fiery abolitionist preacher, was not very popular, and the Arthurs moved often, crossing back and forth from Canada to the United States so frequently, in fact, that Arthur’s presidency was beset upon by detractors insisting that Arthur was born in Canada, and as a result, ineligible for the presidency. Chester Arthur spent most of his youth impoverished in New York, and very quickly decided that he would be a Manhattan lawyer, and enjoy the finer things in life.

Arthur was admitted to the bar in 1854. A year later, he won a landmark case: a century before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and to go to the section of the bus designated for blacks in Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings Graham took a stand against racist policies in New York City. Unlike Parks, who was an activist who wished to be arrested to further Civil Rights, Jennings-Graham was merely late for church. She hopped onto a street car, and the conductor ordered her off. She refused to budge, and was eventually forcibly removed from the streetcar by a police officer. Arthur, a junior partner and all of 24, won the case for Jennings-Graham, which led to the eventual desegregation of public transportation in New York City. Arthur continued practicing law in New York. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a Quartermaster, where his abilities in administration and logistics became obvious. By 1863, Arthur finished his military service, and that is where his stellar record becomes a bit murky, as it was the year he became friendly with Roscoe Conkling, the notorious big boss of the Republican New York political machine.

Conkling’s name has gone down in history as a byword for corruption, and in his day, it wasn’t much different. As state senator for New York, the New York Customs House fell under Conkling’s jurisdiction. One of the most important political and financial institutions in the United States, the New York Customs House accounted for one third of the country’s revenue. Conkling, who also led the Stalwart faction of the Republican party, filled the Customs House with his underlings, and the profits made by working there compounded his power. [1] In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur the Customs Collector of the Port of New York. Though Arthur as far as we know never took kickbacks, he was complicit in the patronage system, retaining party members in unnecessary jobs at the taxpayer’s expense. 

In 1877, Rutherfod B. Hayes ascended to the presidency and was determined to clean up the Civil Service. One of his first moves was to eject Rosco Conklin’s man from the position of Customs Collector of the Port of New York. By 1878, Hayes had succeeded in ousting Arthur. In 1880, the Republican Party found itself fractured. In order to maintain party unity, Arthur, a Stalwart, was proposed for the position of Vice President, to run with James Garfield, himself a surprise candidate at the 1880 convention. Following their victory, Arthur openly broke with Garfield on several key issues.

When Garfield was assassinated in  September 1881, four months after taking office, Arthur and Garfield had  all but been estranged. In fact, at the time of the assasination, Arthur had been in Albany with Conkling, who was seeking reelection. To make matters worse, when Charles Guiteau shot Garfield, he announced “I am a Stalwart! Now Arthur will be President!” Guiteau, who was a delusional and disillusioned office seeker brought more attention to the burning issue in American politics – the patronage system. His insane but accurate declaration did not reflect well on Arthur, who inherited the majority of Garfield’s term, to the general horror of the American people.

Arthur surprised everyone. In an America torn by Garfield’s assassination and party politics, he immediately set to work proving he was above partisan squabbles. He signed the Pendleton Act of 1883 – this put into motion the Civil Service Reform for which Hayes had tried to press, and ended the patronage system which had essentially built Arthur’s own career. The year before, Arthur had vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have denied American citizenship to Chinese residents of the United States, in addition to banning immigrants from China for twenty years. This was a particularly sordid bill, as the Chinese immigrants had been crucial to building the Transcontinental Railroad. In trying to stand with what was morally right both in regards to political corruption and to the rights of the Chinese, one catches a glimpse of the young lawyer Chester Arthur, who took on segregation.

Mark Twain, who never seemed to hesitate to throw shade at politicians and presidents commended Arthur’s presidency. “I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s Administration.” [2] Indeed, Alexander McClure, a writer, politician, and biographer of Lincoln said of Arthur “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired […] more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.” [3] Chester Arthur’s presidency, though not remarkable in its own sense, is one of history’s great examples of a person rising to the occasion when he was needed the most by his country.

 

 

  1. The Stalwarts were a faction of the Republican party who were most associated with the patronage system and their bid to have Grant re-elected for a third time. They existed from the 1870s until Arthur became president in 1881, at which point Conkling was no longer a force, and Arthur had reformed the Civil Service.
  2.  Critics have long contended that Twain’s Puddin’ Head Wilson is based on Arthur’s reforming of the Civil Service. Kaschig, Merit. “‘Vice Breeds Crime’ The ‘Germs’ of Mark Twain’s Puddn’ Head Wilson.” American Periodicals, vol. 12, Ohio State University Press, 2002, pp. 49–74, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20770892.
  3. McClure, Alexander 1828–1909. Colonel Alexander K. McClure’s Recollections of Half a Century, Ulan Press, 2012. P. 115

 

 

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