As President Garfield lay dying, his vice-president Chester Arthur tried to avoid being seen in public. Arthur was initially blamed for Garfield’s death. Of course it didn’t help that Garfield’s killer wrote to congratulate him on becoming president!
In addition, Arthur and Garfield had a strained relationship. As vice-president he opposed Garfield’s defiance of Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had helped Arthur get a post as New York’s Customs Collector during the Grant administration. While Arthur was never charged with corruption, he cheerfully allowed it. When he was fired from his post by the reform minded President Hayes, Arthur became the president of New York’s Republican committee.
Official Presidential Portrait of Chester A. Arthur, 1885
Despite the rumors Arthur didn’t want to become president. He genuinely wept when Garfield died. The job bored him so much that he lived for fishing and vacations.
Yet Arthur was determined to clean up his image. He decided to break with his old cronies and actually expanded civil service reform. He also took an interest in preserving the country’s natural resources and was especially concerned with deforestation in the West.
One of the few things Garfield enjoyed about being president was entertaining. He sold almost anything in the White House in order to pay for redecorating projects and hired Tiffany’s to help. Once he thought the place was presentable, the president held black tie dinners every week. The dinners included up to 14 courses and various wines. He had no hostess, though. His wife died before he became president.
Arthur could not run for re-election because he had contracted Bright’s disease. He died soon after leaving office.
Official Presidential Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes is the first in my new series of frequently forgotten U.S. Presidents.
Like President Grant, Hayes had personal integrity, but his presidency was tainted by the very corruption he deplored. During the 1876 presidential election Hayes’ Republican supporters disputed the electoral votes in a few southern states. Republicans promised that Hayes would withdraw federal troops in those states if elected, which he did.
The southern states did not keep their promise to grant civil rights to blacks, however. Though he made other reforms, Hayes’ troop withdrawal delayed the civil rights movement until the 20th century.
The circumstances of his election caused some to label Hayes as “His Fraudulence.” Hayes did gain some support from the public by promoting civil service reform. He signed an executive order that stated that people in public office would be fired only in the best interest of the government regardless of their political affiliations. Hayes followed through on this by firing future Republican president Chester Arthur who used his position at the New York Customs House to help other Republicans.
Though he had pledged to serve only one term, he couldn’t have run again if he wanted to because so many Republicans were angered by his efforts to root out corruption. He managed to accomplish some changes, however.
He had the first telephone installed and was the first president to have a college-educated wife. He and “Lemonade Lucy” banned alcohol from White House dinners. After leaving office he became one of the most active ex-presidents, supporting causes like black education and prison reform.