Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "Presidents"
[Vice President Wilson claims] Grant is now more unpopular than Andrew Johnson was in his darkest days; that Grant’s appointments [have] been getting worse and worse; that he is still struggling for a third term; in short, that he is the millstone around the neck of our party that would sink it out of sight.

Congressman James Garfield (R-OH), on the declining popularity of President Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow Republican and Ohio native, during the latter half of Grant’s second term in the White House, according to information Grant’s Vice President Henry Wilson shared with Garfield in January 1875.

While President Grant remained personally honest, scandals and corruption had tainted his Administration due to the Civil War hero’s poor judgment when it came to his political appointments. As the upcoming 1876 Presidential election approached it appeared as if Grant would break with tradition and seek an unprecedented third term in the White House. Vice President Wilson was one of the members of Grant’s party interested in succeeding him, but Wilson died in office in November 1875.

Eventually, Grant stepped aside and Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes won the Republican nominee for President in 1876. A controversial and bitterly-disputed election between Hayes and Democrat nominee Samuel J. Tilden was only decided by a 15-person Electoral Commission which awarded the Presidency to Hayes on a straight party-line vote (8 Republicans to 7 Democrats) just two days before Inauguration Day 1877. Garfield was one of the eight Republican members of the Electoral Commission.

In 1880, President Hayes delivered on an early pledge to only serve one term in the White House and the Republican National Convention kicked off in Chicago with General Grant the favorite for the nomination as he sought a third term in office. Garfield attended the convention as the leader of the delegation supporting the candidacy of Treasury Secretary John Sherman, a longtime Ohio Senator and the younger brother of Grant’s Civil War colleague and friend, General William Tecumseh Sherman. The convention soon became deadlocked as supporters of Grant and James G. Blaine unsuccessfully attempted to break through the logjam from ballot-to-ballot. Although Garfield had not intended to seek the nomination for himself, his name began to pop up as balloting continued but didn’t gain a foothold until nearly three dozen ballots had taken place.

Garfield continued to insist that he was not a candidate and remained loyal to Sherman’s efforts, but the convention’s 34th ballot witnessed movement in Garfield’s favor as delegates began to see the dark horse as an acceptable compromise candidate who might be able to bring the paralyzed convention to a conclusion. On the 36th ballot, James G. Blaine’s supporters, eager to stymie Grant’s hopes, threw their support behind Garfield, making him the unexpected Presidential nominee in the longest GOP convention up to that point in history. Garfield would go on to be elected President in November 1880, was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, was shot by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881, and lingered for weeks before finally dying on September 19, 1881, at the age of 49 and just 199 days into his Presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, playing with his friend, Rosewell Flower Pinckney, 1902.

Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, playing with his friend, Rosewell Flower Pinckney, 1902.

Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.

In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.

In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:


On the next page, the dedication continued with a lengthy inscription beginning:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.

Hawthorne’s dedication ended with:
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE

Our Old Home was subtitled A Series of English Sketches and much of the book had been inspired (and written) by Hawthorne’s time as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, which allowed him to not only write, but to travel the English countryside. The Atlantic Monthly had published the manuscript as a serial, and editor James T. Fields was at the front of the queue demanding that Hawthorne drop any connection of the book with Pierce. Rather than scrubbing his idea of dedicating Our Old Home to Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared his undying friendship and appreciation for his friend with his inscription, in the strongest words possible. Understanding all of the accusations being made about Pierce, Hawthorne even offered a defense of his friend’s loyalty, reminding his readers that Franklin Pierce had spent nearly his entire adult life in public service and that the 14th President inherited his patriotism from his father, Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and early Governor of New Hampshire.

To Fields, Hawthorne responded, “I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.” Hawthorne stood his ground and the dedication remained once Our Old Home was published. Many others, however, did tear out the pages referencing Pierce, including Ralph Waldo Emerson who tore the dedication out of the copy he received directly from Hawthorne before allowing the book to join his personal library. It wasn’t just Our Old Home which was unpopular; Hawthorne wrote, “My friends have dropped off from me like autumn leaves,” to one of those who remained by his side.

Another who remained at his side was Franklin Pierce. In December 1863, Pierce’s long-suffering wife, Jane, died after years of lingering illnesses. Pierce was lonely when he was married — when a friend once asked him how the gregarious, fun-loving politician could marry someone with as such an opposite personality as Jane, Pierce answered, “I could take better care of her than anyone else was the reply.”. Life as a widower added to that loneliness, as well as the fact that his neighbors in Concord, New Hampshire shunned him, his political career allies had deserted him years ago, and one of his closest friends happened to be the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellious states then engaged with the Union in a bloody Civil War — Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It didn’t help that Pierce’s alcoholism was taking a severe toll on his health. But, as the dedication in Our Old Home had proven, Pierce still had Hawthorne at his side, too.

Hawthorne was at Pierce’s side in Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 as Jane was laid to rest. Pierce was devastated by his wife’s death, and Hawthorne was disturbed by seeing Jane in her open casket — he recognized that he, too, was nearing death. Hawthorne’s health had been failing for years and he had less than six months to live. As Jane’s casket was being lowered into her grave at Old North Cemetery, the grieving former President was thankful for his friend’s presence, but clearly worried about Hawthorne’s physical condition. At Jane’s graveside, Pierce took the time to adjust Hawthorne’s collar for him to keep him warm in the cold December wind of New Hampshire.

"Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!" — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

In the spring of 1864, Hawthorne continued to decline. Stomach pain plagued him chronically, but he hoped that a trip to the White Mountains would be good for his health and asked Pierce to accompany him. Hawthorne’s friends worried that he was making a mistake by traveling in his physical condition and remained bitterly opposed to Hawthorne’s continuing connection with Pierce. But Hawthorne dismissed any concerns and his wife, Sophia, was supportive of the trip. Sophia, however, warned Pierce of how ill his friend really was and wrote, “He really needs to be aided in getting in and out of carriages, because his eyes are so affected by this weakness, and his steps are so uncertain.” In her letter of May 6, 1864, Sophia continued, “I would not trust him in any hands now excepting just such gentle and tender hands as yours,” and, “God bless you fear General Pierce for your aid in this strait.”

After meeting Hawthorne in Boston, the two friends traveled to Pierce’s home in Concord to wait for the weather to improve before beginning their journey into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hawthorne was gaunt, weak, and clearly dying, but in good spirits as they traveled from PIerce’s home to Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Pierce and Hawthorne arrived at the first-class Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about 100 miles from Dixville Notch. In the evening, Hawthorne had a bit of food and a cup of tea, fell asleep for an hour on a couch and then woke up and retired to his room. Pierce described the next few hours in a letter to Sidney Webster in 1868:

Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. To Webster, Pierce noted that as they were traveling by carriage to the Pemagewasset House earlier that day, Hawthorne asked him if he had read William Makepeace Thackeray’s account of death and “remarked in a low, soliloquizing tone, what a boon it would be if, when life draws to its close, one could pass away without a struggle.” Closing his letter to Webster describing Hawthorne’s final hours, he wrote, “The boon of which he spoke in the afternoon had, before morning’s dawn, been graciously granted to him. He had passed from natural sleep to that from which there is no earthly waking, without the slightest struggle, evidently without moving a muscle.”

Pierce notified Sophia Hawthorne by telegram and made arrangements for Hawthorne’s return to Massachusetts, accompanying the body of the legendary author in a solemn conclusion to their final journey together. As he was packing up their belongings, he found a pocketbook that felt empty, opened it up and found that Hawthorne carried a photograph of Franklin Pierce with him everywhere he went.

At Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce’s friendship with Hawthorne and care of the author in his final days was overlooked by Hawthorne’s other friends, who still shunned the former President due to political differences. Pierce was heartbroken that he was passed over and not included as a pallbearer. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of less controversial names like Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce’s was treated with respect as a former President of the United States, but nothing beyond what was required for proper society. To most of the people at the funeral, Pierce wasn’t the man who Hawthorne chose to spend his final days with; to them, he was a Northern President whose Southern sympathies had led them to Civil War. To them, Franklin Pierce wasn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best friend; to them, he was a close friend of Jefferson Davis at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate abolitionists. Franklin Pierce’s closest ally at Hawthorne’s funeral was the man lying in the casket, and all he could do was sprinkle apple blossoms into the grave.

"I need not tell you how lonely I am, and how full of sorrow," Pierce wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, shortly after Hawthorne’s death. Still devastated by Jane’s passing and now without Hawthorne, Pierce increasingly turned to the bottle. Drinking was punishing his body, and he began to decline. By the end, on October 8, 1868, Pierce was suffering from liver failure and reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds. Hawthorne stood by Pierce until the end, Pierce accompanied Hawthorne in the author’s final hours, but in the former President’s remaining years, he was increasingly lonely. He had been able to visit his other famous friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, shortly before Davis was released from prison, but that was the last time they saw each other. The war, politics, and time had taken a toll on Pierce’s health and reputation, no matter his years of public service as a State Legislator, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, or President of the United States. His dear friend Hawthorne had once written, "A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world," and Franklin Pierce could not overcome his political failures or personal demons. In the end he died alone, but linked (or remaining in "concord"), in a way, to Hawthorne by their hometowns and final resting places — Pierce is buried in Concord, New Hampshire and Hawthorne is buried in Concord, Massachusetts.

People always ask me to recommend which history Tumblrs I find interesting, and I want to point out that the curator of the Benjamin Harrison Tumblr, General Harrison, does an awesome job with everything posted. I’ve mentioned other history-themed Tumblrs in this space before, but General Harrison deserves special recognition.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
A few questions about the Chennault affair: 1) Why did LBJ not blow the whistle, from the LBJ expert? 2) Did it make any difference in the war? My take is no-one thing that is rather overlooked is how scrupulously Hanoi and Saigon mutually paid attention to US politics, certainly more than we did to theirs, and this is crucial in October 1968 with the bombing halt. But, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion. 3) How could Nixon justify it to himself? Did he think he was doing anything wrong?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

All good questions.

1. LBJ worried about the repercussions throughout the country if he exposed what was going on. Remember, this being 1968, the country was in a great deal of turmoil. I think LBJ worried that he’d be tossing a lit match into a country already soaked in gasoline which desperately needed stability, no matter who was elected. Just trying to neatly explain the whole deal would be difficult, as well, because the Chennault affair was quite complicated and the fact that Nixon might have secretly sabotaged the peace talks would require some hardcore evidence if it was the President of the United States publicly making the accusation.

First and foremost, LBJ would have to explain how this information came to his attention, and any of those revelations would have caused outrage. Was it from the fact that the United States was spying on the South Vietnamese, our supposed allies? Was it from spying the North Vietnamese or the Chinese? Was it from the fact that the U.S. had wiretapped the phones of Anna Chennault, a naturalized American citizen and working journalist? Was it possibly from wiretaps that allowed the Johnson Justice Department or FBI or whomever to listen in on phone calls made by the Republican Presidential nominee (Nixon) and the Republican Vice Presidential nominee (Spiro Agnew) as well as their top aides (mainly future Attorney General John Mitchell)? Perhaps it was a little bit of all of those things. No matter what, the answer wasn’t pretty, and it wouldn’t have been a smooth ride for President Johnson either.

On top of all that, any revelation by LBJ would have come late in October 1968, and it would have come across as a blatant October Surprise, even if it was absolutely right to blow the whistle. Again, the country was in turmoil, LBJ had made the decision not to run again in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June, and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination and police brutality during the Democratic National Convention were still fresh in American minds. It could have been seen as a last-gasp effort by LBJ to hold on to power by making these very serious allegations — LBJ privately used the word “treason” — in the hope of winning the election for Hubert H. Humphrey just a few days later.

2. No, it didn’t really make a difference in the war, and it probably didn’t make a difference in the peace talks, either. They were stalled and I doubt there was going to be a magical change of events before the election. As you mentioned, the Vietnamese on both sides of the war were not clueless about the Presidential election. I’m pretty sure that both sides were wanting to see if they could get an even better deal from Nixon if he won the election without having to be pushed in that direction. If Nixon hadn’t come to the table with an even better offer once he was inaugurated, the Vietnamese could have reverted back to the previous deal agreed upon under the Johnson Administration because it was no secret that the United States wanted to end the war and end it quickly. Our government — throughout history — has been naive, over and over again, in thinking that our political process and the events taking place in American politics aren’t observed as closely by other countries or governments as we observe them.

3. I think Richard Nixon was probably one of the most brilliant men to ever serve as President but — like Bill Clinton, who is also near the top of the list when it comes to most intelligent Presidents — he couldn’t help doing stupid things. Sometimes, when you’re smarter than almost everybody else, you do dumb things because you believe others wouldn’t think you’d ever do something so dumb. People like that can justify anything to themselves. I can tell you exactly how Nixon probably justified it to himself. He likely told himself that he lost to JFK in 1960 because of dirty tricks in Illinois and in Texas, LBJ’s home state, but that he kept quiet about it. He probably told himself that LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and that LBJ was unfairly (in Nixon’s mind) placing the power of the Presidency behind Hubert H. Humphrey (who happened to be Vice President, an even closer way to tie him to the Administration) and would do everything he could to defeat Nixon, just as the Kennedys and their allies had done in 1960. He probably decided that if dirty tricks were going to be played, he wasn’t going to get beat again and sent back into the corporate world like after 1960. And after telling himself all of these things, Nixon had convinced himself that the world was against him, that his back was against the wall, that the Democrats were once again trying to yank the Presidency from his hands, and that it was not going to happen this time. 

Listen, if I think about something long enough and run it over in my head again-and-again, I can justify just about anything to myself and convince myself that it is in my best interests. And I’m not nearly as brilliant as Nixon was, and I’d like to think that I’m not nearly as vindictive, either. Nixon was on a whole different level, in terms of intelligence, resentment, or ruthlessness.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Have you read The Alienist by Caleb Carr?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

No, I haven’t read The Alienist (BOOK | KINDLE). I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but that’s solely because I simply don’t have enough time to read all of the non-fiction books that I want and need to read, so it’s hard to squeeze in a genre that isn’t at the top of my list. The premise of the book sounds interesting, though, set during Theodore Roosevelt’s time as Police Commissioner in New York City.

There is a great non-fiction book on that subject and era, however, that I would highly recommend: Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks (BOOK | KINDLE). Anyone interested on TR’s time as NYC’s Police Commissioner (or those of you who might have read the The Alienist and found the idea to be fascinating) should check out Island of Vice.

Asker bbkld Asks:
What did Nixon do during the first week after his resignation?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Oddly, he had one hell of a dance party. Now, you won’t find many sources that confirm this, but believe me, as soon he got back to La Casa Pacifica, Richard Milhous Nixon cranked up some Tony Orlando & Dawn and got the fuck down. And he really didn’t stop dancing until he decided that he needed to get focused and prepare himself for the Frost/Nixon interviews. In 1977. So, he basically danced until Jimmy Carter was inaugurated. Don’t get me wrong, though — Dick Nixon wasn’t dancing out of joy; Dick Nixon danced out of pain. 

That speech he made out there was better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best — it was better than Lincoln. I think — really think — that he is a man of destiny.
Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, on John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan visiting the tomb of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on the tenth anniversary of his death, June 5, 2014.

Mrs. Reagan turned 93 years old on July 6th.

It was about two hours after midnight on September 20, 1881, and not unusual for the resident of 123 Lexington Avenue in New York City to be up at such a late hour, or to have plenty of guests.  In fact, he preferred to keep late hours, entertaining friends deep into the night with late-night dinners, drinks, and endless conversation.  Yet, on this night, 123 Lexington Avenue was somber and the mood was grave.  Just a few hours earlier — at 11:30 PM — a messenger knocked on the door of Vice President Chester Alan Arthur’s Manhattan brownstone and handed Arthur a telegram.  Surrounded by a few friends and colleagues, Arthur read that President James Garfield, just 49 years old and in office for barely six months, had died in a beach cottage at Elberon, New Jersey.  Turning to his friends in his sitting room, Arthur said, “I hope — my God, I do hope it is a mistake.”   

On July 2nd, President Garfield was shot twice and seriously wounded by Charles Guiteau as he walked through the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. with Secretary of State James G. Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (son of Abraham Lincoln) en route to a speaking engagement at his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts.  Guiteau was a disgruntled, disturbed, and delusional office-seeker who had been pleading for an appointment as consul to Paris despite an absence of diplomatic and political experience and a complete lack of qualifications.  Hounding Garfield throughout the early months of an administration that had just begun on March 4, 1881, Guiteau’s constant harassment of the new President finally resulted in Secretary Blaine ordering Guiteau to never return to the White House again.  Guiteau felt that he had been entitled to some office, particularly an ambassadorship, and was terribly upset that Garfield and his cabinet members refused to consider his requests.  Blaine’s order to stay away drove Guiteau to purchase an ivory-handled .44 British Bulldog revolver (specifically chosen because Guiteau felt that particular firearm would look good in a museum) and he began stalking Garfield throughout Washington before finally shooting him in the rail station two days before Independence Day 1881.  As police arrested him, Guiteau shouted, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…Arthur is President now!”.

But, Arthur wasn’t President; not yet at least.  Garfield was a physically robust man and relatively young in comparison to most Presidents.  While one bullet had lodged in Garfield’s spine, the other bullet grazed his arm and caused no significant damage.  While it appeared that he was gravely ill immediately following the shooting, Garfield’s vital signs soon started to improve and the American people began to get their hopes up about a full recovery.  A vigil of sorts was underway as President Garfield convalesced in the White House, and his doctors issued regular bulletins updating his condition.  Garfield’s doctors also poked and prodded with unsterilized instruments and dirty fingers to attempt to locate the bullet still inside of his body.  Had they left it alone, Garfield almost certainly would have survived; his wounds were significantly less dangerous than those survived by Ronald Reagan 100 years later.  However, the unnecessary poking and prodding resulted in a serious infection that ravaged Garfield’s body, weakened his heart, left the muscular, 215-pound President emaciated, weighing less than 135 pounds, and turned the 49-year-old Garfield’s dark brown beard and hair a ghastly white color.  Fighting for his life in the sweltering summer heat of Washington, on September 6th it was finally agreed upon to transport Garfield to a cottage on the Jersey Shore in hopes that he could benefit from the fresh ocean air.  Sadly, it was too late.  The infections were accompanied by blood poisoning and pneumonia, among other ailments.  On September 19th at 10:35 PM, Garfield suffered a massive heart attack and was pronounced dead.  An hour later the messenger arrived at 123 Lexington Avenue.


The Vice Presidency was a stretch.  Chet Arthur of New York as Vice President?  When offered the Republican Vice Presidential nomination by James Garfield in 1880, Chester Arthur was urged by his political mentor, Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling, to decline the appointment.  Arthur, a man who had never spent a day in Congress or been elected to any office at any level, refused.  The Vice Presidency was certainly a stretch, but President of the United States?  That was an almost frightening thought to a nation still recovering from Civil War and desperately seeking civil service reform, especially now that a disgruntled office seeker had assassinated the President.  Arthur as President left a lot of Americans worried — some because Arthur’s political background was as the powerful and somewhat shady Collector of the Port of New York, appointed during the corrupt administration of President Ulysses S. Grant and eventually fired by President Rutherford B. Hayes during a housecleaning of corrupt institutions; and some because James Garfield’s murderer had claimed to be a Stalwart and, by his own words, insinuated that Garfield’s shooting might be a conspiracy on behalf of Arthur’s side of the divided Republican Party.

Chester Arthur was a creature of the era known as the “Gilded Age” and was the symbolic mascot for the widespread political corruption of the 1870’s due to his position at the Port of New York.  Born in Vermont in 1829, Arthur was the son of a preacher and grew up mostly in upstate New York, graduated from Schenectady’s Union College in 1848, briefly taught school while studying law, and was admitted to the bar in 1854.  As his law practice grew in the 1850’s, Arthur immersed himself in New York Republican politics yet never ran for office.  A political appointee to the New York State Militia, he found himself serving during the Civil War and his superb organizational skills led to quick promotions all the way to quartermaster general in 1862, a position which carried the rank of brigadier.  As a political appointee to the militia, however, Arthur served at the pleasure of the Governor of New York and was forced to resign in 1862 when a Democratic Governor took office.  Returning to New York City, Arthur resumed his law practice and political gamesmanship.  More appointments came his way as he supported Republican candidates throughout the state and worked on national campaigns such as President Lincoln’s 1864 bid for re-election and Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 Presidential campaign. 

In 1871, President Grant appointed Arthur as Collector of customs at the Port of New York which gave Arthur responsibility for about 75% of the nation’s customs duties and was one of the most powerful patronage positions available in the United States government.  Arthur used his office to efficiently raise money for Republican campaigns and candidates, supporting President Grant’s 1872 re-election campaign by seeking contributions from his employees at the customhouse.  In 1876, Arthur championed his political mentor, Roscoe Conkling, for the Republican Presidential nomination, but supported Rutherford B. Hayes in the general election, once again using the employees at the customhouse to help raise money to finance the successful Republican campaign.  However, once Hayes was elected, the new President made it clear that he was serious about civil service reform and that meant reforming Arthur’s customhouse, too.  In 1877, Arthur testified before the Jay Commission, which was formed to investigate charges of corruption and eventually recommended that President Hayes reduce the workforce of the customhouse and eliminate the corrupt elements that had worked there for so long.  Due to Arthur’s longtime support of the Republican Party, President Hayes offered him an appointment as consul in Paris in order to quietly remove him from the Port of New York.  When Arthur refused the appointment, the President fired him and Arthur resumed his law practice in New York City.

When Arthur headed to the 1880 Republican National Convention at the Interstate Exposition Building in Chicago, it was as a New York delegate supporting the aspirations of former President Ulysses S. Grant who was coming out of retirement to seek an unprecedented third term.  However, neither of the front-runners for the nomination — Grant and Senator James G. Blaine of Maine — could capture enough votes from delegates to clinch the nomination.  After thirty-five ballots, Blaine and another prospective candidate, John Sherman of Ohio, threw their support behind a dark horse candidate — Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield.  On the next ballot, Garfield clinched the nomination and reached out to the opposing wing of the Republican party for his Vice Presidential choice.  The first choice, Levi P. Morton of New York (who would later serve as President Benjamin Harrison’s Vice President), declined Garfield’s offer, and Arthur — who had never previously held an elective office — excitedly accepted, much to the chagrin of his angry political mentor, Roscoe Conkling.  Not confident in Garfield’s chances for election, Conkling told Arthur, “You should drop it as you would a red hot shot from the forge.”  Arthur replied, “There is something else to be said,” and Conkling asked in disbelief, “What, sir, you think of accepting?”.  Despite the complaints and anger of Conkling, Arthur told him, “The office of Vice President is a greater honor than I have ever dreamed of attaining.  I shall accept.  In a calmer moment you will look at this differently.” 

Following the election, Arthur prepared to settle into the quiet role of Vice President during the 19th century.  The Vice President of the United States has only one real responsibility — to preside over the Senate and even that responsibility is normally delegated to Senators who rotate as presiding officer almost daily.  The powerful or even influential American Vice Presidency is a fairly recent evolution, not even 40 years old.  While some Vice Presidents were relied on for advice or counsel or given larger duties than others, most Vice Presidents were so far removed from the Executive Branch that they were not only kept out of the decision-making process, but also kept in the dark about certain information.  For example, when President Roosevelt died towards the end of World War II in 1945 and was succeeded by his Vice President, Harry Truman, he had to be quickly briefed about the existence of the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weaponry.  Still, the first Vice President to have an office in the White House was Walter Mondale and that didn’t occur until 1977, so in 1881, a Vice President was expected to preside over the Senate on special occasions, cast a tie-breaking vote when necessary, and be available to take the oath of office if the President happened to die or resign. 

Like most 19th century Vice Presidents, Chester Arthur didn’t spend much time in Washington, and he was returning to his regular home in New York City on July 2, 1881 when he stepped off a steamship with Roscoe Conkling and was told that President Garfield had been shot.  In fact, the message that Arthur received first erroneously reported that Garfield was already dead and at the request of Garfield’s Cabinet, the stunned Vice President immediately returned to Washington, D.C. to proceed with the next steps necessary to maintaining the continuity of government.  When Arthur arrived in Washington, President Garfield’s condition had improved and his recovery continued to show signs of promise as the Vice President and the nation prayed for him and held vigil throughout the summer.  Shaken by rumors that he and his “Stalwart” wing of the Republican Party conspired to assassinate Garfield, Arthur returned home to New York City, hesitant to invite criticism that his continued presence in Washington was merely an eager deathwatch so that he could grab power. 

Garfield clung to life for eighty excruciating days with doctors probing him in an effort to remove the bullet in his body, causing infections and leaving the President suffering from blood poisoning which led him to hallucinate at times.  The Navy helped rig together an early form of air conditioning in Garfield’s White House sickroom in order to give him relief from Washington’s stifling summer conditions.  When Garfield was taken by train to New Jersey in early-September, it was clear to many that the long vigil was nearly over.  More infections set in, along with pneumonia and painful spasms of angina.  When the messenger arrived at 123 Lexington Avenue just before midnight on September 20, 1881 to inform Arthur that President Garfield had died just 60 miles away, the new President wasn’t suprised, but he also wasn’t quite prepared.  The nation worried about the lifetime political operative stepping into the position being vacated by the promising President assassinated before he could enact the civil service reforms promised in his Inaugural Address.  What would Arthur — the quintessential patronage politician — do as President?  Nobody knew, but Chester Alan Arthur had an idea.


It was fitting that Arthur was surrounded by friends when he took the oath of office at his home in Manhattan at 2:15 AM on September 20, 1881.  Arthur’s beautiful wife, Nell, died of pneumonia in January 1880 and he was inconsolable for months, regretting for the rest of his life the fact that she never saw his election as Vice President or ascendancy to the Presidency.  People who knew Arthur stated that he clearly never fully recovered from her death, and that as a “deeply emotional…romantic person”, it was no surprise that he ordered that fresh flowers were placed before her portrait in the White House every day while he was President. 

Chester Arthur had a lot of friends.  That’s what happens when you control as many patronage positions as Arthur controlled for as long as Arthur controlled them.  But it wasn’t just his political position that gained him friends.  Arthur was a great storyteller, a man who loved to hunt and fish, kind, easy-going, charming, graceful, and smooth.  During his life he was nicknamed “Elegant Arthur” and is considered one of the most stylish of Presidents.  Photographs of Presidents from the 19th Century show us men no different than statues.  They dressed the same, the looked the same, and when portrayed in the black and white photos of the time, we feel no differently when we see their pictures than when we see a slab of marble carved in their image.  Arthur leaps out of his photographs, however.  He was a very large man for his era, standing 6’2” and weighing around 220 pounds during his Presidency.  Large muttonchops connected to a bushy mustache and his close-cropped, wavy brown hair seemed to pull back his forehead and place more emphasis on expressive black eyes that easily reflected his moods.  While it seems that most Presidents of the 19th century wore the same boring black suit and black tie like a uniform, Arthur’s ties are patterned, jewelry is visible, collars are crisp, handkerchiefs are folded creatively, and his lapels shine as if they were polished along with his shoes.  We see photographs of Arthur in fashionable overcoats, a wide variety of hats, and he employed a personal valet who helped the President change clothes for every occasion — he was said to have over 80 pairs of pants.

Most apparent of all is that Arthur was a gentleman — an interesting man with superb social skills and fastidious manners.  Even as one of the top operatives in New York’s Republican political machine of the corrupt 1870’s, he was nicknamed the “Gentleman Boss”.  As President, he brought entertainment back to the White House — something that had been missing on a large scale since before the Civil War twenty years earlier.  His predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, was one of the few critics of this development, stating that there was “nothing like it before in the Executive Mansion — liquor, snobbery, and worse.”  Arthur also redecorated the White House, hiring Louis Comfort Tiffany to help with the design.  To help raise money for the redecoration, Arthur basically held a White House yard sale.  On the lawn of the mansion, twenty-four wagons full of history (including a pair of Abraham Lincoln’s pants that were left behind in a closet) were sold to citizens.  To some, the items were priceless; to President Arthur, they were ugly and a man like Chester Arthur did not live in an ugly home.  Several weeks after Garfield died, Arthur got his first look at his new home and quickly stated, “I will not live in a house like this.”  He didn’t end up moving into the White House until three months into his Presidency.


After taking the oath of office at home in Manhattan in the early hours of September 20, 1881, now-President Arthur proceeded to Washington, D.C., stopping in Long Branch, New Jersey to pay respects to the late President Garfield and his grieving family.  Once Arthur succeeded to the Presidency upon Garfield’s death, there was no Vice President, no president pro tempore of the Senate, and no Speaker of the House (Congress had not elected its leadership yet), thus, there was no Constitutional line of succession.  If something had happened to Arthur at that moment, the United States would have faced an unprecedented Constitutional crisis.  As his first act as President, Arthur immediately called the Senate into session in order to select their leadership positions and place someone in the line of succession.  Upon arriving in Washington, Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh suggested that Arthur take a second oath of office and he did so at the U.S. Capitol on September 22nd in the presence of Garfield’s Cabinet, members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and former Presidents Grant and Hayes.

Americans worried about the former machine politician’s integrity were transformed quickly as Chester Arthur underwent somewhat of a transformation himself.  Widely considered a lapdog of New York’s Roscoe Conkling, Arthur broke ranks with the party boss and pushed for the same civil service reform championed by James Garfield prior to the assassination.  Arthur’s former associates in the New York Republican Party were disappointed when he declined their requests for political favors.  One former colleague sadly reported, “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore.  He’s the President.”  Arthur found that the transformation was almost automatic and out of his control, noting that “Since I came here I have learned that Chester A. Arthur is one man and the President of the United States is another.”  His old benefactor, Conkling was one critic of the new President, complaining “I have but one annoyance with the Administration of President Arthur and that is, in contrast with it, the Administration of Hayes becomes respectable, if not heroic.”  Arthur signed the Pendleton Act in 1883 with created a modern civil service system and eliminated the spoils system that had long dominated American politics.  This reform, which Conkling called “snivel service” was the final break between the longtime friends and colleagues.

To the American people, the great surprise of an Arthur Administration was the fact that it was clean, honest, and efficient.  Arthur helped lift the gloomy moods that had shadowed Washington through the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction, the corruption of the Gilded Age, and Garfield’s assassination.  His popularity rose throughout his term and most critics focused on his lavish entertainment or the fact that he was notoriously late for meetings and seemed bored or lethargic at times.  He often procrastinated — as a White House clerk once said, “President Arthur never did today what he could put off until tomorrow.”  Still, most Americans were happy with President Arthur and echoed the thoughts of Mark Twain who said, “I am but one in 55 million; still, in the opinion of those one-fifty-five-millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s Administration.”

He was bored, though.  President Arthur didn’t like being President.  He enjoyed the entertaining dinners that he could throw and loved public events or ceremonies that allowed him to meet the people of the United States, but the desk work was tedious and he wasn’t interested in policy.  Arthur stayed up late and seemed to vacation often, which perplexed many people because it was said that he was constantly exhausted.  What they didn’t know was that from almost the time he become President, Chester Arthur was dying.  In 1882, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney ailment at the time.  Despite reports that he was suffering from the disease, Arthur hid it from the public, desperately protecting his privacy, as always.  Arthur’s distaste for the Presidency probably stemmed in part from depression triggered by the Bright’s disease.  At times, Arthur suffered from debilitating illness and it was always covered with a story about the President catching a cold during a fishing trip or spending too much time in the sun while hunting.  In a letter to his son Alan in 1883, the President confided, “I have been so ill that I have hardly been able to dispose of the…business before me.”

Despite his popularity, Republican leaders opposed Arthur’s renomination as President in 1884.  The man who opposed it most, however, was the President himself, who stated “I do not want to be reelected.”  Not only was he disinterested in a second term, but he knew very well that there was a possibility he might not even survive to the end of his current term.  He did, and after attending the inauguration of his successor, Grover Cleveland, on March 4, 1885, Arthur returned home to New York City where his health rapidly declined.  The former President was aware that he was dying and made plans for a relatively quiet retirement, deciding to practice law, but doing very little work due to his health.  When asked about his future, Arthur said, “There doesn’t seem anything for an ex-President to do but to go out in the country and raise big pumpkins.”  On November 16, 1886, Arthur suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side.  Gravely ill, he called his son to his bedside the day before his death and had all of his public and private papers stuffed into trash cans and burned.  On November 18, 1886, the 57-year-old former President died in the same place he became President just five years earlier, 123 Lexington Avenue in New York City.  After a quiet funeral at the Church of Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue in New York, Arthur’s remains were buried next to his beloved wife at Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York.         


When President Arthur had many of his personal papers burned prior to his death, he eliminated one of the best sources of information for future historians.  With a thin resume and a fairly uneventful Presidency, there wasn’t much public information about his career, either.  This leaves us with very little to remember Chester Alan Arthur by.  Research on his life — particularly his personal life — is difficult, and Arthur would have appreciated that.  During his Presidency, leaders of the temperance movement called on Arthur and urged him to follow the non-alcoholic lifestyle led by President Hayes and his teetotaler wife, who was known as “Lemonade Lucy” . 

Arthur’s response:  “Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damn business.” 

And so it isn’t.

It is absurd to call him [Abraham Lincoln] a modest man. No great man was ever modest.
John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner

Richard Nixon’s Farewell Address to White House Staff, East Room of of the White House, August 9, 1974.

As Richard Nixon was preparing to head out the doors of the White House and climb aboard a helicopter taking him into exile, he gave the most personal and honest speech of his life, particularly when speaking about himself and his family. It might be a farewell, but it’s not a confession, it’s not a concession speech, and it isn’t an apology. It’s a rambling good-bye, built up with various emotional ingredients — sadness, pride, bitterness, anger, resentment, disappointment, appreciation, even a bit of hope and humor — and a recognition that his legacy would be shaped by failures that were largely a result of his own paranoia and personal weaknesses. But it is an undeniably intimate speech, with an odd eloquence to it as Nixon closed with perhaps the most fascinatingly introspective and candid peroration from ANY President in history.:

Well, members of the Cabinet, members of the White House Staff, all of our friends here,

I think the record should show that this is one of those spontaneous things that we always arrange whenever the President comes in to speak, and it will be so reported in the press, and we don’t mind because they’ve got to call it as they see it. But on our part, believe me, it is spontaneous. You are here to say good-bye to us, and we don’t have a good word for it in English. The best is au revoir. (“We’ll see you again.”)

I just met with the members of the White House staff, you know, those that serve here in the White House day in and day out, and I asked them to do what I ask all of you to do to the extent that you can and are, of course, are requested to do so: to serve our next President as you have served me and previous Presidents — because many of you have been here for many years with devotion and dedication — because this Office, great as it is, can only be as great as the men and women who work for and with the President.

This House, for example — I was thinking of it as we walked down this hall, and I was comparing it to some of the great Houses of the world that I’ve been in. This isn’t the biggest House. Many, and most, in even smaller countries are much bigger. This isn’t the finest House. Many in Europe, particularly, and in China, Asia, have paintings of great, great value, things that we just don’t have here, and probably will never have until we are a thousand years old or older.

But this is the best House. It’s the best House because it has something far more important than numbers of people who serve, far more important than numbers of rooms or how big it is, far more important than numbers of magnificent pieces of art. This House has a great heart, and that heart comes from those who serve. I was rather sorry they didn’t come down. We said good-bye to them upstairs. But they’re really great. And I recall after so many times I have made speeches, and some of them pretty tough, yet, I always come back, or after a hard day — and my days usually have run rather long — I’d always get a lift from them because I might be a little down, but they always smiled.

And so it is with you. I look around here, and I see so many in this staff that, you know, I should have been by your offices and shaken hands, and I’d loved to have talked to you and found out how to run the world. Everybody wants to tell the President what to do, and boy he needs to be told many times — but I just haven’t had the time. But I want to know — I want you to know that each and everyone of you, I know, is indispensable to this Government. I’m proud of this Cabinet. I’m proud of our — all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I’m proud of our sub-cabinet. I am proud of our White House staff. As I pointed out last night, sure we’ve done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I’ve never ducked it.

But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five-and-a-half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you. Mistakes, yes; but for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a — a wealthy man — At the present time I’ve got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I’d like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you’ve made to serve in Government.

But you are getting something in Government — and I want you to tell this to your children, and I hope the nation’s children will hear it, too — something in Government service that is far more important than money. It’s a cause bigger than yourself. It’s the cause of making this the greatest nation in the world, the leader of the world, because without our leadership the world will know nothing but war, possibly starvation, or worse, in the years ahead. With our leadership it will know peace; it will know plenty.

We have been generous, and we will be more generous in the future as we are able to. But most important, we must be strong here, strong in our hearts, strong in our souls, strong in our belief, and strong in our willingness to sacrifice, as you have been willing to sacrifice, in a pecuniary way, to serve in Government.

Something else I’d like for you to tell your young people. You know, people often come in and say, “What will I tell my kids?” (You know?) They look at government and — sort of a rugged life, and they see the mistakes that are made. They get the impression that everybody is here for the purpose of feathering his nest. That’s why I made this earlier point — not in this Administration, not one single man or woman.

And I say to them, “There are many fine careers. This country needs good farmers, good businessmen, good plumbers, good carpenters.”

I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of — sort of a little man, common man. He didn’t consider himself that way. You know what he was? He was a streetcar motorman first, and then he was a farmer, and then he had a lemon ranch. It was the poorest lemon ranch in California, I can assure you. He sold it before they found oil on it. And then he was a grocer. But he was a great man because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt, regardless of what happened.

Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother: My mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying to tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for 3 years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own. Yes, she will have no books written about her. But, she was a saint.

Now, however, we look to the future. Had a little quote in the speech last night from T.R. As you know, I kind of like to read books. I’m not educated, but I do read books and the T.R. quote was a pretty good one. Here is another one I found as I was reading — my last night in the White House — and this quote is about a young man. He was a young lawyer in New York. He’d married a beautiful girl, and they had a lovely daughter, and then suddenly she died, and this is what he wrote. This was in his diary.

He said:

She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and then the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died — died, the light went from my life forever.

That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever — but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man.

And as I leave, let me say, that’s an example I think all of us should remember. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way, we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just gotta let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat, that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.

Not true. It’s only a beginning — always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

And so I say to you on this occasion we leave, we leave proud of the people who have stood by us and worked for us and served this country. We want you to be proud of what you’ve done. We want you to continue to serve in Government, if that is your wish. Always give your best; never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

And so, we leave with high hopes, in good spirit and with deep humility, and with very much gratefulness in our hearts. I can only say to each and every one of you, we come from many faiths, we pray perhaps to different gods, but really the same God in a sense, but I want to say for each and every one of you, not only will we always remember you, not only will we always be grateful to you, but always you will be in our hearts and you will be in our prayers.

Thank you very much.

A strangely-relaxed Richard Nixon rehearsing and then delivering his resignation speech, August 8, 1974

(via historian Michael Beschcloss’s excellent Twitter page)