Chester Arthur Surprised His Critics, Overcame Negative Reputation

This ribbon with an engraved portrait of Chester Alan Arthur, issued as a souvenir for an Oct. 11, 1882, “Dinner to The President of the United States by The City of Boston,” sold for $437 at a November 2014 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Chester Alan Arthur to the lucrative post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur held the job for seven years, and with an annual gross income of $50,000, was able to accumulate a modest fortune. He was responsible for the collection of about 75 percent of the entire nation’s duties from ships that landed in his jurisdiction, which included the entire coast of New York state, the Hudson River and ports in New Jersey.

In 1872, he raised significant contributions from Custom House employees to support Grant’s successful re-election for a second term. The spoils system was working as designed, despite occasional charges of corruption.

Five years later, the Jay Commission was created to formally investigate corruption in the New York Custom House and (future president) Chester Arthur was the primary witness. The commissioner recommended a thorough housecleaning and President Rutherford B. Hayes fired Arthur and then offered him an appointment as consul general in Paris. Arthur refused and went back to New York law and politics.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, eventual nominee James Garfield first offered the VP slot to wealthy New York Congressman Levi Morton (later vice president for Benjamin Harrison), who refused. Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who, when he accepted, declared, “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.” It would be the only election he would ever win, but it was enough to foist him into the presidency.

The Garfield-Arthur ticket prevailed and after being sworn in on March 4, 1881, the 49-year-old Garfield’s first act was to turn and kiss his aged mother. It was the first time a president’s mother had ever been present at an inauguration. She would outlive her son by almost seven years. President James Polk (1845-1849) also died three years before his mother, the first time that had happened.

On the morning of July 2, President Garfield was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., where he was to board a train to attend the 25th reunion of his class at Williams College. A mentally disturbed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, shot him twice. He died 80 days later and for the fourth time in history, a man clearly only meant to be vice president ascended to the presidency.”

“CHET ARTHUR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! GOOD GOD!”

Although President Arthur’s greatest achievement may have been the complete renovation of the White House, he surprised even some of his harshest critics. Mark Twain may have summed it up best: “I am but one in 55 million, still in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration.”

Faint praise, yet probably accurate. (First, do no harm.)

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Promise of Free Land Under the Prairie Skies was a Powerful Lure

This photograph, circa 1889, shows the town of Guthrie, Okla., which appeared in one afternoon shortly after the Oklahoma Land Rush.

By Jim O’Neal

Exactly at the stroke of noon on April 22, 1889, the largest one-day settlement of land in American history began. Free land for the taking. Just get there first and stake your claim. With the sound of “Dinner Call” from soldiers’ bugles, thousands of people fanned out across the open prairie of the Oklahoma territory to claim a plot of 160 acres to call their own.

When the dust finally settled, they had claimed 3,125 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island, and Eastern reporters from newspapers and magazines were there to cover it. There was plenty to write about. The noise, the sheer mass of humanity and the impatient urgency of the scene came alive in story after story. Long rows toeing the line, panting with excitement and looking greedily toward a dream come true.

They were headed for some 2 million acres of land that had not been assigned to the Creek and Seminole Indian tribes in earlier treaties. A St. Louis Dispatch reporter wrote of a minister’s conversation with a man set to go after his land. When the minister offered a religious tract to the driver, he was told to keep it. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” the minister asked. “That’s just where I’m headed!” the man replied.

When President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that opened the land the month before in March 1889, it became known as “Harrison’s Hoss Run” or simply “The Run.” What had been wide-open prairie was settled almost overnight. Tents went up, businesses opened and postal service began. Harper’s Weekly reported that Oklahoma City looked like a “handful of white rice thrown out across the prairie.”

Free land underneath the prairie skies – lots of land – was a powerful lure and Pennsylvania miners, Indiana bricklayers, Michigan lumbermen and New York pharmacists all made the run, along with butchers, tailors and blacksmiths. The news of free land even crossed the Atlantic, increasing the number of immigrants from Liverpool, Hamburg and Antwerp.

Some arrived by train, planning to simply set out on foot, while others had well-thought-out plans. Families rode in prairie schooners, huge wagons filled with furniture, household goods, farming implements and food. Men planning to start a business brought well-drilling equipment, medicine or a law library. Those who could afford a fast horse (some even purchased racehorses) intended to stake their claims ahead of the wagons. They used willow poles, sharpened at one end and a name and claim attached to the other. These were thrust into the ground around the perimeter of their claim.

Despite soldiers’ efforts to prevent anyone from crossing the line early, many jumped the gun, staked their claims and then hid out to avoid detection. They were called “Sooners” and scorned for their illegal tactics. However, it inevitably turned from a pejorative and became a term for those smart enough to get there first … an American virtue. Oklahoma, a Choctaw word for “red men,” is now known as the Sooner State.

Estimates vary for the number of people who made The Run in 1889, with some saying it was up to 100,000, which seems high since the 1890 census counted 53,829 inhabitants. But in less than 20 years, the newly settled land won statehood. President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation on Nov. 16, 1907, making Oklahoma the 46th state of the Union.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Adamses First Presidential Couple to Mark their Golden Anniversary

Louisa Adams, shown in this oil portrait by Lawrence Williams, was our only First Lady born outside the United States.

By Jim O’Neal

Some presidential tidbits:

Three sets of presidents defeated each other:

► John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824; Jackson defeated Adams in 1828.

► Martin Van Buren defeated William H. Harrison in 1836; Harrison defeated Van Buren in 1840.

► Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888; Cleveland defeated Harrison in 1892.

So much for the power of incumbency.

John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa were the first presidential couple to be married 50-plus years. She remains the only First Lady born outside the United States (London) and the first to write an autobiography, “Adventures of a Nobody.” When she died in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning (a first for a woman).

While in the Senate, John was “Professor of Logic” at Brown University and professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.

Herbert Clark Hoover was the last president whose term of office ended on March 4 (1933).

He married Lou Henry Hoover (the first woman to get a degree in geology at Stanford), and when they were in the White House, they conversed in Chinese whenever they wanted privacy.

Our 10th president, John Tyler, only served 31 days as VP (a record) before becoming president after William Henry Harrison’s death.

His wife Letitia was the first to die while in the White House. When John re-married, several of his children were older than second wife Julia.

Tyler’s death was the only one not officially recognized in Washington, D.C., because of his allegiance to the Confederacy. His coffin was draped with a Confederate flag.

Our sixth president, James Monroe, was the first senator elected president. His VP for a full eight years, Daniel D. Tompkins (the “D” stood for nothing), was an alcoholic who several times presided over the Senate while drunk. He died 99 days after leaving office (a post vice-presidency record).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding’s Funeral Train Transfixed the World

president-harding
President Harding was popular with Americans, but the Harding Scandals later tainted his legacy.

By Jim O’Neal

The news of President Warren G. Harding’s death astonished the American people. Telephone and telegraph lines stayed busy between San Francisco and Washington. A special railroad car, “The Superb,” was outfitted as a hearse. Twenty-four hours after the president died, the train left San Francisco, pulling the lighted car with its flag-draped coffin, honor guard and banks of flowers.

“The spectacle of the funeral train traversing the entire breadth of the United States,” observed The Washington Post, “is not to be forgotten.”

News of Harding’s death arrived at the White House by telephone. Irwin “Ike” Hoover, the White House Chief Usher, had been trying to keep a diary, but he never seemed to make a record of important things. “President dies” was all he recorded that day. In fact, his book was merely a series of blank pages for all the early days of August 1923. Hoover’s job was to run the White House, not record history. He quickly set to work hanging crepe over the mirrors of the East Room. Then the shades were drawn and the house was closed to the public.

Later, the book 42 Years in the White House chronicled Hoover’s service, which started in 1891 (when he installed the first electrical wiring in the White House) and continued through nine presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison and ending with Herbert Hoover. He died in 1933 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the White House for his funeral. Oh, the tales that probably didn’t get recorded.

Harding’s funeral train pulled into Union Station on Aug. 7. It had held the world transfixed during its five-day trip across the nation. An honor guard transported the coffin from the train with great ceremony and Harding’s body was placed in the East Room. The funeral was held in the Capitol with his Cabinet, Congress and a large group of invited dignitaries.

Florence Harding had a quiet dinner with Calvin Coolidge and his family, and would remain in the White House for five busy days. She had a fire built in the fireplace in the Treaty Room and then methodically started burning the presidential papers she determined should not survive. Then she had all the remaining papers packed into boxes and removed to a nearby friend’s house. Then she resumed the burning more slowly in small fires on the lawn.

President Harding’s secretary, George Christian, stood by helplessly during this process, until he found some papers undisturbed in the Oval Office and hid them in the pantry on the first floor. They remained there, apparently forgotten, until after Mrs. Harding’s death. Then they were given to the Library of Congress. No other papers of President Harding are known to have survived the purge of his records.

Later, the “Harding Scandals” would offer one possible reason for this unusual situation.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cleveland Won, Lost then Won Again in a White House Milestone

grover-cleveland-single-portrait-photo-pin
This Grover Cleveland single-portrait photo pin from his first presidential campaign in 1884 sold for $3,500 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Grover Cleveland delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1885, he stood confidently with one hand behind his back and without notes. The 47-year-old bachelor was the first Democrat to become president after the Civil War. He had developed a sterling reputation for honesty and repudiated cronyism.

He had been elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881 as a reform candidate dedicated to cleaning up corruption in city government. He soon became known as the “Veto Mayor,” turning down one crooked measure after another that had been approved by his corrupt city council. This served as a springboard to becoming governor of New York, surprising even the leaders of the Tammany Hall machine by rejecting proposals that clearly only benefited insiders of the gang. Cleveland read every word of every law passed by the legislature – even if it meant working all night – before signing or vetoing.

So there was a large crowd listening intently to his inauguration remarks where he again promised to reform the federal government by applying sound business principles and revamping the pernicious civil-service system that protected too many incompetent public employees. He committed to a merit system that recognized good performance rather than party subservience.

Nevertheless, Democrats from all parts of the country descended on Washington expecting to be rewarded with more than 100,000 jobs Cleveland had the power to fill. But, he refused to remove Republicans from office just because of party affiliation. Newspapers of both parties attacked Cleveland and he responded with one of the most sweeping denunciations ever made against the press.

“I don’t think there was ever a time when newspapers lying was so general and mean as the present, and there was never a country under the sun where it flourished as it does in this. The falsehoods daily spread before the people in our newspapers, while they are proofs of the ingenuity of those engaged in newspaper work, are insults to the American love of decency and fair play of which we boast …”

Throughout his first administration, Cleveland ruthlessly continued to veto special-interest legislation, running up a total of more than 300 vetoes. For perspective, the grand total for the 21 presidents who preceded him was only 132. Naturally, he managed to make a lot of political enemies, and they extracted their vengeance when he ran for a second term. Despite the antagonism of special-interest groups, the Democratic National Convention in June 1888 nominated him by acclamation.

Then the Republicans and Tammany Hall went to work and got behind Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland received 100,000 more votes, but the New York electoral votes gave Harrison the nod. When Cleveland’s term ended on March 4, 1889, he claimed, “There was no happier man in the United States.” However, his young wife Frances (Cleveland had married her while in office) told the White House staff to take good care of the furnishings because they would be back in exactly four years.

She was prescient. They returned right on schedule as promised – making Cleveland the first president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].