Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

If the face of Elizabeth Jennings Graham ever appears on a U.S. dollar coin, part of the credit will go to Chester A. Arthur, the reluctant 21st president.

Arthur, as I recounted in a recent post, was a product of the New York Republican machine of the late 19th century. He was a successful candidate for vice president in 1880 only because the party needed an easterner to balance the ticket led by James A. Garfield of Ohio.

When Garfield was murdered and Arthur was vaulted into the presidency, no one was more shocked than Arthur himself. Although he was a decent man despite his connection  to the GOP machine, he wasn’t Mr. Ambition, and he did not have his sites set on the presidency.

Chester A. Arthur 2

Chester A. Arthur

He surprised many people, and at times dismayed his own party, by being not only a serious chief executive but something of a reformer—the most notable example being his successful call for a civil service system in which merit and not political connection determined who got public jobs.

Although he finishes low in the perennial polls that rank the presidents, he had some admirable qualities, and none more admirable than his unswerving opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and his belief that black citizens should be afforded the same rights as white citizens—and that’s where Elizabeth Jennings Graham comes in.

Elizabeth Jennings was born in New York City in March 1830. Her father, Thomas, was a free black American, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been born in slavery and was an indentured servant during the period in which the State of New York gradually abolished human bondage. Thomas—a tailor and the first known black American to hold a patent in the United States (for a dry-cleaning process) was prosperous enough to buy his wife’s freedom.

Thomas Jennings

Thomas Jennings

Both parents were prominent members of the black community. The elder Elizabeth Jennings was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, an organization established by black women who wanted to encourage self-improvement for black females. In 1834, she delivered an address, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds,” in which she stressed that black Americans must cultivate their minds if they did not want to remain subordinate to white people.

The younger Elizabeth Jennings was her mother’s daughter. She was well educated, and she became a teacher at the private African Free School, and then in the public schools, and a church organist. She was also a forerunner of Rosa Parks.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings was rushing to play the organ at the First Colored Congregational Church. At the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, in her haste, she boarded a segregated horse-drawn streetcar operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The New York Tribune reported what happened next:

NYC streetcar

A New York City streetcar in the 19th century

The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.

Elizabeth Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was handled by the junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who was 24 years old.

street-sign.jpg
Arthur was successful. The three-day trial ended in Jennings’ favor: Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court said, in his charge to the jury, that “colored persons” who were sober, orderly, and free of disease, had the same rights as anyone else and, therefore, the company could not bar black people from its conveyances.

The jury also awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250, which was a substantial amount of money in 1855. The day after the trial concluded, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its streetcars desegregated. In 1895, after the death of her husband, Charles Graham, Jennings, who had lived for a time in New Jersey, returned to Manhattan and established at her West 42nd Street home a kindergarten for black children; she operated it until her death in 1901.

Rev Pennington

Rev. James Pennington

Only a month after the Jennings trial, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington who, with Thomas Jennings, was active in a campaign to end discrimination on transit facilities—was prevented from boarding a whites-only car operated by the Eighth Avenue Railroad Company. Pennington also took legal action and won a judgment on appeal to the State Supreme Court. In 1865, New York’s public transportation system was finally fully desegregated—the culmination of a movement in which Chester A. Arthur had played a critical role.

 

Advertisements

Chester_A_Arthur-1

When someone—Donald Trump, for example—assumes the presidency of the United States, he knows from the first day that eventually he will be compared to all those who held the office before.

When the history professors and other analysts cast their periodical votes, the new president, in most cases, can hope to rank higher than, say, 34th of 45 places. That’s the place now occupied, in one prominent poll, by Chester Alan Arthur, subject of a biography by Zachary Karabell.

To rank below Arthur, one has to have had a name such as Tyler, Harding, Pierce, or Buchanan.

But Karabell’s biography, one of The American Presidents Series by Times Books, shows that even in his lowly niche, Arthur deserves credit from some unexpected effectiveness in office. Without intending to, Karabell’s book also portends—if the events of the past seven months are any indication—that Arthur stands to move up at least a notch.

U.S. Presidential Portraits

Arthur and Trump have this in common: They went to the White House from New York City where each, in his own way, took as much personal advantage as possible of the prevailing system—real estate for Trump, political cronyism for Arthur.

A native of Vermont, Arthur had a reputation for being, if not lazy, not energetic either. He arrived late and left early. When he could choose how he spent his time, his choice was usually an evening at the club with his cronies, whisky, and cigars. But he was efficient and even effective at what he did, and he was successful in the practice of law in New York City.

Arthur also signed on with the Republican machine which at the time was run by U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur’s association with the party paid off, and in 1871 President Ulysses Grant appointed  him collector of the Port of New York.

Chester A. Arthur 4

Roscoe Conkling

The post was both powerful and lucrative, although Karabell points out that Arthur never took money that he was not legally entitled to. He was consistent in this respect: during the Civil War, he had been appointed brigadier general and was put in charge of arranging housing and other accommodations for troops arriving in the city to serve in the New York militia. “Arthur did not take advantage of the numerous opportunities for skimming,” Karabell writes, “and his gains were not ill-gotten.”

In 1880, the Republican Party was unable to break a convention deadlock between Conkling’s “Stalwart” faction, which wanted to nominate Grant, and the “Half-Breed” faction that wanted to nominate U.S. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.

Chester A. Arthur 5

James A. Garfield

The convention finally compromised on U.S. Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was a “westerner” and was not aligned with either faction; in order to guarantee the support of the New York Republicans, the party sought to balance the ticket by nominating Arthur, who by then was a widower, for vice president. Folks who were familiar with the amiable, efficient, but unexceptional Arthur reacted with emotions that ranged from shock to mirth.

In the event, Karabell reports, Arthur’s hail-fellow skills were instrumental in the election of Garfield:

“From his baronial suite in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Arthur worked tirelessly on behalf of Garfield, levying assessments, raising money from donors, handling correspondence, wheedling and cajoling, wining and dining, getting speeches printed and distributed, organizing events and, of course, collecting and doling out campaign funds.”

Chester A. Arthur 6

James G. Blaine

It was a dirty campaign but, although Arthur was clearly in the Stalwart camp, he was so downright nice that few held that or anything else against him.

“His ego,” Karabell writes, “unlike Conkling’s and Blaine’s, did not walk into a room before he did, and few people felt strongly enough about him to hate him. He was the Teflon candidate of his day. …”

The election of Arthur as vice president might not have mattered in the long run had it not been for Charles Guiteau—a man with a tentative grip on reality—who shot Garfield in July 1881. Garfield died two months later, and Chester was sworn in as president on September 20.

Few people, including Arthur, considered him a good fit for the presidency, but when

Chester A. Arthur 7

Charles Guiteau

two months had passed between the shooting and Garfield’s death, the country was prepared to make the best of it. In some ways, the country got more than it expected.

For one thing, when Arthur took office there was already an investigation of a scandal in which federal officials had been grossly overpaying contractors for operating postal routes. Although he was the willing product of spoils-system politics, Arthur and his Justice Department played hardball with the offenders. Arthur forced some public officials to resign and fired others. Although those tried in the scandal were not convicted, Arthur’s administration had removed the cancer.

In another ironic move, considering Arthur’s background, he took the occasion of his first “state of the Union” message to call for civil service reform—namely, a system in which civil servants were employed based on merit, not on their political connections or on graft. In 1882, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and Arthur, the one-time political hack, signed it and acted quickly to put it into practice, launching an historic sea change in the way public jobs were filled.

Chester A. Arthur 8Immigration was a hot topic in the 1880s, and one on which Congress and the President, for the most part, could work together. They butted heads, however, over a bill designed to cut off immigration from China for twenty years and deny citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. The bill was unpopular in the East but not in the West where Chinese laborers, who had been allowed to enter the United States without restrictions, had long been a welcome source of hard labor. But in a development that should sound familiar in our own time, an economic downturn turned the tide opinion against the Chinese, who were accused of taking jobs that should have been available to Americans.

In response to this trend, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Arthur shocked his own party by vetoing it. He didn’t like the ban on citizenship, and he believed that the 20-year moratorium on immigration would violate a treaty with China. But when Congress passed a new bill that reduced the moratorium to ten years, Arthur knew there would be enough votes to override another veto, so he signed the bill.

Chester A. Arthur 9An important aspect of Arthur’s life was his unwavering opposition to slavery—a point of view he no doubt inherited from his father, who was an abolitionist preacher. Arthur did not adopt the comfortable position of many other northerners who said they were opposed to slavery in principle, didn’t want slavery in their own states, but were content to let it endure in the South where the citizens felt otherwise. No, Arthur was dead against it anywhere, including in the West.

When Arthur was president, Reconstruction had pretty much collapsed and the government was not vigorously enforcing the rights of black Americans. When the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which claimed “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights,” including the right to equal access to public accommodations and public transportation and the right to serve on juries, Arthur tried, though unsuccessfully, to prod Congress into adopting a new measure.

Arthur was not nominated to run for reelection in 1884. He returned to his law practice in New York but was not well enough to devote much energy to the firm. He died in 1886 at the age of 57 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Arthur is largely forgotten among the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts, but he probably deserves at least a little better. His career was not without its achievements—civil service reform being a major one that benefitted generations of men and women. And he was a decent human being in an environment of cut-throat politics—a characteristic not to be lightly brushed aside. “In everything he did,” Karabell writes, “Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman, and that is rare and precious.”

Isn’t it, though?