Saturday, 9 July 2011

Chet who?

When I moved to these United States in 1976 I would utter a wry chuckle at the time of presidential elections.  It seemed that Americans were hoping to elect a new George Washington every four years.

Washington is of course at the top of most people’s list of “the greats”. (Not that he was without fierce critics in his own day.)

We've had very few great presidents.   We’ve also had some downright bad ones!

Most of our presidents have been “fair to middling”. 

With that in mind I have been reading a series of presidential biographies (from Times Books “The American Presidents” series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, JR.),  concentrating on the "lesser knowns"

I’ve just finished reading about Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland.

Chester Arthur, born in Vermont in 1829 was a bon vivant, a gourmand and a (*) lover of fine things.  He became very wealthy as a result of his appointment as Collector of Custom in New York City ( 1871) 

He was the compromise choice of a divided republican party to run as vice-president on the ticket with James Garfield (in 1880).  Garfield was elected.  He was shot on July 2nd 1881, but lingered until September 20th 1881.  Upon his death Chester Arthur assumed the presidency.

(*) Arthur and his wife Ellen ( (she died from pneumonia in 1880) were early patrons of Louis Comfort Tiffany:  – and the White House was renovated and renewed by them  using some of Tiffany’s wonderful works.

Chester Arthur never enjoyed being president. Both the republican and democratic parties were divided into various factions, so little legalisation was carried.  Arthur was able to get congress to enact some mild civil service reform, but not much else of note. 

He strongly denounced the 1883 ruling by the Supreme Court that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional, but he did nothing to promote a new Act.  He vetoed the first Chinese Exclusion Act, but signed a later and less restrictive version of that same Act.


Arthur made very few enemies, but he never had had a base of deep support within the party. In consequence he was not re-nominated by his party in 1884.

He died of “Bright’s disease” at the age of 57.

He’s probably one of the C+ or B presidents. He was more of a follower than a leader. 

I put him in the same league in which I would also place George Herbert Walker Bush (the first Bush President).  I call that league “affable but ineffectual”

In 1884 the republicans nominated John Blaine rather than Arthur.  Blaine was roundly defeated by Grover Cleveland in the General Election. More about Cleveland tomorrow.

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