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].

President Andrew Johnson Narrowly Escaped Removal From Office

A cotton bandanna made to celebrate the end of the Civil War, featuring President Andrew Johnson, sold for $9,375 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president after they won the 1864 election running on the National Union Party ticket (a one-time name change for the Republicans).

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was drunk at his own inauguration and later was the first U.S. president to be impeached. He was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.

A classic Southern slavery advocate, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate after his presidency (a first).

This William Howard Taft and James Sherman jugate pocket mirror sold for $2,629.

James “Sunny Jim” Sherman was vice president No. 27 under William Howard Taft. He was the first VP to throw the first pitch on baseball’s opening day, and the last VP to die in office.

His death right after the convention on Oct. 30, 1912, didn’t give Taft a chance to select an alternate so Taft campaigned alone (finishing a weak third despite being the incumbent president). Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (who was attempting to make a comeback) split the vote, giving Woodrow Wilson the win.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the WH five times (for VP in 1920) and was successful four times. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was the first woman to cast a vote for a son in a presidential election (1920).

Roosevelt famously had White House matchbooks printed with “Stolen from the White House,” perhaps to cut down on souvenir-seeking guests.

Levi Parsons Morton, the 22nd vice president, missed the chance to be president when he declined James Garfield’s offer to be his running mate in 1880.

Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who accepted and became president upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881.

After his term as VP, Morton became the only one to then become a governor (of New York). He lived exactly 96 years – dying on his birthday in 1920 (another first and only).

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].

President McKinley’s Popularity Soared Despite ‘Imperialist’ Charges

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President McKinley’s beaver top hat and leather traveling case realized $17,925 at a December 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Exactly 115 years ago this week, on Sept. 14, 1901, the 25th president of the United States, William McKinley, died from an assassin’s bullet. He had been shot on Sept. 6 in Buffalo, N.Y., while attending the Pan-American Exposition.

As he stood shaking hands with a long line of well-wishers at the Temple of Music, a man approached with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief. As McKinley extended his hand to the man, Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist, he was shot twice by a concealed .32-caliber revolver. One bullet deflected off a suit button, but the other entered his stomach, passed through a kidney and lodged in his back.

When doctors operated, they were unable to locate the bullet and he died eight days later from the spread of gangrene throughout his body. It was eerily similar to the assassination of President James Garfield 20 years earlier. He had been shot on July 2, 1881, and did not die until Sept. 19. Again, his doctors were unable to locate the bullet and he suffered for over two months as they probed the wound with their unsanitary hands and instruments until they killed him.

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McKinley

Both men would have easily survived if they had the benefit of modern medicine. By the time of McKinley’s death, the X-ray had been invented and doctors in the Balkan war in 1897 were using it to “see inside patients’ bodies.” However, the possible side effects of radiation were not yet recognized.

William McKinley had entered politics following the Civil War and at age 34 was a member of the House of Representatives for 14 years before losing in 1890. He then served two terms as governor of Ohio and by 1896 was the leading Republican candidate for president. Aided by wealthy Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna, he easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan by the largest margin since the Civil War.

During his first term, McKinley earned a reputation as a protectionist by advocating high tariffs to protect American business and labor from foreign imports. He was a staunch supporter of the gold standard to back up paper money. However, foreign policy became a major issue in April 1898 when the United States intervened in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. The Spanish-American War was over in a quick three months and Cuba became a U.S. protectorate. This was followed by the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Suddenly, the United States had become a colonialist power, with a big interest in Asia, especially China.

President McKinley’s popularity soared during these economic boom times, and despite charges of being an “imperialist,” his margin of victory over William Jennings Bryan was even greater in the 1900 presidential rematch. Theodore Roosevelt was selected as McKinley’s vice president – against Mark Hanna’s strong objections – and naturally became president after McKinley’s unfortunate death.

Teddy “The Rough Rider” Roosevelt, who had charged up San Juan Hill, would bring a new level of energy and spirit to the White House. All Mark Hanna could do was watch and grouse, “Now look! That damn cowboy is president!”

The nation seemed to do just fine.

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].

Railroads Helped America Claim Position as Most Powerful Nation on Earth

This 1876 “Lightning Express” broadside promoting the first through train service connecting the gold and silver fields of Virginia City, Nev., with San Francisco realized $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first American railroad was only 13 miles of track and formally known as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The “B&O Line” was started by a group of Baltimore merchants in 1828 and opened in 1830. At the time, turnpikes, rivers and canals were the primary modes of travel and transport.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads had become a major American industry, with numerous companies competing in a broad geographic area over 30,000 miles of track. The first railroad to link the East to the West was completed in 1869.

The Central Pacific Railroad had started in Sacramento and immediately had to confront the Sierra Nevada mountains … 7,000 feet up from the Sacramento Valley to the summit of the Sierras. Then there was the critical issue of labor since the mines were paying premium rates and workers were a scarce commodity.

A controversial decision was made to bring in Chinese laborers. Creative companies sprang up to organize these activities and, ultimately, 12,000 Chinese workers were digging and blasting through the mountains. For $30 a month, they had to feed themselves and live in makeshift camps alongside the tracks. When it snowed, they carved out entire galleries under the snow and lived there for weeks at a time.

The Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Neb., and their laborers were primarily Irish, up to 10,000 at times, although a few Civil War veterans and other migrants were used. Brigham Young, one of the original incorporators of the Union Pacific, was instrumental in steering the railroad through Utah. This provided badly needed jobs for Europeans who had come to join the Latter-day Saints.

When the two railroads finally met, it was in Promontory, Utah, and the Promontory Spike was pounded into the ground on May 10, 1869.

Big projects, big money and big government always seem to include corruption. And so it was with the Transcontinental Railroad. During the 1872 reelection campaign of President Ulysses S. Grant, a major scandal erupted that ground Washington, D.C., to a standstill. Major members of the administration and other ranking politicians were charged with enriching themselves. By then, railroads had become a major force in politics and everyday life. To have the industry linked to wild accusations of bribery and corruption was a significant letdown.

The House of Representatives was forced to start hearings after scandals erupted in newspapers almost daily. They started in closed session, but were soon open as crowds of reporters and spectators overflowed the rooms. It was the center of attraction for the nation’s capital on a daily basis.

Eventually, they caught fewer than 25 politicians who had profited off the railroads, but a larger group was actually linked to the scandal, including cabinet members, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Vice President-elect Henry Wilson, Speaker of the House James Blaine and Representative James Garfield, the future president. All were tainted with the same scandalous brush, although some were able to mitigate the charges and salvage their reputations.

In spite of the scandals, the nation obviously benefited significantly from railroads, primarily because of their influence on settlement patterns of those who ventured West. The large, empty space that was still generally called “The Great American Desert” flourished.

Wagon-train caravans were largely abandoned and huge areas of land were transformed into productive farms to help feed a growing country. Ranch land developed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Everyone seemed to benefit with the exception of the Plains Indians, who were exploited as their lands, mineral rights and even their way of life were lost.

The United States was entering the Gilded Age and gearing up to leverage the enormous opportunities waiting in the 20th century. The American worker was the envy of the world as compulsory education created large pools of labor that were literate and competent. They were eager to hone their skills with the new technologies that Edison, Bell, Ford, et al. were churning out. When combined with its natural resources, rule of law and a Constitutional Democracy, America was poised to become the most powerful nation on Earth.

Railroads played an important role in that achievement.

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].

James Garfield Unique Among American Presidents

This autographed James Garfield cabinet card, dated a month before the president’s assassination, realized nearly $4,500 at a June 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Garfield was the last of the Log Cabin Presidents (meaning he was born in one), and in 1880 he was simultaneously a member of the House, a senator-elect and the president-elect. He remains the only person to ever have this unique distinction.

However, he had not gone to the 1880 Republican convention seeking the nomination. Instead, his specific intent was to nominate John Sherman, who was President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury. In fact, Garfield made the formal nominating speech and waited while Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine battled it out. After 35 ballots, Garfield himself became the consensus candidate … and then won the election.

Sherman was eager to become president, but after three failed attempts he gave up. His brother was William Tecumseh Sherman, the general who made the famous “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah in a scorched earth (total war) campaign that was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. His telegram to Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 25, 1864 – “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah …” – was literally the death knell of the Confederacy and ended the Civil War four months later.

General Sherman was far less political than his brother and at the 1884 convention declared if drafted he would not run; if nominated he would not accept; and if elected he would not serve. We still hear variations of this declaration yet today some 130 years later.

P.S. Garfield was ambidextrous and could write Latin with one hand while writing Greek with the other. Since he favored his left, he is considered the first left-handed president.

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].