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].

Webster Certainly Belongs on the List of Our Greatest Senators

This 1853-dated bronze statue of Daniel Webster, measuring 29.75 inches, sold for $11,950 at a March 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) is perhaps best known for his book-length narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” (1928), about the Civil War abolitionist who raided the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown and a group of 20-plus co-conspirators captured several buildings and weapons they hoped to use to start a slave uprising.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee led a contingent of Marines to quell the insurgency. Brown was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Harpers Ferry was at a busy crossroads, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and was the site of at least eight skirmishes while changing hands several times during the Civil War.

Benét also authored “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), a fictional story about a farmer who sells his soul to the devil (Mr. Scratch) and then refuses to pay up even after receiving a three-year extension on the agreement. Benét has Webster defend him in court due to his prodigious real-life record as a famous lawyer, statesman and orator. There are many other films, books and stories about similar Faustian-type bargains, but the use of Daniel Webster was a brilliant choice due to his superior debating skills and outstanding oratory.

In Benét’s trial, despite overwhelming evidence, the jury finds in favor of Mr. Webster’s client.

In virtually every aspect, the real-life Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was almost a true larger-than-life character, at least in American politics and especially in the formative era between 1812 and the Civil War. He played a critical role in virtually every significant issue confronting the new United States government.

Webster had no equal as an orator, either in those turbulent times or in the 200 years since then. Whether in the Supreme Court (240-plus cases), the U.S. Senate, or out on the political stump, he was simply the finest; a golden-tounged spellbinder. He enthralled audiences three to four hours at a time, always in defense of the Union and the sacred U.S. Constitution.

He generated almost god-like respect and was universally considered to be a cinch to be president; particularly in his own mind. His weakness was aligning with the Whigs and a seemingly improvident inability to manage personal finances (and alcohol, as usual). He was also an elitist at a time when Andrew Jackson’s brand of populism was growing, much like the present. He was often referred to as “Black Dan” because of his political conniving.

He missed a perfect chance to be president by refusing to run as vice president in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, who defeated Martin Van Buren but died 31 days after his inauguration.

1841 was the first “Year of Three Presidents.” It began with the defeated Van Buren, followed by Harrison, and then Vice President John Tyler, who had himself sworn in immediately as president after a brief Constitutional crisis following Harrison’s death.

This phenomenon occurred again in 1881. After Rutherford B. Hayes finished his term, new President James A. Garfield took over. When Garfield succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in September, VP Chester A. Arthur moved into the White House … this time with little controversy.

So Daniel Webster never realized his ambition to become president, but any time there is a discussion about our greatest senators, you may be assured that Daniel Webster will be on everyone’s Top 5, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun … two more who never quite got to wear the Presidential Crown. Sadly, we do not have any actual recordings of these great orators, but it is tantalizing to think of them in today’s contemporary politics and to judge them in this age of new media.

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].

For President Johnson, Goal was Reached with ‘Great Society’ Legislation

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A complete set of 50 pens President Johnson used to sign “Great Society” legislation in 1965 sold for $18,750 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Whether Lyndon B. Johnson intended to run a second time for the presidency (after his 1964 election) is uncertain. Many of his predecessors had made it clear that one elected term was enough.

Theodore Roosevelt made a campaign promise not to run again for president and regretted it so much that he later ran anyway (in 1912). Rutherford B. Hayes never intended to run more than once (and was happy he hadn’t), and neither did Harry Truman or Calvin Coolidge. Except for TR, these men were no longer popular by the end of their first elected term, and it most likely would have been a waste of time.

So it was with LBJ. On March 31, 1968, he took the nation by surprise when he announced abruptly in a televised address from his office, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Johnson had even spoken of resigning, but if anything deterred him, it was the fear of losing his “Great Society” programs in Congress. Even the media-fueled support for Robert Kennedy was threatening, because Johnson never trusted him and was leery of his lack of power with Congress to be sure the programs got enacted. Johnson cared more about his agenda than the presidency.

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President Johnson signs legislation.

Then, shortly after his retirement speech, came the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April) and Kennedy (June), which stirred even more violence in the streets. The military was on stand-by and ready to pour into Washington if rioting was too much for the police. For the man in the White House, the outside world was a horror show and the idea of returning to his ranch grew more appealing. A long-time colleague from the old days, Congressman Jack Brooks, said the president did not seek reelection because he “kind of wanted to get back home,” adding for those who might not understand, “It’s not so bad out on the ranch, you know.”

Some presidents depart the White House invigorated, but most leave exhausted. For LBJ, the office had drained his vigor and confidence. He also believed that history would never give him credit for achieving the most powerful social agenda since Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was Johnson’s political skill that made it happen, not JFK, but Johnson believed that somehow the applause would inevitably go to his more popular predecessor. Sadly, he was right, but in recent years, a more balanced narrative has evolved.

Republicans nominated Richard Nixon in August 1968 and the Democrats chose VP Hubert Humphrey. LBJ did not attend the convention to share Humphrey’s triumph since he didn’t want to add any Vietnam War baggage to the ticket. During the campaign, the war flared on and LBJ was still impassioned to end it. On Oct. 31, just days before the election, he even announced a halt to the bombing, but it was too late.

On Jan. 14, 1969, President Johnson delivered his final State of the Union to Congress. It was strong, pragmatic and well-received by his old Senate colleagues – and in a venue where he was very comfortable.

Then it was time to pack up and head back to Texas.

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].

Looking Back, President Ford’s Pardon was the Right Thing to Do

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A first edition copy of Gerald Ford’s 1979 autobiography A Time to Heal, inscribed to Caspar Weinberger, sold for nearly $900 at a February 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, accepting conviction for income tax violations in lieu of facing trial on bribery charges, the door to the White House swung open to Gerald R. Ford.

The Constitution’s 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, came into use for the first time. It provided that a vacancy in the office of vice president could be filled by nomination by the president and confirmation by both houses of Congress. President Richard Nixon, reeling from the twin blows of the Watergate scandals and the Agnew bribery charges, began a frantic scramble to fill the vacancy with someone acceptable to the public and whom Congress would quickly approve. He also needed someone he could trust as unquestionably loyal.

Ford’s nomination was announced by Nixon on Oct. 12, 1973, barely two weeks before the House Judiciary Committee began formal proceedings to determine whether Nixon should be impeached. Nobody in Congress could dig up a smidgen of impropriety regarding Ford and the House approved his nomination 387-35 on Dec. 6 after a Senate vote of 92-3 on Nov. 27. During the hearings, Ford was asked if he would pardon Nixon should he resign and GRF replied, “I do not think the public would stand for it.”

A short but tumultuous eight months later, Ford became the 38th president of the United States in a moment of high drama at noon on Aug. 9, 1974. Shortly before, the nation had been glued to the TV as Nixon became the first president in history to resign. He departed the White House after a tearful farewell to his staff. A few minutes later, the cameras turned to Ford, the first vice president to ascend to the presidency by appointment.

Ford was sworn in on the same East Room platform where Nixon had stood moments earlier, although the White House was not the usual place for a swearing-in ceremony. Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in before the fireplace in the Red Room, FDR’s fourth term began on the South Portico, and Harry S. Truman had taken the oath in the Cabinet Room. By then, the Nixons were on Air Force One headed for San Clemente. When the clock struck noon, the designation of the plane was dropped.

Within a week of Ford’s swearing in, documents were being hauled out by Nixon staffers in “suitcases and boxes” every day. Working late on Aug. 16, Benton Becker, Ford’s legal counsel, observed a number of military trucks lined up on West Executive Avenue, between the West Wing and the Executive Office Building. Upon inquiry, he was told they were there “to load material that was to be airlifted from Andrews Air Force Base to San Clemente.” Sensing something was wrong, Becker got the Secret Service to intervene and the trucks were unloaded and the material returned to the EOB. Soon, an armed guard was stationed there to protect them.

Perhaps one last ploy by Tricky Dick, à la the 17 minutes of recording “accidentally” erased. We will never know. But we do know that the Ford-Nixon pardon that caused such a national outrage has finally been judged the prudent thing to do … finally.

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].

President Garfield’s Successor Had No Public Service, Military Experience

 

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James Abram Garfield was born into abject poverty but rose to the highest office in the land.

By Jim O’Neal

James A. Garfield was the second president to be assassinated, serving only 200 days as chief executive. For 80 of those days, he lay near death with a bullet lodged in his spinal area. He finally died after a bevy of doctors probed for the bullet with their germ-laden hands and instruments (the X-ray was 14 years in the future). He succumbed to the massive infection they unwittingly created.

The last president elected who was born in a log cabin, Garfield was a self-made man in the tradition of Horatio Alger (who was then at the height of his popularity). He worked as a canal boat boy at 17, became a college president at 26, and was the youngest general in the Union Army at age 30. After 17 years in the House and Senate, he became the leader of the Republican Party and was one of the finest orators of that era.

His predecessor, President Rutherford B. Hayes, wrote: “The truth is no man ever started so low that accomplished so much in all our history … not Franklin or Lincoln … He is the ideal candidate because he is the ideal self-made man.”

After being sworn in on the Capitol steps on March 4, 1881, the 49-year-old Garfield’s first act was to turn and kiss his aged mother … the first time a president’s mom was present at an inauguration.

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Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur, on the other hand, had never been elected to public office before becoming Garfield’s vice president, and he also had no leadership experience from the military. This was a first in American politics, where the word “politician” had become synonymous with “corrupt.” He was known as “The Gentleman Boss” of the Republican Party in New York City, always behind the scenes building the organization and managing the elections of others.

Only two years earlier, President Hayes had made Arthur the symbol of the evils of patronage by dismissing him as Collector of the Port of New York – an action hailed as a triumph of reform. No wonder that even a leading Republican exclaimed, “Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God!”

The White House that greeted the new President Arthur was weathered by months of grief. Early autumn rains had soaked the crepe, sending streaks of black dye running down the chalky white walls. There had been no president in the White House for a month, and when Arthur examined the entire house, the disarray was depressing, with pipes for cooling still cluttering the floors upstairs, canvas pipes stretched up the stairwell, and others poking into the heating vents. Baggy summer slipcovers and naked, shuttered windows were everywhere. Some of the walls and ceilings were stripped and partially sanded, just as the painters had left them.

The wealthy new president took over the pathetic renovation that was under way and hired designer Louis Tiffany to renovate it completely in art nouveau style. He also added the elevator that had been ordered for Garfield. It was obviously not electric and required an elaborate hydraulic system that proved the source of endless problems.

Happily, all of the cleanup was completed – and the new president decided to clean up the civil service system, as well. He pledged to Congress to support any reasonable merit system they thought was practical and kept his word by signing into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act on Jan. 16, 1883.

It is probably time to take another look at the current system, since a little sunlight is a good disinfectant.

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].