Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chester A. Arthur: A laid back reformer

Chester A. Arthur was Vice President under James A. Garfield.  When Garfield died as the result of an assassin's bullet less than 200 days into his term, Arthur became President.

He was born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont, to a Baptist minister who had emigrated from Northern Ireland. In 1848 he graduated from Union College. He taught school, practiced law, was admitted to the bar, and became a New York lawyer. He served as Quartermaster for the State of New York during the Civil War.

He was a very laid back person who cared a lot about what he looked like and took particular detail to make sure he was dressed sharp. He loved wine and ate well.  He enjoyed drinking wine at the finest restaurants and at the finest clubs in New York.  He enjoyed fishing, and often did so with his good friend, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling.

A major issue within the republican party at this time and a serious source of contention were a battle over civil service reforms. Half Breeds tended to be more conservative and wanted to keep the spoils system. Stalwarts, on the other hand, tended to be more progressive and wanted to end the spoils system in favor of a merit system.

A spoils system is one where elected officials nominate or appoint their friends and family members who helped them get elected to public offices. A merit system is one where elected officials nominate or appoint only the most qualified people to public offices.

Both Arthur and Conkling were Stalwarts. Arthur's  political career began as a result of the Spoils system. Essentially, after Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1870, Arthur was appointed to the post of Collector of the Port of New York at the Customs House as a political favor for helping Grant get elected. He worked as marshal over the thousands of Custom's House employees, and he worked for his good friend Conking.

President Hayes, in an attempt to reform the Custom's House, released Arthur from his duties. To remedy the situation, Conkling tried to get former President Grant nominated during the election of 1880. His efforts failed. After a long conference, on the ballot, James A. Garfield, a Half-Breed, was nominated as president, mainly because he was viewed as a moderate. To keep the stalwarts happy, Arthur was nominated as Vice President.

As Vice President, Arthur remained loyal to Conkling, even while Garfield and Conkling battled each other over Garfield's nominations for public offices. When Garfield nominated a Half Breed to lead the Custom's House, Conkling became irate. He worked hard to position the Senate to block Garfield's nominations. Conkling would end up resigning from the Senate, and Garfield's nominations were confirmed.

Less than 200 days after Garfield was elected president, he was shot twice by a disgruntled Charles Guiteau, who believed Garfield owed him a patronage position for helping him get elected. After Garfield collapsed, Guiteau shouted, "I am a stalwart, and Arthur is now president." Guiteau was captured, found guilty, and hanged.

This sort of changed the political spectrum within the republican party and civil service reform was made a leading issue. Dorman Bridgeman Eaton wrote a bill that required politicians to fill federal government jobs based on merit and not political affiliation. It required new government workers to start at the bottom and only to move up based on merit exams. George H. Pendleton of Ohio was the bill's main sponsors in the Senate, and for whom the bill was named. 

Partly due to the assassination of Garfield, partly due to republican defeats during the midterm elections of 1882, and partly because he didn't want to be viewed as being controlled, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. 

It is true that Arthur was viewed as a laid back president. He strolled into office at 10 a.m., signed papers, and was done by 4 p.m.  He would then go for a walk, take a nap, and have a peaceful meal with his family and friends. Yet he was very effective during the few hours he did work. 

Some believe that the administrative experience he obtained while working for the Custom's House gave him the experience needed to be an effective President. He was very skillful at his administrative duties. However, it should be noted that the number of federal employees in 1880 paled in comparison with 2016. For instance, the Secretary of State was served by only three assistants. 

Likewise, while Garfield was nominated partly on a ticket that was for higher tariffs, Arthur saw a need for a reduction in tariffs. Part of the reason was because it was difficult to administer tariffs, and another part was because the Treasury had an embarrassingly high tariff while money was in short supply. So, he would end up signing the Tariff Act of 1883. This is an action that conservatives can be proud of. 

He also adamantly opposed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882. This was a "pork barrel" bill whereby government surplus would be spent on river surveys made to clean out and deepen selected waterways and to make various other river and harbor improvements. He believed that any Federal monies should be spent on projects that benefited all Americans, and that this bill would mostly benefit Southern states. 

He vetoed the bill, but Congress overruled his veto. He then argued that any Federal surplus in funds should be given back to the people via tax cuts rather than pork barrel spending projects. For this, he can be heralded as a good conservative. 

By 1872, Americans were growing increasingly fearful about the economic effects of Chinese laborers legally entering the United States from China. Of course, worsening this fear was growing concerns that these laborers would not be willing to assimilate into American culture.  This resulted in Congress passing the Page Act of 1875, which limited which Chinese laborers could enter the Union.

This bill actually made sense, because it banned any Chinese person convicted of a felony, any Chinese woman who would engage in prostitution, and any laborer who would participate in forced labor from entering the Union.  The bill was named after it's main sponsor, republican representative Horace F. Page, who said the bill would "end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women."

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 took these restrictions to another dimension, banning all Chinese laborers from legally entering the Union for 20 years. The bill passed Congress by huge margins, but Arthur went against the grain and opposed this bill claiming that the 20-year ban was unreasonable and that the Chinese contributed a great deal to the American economy.  However, he would end up signing the bill after the ban was reduced to 10 years. 

This is considered by many to be the first Federal Immigration Law that excluded certain people from legally entering the United States. 

The Immigration Act of 1882 dealt with laborers coming to America from Europe, often referred to as the "Great Wave."  As life in Europe was changing, many Europeans looked to find better opportunities by immigrating to America. Some of these laborers were desirable, so it was decided that a ban on all European immigration was not a good idea. The Act would end up banning paupers, criminals, and lunatics from entering the United States. 

Garfield's Secretary of Navy, William H. Hunt, advocated for the Navy to be updated. Since the Civil War, the fleet of ships had been depleted from nearly 700 vessels to only 52, and most of these were obsolete. One of the main reasons for this decline is that most of the wars fought after the Civil War were Indian wars in the West, so a huge Navy was not needed. 

Hunt's successor, William E. Chandler, organized an advisory board to prepare a report on modernization. Based on the report, Congress appropriated funds build modern ships. Democrats were opposed to the project, and when they won Control of Congress during the 1882 midterm elections, stopped the funding of more ships. Still, Arthur is often credited with improving the Navy. 

He also pushed for the International Meridian Conference, which established the Greenwich Meridian as an international standard for zero degrees longitude. Another thing he did was sign into law in 1882 the Edmunds Act, which was an anti-Mormon bill that made polygamy illegal. Polygamy remains illegal to this day.

Arthur promised not to run for re-election, and he stood firm to this promise. However, he stood in the running until the republican convention of 1884 when he was not nominated. He died in 1886 of a fatal kidney disease that he probably knew about and kept secret while he was president. 

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