[Abridged] Presidential Histories

21.) Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885

October 25, 2021 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
21.) Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885
Show Notes Transcript

Chester A. Arthur is the most corrupt politician to ever become president. For years, he made a fortune making sure enough money disappeared from the New York City customs house to keep his patron in power. When a backroom deal made him vice president and an assassin's bullet ended James Garfield's presidency and began Arthur's, the nation despaired. But then he got an unexpected letter. One woman - a woman he'd never met - believed he was capable of change. Could Arthur complete the most unexpected transformation in presidential history? Or was American democracy about to be sold to the highest bidder?

Follow along as Arthur goes from inspiring Civil Rights lawyer to not-so-inspiring corrupt political crony, to Vice President, to the White House and ponder the age old question - can people change?

1. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur – Scott S. Greenberger
2. Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard
3. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
4. Grover Cleveland – Henry F. Graff
5. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands

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21.) Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885

Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 21, Chester Arthur, the dude president. 


In September, 1881, as president James Garfield lay slowly dying from an assassin’s bullet, Chester A. Arthur, the vice president of the united States, and a notoriously corrupt lieutenant to New York party boss Roscoe Conkling, received a letter from a woman he’d never met, and never spoken to before.

It read, in part

“The hours of Garfield's life are numbered – before this meets your eye, you may be President. The people are bowed in grief; but – do you realize it? – not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor. 

“Your kindest opponents say 'Arthur will try to do right' – adding gloomily – 'He won't succeed, though. Making a man President cannot change him.'…But making a man President can change him! 

“You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, school boys will recite your name in the list of presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose….”

Today, we get to be posterity. And we get to examine that unasked question that’s at the heart of this letter – Can people change?

Or will the death of Garfield usher in an era of unchecked corruption on a scale never before seen?

Get ready for the deepest dive yet into the seedy underbelly of 19th century politics – the life and presidency of Chester A. Arthur.


-- INTRO –


Chester A. Arthur was born October 5, 1829, along the Canadian border in Fairfield Vermont. Or was he? First fun fact, Arthur will later lie about what year he was born to appear younger, because he’s kind of vain like that, and his Democratic rivals will claim he’s lying about the year he was born to hide the fact that he was secretly born in Canada, and therefor ineligible to be president! Yeah! That’s right. Chester Arthur is our first example of birtherism in American politics. There’s zero proof that this allegation is true, but yeah, we might have had a Canadian president. 

Arthur’s tomb, by the way, has his fake date of birth, and not his real one.

Ahhh, vanity.

Anyway. Let’s stick with the official line – Arthur was born on the American side of the Canadian border in 1829 to an abolitionist Baptist preacher and his wife. 

Now if you’re thinking, Arthur’s father was an abolitionist preacher in the north, he must be preaching to the choir! He was not. Back in the 1830’s, abolitionism hadn’t caught on with the north yet. Back then, abolitionists were actually despised on both sides of the mason-dixon line. They were seen as radicals who threatened to upend the harmony between the states. Arthur’s family would be run out of more than one town by angry mobs during Arthur’s childhood and I have to wonder what impact this had on Arthur, because, when he gets older, there are times he’ll show commendable backbone, and there are times he will absolutely not.

In 1853, When Arthur was 24, he moved to New York City to become a lawyer. 

His biggest legal moment came two years later in 1855, when the now 26-year-old Arthur was assigned to a case that’s basically the Rosa Parks of 19th century new York City.

In this case, a young African American woman named Elizabeth Jennings Graham was running late to church one day when she tried to hail a street car. Back then, New York street cars were segregated, but instead of waiting for a car that had a “colored persons allowed” sign in the window, but she tried to board a whites-only street car. When the conductor and driver saw an African-american woman boarding their whites-only street car, roughly grabbed her and basically threw her back out on the street, and it sounds like there was quite a struggle over it. Jennings-Graham sued the driver and streetcar company for $500 over this denial of service and Arthur was hired to represent her in court, and he apparently did a pretty good job because he won the case and helped put into motion the desegregation of New York’s streetcar industry.

Which is pretty dang cool. But if you’re thinking this son of an abolitionist preacher is about to go shake things up and lead an inspiring, progressive life in the defense of Civil liberty. Well. That part of his life pretty much ends right here. And it ends for totally unanticipated reasons.

A year after the Jennings-Graham case, Arthur met, fell in love with, and got engaged to a woman named Ellen Herndon – or Nell for short. And her family was a bunch of slave owners in Virginia. But before marrying Nell, Arthur decided to move to the Kansas territory … right at the height of bleeding Kansas, which, you may remember from episodes 14 and 15 on Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Bleeding Kansas was basically a mini civil war between abolitionists and slave-owners in Kansas in the years leading up to the actual Civil War.

And it’s not like Arthur didn’t’ know Kansas was in bad shape. It was in all the papers. Everybody knew. But Kansas also had all these promoters in New York downplaying it and trying to sell folks on moving west. I like to think of these guys as really sleezy used car salesmen – sure the paint’s peeling and it’s actually blood, but there’s not a finer territory in the union for young man to find his fortune! So Arthur was convinced, and he moved west in search of opportunity for a young lawyer like himself.

When Arthur arrived in Kansas, he quickly learned it was every bit as dangerous as the newspapers had said. People were being murdered, he was given a gun for his own protection, and he might have been starting to think this whole thing was a big mistake when a tragedy in the Atlantic called him back East – His fiancé, Nell’s, father had drowned at sea, and his drowning kind of helped cause one of the biggest economic downturns of the 19th century.

You see, Nell’s father wasn’t just anybody. He was the captain of the SS Central America, a large passenger ship that sailed the second leg of the California-to-Panama-to-New York journey that was how most Americans got from the California goldmines back to the Atlantic Seaboard, because this is also still the era of the California Gold Rush. During this particular journey, the ship was sailing from Panama to New York loaded with something like 30,000 pounds of California gold, worth half a billion dollars today – Gold that was desperately needed by New York banks. When a storm came out of the blue and took the ship and its captain down with it, the shock of losing all that gold helped tank the nation’s economy – this is the Panic of 1857 we briefly mentioned in Buchanan’s episode. New York City was especially hard hit by this disaster, So Arthur was urgently needed back East to help Nell’s family weather the shock of his would-be father-in-law drowning and the nation’s economy going belly up.

Arthur spent the next few years trying to navigate this economic crisis by building a New York City law career and dipping his toe in New York politics. I get the sense that it occurred to him that the friends he could make in politics might improve his law prospects, so he signed up for the local militia, which was basically a friendly political drinking club around that time. The New York Governor, Edwin Morgan, soon caught attention of him and decided the tall, handsome republican lawyer would look good in his honor guard, so he got promoted there! An entirely meaningless position with no real responsibility or demands.

Until the Civil War broke out three months later.

Days after the seceding states fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called on the remaining loyalist states to raise 75,000 militia to save and restore the union. Suddenly, the militia was not just some pretty boy’s drinking club anymore. Leaders were needed to staff and organize it and turn it into a fighting force. Governor Morgan looked to Arthur, in his fancy honor guard uniform, and named him the state quartermaster general’s New York City representative, which was responsible for feeding, clothing, equipping, and sheltering all the union soldiers who passed through New York City. Arthur did well enough to quickly get promoted to the role of state quartermaster general – responsible for the entire state – and that’s about when Arthur lost his way. 

Ok, let’s slow down a moment and take a big step back; the civil war caused government spending to swell from roughly $52 million a year in the 1850’s to 1.2 billion dollars a year in 1864 - a 25-times increase – and that’s only the UNION’s spending.

And this rise was rapid and sudden. We went from a standing army of 16,000 soldiers in 1860 to more than 75,000 Union volunteers in April, 1861, to a million union soldiers at the end of the war. A lot of money needed to be spent quickly, a lot of contracts had to be issued quickly, and nobody had time to do the due diligence they would have done in peacetime. Soldiers needed guns NOW, soldiers needed food NOW, soldiers needed clothes NOW. Sign those contracts YESTERDAY and let’s sort out the graft tomorrow.

And so all the contracts got signed, and then there was a lot of graft to sort out. You know the term “shoddy clothing?” That actually dates back to the civil war. “Shoddy” is the name for a type of low-quality cloth that basically melts in the rain, and corrupt businessmen were selling uniforms made of that “shoddy material” instead of wool to boost their profits. Which meant some soldiers were marching into war wearing clothes that disintegrated when it got wet.

As New York quartermaster general, one of Arthur’s jobs was to prevent this kind of graft and make sure the boys in blue were well taken-care of. But. Wellll. If you could make it worth his while, he might look the other way. And if you could really make it worth his while, he might just help you cover up your criminal enterprise.

The best example of this was a New York hat-maker named Thomas Murphy. Murphy made shoddy hats. And he made a lot of money making shoddy hats. And he got into trouble for making shoddy hats. But when Murphy was called in front of Congress to answer for his shoddy hats, he had an ally in Chester Arthur, who lobbied on his behalf so successfully that not only did Murphy face no consequences for his war profiteering, he got elected to the New York State Senate after the war with Arthur as his affable and well-dressed right-hand man.

Arthur proved so adroit at attaching himself to powerful and corrupt men after the war that he never wanted for work or money. We’ve already seen himself ingratiate himself to governor Morgan and now state-senator Murphy. He also latched onto the infamous Boss Tweed, who ran New York’s Tameny Hall, a powerful political machine that controlled state politics. Now Tweed was actually a Democrat, but he nurtured a few Republicans across the aisle to expand his influence and Arthur was one of his disciples. Tweed made sure Arthur got a job as Counsel to the New York City tax commission that, well, nobody was really sure what work the position actually required, but it paid $10,000 a year – or $165,000 dollars in 2021.

Arthur’s most fortuitous connection, though, came around 1870, when he came into the orbit of rising New York senator Roscoe Conkling.

We’ve heard of Conkling a lot by now. He first came up in our episode on Grant, though not by name – he was Grant’s floor manager at the 1880 convention who so offended delegates with his arrogance that he ended up losing Grant’s bid for a third term – which will become really important later this episode and we will come back to this. Conkling played an even bigger role in our last two episodes on Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield, when he was the primary antagonist standing in the way of their attempts to clean corruption and patronage out of the government. This guy made his hay on getting people appointed to lucrative government jobs and then demanding they and their employees pay him kickbacks in favors or dollars to show their appreciation, and he used those kickbacks to elect stooges who were then loyal to him to enhance his political strength. Conkling will do just about anything to protect the old patronage system he built his empire on.

So, ok, you get it, Conkling’s really corrupt. But that still isn’t really paint a good enough picture of him. In an era when nobody worked out, Conkling was a boxer, and his hair and beard? Woah, you need to google a picture of this guy. Needless to say, whenever Conkling entered a room, that room was his. He dominated attention.

And he knew he had this power over people. And he flaunted it wickedly. It was an open secret in Washington D.C. that Conkling was sleeping with the wife of one of his fellow senators – a woman who also happened to be the daughter of a sitting justice on the supreme court. That’s, like, Animal Kingdom stuff.

In short, Conkling is the kind of guy who will pee on your leg and tell you it’s raining and you’ll say, sir yes sir.

And his top lieutenant will be Chester Arthur.

And that starts around 1870.

In 1870, Boss Tweed, that guy who runs Tammany Hall, was getting old. And it was an open question, who would replace him as the most powerful man in New York. And that’s when Conkling saw an opportunity. Remember Thomas Murphy, the shoddy hat guy? He’d just lost his seat in the state senate, so Tweed wanted to appoint him Customs Inspector for the port of New York – the most powerful patronage position in the country. Whoever holds this role can direct a ton of money to the political boss of their choosing. But here’s the thing – everyone in Congress remembered how corrupt Murphy was. They remembered the shoddy hat thing. So they tried to block his appointment. And that’s when Conkling realized, if I come to Murphy’s rescue, Murphy will be in my debt, and then all that money that flows through the customs house will go to me, and I’ll be king of New York.

So Conkling and Arthur went to bat for Murphy. They convinced president Grant to nominate Murphy, and then they overcome senate opposition to Murphey’s appointment when Senator Conkling basically dropped an oppo file of research on opposition’s ringleader during a speech on the senate floor. By 1871, Murphy was running the customs house, Boss Tweed had effectively retired, and Roscoe Conkling was the most powerful man in New York State politics, with Arthur as his right-hand man.

And things got better for Arthur from there.

Murphy continued to be corrupt, and he was just a bit too obvious about it all, so Congress finally forced his resignation in late 1871. BUT, President Grant let Murphy name his own successor.

And who else would Murphy name but his old surrogate and enabler, Chester A. Arthur.

On Dec. 1, 1871, Arthur took over as the New York Customs House Collector, transforming him into one of the most powerful political appointees in the country.

So let’s talk more about the New York Customs House Collector and why it was such a powerful position.

In 1871, 90% of all international trade between the United States and the rest of the world passed through the port of New York City. And when a ship arrived at port, the captain had to pay a fee to unload his goods. These fees made up something like 70-90% of the country’s entire import duties. But sometimes that payment took a while to sort out, and dock space was precious, so the city would put the ship’s goods in a warehouse and watch out for them while the payment was sorted. 

And that’s about when it became typical for 5-25% of a ship’s former cargo to go missing. Oops. But hey, you can buy stuff just like it from the custom house employees if you know a guy.

So, ok, we’re outright stealing a lot of stuff here. But why steal what you can legally take? Or, well, kind of legally. There are all sorts of fines port employees can assess and collect from international merchants. Some are legitimately owed, which is great! Some … were not. And Arthur, as collector, was compensated with a cut of every fee levied. This extra income pushed Arthur’s compensation to 50,000 1871 American dollars – equivalent to more than one million 2021 dollars. Arthur was paid more than Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, or the president. He made 5X what the vice president made. Arthur was the highest paid official in the entire U.S. government. And he earned this money in a job that allowed him to show up late, leave early, and spend his nights drinking and smoking cigars in fancy back-room clubs.

He was having fun.

But there’s more. Conkling and Murphy trusted Arthur in this role because they knew he’d keep the money flowing back to Conkling’s political machine. For example, under Arthur there were some Customs House employees whose jobs basically existed only on paper. They showed up to collect their paycheck, but never did any actual work, and I’ll give you one guess who they handed some of that paycheck money off to. Arthur and the Conkling machine. Even the most honest employees were made part of the machine, as Arthur made sure that every custom house employee knew 5% of each check was owed back to the party. When laws were passed to stop this, Arthur laughed them off. When a childhood friend asked to be exempt from this corrupt act, Arthur tried to just deduct the money without telling him.

As that friend later said, the New York Republican Party had become, quote, “a mere stalking horse for as corrupt a band of varlets as ever robbed a public treasury.”

But, well, Arthur couldn’t keep ahead of the law forever.

In 1874, Arthur’s men finally bit a dog that was big enough to bite back when they tried to shake down a prestigious global shipping firm. They told the firm it owed $200,000 in unpaid fees, which the firm paid. But when the firm performed an audit to figure out how the heck it had underpaid its dues by $200,000 … it found it had actually only owed $1,664.68. You know, $198,000 less than what Arthur’s men had shaken them down for. Then, because this was a big-time shipping firm with big-time political friends, the firm asked Congress to get involved and a reform bill was passed that limited Arthur’s salary to a fixed amount that was a quarter what it had been before.


It also put Arthur squarely on the radar of civil service reformers.

When Rutherford B Hayes became president in 1877, he went right after Arthur. We covered this in episode 19 on Hayes, so I’ll be brief here. 

Shortly after becoming president, Hayes asked Arthur to resign. Arthur said no, because Conkling wanted to put up a fight. Hayes then tried to nominate a replacement for Arthur who he could squeeze through Congress – Theodore Roosevelt Senior, father of future president Theodore Roosevelt Jr. But Conkling successfully blocked Roosevelt Sr.’s appointment until Roosevelt died of cancer, possibly exasperated by the stressful confirmation fight.

The defeat and death of Roosevelt Sr. was not the defeat of Hayes, though, and Hayes eventually used the powers of the presidency to replace Arthur with another man via a recess appointment when the Senate was out of session in 1878. 

A recess appointment, in case you’re not familiar, is when the president appoints someone while Congress is out of session, and they get to serve on an interim basis until Congress confirms or denies them.

So Hayes won! And our man Chet was out of office. But don’t shed any tears for Arthur. He landed on his feet. Arthur was still Conkling’s right hand man, and that made him one of the most powerful New York republicans not named Conkling. Life was dandy.

Until…. His wife got sick.

In 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell, who it kind of seems like he’d neglected when he got swept up in the Conkling machine, caught a cold that turned into Pneumonia. Realizing he might lose his wife, Arthur suddenly remembered how much she meant to him – and this appears to be sincere. After years of taking her for granted, Arthur was being reminded of how important Nell was to him when he realized she might be taken away.

And then he lost her.

Nell died on January 12, 1880, at the age of 42, survived by Arthur and two of their children. Arthur was shellshocked. He was entirely distraught. And it appears he may have blamed his focus on his career and his neglect of Nell as causes of her death.

So, Arthur may have had a lot on his mind just a few months later when he rode into the 1880 GOP Presidential Convention with his boss, Lord Roscoe, on a mission to reelect Ulysses S. Grant, who would presumedly restore Conkling’s control of the New York City Customs House.

Ok, so, as we talked about in episode 20 on President Garfield, this convention did not go as planned for Lord Roscoe. After basically being a shmuck to everybody, Conkling was unable to lift Grant across the finish line. After 35 ballots of Grant leading the crowd, the convention abruptly swung behind James Garfield, who won on the 36th ballot despite not even being a candidate and protesting he didn’t want the job.

In the hours after Garfield’s shocking win, republican leaders realized they had a major problem on their hands. Lord Roscoe was pissed, and if he didn’t deliver New York State for Garfield in the general election, you could probably kiss the white house goodbye. Party power brokers tried to consolidate Conkling by asking him to name anyone he wanted to the vice presidency, but he rebuffed them, so they went to Arthur, the loyal lieutenant of Conkling, and asked him, “How would you like to be vice president?”

Arthur was flabbergasted. Him? Vice President? He’d never been elected to anything! The only political office he’d ever held, New York Port Commissioner, had been taken away when he’d been too gosh-darn corrupt. And now, they wanted to make him vice president?

He said yes.

When Arthur told Conkling, Lord Roscoe blew his top. “You should drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge,” Conkling was a fighter. He had no interest in compromise. But, for maybe the first time in his life, Arthur stood up to him.

“The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” he said. “In a calmer moment, you will look at this differently.”

It would take a while, but Arthur was right.

National reaction to Arthur’s nomination was generally negative and the GOP had to go into damage control. 

One prominent periodical wrote, “It is true General Garfield, if elected, may die during his term in office, but this is too unlikely a contingency to be worth making extraordinary provision for.”


Despite Democratic attacks on Arthur’s history of corruption, and a bit of 19th century birtherism – this is when Arthur gets accused of being a secret Canadian, the horror!  – Garfield and Arthur defeated their democratic rivals to win the presidency in 1880.

And then … relations between Arthur and Garfield began to drop off a cliff.

It started a few weeks before inauguration day. Arthur was giving a very drunk speech to an equally drunk crowd where he strongly suggested the GOP had won Indiana with bought votes. The only thing that seemed to stop him from outright confessing it is that he noted that journalists were in the room so maybe a full confession wasn’t the best idea right now. Those journalists of course printed the whole thing, and this ticked Garfield off something fierce when he read it in the morning paper.

Then, when Garfield was putting together his cabinet, Conkling and Arthur tried to twist his arm into getting what they wanted. Forget the New York Customs house. That’s small fries now. Conkling wanted control of the U.S. Treasury – imagine what Conkling could do if he controlled the Treasury Department – and Garfield wasn’t playing ball. Conkling sent Arthur to lean on cabinet nominees and encourage them to quit Garfield’s administration to prove to Garfield that Conkling wasn’t to be taken lightly. And then Arthur gave damaging interviews to the press in which he trashed Garfield publicly.

Garfield was so hurt and offended he banned his vice president from entering the white house. Yikes!

In the end, Conkling’s own hubris did him in. In a really foolish attempt to show how powerful he was, Conkling shocked the senate by announcing his resignation, because he was convinced the New York state senate would reelect him and send him back to Washington D.C. Which would prove he had the peoples backing in this fight with Garfield over cabinet and custom house nominees. But instead of reelecting Conkling, they didn’t reelect him. Conkling’s political career appeared over. Conkling and Arthur met in New York to discuss what to do.

And then, shocking news from D.C. – President Garfield had been shot!

It’s hard to say who was more stunned by the assassination, Arthur or the nation. Because Arthur was super freaked out. When Garfield finally died, Arthur’s ascension was derided by most as a tragedy. Did this mean Conkling would rule the U.S. and usher in a new era of rampant corruption? Had Lord Roscoe won?


AND SO, on Sept. 19, 1881, 51-year-old Chester A Arthur, the one of the most brazenly corrupt and unqualified men to ever reach the white house, was sworn in as the 21st president of the United States at his home in New York City.

Let’s take a look at the world and nation he inherited.

Internationally, colonization fever is live and well in Europe once again. Centuries earlier, the target of that fever had been the Americas – I’m talking north and south America, Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, and others, colonization. But, by the late 19th century, the Americas had largely kicked the Europeans out. Now, the apple of Europe’s eye was Africa. Over the next 20 years, Europe is going to go from having a handful of mostly small colonies in Africa to partitioning and exploiting the whole damn thing.

The so-called “race for Africa” is on.

Domestically, the United States was experiencing some major growing pains. As the federal government grew and subsidized more development projects, like continental railroads, that spending had invited more graft and corruption. The industrial revolution was transforming cities while making the rich richer and the poor poorer. In the south, Reconstruction had ended in 1877, and the white powerbrokers were strangling minority rights as they slowly ushered in an era of Jim Crow racial apartheid. 

On top of all that, the nation was reeling from the assassination of James Garfield, a president who so many had hoped could tackle the nation’s troubles and set them right.

The country feared the administration of Chester A. Arthur, a man who many were certain would indulge in the worst natures of American society.

In this swirling milieu of anxiety and dread, Arthur received the letter I read from at the top of the show.

“The hours of Garfield's life are numbered – before this meets your eye, you may be President. The people are bowed in grief; but – do you realize it? – not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor.”

The author of that letter was Julia Sand, one of the most fascinating women I’ve encountered in researching this podcast. Julia Sand was the 8th daughter of a successful German immigrant and businessman in New York City. She was also an invalid, due to crippling spinal pain, and an avid reader and follower of politics.

When Garfield lay dying, Sand began writing to Chester Arthur. The first letter was seven pages long. You’ve heard how it began. It ended, “Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest of aims.

“You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, school boys will recite your name in the list of presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose….”

Julia Sand would write at least 23 letters to Chester Arthur and basically advise him through the course of his presidency. Every issue we’re going to talk about from the years of his administration, there’s a letter from Julia advising him on what to do, and it’s usually pretty good advice. I don’t know if Julia deserves the full credit for what happened next, but I like to think that her belief in Arthur’s ability to change had something to do with what’s coming.

When Garfield had died, Arthur had been every bit as distraught and overwhelmed as the rest of the country. Sure, he’d known the vice presidency put him a heartbeat away from the presidency, but he never thought anything would actually happen to Garfield!

When a reporter arrived at Arthur’s house the night of Garfield’s death to ask for a statement on future plans, Arthur’s valet said, “I daren’t ask him. He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child, with his head on his desk and his face buried in his hands. I dare not disturb him.”

The shocked Arthur settled slowly into the presidency. He initially kept on Garfield’s cabinet and promised to continue Garfield’s legacy, but nobody believed he was sincere. After a few weeks, Roscoe Conkling decided it was time to give his lieutenant a visit. On October 8, he met with Arthur and demanded Chet make Conkling his Secretary of state and then fire Garfield’s New York City Customs House collector and appoint a Conkling man so they could get that money flowing again.

And then Arthur said no.

And Conkling lost it.

Conkling roared at Arthur. He called Arthur a traitor, and probably much worse, but Arthur refused to budge, later saying, “For the vice presidency, I was indebted to Mr. Conkling. But for the presidency of the United States, my debt is to the almighty.”

But still the nation was nervous. Ok, so Arthur hadn’t turned belly up to Conkling’s demands this one time, but surely he would soon, right? He’d always been a Conkling man.

But Arthur didn’t wilt! Steadied, perhaps, by a reliable stream of Julia Sand letters, Arthur gave a state of the union address in December, 1881, where he surprised the nation by calling for sincere Civil Service reform. And then he surprised the country again by actually getting it passed two years later – and this was a serious bill. The Pendleton Civil Service bill, named for the Senator who introduced it, introduced competitive exams, promotions based on merit and competition, a ban on forcing employees to contribute money or time to political causes, and more. Nobody would ever again be able to use the New York Customs House to fuel a political machine strong enough to rival the powers of the president.

In 1882, a lifetime position on the Supreme Court came open when one of the justices retired. And Arthur, perhaps deciding he owed his presidency at least a little bit to Conkling, nominated his old boss to seat. And if you’re thinking, Wait! No! We can’t let someone as corrupt as Conkling onto the Supreme Court! Don’t worry. Conkling’s hubris got the better of him again. He won confirmation in the senate, but then rejected the seat! This guy is just crazy.

Conkling would never again play a major role on the national political scene. He’d make a fortune practicing law in New York, instead, where he’d die in 1888 after ignore everyone’s advice by attempting to walk home through the Great Blizzard of 1888, collapsing, contracting pneumonia, and dying three weeks later. If you visit New York’s Madison Square Park, you can find Lord Roscoe’s statue standing there, looking down on you in disdain.

In addition to civil service reform, two other major events occurred during Arthur’s presidency: The Chinese exclusion act, and the supreme court’s strike down of the all-important Civil Rights Act of 1875.

First, the Chinese exclusion act. Hostility toward Asian immigrants had been growing in the west for some time. It’s the same story you always hear, established Americans were afraid new arrivals would take their jobs by working for lower wages, and they feared the newcomers’ culture, which was strange and alien to them. Both political parties badly wanted to win the support of western states, so politicians of all stripes worked together to put a Chinese Exclusion act on Arthur’s desk that would implement a 20-year ban on Chinese immigration.

A similar bill had been sent to Hayes four years earlier and vetoed. Now, in 1882, Arthur vetoed it again, but this time Congress was more persistent. When a rewritten bill was sent that shortened the 20-year ban to a 10-year ban, Arthur caved and signed it.

And this is… big. Because this is the first time in American history that we ever put broad restrictions on immigration. For the first 106 years of our history, from the founding fathers through the age of Jackson, and the Civil War, we had never federally restricted immigration. And here, in the Gilded age, we passed our first limits.

They would not be the last.

They also would not come without a terrible cost.

Perhaps taking the exclusion act as tacit approval, violence against Asian Americans in the west spiked after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Riots, murders, expulsions, you name it. On Nov. 3, 1885, the city of Tacoma Washington force-marched its entire Asian community out of the city, seizing any property they left behind. On Sept. 30, 1885, at least 28 Chinese men were murdered at Rock Springs Wyoming, simply for being Chinese. It’s a tragic reminder that sometimes the symbolism of acts reach beyond the letter of the law in their cost and consequences.

The other great setback of Arthur’s presidency was one he was merely a sad spectator to. On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court of the United States, in an 8-1 ruling, gutted the 1875 Civil Rights Bill that had been passed to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and protect the rights of African Americans and other minorities in the united states. The 1875 bill had barred the owners of inns, restaurants, railroads, and other public facilities from discriminating against African Americans, and it was now gone. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress does not have the power to safeguard the rights of blacks against private individuals, which is totally crazy and worlds apart from the stance the supreme court holds today.

I have to say, this is one of the most bullcrap Supreme Court rulings in American history. And Chester Arthur thought so, too. He used his next state of the union to urge congress to pass new legislation to protect the freedmen, vowing to support any “right privilege, and immunity of citizenship” that it would pass, but Congress dithered. And without action from Congress, Arthur was powerless to do anything about the defeat of the 1875 Civil Rights Act than lament the fate of the freedmen, who would increasingly be oppressed as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Arthur declined to seek reelection in 1884. Only a select few knew it at the time, but Arthur was dying. He’d been diagnosed with Brights Disease just two years earlier, an inflammation of blood vessels to the kidneys that was nearly always fatal. He knew his days were numbered.

Arthur left office in 1885 and lingered for less than two years more. He was largely an invalid these final years, bound to his home and rarely seen in public. With his mortality bearing down on him, he became concerned about his legacy, so, the day before his death, he ordered the great majority of his personal papers and records burned.

On Nov. 18, 1886, Arthur suffered a stroke in the middle of the night and was found partially paralyzed and unable to speak in the morning. He died the next day, reportedly with a smile on his lips. His doctor later said, “I believe that he knew he was dying, and I think he was glad the time had come.”

Ok, so how had the country, and the world changed during the almost-four years of the Arthur administration.

Internationally, that colonization of Africa I mentioned earlier was off to a booming start as Great Britain conquered and occupied Egypt after the three-month Anglo-Egyptian War in 1882. But the colonization of these years was not limited to Africa. Over in Southeast Asia, France conquered and colonized the east coast of Indochina. An area you know by the name Vietnam. This occupation will not go well for the Vietnamese people. We’ll hear more about Vietnam in about 80 years or so.

In the United States, a group of men led by Walter Camp were tinkering with the rules to a new game they were working on. It was kind of like Rugby, but each team was limited to 11 players on the field at a time, you had to line up along a line of scrimmage before each play, and there were goal lines instead of nets. They called it football. You might have heard of it.

Over in New York, Arthur was present for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 - the largest bridge in the world to that point.

But the even crazier new invention might have been Time zones. That’s right, time zones. Up to this point, every town and locality kept its own time basically based on how the sun passed through that town. Whenever the sun was directly ahead, that’s when high noon was. 

But, when train companies began to form and grow, local time wasn’t good enough anymore. How do you schedule trains – trains that are often traveling opposite directions on a single track – when every origin and destination is keeping different time? After enough of these trains crashed into each other, each company started keeping its own time, but that didn’t fully solve the problem, because there were 50 train companies each keeping their own times now. Some cities had clocks with multiple of hands on them to show the time according to any of the various train companies that served their rail depots. The train companies finally came together to implement the modern four-zone time zone system on Nov. 18, 1883, at noon, a system of time keeping we still live under today.

So, bam, we have time zones in the narrative now.

The last chapter of Arthur’s story actually occurred decades after his death. In 1937, a grandson of Arthur inherited the former presidents’ surviving papers. As he looked through them, he found a special envelope that contained 23 letters written by a woman nobody had ever heard of. The woman was Julia Sand. The grandson put out newspaper ads to try to find the mysterious woman, and a nephew of Julia Sand reached out. The nephew told Arthur’s grandson that he knew about Julia and Arthur’s correspondence because the nephew had been at Julia’s house one day in 1882 when president Arthur unexpectedly visited to meet with Julia and talk to her. As far as we know, it is the only time they ever met, and the only time he ever contacted her, for there is no record of Arthur ever writing back.

The nephew revealed that Julia had lived to be 83 years old before dying in 1933. Few ever knew that she’d once been a secret advisor to a president.

Ok, so what lessons can we learn from the life and administration of Chester A. Arthur? This might be my favorite one yet, and it’s that people can change. We can always be better leaders, more ethical leaders, more empathetic leaders. Nobody wanted to give Arthur the benefit of the doubt. Folks were bailing on him left and right. But at least one person out there did believe in him, wrote him some letters, and, as a result, Arthur, one of the most corrupt men to ever reach the presidency, became the first president to take major, successful steps to clean up corruption in the civil service. So way to go, Chet. I dig that story.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur, Scott S. Greenberger

In our next episode, I’ll interview Scott Greenberger about Arthur’s journey from Conkling croney to the president who implemented Civil Service reform.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.