Of all the presidential inauguration scenes of the late 1800s, my personal favorite is this one, a full-page cover from Leslie’s Illustrated showing Chester Alan Arthur taking the oath in the living room of his New York City townhouse. It took place at about 2:15 am on Tuesday morning, September 20, 1881, just hours after word reached Arthur by telegraph that President James A. Garfield had died, making Arthur a thoroughly accidental and reluctant chief executive. Arthur’s aides had to scour the neighborhood to find a judge — John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court — to administer the oath.
The whole nation had been on a tense death-watch for Garfield ever since early July when Garfield had been shot in the back by a psychopath named Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. train station. Garfield could have survived the gun shot, but his doctors had infected him by probing the wound with dirty fingers. During his struggle for life that summer, Garfield had become beloved in America, while Arthur was distrusted and feared.
Arthur never aspired to be President. His selection as candidate for vice president on Garfield’s 1881 ticket had been a political fluke — the product of a stalemated nominating convention. ”A greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” he called it. Known as Gentleman Boss for his role managing New York’s statewide Republican political machine, Arthur as vice president had openly opposed Garfield in the bitter argument over patronage and intra-party factions that had set the stage for Guiteau’s attack. As Guiteau was being arrested minutes after shooting the president, he announced: “I did it! I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”
These words by the assassin, coupled with Arthur’s role in the patronage fight, led many Americans to believe Arthur in fact was involved in the shooting. Arthur himself, a mild-mannered, dapper man, was horrified at the thought and dreaded the reaction if he took office. When told of Garfield’s death, Arthur broke down in tears. Look at Arthur’s eyes in the image above, (click to make it full size) and notice how the artist sought to capture the mix of fear, sadness, and determination.
If fact, once sworn in, Chester Alan Arthur became admirably independent. He surprised friends by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, the most important and successful government reform of the era. When old cronies came asking favors, he turned them away — often after bitter arguments. Said one: “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore; he’s the President.” Arthur guarded his privacy, telling one nosy temperance lady hectoring him about alcohol in the White House: “Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s dan business!”
Arthur’s admirable record won him no friends. His party refused to nominate him for re-election in 1884. That same year, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a painful, then-uncurable kidney ailment that would kill him in late 1886.
Today, a century later, Chester Alan Arthur is largely forgotten. His name is the punchline to a dozen jokes about obscure dead presidents. I think this is shameful. Arthur, for all his faults, was also one of the most human and compelling presidents we’ve had, a flawed person who found integrity and grace in the most difficult circumstance.