Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chester Arthur: A Response to a Review

My book Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politican and President
(Nova History, 2007) is ranked an awesome 4,316,629 in its list of sales figures. At various times a couple of years ago it was a little less than 2,000,000th place. Such are the sales figures of a lesser known president from a very small press. I would like to take a minute to address some of the comments by an anonymous reviwer who scored my book a 2 out of 5. 1. This was not designed to be a work of primary research, but a synthesis of existing scholarship. Although individual books are available for purchase, the plan is to sell the complete set to libraries as a reference tool. The synthetic approach works much better for those presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincon, the Roosevelts, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc., who are the subjects of numerous biographies and are firmly rooted in historiographical debates. There were only two biographies of Arthur before mine, George Howe's A Quarter Century of Machine Politics and Thomas Reeve's Gentleman Boss. The former contains several errors, the latter is still the best biography of Arthur (as the reviewer and I agree). What I decided to do was to add in the thirty years of scholarship of the Gilded Age political environment that came after Reeves's work. This includes some excellent work by historians, such as Charles Calhoun, Justus Doenecke, Ari Hoogenboom, Allan Peskin, Mark Wahlgren Summers, to name a few. 2. Continuing on the subject of primary research, I did use what is left of Arthur's papers (he burned most if them, saving an odd collection of receipts, letters, and other documents), contemporary magazine and news paper editorials (especially the Nation), Richardson's Compilation of Messages and Papers, and published and unpublished collections of papers of Arthur's contemporaries. The fact that this project was designed by the publisher to be a quick summation of existing scholarship completed in two years, precluded me from an exhaustive examination of all primary documents that might have touched on Arthur's life. 3. I probably was a little negative towards Arthur, as the reviewer noted. There are two reasons for this. First, the truth of the matter is that I do not find him to have been a very good president. He was a horrible vice president, one of the worst in our nation's history. As veep, Arthur worked against Garfield at every turn of the very short administration. Arthur is generally credited as a machine politician turned civil service reformer. Historians consider it is strongest legacy. I disagree with this assessment. Garfield was shot by a delusional maniac who believed the president owed him an ambassadorship for making some speeches during the campaign. After he shot Garfield, Charles Guiteau shouted out Arthur's name, implicating the vice president. With weak influence in Congress, Arthur could do little to alter the shape of the Pendleton Act during the legislative process, and there was no way he could have vetoed it. As chief executive Arthur followed the letter of the civil service reform. He did not, however, follow its spirit. This, to me, makes a difference, undercutting the argument that he "converted" to reform. His hands were tied. He was weak and recalled the very unpleasant experience of Andrew Johnson. Nevertheless, he attempted to use patronage to build his Stalwart faction. That it never turned into the kind of debacle that bedeviled both Hayes and Garfield can be attributed to Arthur's political weakness. Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, for example, took all Arthur could give him, but turned around and betrayed him. There was nothing Arthur could do to retaliate. Second, my negative assessment of Arthur differs sharply with the two aforementioned existing biographies, which were largely positive. What is the point of writing a book that totally echoes another? There are a couple of points in which Reeves and I do disagree. Reeves does not think Arthur was serious about obtaining the nomination in 1884. To me it seems strange that Arthur devoted so much of his limited energy on something he did not want. To me at least, it was totally out of character. On another point I think that Arthur's treatment of the tariff is a more significant legacy. He preserved the protectionist system when it was under siege and blunted the strength of reform with a commission system. That system remained in place (excepting the short period of Woodrow Wilson's presidency) until the end of World War II.

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