Those of us who know the entire Chester Alan Arthur story – and that group includes Schenectady history buffs as well as most anyone with an emotional connection to Union College – can’t help but like him.
His life and career had some ups and downs, but it’s indisputable that when faced with some big decisions, the man – he was not always an astute politician – responded in exemplary fashion. That’s how many fans of Arthur view him, and after a decade of research on the man, author Jerry Mikorenda feels pretty much the same way. A Brooklyn native, Long Island resident and 1978 University at Albany graduate, Mikorenda will discuss Arthur Wednesday at 7 p.m. in a zoom lecture for the Schenectady County Historical Society. His presentation, and his 2019 book, published by Lyons Books, are titled “America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights.”
Jennings was a black woman living in New York City who in 1855 had the audacity not to step off a crowded bus when directed to do so by the bus conductor and a policeman. She was arrested, but when “Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Rail Road Case” went before the jury, the 12 white men returned their verdict in Jennings’ favor. Her lawyer was Arthur.
“I didn’t know that much about Arthur, except for a few jokes and he was the guy with those long mutton chops,” said Mikorenda earlier this week. “He came up as a crusading lawyer and ends up being a patronage guy, but in the end he redeems himself as president. His biggest adversary while he was president was Mark Twain, who called him the worst guy ever for the job, but when he leaves, Twain says that given the circumstances we would be hard-pressed to find someone who did a better job than Arthur.”
Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. After growing up in Greenwich and Hoosic, Arthur’s father, a baptist preacher, moved the family to Schenectady in 1844. The Arthurs lived on Liberty Street in what is now the Katbird Shop, and by 1848 the smart and talented Arthur had graduated from Union College.
He became a New York City attorney and managed to immerse himself into a corrupt political system, Tammany Hall, and eventually get himself elected vice-president of the U.S. – his first and only elected post. So when Garfield is shot by Charles Guiteau and dies in September of 1881, putting Arthur in the Oval Office, no one is expecting too much. However, before he finishes Garfield’s term and then leaves the presidency because he is not renominated by the Republican Party, Arthur gets the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act passed, a law that cripples the spoils system and protects government workers.
“He was the last guy you would think of to pass something like the Pendleton Act,” said Mikorenda, who lives in Northport on Long Island. “But he knew it was something Garfield wanted, and he knew it was the right thing to do. I really think he does redeem himself, and he probably would have been a better president if Congress had allowed him to do more.”
Arthur’s presidential ranking – he’s always remained in the bottom third – may never improve dramatically. And it is hard to argue that he was a “great man.” But, and this is what’s so fascinating about history, he was a good, decent man who stepped up and rose to the occasion when the moment called for it.
To learn more about Arthur and Elizabeth Jennings check out the Schenectady County Historical Society’s web site at www.schenectadyhistorical.org. Mikorenda will speak about an hour and his talk is free for SCHS members and $5 for non-members.
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