President Chet and Old John Brown

October 11, 2017

 

 U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur

 

It’s hard to imagine any two 19th Century American figures more different from each other than President Chester Alan Arthur and the abolitionist and Harper’s Ferry arsenal attacker—a seminal event setting the stage for the Civil War—John Brown.

 

A new book and a couple of older ones take a closer look at President Arthur and suggest that he’s quite relevant to 2017. James McBride’s 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, takes what is probably a straighter look at the seemingly crazed Brown than conventional history is likely to provide.

 

President Arthur, known in his own day as the ‘accidental president,’ has generally been relegated to near footnote status in history, given that he came to the office very reluctantly in the wake of the assassination of President James A. Garfield and served out his term in a relatively peaceful time.

 

Donald Trump is not the first rich New Yorker to ascend to the White House. Chester Arthur was a New York lawyer and Republican party operative who really hit his financial stride by presiding as the collector of customs at the Port of New York. This post was renowned for its corruption, providing vast opportunities for patronage employment—known then as the ‘spoils system’—and rampant bribe-taking.

 

A power struggle between Republican party factions resulted in Arthur losing that job and made this man, who like Trump had never served in elective office, available as a compromise candidate to run with the ill-fated Garfield.

 

Garfield’s assassin is generally footnoted as a frustrated office-seeker. As Karabell’s book and others make clear, he was more likely insane. And the unassuming Arthur did not behave as an opportunist, grieving personally throughout the many weeks running up to Garfield’s death from his wounds.

 

If anything, Arthur, a lover of rich food and the lavish lifestyle available to the rich in the New York of the 1880s, appears to have resolved to change his way of life to live up to a higher standard in the office he assumed.

 

Rather than bringing the system within which he had thrived to Washington, D.C., President Arthur jumped ship and joined the reformers who had been protesting the common practice of packing the federal government with political appointees of dubious qualifications. Thanks to his support, the Pendleton Civil Service Act became law and the basic system remains in place to this day.

 

As the system existed pre-Pendleton, the president would have easily ended—say—an investigation into Russian election interference, by firing the relevant appointees/employees without any questions being raised. The requirement of federal employee competence and independence from direct executive control is what President Trump’s surrogates now decry as ‘the deep state,’ which doesn’t automatically bend to the will of the president.

 

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 As James McBride’s novel suggests, abolitionist  John Brown was a pretty tough old bird. Riding the roads and trails of 1850s America, Brown was carrying a full load of anti-slavery fever that in his mind justified nearly any action. Worse, innocent parties around Brown frequently wound up dead as a side effect of his passion, including the father of narrator Henry ‘Onion’ Shackelford, a small African-American boy-slave, who Brown mistakenly believes is a girl.

 

From the start, ‘Onion’ views Brown not as his liberator but as his kidnapper and insane. Whatever his mental state, Brown is clearly the ultimate believer in the ‘end justifies the means’ dictum:

 

“He stole more wagons, horses, mules, shovels, knives, guns, and plows than any man I ever knowed, but he never took anything for hisself other than what he used personally. If he stole something and didn’t use it, why, he’d run it back to the poor  drummer he stole it from to return it, less’n course the feller was disagreeable, in which case he’d liable to find himself dead or roped to a pole, with the Old Man lecturing him on the evils of slavery.”

 

The legendary John Brown ended up at the end of a noose and the fictional Onion lived into the next century to tell the tale.

 

Scott S. Greenberger’s new biography is The Unexpected President (Da Capo Press); Chester Alan Arthur, by Zachary Karabell, is from the American Presidents series, Henry Holt (2004) ; Thomas C. Reeves is the author of Gentleman Boss (1975). The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) was published by the Riverhead imprint of Penguin Books.

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