Today is Chester A. Arthur's 185th birthday. He’s of those rare vice presidents who ascended to the Oval Office yet still remains largely obscure.
Arthur came to office in the middle of a national tragedy. While walking through Union Station, the newly inaugurated President James Garfield, America’s first and only completely ambidextrous president, was gunned down by grade-A loony Charles Giteau. During the trial, Giteau argued that he just shot the president; the doctors actually killed him. And while this didn’t prove to be a compelling argument for the jury – Giteau was hanged – he probably had a point. President Reagan suffered from similar wounds one hundred years later at the hands of a love-struck John Hinckley Jr., but unlike Garfield, Reagan was back at work a couple weeks later. When Garfield’s doctor Dr. Willard Bliss – who was suspicious of Joseph Lister’s newfangled theories about germs – tended to the bleeding commander-in-chief, he jammed his horse manure-flecked fingers into the presidential wound, hoping to dig out the bullet. This is probably what killed him. Garfield lingered for three months before dying of blood poisoning, among other things.
At the time, the Republican Party was split between two factors. The Stalwarts, led by New York City kingpin Roscoe Conkling, who really, really liked handing out patronage jobs, and the unfortunately named Half-Breeds, who were not into patronage jobs. Arthur was a Stalwart. Garfield was not.
Giteau, who was dubbed “Charles Getout” at the Oneida free love commune before he was thrown out, came to Washington to look for a patronage job. When he was rebuffed, he figured he might have a better chance with a Stalwart in office. As he shot Garfield, he reportedly shouted, “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”
Arthur’s crowning achievement as president was signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which (in theory) awarded government jobs according to ability not political affiliation. After Garfield’s assassination, Civil Service reform became, not surprisingly, a pressing issue on both sides of the aisle.
Arthur presided at a time when the political battles of the day seem distant and hard to fathom. Perhaps that’s why he is barely remembered today. But when Arthur died in 1886, none other than Mark Twain praised his term. “[I]t would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration.”