Chester Arthur: A Lobbyist goes to Washington

Chester Arthur was not the politician you'd expect to launch much needed reforms in the Gilded Age, but he ended up doing just that and he paid the highest political price for it.

His political career really took off in the 'Gangs of New York' style environment of New York City in the 1870's. He was appointed Collector of the Port of New York by a political ally, President Grant. He used this position to reward Republican party loyalists and fill the coffers of the local political machine. The money was good since at that time, there was no restriction on keeping a percentage of the customs that he was able to collect.

He rose to the top level of Roscoe Conkling's Stalwart Republican political machine and held court at the Fifth Avenue Restaurant in Lower Manhattan. Arthur, with his mutton chops and love of fine liquor and prime rib could have looked no more the part of the Gilded Age politician and he played it well too, holding dinners there almost every night of the week to confer with his advisers and decide the best way to win or buy votes for the party.

He was eventually kicked out of this lucrative position when Hayes became president and removed him as part of the effort to clean of the 'spoils system' of public positions. Hayes efforts were in vain though and the reforms would require a second effort of his successor Garfield.

When Garfield was nominated for president by the Republicans in 1880, Arthur was put on the ticket by the party's 'money men' to keep Garfield from pushing the reform effort from encroaching too far on the party's interests.

Garfield was shot shortly after taking office and died some months later. As I've discussed before, this put Arthur in the awkward position of having to deflect rumors that he had a hand in the murder of the sitting president. Whether it was a desire to carry out the wishes of Garfield out of respect for the deceased president or out of a sense of deflecting rumors that he killed him, Arthur cut ties with old political allies and started to push for competitive bidding processes for government contracts and positions shortly after taking over the office of President.

This ability to put country above party endeared Arthur to the history books, but not the power brokers of his party. At the end of his partial first term, the Republicans nominated his political rival for president and didn't even give him a spot on the ticket. We'll never know if his position of the unlikely reformer increased his standing with voters since he was never given the chance to actually run for president.

Arthur's example shows that even a politician that feeds at the trough from time to time can do great things if they're willing to put the voters' interest above that of their party. Maybe both party's culture warriors could learn a thing or two from the unlikely example of Arthur.

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