I want to write a movie about Chester Arthur, because his story is so weird.
First, there’s no way in hell he should have become President in the first place. He was the running mate of a guy who shouldn’t have been nominated either. James Garfield was a ten-term Congressman and Senator-Elect who was at the convention supporting his friend, Treasury Secretary John Sherman against the overwhelming favorites former President (and Civil War winning General) Ulysses S Grant and Maine Senator James Blaine. Arthur was at the convention to support Grant. He was a member of the New York machine, whose highest office had been Collector of the Port of New York (basically the guy in charge of collecting tariff on foreign shops in New York harbor), and Chairman of the New York State Republican Executive Committee.
At some point, someone suggested Garfield as a compromise choice. And he didn’t even want the job. The idea took off. Garfield asked investment banker and freshman New York Congressman Levi P. Morton to be his running mate, deciding he needed a stalwart (the term for a Grant supporter) on the ticket. Morton refused, so Arthur was asked as a supporter of Grant and friend of New York Senator Roscoe Cosling.
In this campaign poster, Garfield and Arthur were packaged to the public for their military service.
The Garfield/ Arthur ticket won. And the Ohio State Legislature chose Sherman to go to the Senate.
Garfield was the assassinated by someone who wanted Arthur to be President, difficult circumstances for any politician to be an effective leader, especially a relative novice.
Arthur went on to be a decent President. His main accomplishment was civil service reform, based on the shocking idea that jobs should go to the best qualified person rather than the supporters of a popular politician.
Mark Twain was happy with the results, writing what has almost become a blurb for his administration.
It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.
Arthur was unable to win the nomination to seek the presidency for a full term, although that’s not a particular surprise. He had upset many political activists with his efforts to reform the system. The previous accidental presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore and Andrew Johnson had also been unable to win a full term in office. It wasn’t until Teddy Roosevelt twenty years later that someone who went from Vice President to President was able to win election to the office in his own right. Considering that the next Republican nominee lost to Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected to the White House in a fifty year, it seems the party screwed up by not backing Arthur.
When his presidency came to an end, Chester Arthur was asked by stalwarts to run for Senate in his home state of New York. He declined.
During all of this, he suffered from serious health problems, diagnosed with nephritis towards the beginning of his presidential administration. He would pass away within two years of leaving the White House.
Publisher Alexander K. McClure summed up the change in reputation during the presidential administration…
“No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired … more generally respected.”
PS- While looking up material on Chester Arthur, I did come across an interesting story from when he was a newly minted attorney, and won a major Civil Rights lawsuit.