Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chester Arthur and Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening

I finally got a chance to start Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. The author spent some time detailing the life of the young Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the red-shirted Zouave killed in May 1861, as a focal point for his larger discussion on the ideals of the "generation of 1861." The young men who came of age just as the war began were an ambitious lot, full of ideals (thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson), impressed by revolution and the possibility of war (thanks Kossuth and Garibaldi, etc.), willing to fight for their political beliefs, full of romantic notions (thanks to Sir Walter Scott), desirous to break with the older generation, and ardent to strike out in the world on their own and leave a personal mark. As I read through this chapter I couldn't help but think of our twenty-first president, Chester A. Arthur of New York.

Born in Vermont in 1829, Arthur was 31 years old when the war began, perhaps a little older than the generation Goodheart wrote about, but not by much. Arthur's biography confirms Goodheart's description of this cohort. Like his peers Arthur sought a clear break with his past. The son a Baptist preacher whose hot condemnations of slavery kept him on the move, Chet sought a life with more stability, greater wealth, and a lot less religion. It was a strong rejection of upbringing. He attended Union College in the 1840s and became a school teacher. This, however, only served to pay his bills while he prepared for a legal career. In 1854 he was admitted to the bar and moved to New York City, a place far removed from his old stomping grounds of small, poor towns of upstate New York and New England.

Arthur certainly left his father's religion in the dust. His mother complained about her sons's (both Chet and his brother William) lack of devotion, and the future president's own son Chester A. Arthur II believed his father possessed no religious convictions at all. On the other hand, some of the moralistic preaching sunk in. Chet considered slavery a moral wrong and did what he could to fight the evil institution. As a young attorney he worked on the Lemon Case, to free slaves who had escaped their Virginian master when he stopped in New York City on the way to Texas. Arthur also visited "Bleeding" Kansas in 1857 to get a better understanding of the violence and to show some support for the free-state forces. He did not stay in Kansas long, but his journey certainly represented a spirit of the times. Whether it was those of the Emigrant Aid Society who flocked to Kansas, filibusters who invaded Cuba, young men who set out to sea (like Herman Melville and Henry George), gold miners who travelled cross country, or countless other examples, Chet's ill-defined trip to Kansas was symbolic of the adventurous ambition of his generation.

Arthur had many other qualities that speak to Goodheart's description. The poor country bumpkin reinventing himself as a debonair, well-paid urban lawyer stands out. His willingness to fight for politics can be seen not only in his serving as quartermaster general of New York State during the Civil War, but in how he setup a maypole in 1844 to support the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. When some young Democrats came to knock it down, Arthur led a counterattack of young Whigs that resulted in a fistfight. Arthur joined the militia, like many of his generation. Unlike Ellsworth who took his pre-war militia duty seriously, Arthur seemed predominately interested in what we today call "networking." He built his list of legal clients and met other rising politicos. Finally, Arthur's break with the past and political convictions can be seen in how quickly he joined the brand new Republican Party. Like many of his cohort the war purged Arthur of his romantic idealism, much as World War I would do for a later generation.

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