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?

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Dickie, Don, and Andy

July 28, 2017

Impeach 1

Andrew Johnson shortly before his death in 1869.

A former colleague of mine used to say that I could work Enos Slaughter, Harpo Marx, or Andrew Johnson into any conversation.

He might have been right, but where Johnson is concerned, I didn’t need any help to work him into the general discourse about the presidency of Donald Trump. Others did it for me by invoking the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a precursor to what—in theory, at least—could be in store for the 45th president of the United States.

That was understandable. Once impeachment was added to the discussion, there were only three precedents to turn to—the cases of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton and the likelihood that Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned all arose from circumstances that were particular to the behavior of those three men. In Johnson’s case, the circumstances were also particular to that time in history—the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. There is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between those three cases and that of Donald Trump.

Impeachment 2

Richard Nixon

There are parallels, though, limited as they might be. The myriad authorities—the former directors of this and the professors of that—who help TV faces torture and dissect the matter virtually around the clock—have frequently recalled Nixon’s dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as the sort of  decision that Trump might take regarding the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. And the authorities have speculated that such a decision on Trump’s part—with respect to special prosecutor Robert Mueller II, for example—would lead to the same sort of disaster that befell Nixon.

There is also this parallel—in this case concerning, if you’ll forgive me, Andrew Johnson. This has to do with the arms-length dust-up between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Johnson also had a falling out with a member of his cabinet—the able secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in that capacity under Abraham Lincoln and as attorney-general under James Buchanan.

Johnson, although an admirable man in many respects, was famously the wrong person to succeed Lincoln at such a contentious and sensitive time in the nation’s history. There were several reasons for that, and one of them was that he was incapable of compromise. He and a Congress that was dominated by the Republican Party disagreed fundamentally about how the federal government should proceed with the defeated Confederate states and with the millions of black men and women who had been freed from lives of slavery.

Impeachment 3

Edwin M. Stanton

The short-hand version of this dispute is that the Republicans—led by the so-called Radical wing—wanted to put the southern states through a process of re-admission to the Union—including a period of military government—and extend to black Americans the same right to vote enjoyed by white Americans. Johnson, a southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union to the point of risking his life—wanted to restore the southern state governments with relatively little to-do, and he did not want to give the vote or much of anything else to the former slaves. Besides the obvious disagreements, there was an underlying difference with respect to the prerogatives the states and the prerogatives of the federal government—or the “general government,” as it was sometimes called in those days.

Included in the thrusts and parries of this contest was the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed by Congress, over Johnson’s veto, restricting the president’s power to remove from office, without the consent of the Senate, any federal officer the president had appointed with the consent of the Senate. That would include cabinet officers, of course, and it was designed to protect Stanton, who not only supported the whole Radical program but worked against the president’s agenda. This was a wry turn of events, because one of the bona fides Johnson could lay claim to was that he had retained Lincoln’s whole cabinet, even though Johnson was a conservative Democrat. In fact, he and others believed that he could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he had not appointed in the first place.

Impeachment 4

Ulysses S. Grant

The law was in place, however, and it specifically provided that if the president suspended an officer while the Senate was not in session, the Senate, when it reconvened, could reinstate the rascal, and the president would have to keep him on. That provision meant a lot more then than it does now, because in the mid 19th century, Congress was not in session for most of the year.

Eventually, Johnson had enough of Stanton; while the Senate was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton and told him to turn the office over to Ulysses S. Grant—who not only opposed the suspension but disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding reconstruction of the South. When the Senate returned in January, it did not uphold the suspension. Johnson believed, correctly, that the law was unconstitutional, and he decided to force the question in the courts. He removed Stanton and appointed in his place the comic-opera Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas who was not up to the fight when Stanton refused to leave office. When Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the charges against him boiled down to his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and his public challenges to the legitimacy of what he had referred to as a “rump Congress”—meaning that it represented only part of the country.

Johnson was acquitted by one vote, although some historians have maintained that several more Senators were prepared to vote for acquittal if there was a chance of conviction. Being partisan politicians, they weren’t about to climb out on that limb if it were not necessary.

The charges against Johnson regarding the dismissal of Stanton were flimsy, and the charges related to his public speeches were absurd. But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, which is why—whenever the possibility of impeachment arises—the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense is argued anew. Gerald Ford once observed that grounds for impeachment are whatever Congress says they are; that’s true on a certain level, but the republic can’t stand if Congress can remove a president for expressing his opinion, much less for the color of his ties.

Many wished for the conviction of Andrew Johnson, but they might unwittingly have been wishing too for a serious jolt to the balance of powers intended by the founders.