The Measure of Greatness: Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

“For those who want presidents to be heroes, for those who expect them to be larger-than-life figures, Chester Arthur’s tenure in office isn’t satisfying. The nature of our expectations would have to change dramatically for Arthur to be reevaluated as one of the country’s best presidents.” (Zachary Karabbell, Chester Alan Arthur)

Or maybe not dramatically. If our expectations were based on a president’s actual policies — not his charisma, not his management style, and not if he happened to serve during a time of war (or initiated a bad one that could have been avoided) — then maybe, just maybe, someone like Chester Arthur would emerge rather clearly as one of America’s best presidents.

He was a repeat of John Tyler: an “accidental” president no one ever counted on, thrust into the role with the sudden death of his superior. And like Tyler, he was seriously underestimated by his fellow party members. The Stalwart Republicans thought Arthur would roll over and be their puppet. They got a rude surprise. He was no one’s errand boy. As a president he knew he had to be autonomous and independent, even if that meant alienating friends, and going against the grain of his party to make the right policies.

Chinese Exclusion

Like Rutherford Hayes before him, Arthur vetoed a bill that tried banning Chinese immigrants — who were “taking everyone’s jobs” in California. Basically, Chinese immigration was to the 1880s as the Irish immigrants were to the 1840s. It’s been one of America’s saddest ironies that its foundation is based on immigration, yet every new wave of immigrants is seen as a threat. Arthur opposed immigration bans with the same fervency his father had opposed slavery, but he wasn’t popular for this opinion. Democrats and Republicans alike were crying for Chinese expulsion. When Congress failed to override Arthur’s veto, people everywhere were incensed. Arthur was burned in effigy across the nation. The only significant praise he got for his enlightened view was from the liberal media.

Undaunted, Congress passed a new bill, changing the period of the ban from 20 years down to 10. This time there were more than enough votes to overrule a veto, and Arthur knew it. He reluctantly signed the bill — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — knowing his veto would be meaningless. He can hardly be faulted too much knowing the outcome was foreordained, but it is a minor strike against his liberty record.

Rivers and Harbors

That same year Congress tried passing the Rivers and Harbors Act, a piece of legislative pork that would have given each member of Congress a hefty sum of money to give to local businessmen who would in turn support them in the election. Those (like Arthur) who were advocating civil service reform were outraged by the bill, and Arthur vetoed it in August. Congress overrode his veto — which turned out to be a big mistake. Congress paid the price for that dearly in the 1882 election.

This was the first sign that Arthur was not necessarily a Stalwart Republican (“Grant loyalist”) at heart, and indeed his next action made clear that he was as much for reform as his predecessor Rutherford Hayes.

Civil Service Reform

The election of ’82 was a crushing defeat for the Republicans, and the worst thing that happened to the party since its inception 28 years before. They completely lost the House; the Democrats gained 70 seats. The media lambasted the Republicans, warning that if the party evils weren’t addressed, then Republicans could be on the way to extinction.

The message was clear: abolish pork projects and reform the goddamn civil service. Replace the spoils system (that had been in place since Andrew Jackson) with a system of merit, and let people stay secure in their jobs no matter which party was in power. Arthur was fully on board. In his first message to Congress almost a year before (December 6, ’81), he had advocated precisely that, speaking approvingly of English civil service laws. The English, he said, provided job tenure and pension guarantees, which made it possible to attract young people into the civil service with the promise of many years of employment and reliable income. This allowed civil servants to focus on serving the public good, rather than worry about their job security every second and be tempted to engage in flagrantly corrupt practices to support themselves.

Thus came about Chester Arthur’s legacy: the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Arthur signed it into law on January 16, 1883, and with that, Andrew Jackson’s spoils system was finally revoked (it had been the way of politics for 54 years). The act established a five member examination board, awarded jobs and promotions based on competitive exams, outlawed assessments (forced political contributions), and made it illegal to fire or demote employees for their politics.

It’s rather astonishing that the act got passed. Both parties in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, derived much of their political power from the Jacksonian spoils system. Chester Arthur himself was a beneficiary of the spoils system, and (supposedly) a Stalwart Republican (Grant loyalist). But the people had made their wishes plain, and Arthur was not so Stalwart after all. January 16, 1883 marked a serious before-and-after moment in America:

“Civil servants were to be appointed because of their capacity to do the job, not because of whom they knew and what they could pay. Their performance was to be assessed by objective standards, discerned by examinations. These exams were to be administered by a neutral civil service commission and graded by boards that were unaffiliated with factions. Once appointed, civil servants were to serve society rather than parties. They would no longer be subject to mandatory contributions during the elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about losing favor with the party bosses. The Pendleton Act allowed for the birth of the modern bureaucratic state, something that most people take as a mixed blessing, but which has been central to shaping life in this country since the late nineteenth century.” (Zachary Karabell, Chester Alan Arthur, pp 108-09)

As a civil servant myself, I cherish this watershed moment, and Arthur’s role in making it happen.

The Mongrel Tariff

In Arthur’s day, high-tariff advocates despised low-tariff advocates with the same hatred that abolitionists had shown for slave owners. But in this case “the north” was not in the right. One might wonder how the issue could be so heated.

Tariffs (taxes imposed on imports) were the primary way the federal government made revenue until the federal income tax was established in 1913. Republicans in the industrial northeast liked them, because the higher prices gave business owners an advantage to domestic products within the same market. They protected the American industry from foreign competition. But tariffs are bad because (a) they are a tax on consumers, which harm especially farmers and the working poor; (b) they are a governmental intervention in free trade; (c) they provoke other countries to retaliate and impose their own tariffs, which in turn results in (d) the tariffs reducing business for all countries. If tariffs protect local industries, they hurt consumers in the process, not to mention the economy as a whole. Such restrictions are in any case an anathema to free trade. The tariff-happy Donald Trump is a modern regression in this regard.

Arthur, like Hayes before him, was an exceptional Republican for his times. Hayes however was an openly reformist Republican. Arthur was supposed to be a Stalwart, cut in the mold of “Grant loyalism”, and he kept surprising his constituency by shooting down their interests — by taking an axe to pork-barrel spending (with the Rivers and Harbors Act) and annihilating the spoils system (with the Pendleton Civil Service Act). On the question of tariffs he wasn’t quite as effective. In March 1883 he signed the Mongrel Tariff — a sloppy compromise resulting in only meager tariff reductions.

Equal Rights for All

In November 1883, the Supreme Court handed down one of its worst decisions ever, overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The act had prohibited discrimination in public place like hotels, trains, and restaurants. In a landslide 8-1 decision, the majority held that while it is true that the Equal Protection Clause within the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits discrimination by the state and local government, it does not give the federal government the power to prohibit discrimination by private organizations and business owners.

Arthur publicly lambasted the Supreme Court, saying that the Civil Rights Act had been passed for the express purpose of allowing freed slaves to enjoy rights unimpeded by discriminatory laws, whether governmental or private. Arthur did not flout the court’s decision (which would have been wrong), but he did vow to advocate for legislation to redress what the Court had done. But nothing came from Congress to reverse the tide of segregation until decades later in 1957. Arthur is to be commended for opposing a horrible decision.

On the other hand, Arthur did not go to bat for the Indians so well. While he vocally sympathized with the Indian plight, and he did promote restrictions on the white settlement of Indian lands, he passively allowed settlers to ignore them. Still, by 19th-century standards he wasn’t too bad on the Indian issue.

Building the Navy

During his term, Arthur was preoccupied with the rare and enviable problem of how to spend extra money. The government was running an incredible surplus of $100 million a year. (Would that presidents today had this problem.) A lot of the surplus went to debt reduction. Some of it also went to building up the navy, thanks to the persuasive arguments of Arthur and his Secretary of the Navy, William Chandler of New Hampshire.

Since the end of the Civil War, America had lost 90% of its ships; only 52 were left, and most were obsolete pieces of wood. Arthur and Chandler got the okay from Congress to build three steel cruisers, an armed dispatch ship, and three monitors. While military buildup is usually not to a president’s credit in my scoring, in this case Arthur was doing the right and wise thing. A strong navy was a vital tool for both foreign policy and defense.

Arthur also wanted an easy route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and so in 1884 had his Secretary of State negotiate with Nicaragua for a treaty which allowed the United States to build a canal across the country. The canal would be jointly owned by the U.S. and Nicaragua. Congress refused to ratify it, however, because the agreement violated an existing treaty with Great Britain, in which each nation pledged not to obtain exclusive control over any canal built through the Isthmus of Panama. (The treaty was then withdrawn from consideration altogether by Grover Cleveland when he took office in 1885.) Arthur needs to be docked a bit for misusing the Monroe Doctrine.


Here’s how I score Arthur:

Peace/Foreign Policy. His peace record is nearly flawless. For avoiding military intervention (such as in Madagascar against the French), and for wisely revamping a badly eroded navy, he deserves accolades. I dock him 2 points for the misuse of the Monroe Doctrine in Nicaragua.

Prosperity/Domestic Policy. Arthur was a kindred soul to Rutherford Hayes. They both opposed pork-barrel spending efforts and promoted civil service reform, which was highly unusual for Republicans at this time. Hayes was an openly reformist Republican, however, so his position wasn’t as shocking as that of Arthur’s, who went completely against the grain of his Stalwart allegiances. He favored excellent hard money policies like Hayes. His Civil Service Reform alone could earn him a perfect score of 20. However, on the question of tariffs Arthur settled for only meager reductions, so I dock him a single point.

Liberty. His liberty record is generally very good. I dock him 2 points (but no more than that) for signing the Chinese Exclusion Act. Arthur had vetoed the first bill (and was burned in effigy across the country for it), and only signed the second bill because he knew for certain that a veto would be overridden. He also needs some docking (3 points) for not going to bat for Indian rights (unlike his predecessor Hayes). There were no major offenses to the Indians on his watch (by 19th-century standards anyway), and Arthur vocally sympathized with the plight of American Indians, but he did little to protect them from oppression. He did however go fiercely to bat for African Americans when the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Peace — 18/20
Prosperity — 19/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 52/60 = Very Good

Some of the best leaders turn out to be those who never wanted leadership in the first place. Chester Arthur was one such president — the second best example after John Tyler.

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