September 22nd, 2019


Ranking the Presidents: Chester Alan Arthur

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Chester Alan Arthur, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. No one ever expected Chester Alan Arthur to be President of the United States. He had never held any elected office prior to the election of 1880. He had always been a bagman (a fundraiser) and a backroom politician. No one ever expected Arthur to be chosen as the Republican Party's nominee for Vice-President and only got the job because no one else from the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party would take the job. Even after the ticket of Garfield and Arthur won the election, no one expected that the robust and relatively young President Garfield would die in office. When Arthur became President following Garfield's death, everyone expected his administration would be a corrupt one. Arthur would prove them wrong. Journalist Alexander McClure would later write, "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."


Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, probably. During the election campaign of 1880, a Democratic Party supporter named Arthur Hinman was doing opposition research and wrote a book claiming that Arthur was actually born in Canada. The claim is doubtful and the rumors had no effect on the election outcome. Arthur was probably born in 1829. He told people that he was born in 1830, but his family bible and other records make the 1829 date more probable. Arthur grew up in upstate New York, influenced by the abolitionist leanings of his clergyman father. He practiced law in New York City where part of his law practice involved handling civil rights cases. For a brief period he went to Kansas during the bleeding Kansas saga, working on the side of the anti-slavery cause. Arthur served as quartermaster general of the New York Militia during the Civil War, a job which brought with it the rank of General. He chose not to serve in the field because his wife from from Virginia and had family fighting for the other side.

Following the war, Arthur became very active in Republican politics and quickly rose in New York Senator Roscoe Conkling's political machine known as the Stalwarts. Arthur was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to the lucrative and politically powerful post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871, probably the highest paying job in government. In 1878, the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, fired Arthur from that job as part of a plan to reform the federal patronage system in New York. But Arthur earned his retribution when he was selected as Garfield's running mate in 1880. Arthur, an eastern Stalwart, was nominated for vice president to balance the ticket in order to keep the Stalwarts working for Garfield's re-election. Roscoe Conkling had instructed other Stalwarts to turn the job down, but the recently widowed Arthur defied his leader and accepted the job. Six months into his term, Garfield was assassinated and Arthur was President.

At the outset, no one trusted Arthur and everyone assumed that as a Stalwart and product of Conkling's machine, his administration would be a corrupt one, whose only goal was to line the pockets of its faction's membership. To the surprise of reformers, and probably everyone else, Arthur took up the cause of civil service reform. He advocated for and enforced the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, legislation that called for the filling of government jobs based on merit and not on political connections. He presided over the rebirth of the United States Navy. He also embarked on a western tour that took him to Yellowstone Park. Arthur reluctantly signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which resulted in denying citizenship to Chinese Americans until 1898 and barred Chinese immigration until 1943. It was the first total ban on an ethnic or national group from immigrating to the country.

At the time many perceived Arthur as a lazy president. In truth, he suffered from poor health, specifically a terminal kidney ailment that he tried to keep hidden. Arthur made only a limited effort to secure the Republican Party's nomination in 1884, and when that was unsuccessful, he retired at the end of his term. He earned praise among contemporaries for his surprisingly solid performance in office. The New York World summed up Arthur's presidency at his death in 1886, when it wrote: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation." His friend Mark Twain wrote of him, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."

Over the 20th and 21st centuries, however, Arthur's reputation mostly faded among the public. He is generally ranked as an average president by historians and scholars, and one of the most obscure president. He has even been called "the Most Forgotten U.S. President". There are few monuments or memorials to him, with the most notable being created in 1898, a fifteen-foot bronze figure of Arthur standing on a Barre Granite pedestal, created by sculptor George Edwin Bissell and installed at Madison Square, in New York City. The statue was dedicated in 1899 and unveiled by Arthur's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy. At the dedication, Secretary of War Elihu Root spoke and described Arthur as "wise in statesmanship and firm and effective in administration."

Arthur's unpopularity in life carried over into his assessment by historians, and until very recently he may have been the President with the fewest biographies. In 1935, historian George F. Howe said that Arthur had achieved "an obscurity in strange contrast to his significant part in American history." He added that "Arthur remained to everyone a man of his word; he kept scrupulously free from corrupt graft; he maintained a personal dignity, affable and genial though he might be. These restraints distinguished him sharply from the stereotype politician."In 1975, his leading biographer, Thomas C. Reeves, would write that Arthur's "appointments, if unspectacular, were unusually sound; the corruption and scandal that dominated business and politics of the period did not tarnish his administration." In his 2004 biography for the American Presidents Series, Zachary Karabell wrote, although Arthur was "physically stretched and emotionally strained, he strove to do what was right for the country."

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Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Arthur as a below-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Arthur as the 29th best president, while a 2017 C-SPAN survey has Chester Arthur ranked among the bottom third of presidents of all time. That survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking. Arthur was ranked 35th among all former presidents. These rankings probably don't give Arthur enough credit, considering what the expectations were when he entered office, and what he was able to achieve without any real base of support in Congress.