Chester A. Arthur

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(HOST) Calvin Coolidge is only one of two American presidents who hailed from Vermont. The other is not as well known – or as beloved – as Coolidge, but the two men have more in common than one might think. Here’s commentator Peter Gilbert.

(GILBERT) One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Chester A. Arthur – the other president from Vermont – was sworn in as America’s twenty-first president. Both Coolidge and Arthur were born in Vermont, and both moved on in their adult lives, but while most of us think of Coolidge as a “real” Vermonter, we don’t seem to think about Arthur much at all.

Chester A. Arthur (or Chet, as his friends called him) was born in Fairfield in northwestern Vermont in 1829, the son of an abolitionist Baptist minister. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1848, and was briefly principal of an academy in North Pownal, in the most southwestern corner of the state. Beginning in 1854, Arthur practiced law in New York City, where he defended the rights of blacks. He served as Quartermaster General of the State of New York early in the Civil War. In 1871, President Grant appointed him Collector of the Port of New York, a position that supervised thousands of jobs, which went, as was customary under the spoils system, to supporters of the local political machine.

That’s not unlike Calvin Coolidge, who made his political career in Massachusetts, first as councilman in Northampton, and finally as Governor.

These two Republican presidents from Vermont have something else in common. Vice President Coolidge became president when President Warren Harding died of a heart attack. Arthur was Vice President under President James Garfield. On July 2nd, 1881, after less than four months in office, President Garfield was shot at the Washington railroad station by a disgruntled office seeker. He died eighty days later, and Arthur became president – the third president to serve in less than seven months.

While it was often noted that Coolidge didn’t look at all “presidential”, Arthur, it was said, “looked like a president.” Sporting bushy side-whiskers, Arthur was tall, handsome, and meticulously dressed. Many considered Arthur tainted by his involvement in machine politics of New York. But to their surprise, his administration was run in an upright and proper fashion. He vetoed the notorious pork-barrel “Rivers and Harbors” Act of 1882, and broke off relations with his former New York political bosses.

In truth, little was accomplished during his administration, with the exception of the creation of the modern Civil Service system, which attempted to reduce patronage. After vetoing an even more restrictive bill, Arthur did support the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for ten years and forbade Chinese citizenship.

A year into his presidency, Arthur learned that he had Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney disease. That well-kept secret may have contributed to his decision not to run for re-election. He died at the age of fifty-seven, less than two years after leaving office – again, not unlike Coolidge, who, having decided not to run for re-election, died at the age of sixty, less than four years after he left the White House.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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