TIME magazine ran a web article earlier this year entitled “Top Ten Forgettable Presidents,” with the pithy and fairly obvious subtitle “Fail to the Chief.” What makes a president unimportant? Is it simply not being well known to the average American? Based on how little many Americans know about our history, this seems a misguided measuring tool. To pick just one name on the list: President James Buchanan was many things—ineffectual, embarrassing, weak—but unimportant? Buchanan is worth remembering if for no other reason than his horrendous administration both led directly to the election of Abraham Lincoln, now revered by many as the greatest president, and permitted the South to secede before Lincoln could take office.
Planted on the TIME list at number seven, between Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, was Chester A. Arthur, twenty-first President of the United States, who held office from 1881-85. Arthur was vice president under James Garfield, placed on the ticket in 1880 purely as one Republican faction’s attempt to appease another. Republicans viewed putting Arthur on the ticket with Garfield as harmless and, if anything, hoped that it would sock him away in a useless job where he had no power and could not do any damage. This plan might have worked had Charles Guiteau not decided to shoot Garfield on July 2, 1881. After lingering for eighty days, Garfield died on September 19, and suddenly Chet Arthur was President of the United States.
This was not an outcome anyone had anticipated. Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829. Fairfield is in northwestern Vermont, not far from the Canadian border, and Arthur was the first president to face a “birther” movement when some of his political opponents argued that he was ineligible to be president because he had actually been born in Canada. (His parents had lived for a time in Quebec before the future president’s birth.) The Arthurs moved to New York when young Chet was just three years old, and he spent most of the rest of his life in the Empire State. He attended Union College in Schenectady and later moved to New York City to practice law.
Arthur’s father, William, was a Free Will Baptist minister and an outspoken abolitionist, and the son absorbed his father’s hatred of slavery. As a young New York City attorney, Chester Arthur participated in two important civil rights cases, both times arguing for the rights of African Americans. Arthur was on the right side of history and the racial equality argument that dominated the nineteenth century and led to the Civil War. During the war itself, Arthur was a New York militia member who served honorably in New York’s Quartermaster Department. He demonstrated great organizational abilities at the tasks of housing and equipping thousands of troops coming into New York City. This work was not as glamorous–or as dangerous– as a battlefield command, but armies require vast numbers of support troops to feed, outfit, move, and resupply the soldiers at the front. Arthur’s service was honorable and important.
After the war, Arthur benefited from his friendship with Congressman and then Senator Roscoe Conkling, the king of New York patronage. This friendship led President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint Arthur as Collector of the Port of New York. This was the nation’s plum patronage position, and it enabled Arthur both to mobilize large numbers of voters for the Republicans and to pocket large sums of money. He held this job for nearly seven years before being fired by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878, a casualty of both Hayes’s desire to reform the civil service and a conflict between the President and Conkling.
At the 1880 Republican National Convention, delegates tapped Congressman James A. Garfield as a compromise candidate when no one else—not U.S. Grant, James Blaine, or John Sherman—had enough support to capture the nomination. Garfield was viewed as part of the faction of “Half-Breed” Republicans and had vocally opposed a third term for Grant. Roscoe Conkling was Grant’s biggest booster at the convention, so naturally Conkling’s protégé Arthur supported Grant as well. Those standing firmly behind Grant were known as “Stalwarts.” When the convention chose Garfield as the nominee, the delegates immediately looked for a Stalwart Republican to balance the ticket. Realizing New York would be critical to a Republican victory, the convention came looking for Chet Arthur. When Arthur informed Conkling of the vice presidential offer, Conkling snorted and told Arthur to decline. To his credit, Arthur told Conkling that the vice presidency was a higher honor than he ever thought he could attain and that he planned to accept. He did, and this man who had never before held elective office vaulted to the vice presidency when Garfield won the 1880 election.
After Garfield’s death, Conkling and Grant looked forward to an unofficial return to power with their disciple Arthur in the White House. But President Arthur had other plans. Much to their astonishment and anger, he distanced himself from his old benefactors and took firm control of his own administration. Most significantly, he came to support civil service reform, which entailed ending the patronage system that Conkling had so deftly used to benefit himself and his cronies—including Arthur himself. On January 16, 1883, President Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Act, which established a civil service based on merit rather than patronage or political affiliation. Arthur continued to argue for the civil rights of black Americans during his presidency, signed the Edmunds Act of 1882 outlawing polygamy, and proceeded with Garfield’s plans to expand and modernize the U.S. Navy. But he was not always on the right side of history: he also approved the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Arthur hoped to be nominated by the Republicans to run for his own term in 1884, but the party that year turned to James G. Blaine instead. Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland, who became the first elected Democrat to sit in the White House since James Buchanan, before the Civil War. A disheartened Arthur returned to New York City, where he died of Bright’s disease on November 18, 1886. He was only 57 years old.
Chester Alan Arthur was never supposed to be President of the United States, and once he ascended to that position he was not expected to do much of anything. He would, it seemed, be a figurehead while Roscoe Conkling and U.S. Grant ran the country. But Arthur saw that the office was larger than petty politics and insisted on standing for larger American principles. While no one would ever claim that Arthur was one of our greatest presidents, to label him, or any president, “forgettable” requires a willful ignorance of the extraordinary power of that office, a power Chester Arthur, for one, understood.