Cake’s Presidential Quickies: Chet Arthur

Today’s Chief Executive is Chester (or Chet, as I like to call him) Arthur, the 21st President of the United States. He was succeeded by a Grover, a Teddy, a Bennie, two Willies and a Woody and preceded by an Abraham, a Ulysses and a Rutherford. This places Chet near the pinnacle of the Era of Presidents with Stupid First Names.

Arthur was born in Vermont, although Ye Olde Infowars (they’ve been around forever) posited a theory that he was actually born in Canada, which would have made him ineligible for the presidency.

We’ll come back to this.

Arthur moved to New York when he was 14 and eventually moved into state politics. He rose to become the Collector of the Port of New York, which in those days before civil service reform was an immensely powerful patronage position; he had thousands of employees who served at his whim, and therefore were apt to support whatever political party or cause Arthur backed.

Chet rose to the presidency through some of the strangest circumstances in history.

First, the Republican convention deadlocked between James Blaine and John Sherman for 34 ballots. James Garfield was Sherman’s campaign manager, and after the 34th ballot Garfield rose to give a speech in support of his candidate.

From all reports, this speech was a work of art; because of it, Garfield got 50 votes on the next ballot and got a majority on the 36th, against his will. Remember, he was Sherman’s campaign manager.

Arthur was attractive as a running mate for the Republicans because (1) he would geographically balance the ticket after the GOP chose Garfield — who was from Ohio — and (2) he could raise a bazillion dollars in campaign contributions due to his Port of New York Collector position.

This was about this time that Ye Olde Infowars started the whispering campaign that Arthur was not born in the US and therefore ineligible to be vice president. The rumors were largely ignored at this point.

Garfield was elected and then, a few months later, was shot in the back by rejected jobseeker Michael Flynn Charles Guiteau. Ironically, Garfield wasn’t badly hurt in the shooting, but as a result of his doctors probing the wound with unsterilized instruments, he developed a massive infection and died.

Arthur took office and, much to everyone’s surprise, was quite a good president. He signed the Pendleton Act reforming the civil service and approved the first steam-powered battleships, moving the US Navy finally out of the Age of Sail.

On the downside, Chet signed the Chinese Exclusion Act barring all immigration from China for ten years. To be fair, though, he vetoed an earlier version that would have banned Chinese immigration for 20 years.

By all accounts, Chet was much more interested in fine dining and good cigars than actually being President. He was widely mocked as “Prince Arthur” early in his term and rumors persisted that he was born in Canada (stoked by you-know-who), but by the end of his administration he was generally well regarded.

Chet made only a token attempt to win re-election; he suffered from serious kidney disease and died only two years after the end of his term.

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