Chester Alan Arthur: The Underrated President With Three First Names

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On this date in 1881, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States. Our friend Thomas Sonnenschein is here to honor the underappreciated, overnamed twenty-first president.

Many years ago, in a college trivia tournament, a moderator asked a question: Who is the least-known American president?

The question itself invited more questions. Least known by whom? American historians? The general public? Nepalese monarchs?

And, of course, if the least-known president is well known enough to be the answer of a trivia question, how little known could he be?

It was a conundrum.

The answer the questioner was looking for was Millard Fillmore. But Fillmore, even then, was better known than probably a half-dozen U.S. presidents. The great journalist H.L. Mencken had seized on Fillmore's semi-anonymous mediocrity to give him credit for having installed the first White House bathtub "“ a canard that, more than 80 years after Mencken invented it, is still considered the highlight of the Fillmore administration.

But if any president should have the title "least known," it should be Chester Alan Arthur (pictured), the 21st president, as an extremely informal 2007 Mother Jones survey observed. Whether this survey is accurate or not "“ on a different day with a different polling pool, the conclusion could have favored Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or even the beloved Franklin Pierce, described by a recent biographer as (yes) "the nation's least-known president" "“ the results make more sense. For Chester Alan Arthur, a man with some stunning muttonchop whiskers, may truly be the most anonymous man ever to hold the United States' highest office.

Consider his unlikely career.

Most presidents rise to the office through military fame (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower), Cabinet distinction (John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover) or previous election to high office (most everyone else). Prior to his election as vice-president, Arthur was "¦ the former Collector of the Port of New York.

Indeed, at the time he was nominated, he had returned to practicing law, as he'd been forced out of the Collector's position by President Rutherford B. Hayes in an attempt at reform. (In Arthur's defense, he apparently ran the Customs House more honorably than his often corrupt predecessors.)

He was selected as the vice-presidential nominee during a particularly bitter Republican convention. The party was divided between three groups: the Stalwarts, the Half-Breeds and the Reformers. The Stalwarts were in favor of the post-Civil War Republican hard line and led by Roscoe Conkling, the New York senator and Republican kingmaker with the unbelievably perfect politician's name. The Half-Breeds were the less-radical followers of presidential candidate and senator James G. "The Plumed Knight," "The Man from Maine" Blaine. The Reformers were in favor of ending the spoils system then in force "“ a system favored by the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds.

Oh, and Conkling and Blaine didn't like each other.

The convention went to 36 ballots before finally picking James A. Garfield "“ who started the convention as the campaign manager for another candidate -- as its presidential standard-bearer.

After Garfield's selection, party regulars offered the vice-presidential nomination to Arthur, largely because he was Conkling's right-hand man. Conkling actually urged Arthur to decline the nomination "as you would a red-hot shoe from the forge," since he thought Garfield was a sure loser, but Arthur was adamant: "This is a higher honor than I have ever dreamt of attaining. I shall accept!"

So, who was this mysterious man with the three first names?

Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, on October 5, 1829, the son of a preacher man. (Sources are not entirely clear on his birth; he may have been born in 1830, and he may have been born in Canada, but that's a discussion for another time.) He grew up in Perry, New York, and graduated from that Schenectady's Union College in 1848. After a few years as a school principal, he earned his law degree and moved to New York City. Among his cases was a lawsuit that ended desegregation of public transit in New York.

During the Civil War, he was quartermaster of the State of New York, and after another stint practicing law, President Grant "“ who Arthur had supported strongly in 1868 -- appointed him Collector in 1871, a position Arthur held for seven years.

Despite Arthur's bona fides, he was viewed as Conkling's man. Garfield didn't think much of his running mate. (Apparently, neither did the news media of the time; The New York Times said Arthur was "about the last man who would be considered eligible" for the presidency.)

However, Arthur "“ or, more precisely, Conkling "“ may have made a difference in November, as Garfield won the presidency by less than 10,000 votes in the popular count, and 214 to 155 in the Electoral College. Had New York gone Democratic "“ it favored Garfield by just 20,000 votes -- we'd be talking about the administration of Winfield Scott Hancock.

Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. He spent his first months in office trying to find a middle ground between the Republican forces that had helped put him there. (Among his moves: naming Blaine Secretary of State.)

And then, tragedy. Or, if your name was Chester Alan Arthur, opportunity.

Garfield's first months in office turned out to be his only months in office. On July 2, 1881, only four months after beginning his term, he was shot by the most famous disgruntled office-seeker in American history, Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield died 10 weeks later, and Arthur was sworn in as president on September 20, 1881. He was 51 years old. Legend has it that a Republican friend, upon hearing the news, said, "Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!"

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[Image courtesy of Slags House of Stats.]

No doubt, Conkling thought he'd now control the presidency. Moreover, Conkling's opponents, the Half-Breeds, probably thought the same thing. Instead, Arthur managed to rise above both factions, firing Garfield's entire cabinet, including Blaine (only secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln kept his job) and coming out in favor of ending the spoils system, which he'd previously supported. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established the bipartisan Civil Service Commission.

Arthur was also key in helping to establish the modern American navy.

He did have his faults, however. A dandy "“ he was known as both "the Gentleman Boss" and "Elegant Arthur," which was saying something in Gilded Age America "“ he asked Louis Tiffany to redecorate the White House in the style to which he was accustomed, which resulted in previous generations of White House furniture being sold or destroyed. (Arthur, a widower who had lost his wife in 1880, requested Tiffany's work himself; it cost $30,000, quite a sum in 1881.) He also signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an anti-immigrant law that wasn't repealed until World War II.

In general, however, Arthur was thought of highly. Even the cynical Mark Twain observed, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration." (He wasn't joking.)

But the Republicans remained mistrustful, and though Arthur didn't campaign actively for the 1884 nomination "“ he was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment that would kill him two years later "“ the party nominated his old rival Blaine instead. To this day, Arthur is the last sitting president pursuing re-election to be denied his party's nomination.

Nevertheless, his place in American history is secure. Perhaps the next time someone asks the name of the least-known president in American history, the answer won't be Chester Alan Arthur. He'll have earned far too much distinction for that. One could do worse than the president with three first names.

Thomas Sonnenschein is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Come back Monday for an extra special Chester A. Quiz.

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