“Gentlemen Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur” by Thomas C. Reeves Review

Gentlemen Boss

Gentlemen Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur

Author:  Thomas C. Reeves

Published:  1975

That in politics he is given to schemes that are the next thing to trickery, that he believes it right and honorable to use all means necessary against political opponents, that he has no conception of raising politics above the aim of office-holding, and that he will unhesitatingly turn against his political companions, if a turn of affairs makes it desirable. In short, he is one the many who act on the principal that all is fair in politics.” 

I only knew one thing about Chester A. Arthur prior to reading this biography: he was the president from New York that was the answer to a trivia question in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. After reading the book, I’ve come away with the impression that he was the least likely president (at least through the first 21 presidents) to ever take the office, and one of the least accomplished once he took office. He’s going to score particularly low across the entire presidential grading rubric for a variety of reasons, however the only thing that will be memorable about him for me was how unlikely he was to ever even be in that position.

Born into – Arthur was born in Vermont to an educated father who gave up his work to be a minister for the Baptist church. His father was very religious and instilled abolitionist values in Arthur. The book really glosses over the early years of Arthur’s life, but it’s probably because like the rest of Arthur’s biography it was unexceptional. 2.5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Arthur went to school to became a lawyer, and also worked as a teacher. Gentleman Boss included several anecdotes about how fair Arthur was with students, being even tempered and well liked. As an attorney, he argued cases helping blacks (pre-Civil War), including one about the rights of slaves brought into New York, and another for free colored people’s treatment on public transportation. Arthur became political when he began working with the Governor (who respected Arthur’s work) in New York. Along with Thurlow Weed (at the time the most powerful man in New York Whig politics).

When the Civil War started Arthur was made Quartermaster, and was in charge of getting supplies to New York militia, the largest in the United States. When Governor Morgan was not reelected, Arthur chose to focus on legal work and did not re-enlist. After Weed and Morgan lost political power, Arthur was taken in by Roscoe Conkling the New York Senator who for a time was the most powerful senator in the country. Arthur was appointed head of the New York Customhouse, making him one of most powerful people in America for patronage (giving others jobs).

The Custom House had one big scandal during Grant’s term which didn’t implicate Arthur but should have. In addition to all the favors he was trading, Arthur’s worst trait was requiring 5% back from all employees to go to the Republican party. When Hayes took office, he helped launch the Jay Commission inquiry into the Customhouse, which called hundreds of witnesses and went on for weeks. The commission concluded that the Customhouse was hiring and firing people for political reasons, could have 20% of its work force eliminated and not lose any productivity, and that Arthur and two others should step down. Arthur was offered the role of Parisian console but turned it down as part of his political strategizing. Hayes attempt to move all the men was voted down by Congress, showing the strength of Conkling’s position still in politics. A second commission again looked into the Customhouse, and more improprieties were discovered. In particular, Arthur was accused of showing up to work several hours late every day, and obstructing the proposed changes to curb corruption.

Eventually, Hayes was successful in removing Arthur and other top officials from the Customhouse. Arthur fell in to the position of head of the Republican Committee in New York however and continued pulling strings for Conkling. By the time next election came around, Conkling’s men (Arthur included) were facing a more fractured Republican party in New York, as enemies of the machine style of politics mounted. When Arthur went to the Republican nominating caucus, he went with Conkling in favor of nominating Grant to return to office. When Garfield won the nomination, New York was to be a key swing state and Conkling’s machine needed to be appeased. Arthur volunteered for the position, and Conkling tried to talk him out of it (so little did he want to support Garfield), but with no real fuss or competition got the nod. Once the election campaign began, Arthur stayed in New York (which was a crucial state) to help manage the Republican Party effort. This included continuing to solicit mandatory contributions from government workers multiple times over.

Garfield, Hayes and many others were unimpressed with Arthur as a candidate, due to his involvement in the customhouse scandal, and his reputation of a patronage abuser. Along with Garfield, the ticket was successful in beating democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Prior to inauguration, Arthur gave a speech where he was likely drunk and implied that the campaign had numerous secrets he couldn’t share due to the press being present, and alluded to both improprieties to get votes and the rumor that he was actually born in Canada and not eligible to be present. (The author never gives much weight to this rumor, but Arthur’s comments here certainly appear to give it some credibility). When Garfield was elected, his biggest headache was filling his cabinet and dealing with the patronage in New York. Based on a meeting he had earlier with the Stalwarts (Conkling’s men), he had implied that if they helped him win he would allow them to stay in control of patronage in New York. When he was elected, he appointed six of the Stalwarts to some of the first New York positions, but chose an enemy of Conkling for the actual Customhouse. Conkling and Arthur attempted to overcome this by getting (coerced) signatures from those doing business with the current regime, and even releasing correspondence attempting to link Garfield to a post office fraud that was a particular scandal of the era. Arthur was firmly on Conkling’s side, even after Conkling resigned from the Senate in a last ditch effort to save face in the situation, Arthur and Conkling continued to raise up anti-Garfield sentiment in the party to allow for Conkling to get re-elected (which he was not). It was at this time that Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, who although he was insane, told those that apprehended him that “I am a stalwart, I do this for Arthur our new President.” 1 out of 5.

Presidential Career – Arthur initially didn’t want to do anything while Garfield’s life was in jeopardy, for fear of appearing he was trying to capitalize on his death. Finally, after Garfield died (about a month later) Arthur broke down in tears refusing all visitors. He then signed an executive order calling for a special Senate session to elect a new president pro tem before he traveled to avoid a calamity of uncertainty as to who was running the country in the event of his death as well.

His initial task as President was to figure out his cabinet. Arthur tried to keep most of Garfield’s cabinet but many ended up resigning. Contrary to what many people feared, Arthur didn’t put Conkling in the cabinet, and although he selected mainly stalwarts most were qualified for their positions. Arthur did offer Conkling a spot on the Supreme Court (and was lampooned in the press accordingly), but the low pay and lack of political influence led Conkling to turn it down.

Arthur’s White House was the most opulent of any president before him. First he remodeled the White House, then he hosted frequent feasts and events and did so in grand fashion. Arthur got a reputation of being a procrastinator, putting off work when possible (and not working at all on Sundays or Mondays) and focusing more on socializing and entertaining when possible. The large scandal of the era was one he inherited involving the Post Office, and Arthur’s headache was trying to secure convictions for the main actors. Despite two trials, hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents the perpetrators were found not guilty, the verdict blamed by news papers on uneducated jurors being selected.

Many historians lump Both Hayes and Arthur as attempting to foster Republicanism in the South by dropping the negro dominated factions and by appealing to discontented white Democrats. Arthur did sign the Pendelton Act into law which required Civil Service reform though not to the extreme extent many wanted. Arthur dealt with a Treasury surplus for his entire presidency, an inconceivable concept now. Arthur was in office from 1881 to 1885, and the country was in an economic depression from 1882 to 1886, though there’s little to support his presidency as a cause of that.

Arthur suffered from Bright’s Disease, which made him depressed and required plenty of rest. Arthur’s health deteriorated in office, though he tried to keep it hidden from everybody. He did take several longer trips as president, partially to get away from stresses of job for health, and doing very little in the way of campaigning for the Republican Party or doing actual presidential work.

Garfield’s secretary of State Blaime won the Republican nomination over Arthur for the big for reelection, but lost to Grover Cleveland. While Arthur didn’t specifically deny the possibility of being reelected, he didn’t put much effort into it being aware of his health conditions. The administration attempted to make progress in a few areas in its final months, with Arthur’s secretary of state pursuing treaties aggressively with Latin American countries, particular seeking one with Nicaraguan for an American controlled canal, as well as Hawaii and Egypt, however none were ratified by Congress. Likewise the Secretary of the Navy commissioned four expensive ships, which caused negative reaction from press due to the extravagance (though they were more modest than the competing European ships of the time). The author spent a lot of time on this, but appears to have been more the work of the Secretary of the Navy than Arthur. 2 out of 5.

Vice President – It doesn’t appear one was ever appointed after Arthur assumed the presidency. 0 out of 5.

First Lady – Buchanan is rumored to be the in the closet president but Arthur should give him a run for his money. He was not interested in women until his mid 20’s. His letters to male friends at the time discuss his joy of spending all night with somebody and falling asleep in each other’s arms. When Arthur did marry his wife Nell she had two kids with him, Alan and Ellen and a third that died around age 2. Nell didn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond being loyal to her kids and husband, though there was evidence she was planning to leave Arthur before her death.

Arthur’s wife died in 1880, prior to him being elected Vice President. There are some anecdotes of Arthur’s private grief at not having his wife to share his future accomplishments, but in public Arthur didn’t let the situation greatly affect him. With no first lady in the house, Arthur turned to his youngest sister Mary Arthur McElroy who was married and came down from Albany for a few months a year to serve the function. Arthur seemed to like making some of the decorating and party planning decisions himself. 1 out of 5.

Post Presidency – Arthur’s health continued to detioriate, and he continued to hide it from others after leaving the presidency. He stuck around for Cleveland’s inauguration, then did not much of anything besides burning all his personal correspondence (because he was crooked) before dying later that year. 1 out of 5.

Book itself – Then too, most of Arthur’s finest efforts had no immediate positive impact. Dorsey and his friends escaped jail; the rivers and harbors Veto was overridden; the tariff commissions recommendations were dismissed by Congress; the rejuvenation of the navy was barely begun.

It’s tough to write a book about a guy who accomplished so little and what he did accomplish was almost solely because of being in the right place at the right time. To compensate, Reeves focuses a lot on Conkling, Grant, Hayes and Garfield and others who were actually doing things in the open instead of Arthur who was primarily behind the scenes. I think I know all I want to about Arthur, but as a subject he’s about at the bottom of the list for Presidents worth reading about. 3 out of 5.

3 star

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