A President’s Day Salute to Chester A. Arthur: The Accidental President who Put Country over Party and Drained a Real (Metaphorical) Swamp
For most people, the name Chester A. Arthur will conjure up . . . well, nothing. Our twenty-first president is mainly remembered for not being remembered for anything. A 2014 study published in Science asked five hundred American adults to write down as many presidents as they could remember in five minutes. Arthur came in dead last, with only 6.7 percent of respondents able to remember his name.
In a follow-up study in which participants were given names and asked which belonged to former presidents, Arthur again came in last, with only 46 percent of respondents identifying him correctly. The average participant in the study would have done better flipping a coin than trying to remember whether Chester A. Arthur had ever been president.
The eminent forgettableness of Chester Arthur obscures the fact that he did one of the most memorable, and indisputably positive things that any politician did in the nineteenth century. And he had to take on his own party to do it. Arthur reformed the civil service and ended the long-standing practice of political patronage.
When Arthur became president in 1881, the US government employed nearly one hundred thousand of the nation’s fifty million people. Since the time of Andrew Jackson, the vast majority of these positions had been subject to the “spoils system,” through which the winner of each presidential election distributed patronage appointments to loyal supporters.
By the time of the Civil War, members of Congress controlled most patronage appointments in their states, and this became the basis of their political power. All federal employees were assessed mandatory contributions to the party bosses who controlled their jobs.
The spoils system enshrined corruption. People needed to make contributions back to their patrons, and as long as they did, nobody looked too hard at where the money came from. Sometimes this involved illegal activities — Indian agents were notorious for selling items meant for Native tribes and keeping the profits. But there were also completely legal ways to augment civil service salaries. Customs inspectors, for example, could keep and sell a portion of any goods they found being smuggled into a US port. In this way, the head collector for the New York Customs House in the 1870s managed to earn $50,000 a year (more than $1 million in 2020). His name? Chester A. Arthur.
For years, Arthur was the poster child for an out-of-control patronage system. He lived lavishly on what should have been a modest salary. He rarely showed up for work before noon and spent every night socializing with wealthy New Yorkers and political donors. His patron and mentor, the powerful New York senator Roscoe Conkling, controlled the largest political machine in the country. During Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, Conkling gained complete control over New York’s vast patronage network and used it to become the most powerful man in the nation’s most powerful state. Conkling was the king of patronage, and Chester Arthur was his loyal knight.
But the patronage system was not universally popular. By the time Grant took office, a movement had taken root within the Republican Party to move to a nonpartisan, merit-based civil service system. Grant initially embraced civil service reform and created the Civil Service Commission to come up with and implement suggestions.
But the powerful senators and representatives who relied on patronage fought back hard, and Grant lacked both the political will and the personal courage to fight his own party. In 1876 Grant was succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes, a committed reformer who was determined to end the spoils system. Hayes clashed with his own party for most of his term, and he was not able to convince Congress to pass any civil service reform legislation.
Hayes’s attempts at reform angered members of his own party so greatly that he was not nominated for reelection in 1882. Republicans replaced him with James Garfield, a congressman from Ohio who also identified with the reformers but was perceived as more moderate and cautious on the issue. But because Republicans could not lose New York and win the election, they had to placate Roscoe Conkling, who had backed Grant for a third term at the convention. To do this, they placed Conkling’s chief lieutenant — a man whose entire professional life was defined by and associated with the spoils system — on the ticket.
And thus Chester A. Arthur, who had never held an elected office in his life, became the vice president of the United States. Four months into his term of office, James Garfield was shot, and Arthur was as astonished as everyone else in the country to find himself president two and a half months later when Garfield died.
The circumstances of Garfield’s assassination changed the conversation about the civil service. The assassin, a frustrated office seeker named Charles Guiteau, believed that his service to the Republican Party during the election merited a high-level appointment. After months of trying unsuccessfully to see Garfield (who had no idea who he was), Guiteau determined that Garfield was destroying the patronage system and the only way to save it was to make Chester Arthur president. A voluminous writer, Guiteau spelled all this out in great detail in letters published after the assassination, leading to a huge groundswell of support for civil service reform.
Nobody thought it would happen with Chester Arthur as president. Most people believed that Arthur, who had no real government experience, would appoint Conkling to his cabinet and let his patron run the show. Conkling, in fact, showed up in Washington before the inauguration and demanded to be made secretary of state. Arthur refused and showed him the door. To the horror of his allies and the shock of the entire nation, Arthur embraced civil service reform.
So, what changed Chester Arthur’s mind? Several things. First, he could sense that Garfield’s assassination had reshaped the debate and created a movement with huge momentum, and he didn’t want to stand in the way of history. He may have concluded that civil service reform was going to pass no matter what he did and that he would be forever cast as a villain if triedto block it. And there is some evidence that he resented Roscoe Conkling’s assumption that he could walk into the Oval Office and start calling the shots.
Arthur knew that everybody expected him to back Conkling and oppose reform because no one believed he had the character or integrity to do otherwise. And he did not want to be known forever as someone who came into office and fulfilled everybody’s low expectations. But none of this quite explains Arthur’s conversion. Even if he concluded that some kind of civil service reform needed to pass, he could have watered it down, given his allies control over the process, and enforced it halfheartedly.
But he did none of these things. In his first message to Congress after becoming president, he asked that body to outlaw political assessments and reauthorize the Civil Service Commission. It did nothing. When Republicans sustained major losses in the 1882 midterm election, Arthur reached across party lines and supported a bill written by Democratic senator George Pendleton. In 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which, over time, eliminated the spoils system and created the merit-based civil service that is still in place today.
Arthur’s actions were extremely unpopular with his own party, which depended on the patronage system for its political dominance. At the 1884 convention, Arthur was passed over for the nomination in favor of James Blaine, who had been his secretary of state. He died a year later and began his slide into presidential anonymity.
Arthur is one of our history’s greatest examples of a person who changed his mind. But let’s be clear about exactly what part of his mind got changed. He didn’t go from thinking that patronage was a good idea to thinking it wasa bad one. Nobody in 1880 actually believed that political patronage produced better civil servants than a merit-based system would. It persisted because sitting politicians found it useful and refused to get rid of it. This was especially true of Arthur’s Republican Party, which controlled the richest patronage sites in the country and used them to maintain its dominant position in the post– Civil War era.
To end patronage, Arthur had to be persuaded to place the interests of the nation ahead of the short-term interests of his political party. This tension between party and country has always been part of American politics, and it has colored some of the most controversial issues of our history: immigration, public works spending, the direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, civil rights, congressional redistricting, campaign finance — and all sorts of other issues that produce tangible winners and losers.
It becomes very difficult with such issues to think of the long-term health of democracy instead of the short-term wins and losses of a particular faction. Much of our progress as a nation, however, has come because people like Chester A. Arthur have been persuaded that the interests of the party must give way to the long-term health of American democracy.
Michael Austin is the author of several books of history, several books of literary criticism, and a bestselling textbook. This tribute to Chester A. Arthur is drawn from his most recent book, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition.