An undated portrait of Chester Alan Arthur, who served as the 21st president of the United States, from 1881 to 1885. (AP)
Most people didn’t have great expectations when Chester A. Arthur assumed the presidency after the death of James Garfield in September of 1881. The truth is, however, that the former Schenectady resident and 1848 Union College graduate did a pretty good job.
At least that’s the proposition put forth by Frank Taormina. A Union College grad himself and former Niskayuna High School history teacher and principal, Taormina will discuss the life and career of Arthur at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“Nobody expected very much of him when he became president,” said Taormina. “He viewed politics as a means of gaining power and using that power to distribute the spoils system. He was a part of all that, but at a personal level he was never accused of doing anything he shouldn’t have. And as things turned out, he did a much better job as president than anyone expected.”
WHAT: A presentation by Frank Taormina on the life and career of Chester A. Arthur
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for nonmembers; free for members
MORE INFO: 374-0263, www.schenectadyhistory.net
In the various presidential rankings done by historians over the past few decades, Arthur is almost always listed somewhere in the middle, usually toward the bottom but not quite in the worst-ever category with the likes of Andrew Johnson or James Buchanan. Taormina, however, feels Arthur should be placed firmly in the middle of the rankings, and nowhere near the worst-ever group.
“One of his accomplishments was civil service reform, and another thing that happened during his presidency was the restoration of the U.S. Navy,” said Taormina. “There are a number of historians out there that feel Arthur is underrated, and I’m going to mention their comments. I think as time goes by Arthur is looked upon more and more favorably.”
Arthur’s prepresidential career probably didn’t help his standing among many historians. Amazingly, he was never elected to office until he was chosen to be Garfield’s running mate. The protégé of Republican party boss Roscoe Conkling, a former U.S. senator from New York, Arthur rose through the ranks playing party politics, and that loyally eventually landed him the job of quartermaster general of New York City.
“Up until the time he was picked to be Garfield’s vice president, much of Arthur’s career had consisted of getting jobs for himself and for other political cronies,” said Taormina.
“But he did an outstanding job in the role of quartermaster, especially during the Civil War. That was a big job and he handled the responsibility very well until his party lost the election and lost control.”
At union college
Arthur was born in 1829 in Fairfield, Vt., and spent part of his youth in Greenwich and Schenectady. He began taking classes at Union College in 1845 and graduated in 1848 at the age of 18. He was principal at a Cohoes school before becoming an attorney and moving to New York City, where he became immersed in Republican Party politics.
Picked by Conkling to be Garfield’s running mate, Arthur had been vice president for only a few months when on July 2, 1881, the president was shot by anarchist Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered in ill health until September and finally died, with Arthur being sworn in on Sept. 22.
Arthur had been a partisan politician his whole career, and people expected nothing else from him as president. Instead he brought in the Civil Service Reform Act, a bill that helped government employees maintain their jobs despite the outcome of presidential elections every four years.
Ill health kept him from actively pursuing a second term.
“He had Bright’s disease, and while he would have liked to have been nominated in his own right, he was getting sicker and sicker,” said Taormina.
“It’s too bad because he did surprise you. People were quite distressed when they realized he was going to become president because they thought he was a guy who would use his office for political purposes only. But while president he turned out to be much different. He was very dignified.”
Arthur died on Nov. 18, 1886 and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.