Sunday, June 23, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Twenty-One, The Effects of Office

It could be said that each President brings to the office a bit of himself, establishing a precedent, affecting a change in how the role is played.  It could also be said that the office affects the man, that the power could change them (the old phrase of power corrupts), although with Barber's research into Presidential Character there's been solid evidence that such changes are rare.  Once the man develops his traits, he carries them with him into the office, defining his tenure.

There are Presidents we've reviewed so far - John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford Hayes - who had certain traits but were thwarted in expressing their characters to due to external obstacles.  It still didn't change much of who they were (other than making them more embittered than they already were).  The 21st President, however, may be the first - may be the only President on the roster in fact - to genuinely evolve from an incoming Character trait into another: the first President who changed himself to fit the needs of the office at the moment of decision.

I speak, of course, of Chester A. Arthur.

...Yes, the trivia answer from the third Die Hard movie.  Please try to keep up...

That Arthur changed some of his positions - his political views on the Spoils system in particular - in office shouldn't be that much of a surprise: an assassin hoping to benefit from that Spoils system had killed Arthur's predecessor James Garfield, and even the simple optics of the PR nightmare that created would have made any Stalwart (pro-Spoils) change his label to Half-Breed (civil service reform).  The real surprise is how much of Arthur's previous habits - his laid-back ideology, his crony-ism, affability and desire to be loved - that made him a Passive-Positive character disappeared the second he took the oath to be President.  He went from being a Pass-Pos to an Active-Positive character.

Arthur's Pass-Pos traits could be noted through his aversion to actually running for office: Arthur had never before run for a job.  Every position he'd ever held in public service were through appointments and patronage, a system he wholly bought into as a means for a steady income.  Getting the job of Port Controller of New York (the key port of trade and major tax base) during the Grant administration was the highest office he'd yet held: he oversaw thousands of jobs, through which patronage was doled out to the loyal and politically useful.  There's little evidence that Arthur himself benefited from any massive graft or corruption in the Port office (he did profit from a "moiety" kickback of sorts), but he played his part as a machine politico, working behind the scenes with his good friend Roscoe Conkling.

Even then, reformers in their own party were getting into positions of authority to try and end the "political machines" and the corruption they entail.  By 1878 Hayes, needing to show he was serious about civil service reform, did what he could to remove Arthur - not the most corrupt political boss but the most public - from the Port Controller job.  It didn't work as Hayes had hoped: Conkling by that point was a Senator, and there were still too many Republicans favoring and favored by the Spoils system (Stalwarts) that they were strong enough to deadlock the 1880 Presidential convention against the reformists (Half-Breeds).  The Half-Breeds compromised on Garfield instead of Blaine, and the Stalwarts compromised on making Arthur the Vice-Presidential candidate to balance the ticket.

And as I've said before: ticket balancing never works the way the party hopes it will.  The ticket balancing Veep is usually someone who's NOT representing the majority of the party, merely a faction that has to be appeased.  In this case, it might have meant the Stalwarts through "their boy" Arthur reclaiming office to ensure their Spoils system of political machinery would remain intact.

Arthur defied that, because the moment of history was so blatantly against the Spoils system.  Much like the Civil War, the tides of history had flowed to this shore where corruption could no longer be tolerated or ignored.  In a previous moment just like this, a Pass-Pos like Franklin Pierce refused to rise to the moment: he refused to change himself.  Arthur realized he had to change himself in order to make the changes the nation needed to endure: he changed his Passive-Positive nature to an Active-Positive, pushing himself to the forefront of the civil service reform efforts, overseeing the legislation and vigorously enforcing the law as a President should.

This is why we as a nation think of Chester A. Arthur as a good President and why we barely think of Franklin Pierce at all.

Further signs of how the Presidency changed him: Arthur broke his friendship with Conkling to demonstrate his break with machine politics.  Although he nominated Stalwarts to most of the Cabinet vacancies - the Half-Breeds in Garfield's administration didn't want anything to do with him - Arthur did select men with reformist leanings and a willingness to root out corruption.

Arthur's other legacy involved the immigration issues that arose in the late 19th Century.  America had started as an immigrant's destination and so had cherished the the ideal of being open to any who chose to move here.  But by the 1880s the flow had turned into a flood, and there was a rising anti-immigrant sentiment.  It was worst in the Western states where a massive influx of Chinese was overwhelming the "established" Euro and Hispanic populations.  A series of harsh anti-Chinese bills were passed through Congress... and vetoed by Arthur, who viewed them as violating any foreign policy accords we had with China.  He vetoed other harsh anti-immigrant bills as well but Congress overruled those vetoes.

Arthur also presided over improvements in the U.S. Navy, and vetoed a massive spending bill for being too excessive and not fulfilling the requirements of promoting the defense and general welfare of the nation... even though the nation was dealing with an oversized surplus due to high wartime tariffs to protect Republican business interests.  The veto was popular with the nation but not so with Congress, which overruled Arthur on that (it did reduce the surplus, but caused further issues with corruption down the road).  If his tenure had any serious failures it was failing to break the power of the segregationists enforcing Jim Crow laws in the post-Reconstruction South.  And Arthur's hopes of helping Native American tribes with allotments (allowing individuals to buy up land instead of the tribes collectively) backfired when white speculators bought up the lands instead.

By 1884, Arthur had presided over a hectic and varying successful tenure in office... but because he still wasn't fully trusted by the reformists and was now reviled by his Stalwart friends, Arthur didn't have much chance at a re-election despite his hope for vindication.  It didn't help that health worries were rumored: Arthur was suffering from Bright's Disease and the physical toll was very visible.  He would leave the office in 1885 (and die a year later) but would leave with noticeable affection by a majority of Americans: a widower, Arthur was approached by four different women with marriage proposals on the day he left office.  And he left with Mark Twain - who once called him a "flathead" when Arthur ran the New York Port office - saying "it would be hard to better President Arthur's administration."

It's a pity few One-Termers retain enough of a foothold on our nation's history to be better remembered.  Arthur - willing to defy his personal character and evolve in the Presidency to become a better man - deserves a little more recognition.

Next Week: We'll also be talking about this guy two weeks later.  Yes, the non-consecutive jokes are due to... well, I'll tell you later.

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