An exhaustive survey of the Presidents of the United States and everything they did wrong while in office.

Nov 5, 2019

Everything Wrong with the Arthur Administration

In foreign affairs, the Arthur administration was as devoid of accomplishment as almost any in American history.

Everything Wrong with the Arthur Administration

Chester Alan Arthur, twenty-first president of the United States, was an accidental chief executive who never aspired to the nation’s highest office.[1] His election as vice president on the Republican ticket in 1880 was the first time he had ever run for public office. Since the end of the Civil War, Arthur remained behind-the-scenes, serving as chief lieutenant to controversial New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, and holding the influential and lucrative patronage post of collector of the New York customs house, where he rewarded political loyalty with jobs in exchange for kickbacks to the political machine. His refusal to implement civil service reforms led President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fellow Republican, to fire Arthur in 1878. When Republican presidential candidate James A. Garfield of Ohio approached him with the offer of the vice presidency because he desperately needed a New Yorker on the ticket, Arthur accepted it as vindication for the humiliation he had suffered at Hayes’ hand.[2]

The thought of Chester Arthur as president of the United States shocked many. His name was synonymous with the corrupt political spoils system of the Gilded Age. Unlike previous vice presidents who remained deep in the background, out of the sight and mind of the public, Vice President Arthur made headlines by siding with his former political master, Senator Roscoe Conkling, and against President Garfield in a nasty dispute over the patronage of the New York custom house. This was probably Arthur’s first serious misstep because it reinforced the public perception of him as a political hack and lacky beholden to one of the most powerful members of the United States Senate. Opinions on the vice president worsened when Charles Guiteau yelled, “I am a stalwart, and Arthur will be president,” after shooting Garfield on July 2, 1881. “Arthur and all those men are my friends,” he told a detective, “and I’ll have you made Chief of Police.”[3]

Arthur journeyed to Washington at the request of the cabinet, but he sensed the suspicion, if not contempt, in the faces he passed. After this unpleasant experience, it is no wonder that he secluded himself from the press and the public as Garfield’s health ebbed and flowed before succumbing to death on September 20, 1881.[4] Nor can it be a surprise that both the public and the political establishment held their breath when the twenty-first president of the United States took the oath of office. Would the republic survive an Arthur administration?

If his contemporaries expected little from him, historians have similarly held Arthur to a diminished standard. They have portrayed him – if they mention him at all – as the former machine politician who made good by ushering in civil service reform, vetoing a bloated pork barrel spending measure, purging himself of his former master, Roscoe Conkling, and initiating a naval construction program.[5] Yet, these were modest, if meaningful, accomplishments. The Pendleton Act applied to fifteen percent of the federal work force, his veto of the Rivers and Harbor Act was overridden, and the naval construction program was greatly limited by a stingy congress. As for Conkling, Arthur nominated him for the United States Supreme Court – an appointment the former senator declined – and, as will be covered below, colluded with him in the 1882 New York state elections.[6]

It is true that Arthur suffered limitations other than his inexperience, lack of vision, and reputation while in office. Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s disease (a fatal kidney ailment) in 1882. The White House never informed the public of the president’s condition. Several incidents treated as food poisoning, bouts of common illness, extended periods of rest or vacations, and long stays at the homes of friends or family were actually attempts to hide the painful flare-ups of Bright’s. In Congress, Arthur had a small Republican majority in the House of Representatives until the Democrats took control following the midterm election. In the Senate, the Republicans had a one vote margin.

***

Signing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was Arthur’s most reprehensible act as president. It is probably the most xenophobic law ever passed in the United States.  

The Workingmen’s Party led by Denis Kearny, himself an immigrant, fanned the flames of anti-Chinese hysteria in California and much of the American West. Relying on the usual immigrant-bashing tropes, these agitators argued that Chinese laborers depressed wages, stole jobs, and rejected American culture. Individual Chinese as well as entire neighborhoods suffered violent attacks and discrimination. Both parties pandered to xenophobia in order to secure California. The elections of 1876 and 1880 were extremely close and California counted among the few swing states in this period. In 1876 the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes carried the state by 2,798 votes. Four years later Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock won California by a miniscule margin of 144 votes.[7] Americans of the east were prone to the same poisonous prejudices as those of the west, even if they had never seen a Chinese person.

In 1879 Congress forwarded a bill banning the immigration of Chinese laborers to President Rutherford B. Hayes. Citing a treaty with China that prevented the United States from placing unnecessary restraints on immigration, Hayes vetoed the legislation. In 1882 a new congress passed a bill excluding Chinese laborers for a period of twenty years and sent it to the new president. Like Hayes, Arthur vetoed it, but added with a wink that a shorter duration would meet treaty obligations and receive a presidential signature. Congress responded with almost unprecedented alacrity and sent a revised bill with a ten-year exclusion to the White House. President Arthur signed it into law on May 6, 1882. In 1884, the Republicans carried California by 13,000 votes, even though they lost the election.[8]

Many in the press praised the president for following a reasonable middle course between two extremes. The more vehement anti-Chinese believed that Arthur and the Republicans had betrayed them for not signing the twenty-year ban. On the other side of the spectrum, liberals of the time, including Julia Sand, Arthur’s mysterious pen pal and self-appointed conscience, condemned the president as a sellout.

Ultimately, the duration of the exclusion was irrelevant. In 1892 Congress renewed the exclusion for another ten years. In 1902 it extended the ban indefinitely. The National Origins Act of 1924 banned all Chinese immigration. Restraints on Chinese immigration were not lessened until World War II.[9] Exclusion of Chinese laborers is another sad example of Americans surrendering to bigotry and denying its professed principles of freedom, liberty, openness, and tolerance. 

***

Presidents are often seen as the party leader during their terms of office and Arthur committed several errors in this capacity that damaged the Republican Party. Possessing little credibility and lacking a strong voting bloc in Congress, Arthur was nearly powerless as a party leader. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from trying.

The Republican Party was divided into two factions, stalwarts and half-breeds. The former supported black civil rights, tariffs, and tended to come from contested urban areas or ones dominated by Democrats; the latter came from more reliably Republican districts, tended to prefer lower tariffs, national unity with the south over black civil rights, and more openness to reform.[10] Arthur’s primary goal was to invigorate the stalwart faction, which had been on a precipitous decline since Ulysses Grant left the White House in 1877. Despite having signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, Arthur freely dispensed patronage — a classic case of obeying the letter but not the spirit of the law. But his palpable lack of power and prestige meant those whom he attempted to influence could disregard his requests after getting what they wanted. His appointments did more to anger and embolden the rival half-breed faction than to empower his stalwarts. Ironically, Arthur’s presidency just about killed what little strength the stalwarts possessed.

His most glaring failure occurred in the 1882 governor’s race in his home state of New York. The president allied with ex-senator Roscoe Conkling and robber baron Jay Gould, of all people, to replace incumbent Governor Alonzo Cornell, a competent and independent-minded public servant, popular with most upstate Republicans, on the state ticket, because he didn’t support the right legislation or patronage appointments. Instead, Arthur backed Secretary of Treasury Charles Folger, a crony and stout stalwart, for the party’s nomination. Gould persuaded enough delegates at the party’s convention in Saratoga to gain Folger’s nomination. Republican rank and file around the state felt betrayed by their leaders, including their president, for selling out the party. The Democrats nominated the little-known mayor of Buffalo, Grover Cleveland. Considering that Garfield and Arthur carried the state by 21,000 votes in 1880 it was an astonishing reversal that Folger lost by almost 200,000 votes just two years later.[11] That his hand-picked candidate suffered a crushing defeat in his home state by the largest margin in New York history to that time, was an obvious rebuke of the president. New York’s Republicans demonstrated their anger by denying their support to Arthur at the 1884 Republican presidential convention. 

The election proved disastrous in another way as well: It put Grover Cleveland, as governor of the most populous state in the nation, on track to becoming his party’s presidential nominee in 1884. Propelled to prominence by his spectacular victory over Folger in a state-wide contest, Cleveland became the next Democrat Party superstar, winning the popular vote in three successive presidential elections between 1884 and 1892. If all this was not bad enough for Arthur, Cleveland, who followed him into the White House in 1885, undid many of Arthur’s foreign policy initiatives.

In an attempt to win over white independents in the South, such as readjuster Senator James Mahone of Virginia, Arthur threw in the towel on the mostly black regular Republican party organizations in former confederacy. Mahone caucused with the Republicans who never felt comfortable cavorting with a former rebel general and debt repudiator, but much was lost, though, for this short-term political gain. Crippled by segregation, voting restrictions, and violence, the black Republican Party organizations faded into electoral irrelevance, and they directed their frustration at Arthur.  It was a disappointing outcome for a former abolitionist who defended the rights of blacks in New York City as a young lawyer in the 1850s, who supported Reconstruction after the war, and who as president in 1883 condemned the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Civil Rights cases.

The Republicans reacted to Arthur’s machinations as party leader and his policies by nominating his arch-rival James G. Blaine for president in 1884. It is not clear if Arthur sought the nomination because he desired it, or if his machinations were a ploy to keep it from Blaine, but in either case, he was unsuccessful.  

Arthur was not one of those presidents blessed by a good economy during his years in office. Instead, the nation slipped into a recession in 1882, just in time for the midterm election. Democrats captured control of the House of Representatives and thwarted most of Arthur’s proposals during the last two years of his term. Nor was a recession the only economic concern at the time. In the late 1870s and early 1880s the subject of a federal budget surplus vexed economists and policy makers because it sucked specie out of circulation when it was most needed. The obvious solution was to reduce federal revenue.

In addition, there was a general fear that the home market could no longer purchase all the goods produced by American factories and farms. With memories of the Great Strike of 1877, they feared a surplus of goods would trigger factory shut downs, layoffs, farm foreclosures, and dangerous social upheaval, if not outright revolution.  

The solution to these conundrums appeared to be increasing exports; trade the excess goods, be it industrial or agricultural, abroad, in exchange for gold. A protective tariff encouraged other nations to retaliate with high rates on American products. Both economists and overstretched consumers favored some sort of reduction to the tariff rates. In his 1882 Annual Message Arthur requested that Congress reduce the tariff.

A stronger president might have taken the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, but both personal inclination and the circumstances that propelled him to the White House determined that Arthur would not be that man. Instead of tackling the thorny issue of tariff reform directly he used a tactic that he had deployed effectively to thwart reform when it raised its troublesome head during his tenure as collector of the port of New York: he appointed a commission. After collecting information from a series of hearings throughout the United States, the commission presented its findings to Congress. They recommended significant changes that could range as high as a hefty twenty-five percent reduction.

Congressmen introduced hundreds of amendments to protect industries important to their districts. Arthur made no effort to pressure lawmakers to hold the line on a reduction to rates. The conference committee produced a complicated bill that cut rates on some items, raised them on others, and moved yet others on or off the free list. The final product bore little resemblance to the proposal that the commission forwarded to the Congress in its final report and it favored manufacturing interests over those of raw materials.[12] Arthur affixed his signature to the “Mongrel Tariff,” in December 1883. The changes amounted to a scant overall cut of less than two percent.

Congress more readily granted Arthur’s requests to cut taxes on bank accounts, luxury goods, and excises. While the federal surplus decreased significantly, it is difficult to distinguish how much of that could be attributed to Arthur’s polices versus what resulted from the recession that depressed the economy at the same time.

***

In foreign affairs, the Arthur administration was as devoid of accomplishment as almost any in American history. Arthur had no experience in foreign affairs, possessed little strategic vision, and lacked the votes in the Senate for ratification. Like his contemporary Gilded Age presidents, his policy vaguely inclined in the imperialist direction, less by grand design than by drift. His one signature contribution, and what biographer Thomas Reeves considered his most important accomplishment, was a modest naval construction and reform program. Stung by their experience with the transcontinental railroad, however, the Congress never supported Arthur’s request to subsidize a federal merchant marine to carry American goods across the seas.

The new president made a clumsy entry on the world stage. Party titan, half-breed leader, and Garfield friend, Secretary of State James G. Blaine steamrolled Arthur into approving and hosting a Pan-American conference to promote intra-continental cooperation and trade. The ultimate aim of the conference was to undercut Great Britain in the Western Hemisphere and extend the economic and political influence of the United States into Central and South America. The strong-willed Blaine – who was a bitter enemy to the new president – argued that Garfield had approved this at the exact moment when Arthur’s every move was calculated to convey a continuity of policies with his slain predecessor.

Arthur appointed Frederick Frelinghuysen, a conservative ex-senator from New Jersey, to be secretary of state following Blaine’s resignation.[13] In January 1882, after further consultation Arthur announced that he would be rescinding invitations to the conference because the European powers strongly objected. Blaine fired off a scathing thirteen-page letter to his former chief that found its way into the pages of the New York Tribune, calling the decision “a voluntary humiliation.”[14] Arthur buckled under the criticism. In March he made another unexpected move and punted the final decision on the conference to Congress. He reasoned that since the legislature requested a conference through a resolution, it was proper for the Congress to make the final decision. Congress never voted on the president’s odd proposal. Finally, in August 1882, after realizing that the Congress would not absolve him of the embarrassment, Arthur officially rescinded the invitations.

Growing overseas markets through reciprocity agreements with other countries was the most coherent aim of the Arthur presidency. Historian George Herring notes that “Reciprocity was the linchpin of Arthur and Frelinghuysen’s foreign trade policy.”[15] Arthur asked Congress to include a reciprocity clause in the tariff bill that would permit the president to negotiate targeted rate reductions with foreign governments in exchange for concessions to American goods without having to secure the Senate’s approval for each agreement. Congress declined to grant the president this power. Reciprocity was the Republican dream solution to the problems of over-production and surplus because, in theory, at least, they could expand trade and keep the protective tariff.  Reciprocity agreements were very far from free trade treaties, which is precisely why anti-tariff and free trade Democrats opposed these agreements in favor of broad, general rate reductions.

      Arthur set about negotiating trade treaties with about a dozen countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Many of these agreements died in the evenly divided Senate. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat from New York whose rise Arthur had inadvertently aided, withdrew the others from senatorial consideration shortly after taking the oath of office in 1885. 

While Arthur balked at exerting the influence of the United States in the Americas, he unexpectedly opened doors in Korea and Africa. Arthur acted in these two areas on opposite sides of the globe not because they fit a masterplan, but because they appeared to him to be easy opportunities to open new markets for American trade.

In 1883 the Senate ratified a treaty with Korea that had been negotiated by Commodore Robert Shufeldt, USN. This agreement granted the United States most favored nation status. Arthur’s diplomats were not in country long before they foolishly backed an unsuccessful coup launched by a pro-modernization faction to overthrow the king of Korea, an opening that Japan and Russia took full advantage of to expand their own growing spheres of influence, putting them on a collision path that would result in war in 1905.

If big dreams came to naught in Korea, a more embarrassing end awaited Arthur’s adventure in Africa. Lured by Belgian King Leopold II’s promises of open markets for American goods in central Africa, Arthur dispatched diplomats to international negotiations in Berlin, Germany to decide the fate of Africa. This unprecedented move generated a great deal of controversy in the United States, especially on Capitol Hill. The Senate received the treaty just days before Arthur’s term ended, and like almost everything else it lacked the votes for ratification. President Cleveland subsequently withdrew the treaty from consideration. As it turned out, Leopold had peddled many lies to the naive American president. Among other things, the king falsely claimed that he had no personal interest in the region and acted for humanitarian purposes, that the Congo region contained rich agricultural land, as well as cities hungry for overseas goods. These proved to be nothing but self-serving lies. In the end Leopold turned the Congo into his own private estate and initiated eight decades of brutal imperial rule which left behind millions of corpses. Even the otherwise sympathetic historian Justus Doenecke wrote of Arthur’s involvement in Congo: “In short, the noble dream of Arthur and Frelinghuysen had turned out to be something of a nightmare, and the United States, if the truth be known, had been party to a swindle.”[16]

In another example of Arthur’s foreign policy reacting to events, as opposed to grand design, Frederick Frelinghuysen opened negotiations with Nicaragua to construct a canal across Central America after a French company concluded an agreement regarding Panama. Once again, the ad hoc nature of Arthur’s policies produced decisions, justifications, and explanations that sometimes contradicted each other, sowed confusion both home and abroad, and demonstrated the amateurish nature of his administration. Democrats, who gained control of the House of Representatives in the 1882 mid-term election, saw it as a crass attempt to maintain a protectionist tariff while dissipating the federal budget surplus on a boondoggle of epic proportions. Traditionalists and anti-imperialists saw it as pseudo-colonial venture contradictory to the history of the United States. The British government strenuously objected that any agreement between the United States and Nicaragua over a canal violated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. The secretary of state tossed out five different rationales for why that treaty was null and void, but these convinced few experts, let alone the British. Other nations in Central America objected to the thought of the United States establishing a military alliance with a neighbor. Nonetheless, in December 1884, Arthur sent the Frelinghuysen-Zavala Treaty to the Congress. With objections over its cost, creation of a fortified American zone of control across Nicaragua, and a pledge to defend a foreign state, it failed to gain ratification before President Grover Cleveland withdrew yet another piece of his predecessor’s handiwork.  

 Critics of American imperialism could certainly applaud the failure of Arthur’s foreign policy. However, the inability of a president to get so many measures through Congress clearly indicates a lack of effectiveness.

*** 

Arthur managed to add one more act that rightly deserves to be accounted as one of the things wrong with him as a president: Before dying of Bright’s disease in 1886, he burned almost all of his personal papers, leaving historians in the dark about his deeds and motives. Instead of letters documenting his actions and decisions, Arthur left posterity scores of receipts for fishing gear and his famously expensive wardrobe, perhaps the one true memorial to a man noted for his vanity and lackluster work ethic.


[1] The best biography of Chester Arthur remains Thomas C. Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). More recent treatments include Gregory J. Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President (New York: Nova, 2007) and Scott S. Greenberger, The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur (New York: DaCapo, 2017).

[2] Arthur was not the first choice, but others declined. Arthur’s eagerness to accept angered Conkling.

[3] Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur, 65-66.

[4] For more on Garfield’s condition and treatment after being shot, see Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (New York: Doubleday, 2011).

[5] The most detailed study of Arthur’s term in office is Justus Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1981).

[6] Conkling wanted to be secretary of the treasury, a position that would have placed the New York customs house in his domain. This was not the first time that Conkling declined an appointment to the Supreme Court. President Ulysses Grant nominated Conkling in 1872. Arthur nominated Samuel Blatchford for the vacant seat on the court.

[7] For vote totals, see David Leip, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, http://uselectionatlas.org (27 Oct 2019). The 1880s Republican showing was likely due to Congressman James A. Garfield’s vote against both Chinese exclusion and the attempt to override the Hayes veto. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Erika Lee, At America’s Gate: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: American and China, 1776 to the Present (New York: Henry Holt, 2016).

[10] Allan Peskin, “Who were the Stalwarts? Who were Their Rivals? Republican Factions in the Gilded Age.” Political Science Quarterly 99 (1984-1985): 703-716.

[11] Leip, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

[12] Charles W. Calhoun, From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 2010), 80.

[13] Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was the only Garfield cabinet officer that Arthur did not replace.

[14] James G. Blaine to Chester A. Arthur, 3 February 1882, reel 2, Chester Alan Arthur Papers, Library of Congress.

[15] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 288.

[16] Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, 162.