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].

‘Huck Finn’ Established Enduring Hallmarks of Our National Sense of Humor

A first American edition, first issue of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a tipped-in Twain signature, sold for $11,875 at an April 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Here’s a good literary rule of thumb. Any book that someone has seen fit to ban has got to be worth reading. And when a book has been banned for so long and so often and for so many reasons – as has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – that’s as compellingly an endorsement as you can hope for.

If anything, Huckleberry Finn has become even more disturbing since its first appearance in 1885. It’s a book that, even when you reread it, is never what you expect – by turns raw, sweet, funny, deeply principled and deliberately shocking.

Twain

It has been a lightning rod for the squeamish and for naysayers and prigs of every stripe. Huck Finn was a victim of political correctness long before there was such an imprecise, overused and contentious term. The indictment is by now tiresomely familiar and of some of the charges, at least, plainly guilty. Yes, it uses the “n” word – 215 times to be accurate. People used the word back then and still do today. However, who is allowed to seems to be fungible and the rules enforced for maximum social effect. And Huck – not to mention most of the book’s other characters, black and white – does engage in what we would call racist thinking.

But Huck is not Mark Twain, remember, and early on we discover he has a lot to learn. The story of Huckleberry Finn is, in part, the story of Huck’s education and he is taught by none other than Jim, the runaway slave who is in fact the book’s wisest and most humane character. Set at a time when America was still riven and corrupted by slavery, Huckleberry Finn is a depiction of racism at its most virulent, but it is itself among the most anti-racist novels ever written.

The charge of racism is so specious that it invites us to wonder if some other agenda isn’t at work in the minds of those who raise it. And the same is true of those 19th century moralists like librarians, town fathers and custodians of the public weal who originally objected on grounds of vulgarity and sacrilegiousness. What really upsets people about Huck Finn is that it is so deeply skeptical – subversive even – of received wisdom and official pieties of every sort. It breaks all the rules and does so from its first sentence: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”

There had never been a sentence like that in American literature before. It is vulgar, in the way that everyday speech is vulgar, and it introduces us not to the familiar narrator of 19th-century fiction, with measured cadences and worldly wisdom, but to a 14-year-old boy, a wiseass who takes nothing on faith, especially not what he’s been told by his elders. It’s a voice so authentically American that it’s startling that we never heard it in books until then. In an almost embarrassing way, it reveals as phony so much written until then.

Ernest Hemingway famously said of Huckleberry Finn that all American literature comes from it and that “there was nothing before” – which is a stretch, but not by much. What is certainly true is that all American comedy comes from Huck Finn and it established in an instant the two enduring hallmarks of our national sense of humor: a deadpan delivery and a take-no-prisoners attitude. We get taken on a tour down Twain’s beloved Mississippi through an America in the process of becoming a country. Filled with an incomparable gallery of rogues, swindlers and hypocrites, it’s Twain’s take on this nascent country … withering, but exact.

I suspect nothing would please Twain more – or surprise him less – to learn that his book still has the power to both amuse and make us wince … things that are in short supply as we hurry from one outrage to another by people that will probably always be angry, about something.

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].

Victoria Not Exactly the Prudish Queen of History Books

A photo album celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In an era known for great leaps in innovation and industrialization, Mark Twain opined, “She will witness more things invented than any other monarch that ever lived!”

There is no easy way to quantify this observation and no practical value in affirming or refuting its veracity. One only has the luxury of taking a pragmatic assessment of this historical epoch, compounded by the astonishing longevity of her reign as Queen of England (surpassed by Elizabeth II in October 2016).

Christened Alexandrina Victoria, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the first British monarch to be photographed, but what we remember is the figure of a monarch in profile: short and heavy. Accident and tragedy put her on the throne soon after her 18th birthday in 1837 and there she stayed for 63 years and seven months until her death following a series of strokes.

Married in February 1840 to first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Germany), the queen’s power began to erode slowly with an ultimate role reversal. Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Albert became ensconced in the world of governance, while Victoria receded to the domestic realm. Albert was loyal, but he was a diligent misogynist who believed that ruling was a male prerogative.

Queen Victoria was pregnant for a total of 80 months, giving birth to nine children, all attaining adulthood, over a 17-year period. After the ninth child, the royal physicians advised that – at almost 38 years old – this should be the last one. She quickly responded, “Can I have no more fun in bed?” She was a woman who shocked with her candid approach to pregnancy and did nothing to hide her obvious sexual appetite. This is clearly not the prudish queen of history books who lent her name to an entire era known for the repression of emotional and sexual feelings.

A pure iconoclast, she was emotional, demonstrative, sexual and driven. She loved to dance and was fervently opposed to animal cruelty. She gamely survived eight assassination attempts. She was wildly in love with Prince Albert and suffered a bottomless grief at his early death in 1861 – a full 40 years before her own passing. It is commonly believed that after his death, she withdrew from public life, essentially abdicating her responsibilities. Actually, she used the stereotype of her sex to advantage … claiming nervous weakness while ruthlessly micromanaging her political cabinet, often sending them hourly orders.

This apparent dichotomy was fostered, since her historical image was curated by those closest to her. Daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals. She edited out everything that reflected poorly on her, and then burned the originals in what has been described as “the greatest act of censorship in history.” Yet today, the keepers of the physical details of Victoria’s death prefer they not be published. That the queen lived with a painful prolapsed uterus for decades is a secret that was meticulously concealed.

In a similar manner, her family tried to erase all evidence that she cared deeply for any of the other men in her long life, except for her adored Prince Albert. Victoria’s sanitized, puritanical mythology was a creative act of fiction, intended to illuminate the woman those around her wanted her to be.

Girls just want to have fun.

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].

It Was a Rough Road, but After His Presidency, Grant Found His Way

This oil on canvas portrait of Ulysses S. Grant by Freeman Woodcock Thorp (1844-1922) sold for $10,456.25 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After President Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, he went on a world tour that lasted two years. Some of the highlights included dinner with Queen Victoria, and meetings with Pope Leo XIII and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Europe.

After a trip to India, Grant and family turned to Asia and visited Burma, Siam (Thailand) and Cochinchina (Vietnam). On mainland China, they visited several cities and he ended up brokering an agreement between China and Japan regarding the Ryukyu Islands (sound familiar?).

Eventually, they returned to America and Grant was broke and badly in need of income. He tried several things, including a railroad in Mexico. Nothing was remotely successful and he was desperate.

The biggest disappointment was yet to come and it involved a brokerage house at 2 Wall Street that Ulysses Jr. started with a close and trusted friend. At first there were years with double- and triple-digit returns and Grant was feeling more secure. Then the firm had a cash crunch and Grant borrowed $150,000 from businessman William Vanderbilt. However, it was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, which left Grant destitute and in debt … unable to repay the loan.

He then agreed to write an article for a magazine on the Battle of Shiloh (where he led Union forces to victory) for $500. Not only was it well received, but Grant truly enjoyed the writing and it lifted his spirits to recall his earlier days. After several more articles, including accounts of Vicksburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, it led to negotiations over a book.

Enter good friend Mark Twain.

Twain convinced Grant that he would give him 75 percent of the royalties in return for the publishing rights. Then Grant discovered he had throat cancer (remember all those cigars?) and it became a race between death and finishing the book. The book won (barely) and the royalties provided the Grant family with enough money to be comfortable after his death. Estimates range from $400,000 and expectations were exceeded.

The combination of ex-President Grant, his memoirs, a surprisingly literary ability and the experience of Mark Twain produced a happy ending to a remarkable period of American history.

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].