Arthur, Chester A.

Elected Vice President on the Republican ticket of 1880, Arthur became the 21st President of the U.S. upon the assassination of President James A. Garfield.  Today, while Arthur is mainly known for reforming civil service jobs (which had been extremely corrupt), Wikipedia points out more interesting things that President Arthur did:

– As a boy he got into a fistfight with students who supported James K. Polk.

– Arthur became a lawyer.  In an 1854 civil rights case, Arthur was the lead attorney representing Elizabeth Jennings Graham after she was denied a seat on a streetcar because she was black.   He won the case, and the verdict led to the desegregation of the New York City streetcar lines.  (Rosa Parks was not the first.)

– When nominated for the Vice Presidency, he was falsely accused of being Irish, then Canadian, and thus not Constitutionally qualified as a natural-born citizen to be Vice President.  McCain and Obama were not the first.  (And yes, McCain did indeed have “natural-born” issues.)

– Candidates for high office did not personally campaign in those days.  (Wouldn’t that be refreshing?)  However, President Garfield and Vice President Arthur were elected with the largest turnout of qualified voters ever recorded—78.4%.  (Current turnouts for Presidential elections are approximately 50-60%

– For two months after President Garfield was shot America didn’t really have a President.  Garfield was too weak to carry out his duties, and Arthur was reluctant to assume them.

– After Garfield’s death, Arthur became Washington’s most eligible bachelor.  (Hard to imagine, given the rotund portraits of him in our history textbooks.)  Like Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama, President Arthur shielded a daughter (Nell Arthur) from the intrusive press as much as he could.

– Believe it or not, the federal government actually had a budget surplus of $145 million due to Civil War taxes.  Congress tried to reduce revenues by cutting tariffs and to increase spending by passing the 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act.  While Arthur was not opposed to internal improvements, the scale of the bill disturbed him, as did its narrow focus on “particular localities,” rather than projects that benefited a larger part of the nation.  Arthur vetoed the bill because it appropriated funds for purposes “not for the common defense or general welfare, and which do not promote commerce among the States.”  Congress overrode his veto the next day.  (Did no one think to simply refund the extra money to taxpayers?  It is refreshing, though, to see a President properly interpreting the General Welfare Clause.)

– Arthur signed the Immigration Act of 1882, which levied a 50-cent tax on immigrants to the United States, and excluded from entry the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, criminals, or any other person potentially dependent upon public assistance.  (What a change from today, where our borders are much more open, and our government actually uses Spanish ads to teach potential immigrants how to access public assistance!)  In another immigration controversy, Chinese immigrants were taking jobs out West, so Congress tried to violate a treaty with China by limiting their immigration–over Arthur’s objections.  Today Americans complain about Mexicans taking jobs; it seems that the arguments never really change, just the ethnic groups involved.

Today, Arthur is one of the more obscure Presidents, but Mark Twain wrote of him, “[I]t would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”


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