In 1881, a wealthy, protectionist New York Republican with no political experience and funny-looking hair took the Oath of Office, to much of America’s horror. He had no popular mandate — he was named VP to satisfy the pro-corruption wing of his party, and became President when James Garfield was killed by a disgruntled madman motivated by the era’s toxic political climate — and no apparent interest in public policy. Partisan hacks and regressive forces rejoiced: Their only barrier to the powers of the White House was narcissistic, manipulable and owned 80 pairs of pants.
And over the next four years, Chester A. Arthur stunned his supporters and critics alike. In the face of public pressure, he turned on his faction and championed his predecessor’s signature anti-corruption bill — the Pendleton Act, which ensures a competent and nonpartisan civil service, is still in effect today. He simplified the tax code and he rebuilt the Navy. He avoided conflicts overseas. His apathy towards racial justice cut both ways: In accordance with popular will, he both stopped using the military to expropriate Native lands and signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. He quit after one term, at which point Democrats took back the presidency.
But there’s a darker side to Arthur’s story. As the first president to serve a full term in the post-Reconstruction era, Arthur and his backers could have set the precedent for aggressive federal enforcement of civil rights provisions in the South. In the interest of partisan and national reconciliation, they didn’t. Lynchings, poll taxes and Jim Crow followed.
Chester A. Arthur might have improbably brought the country together. But he could only do so by abandoning the black lives he was tasked to protect. And so, in many respects, we are still grappling with the legacy of Arthur’s greatest failure.
On Tuesday, America most likely did not elect the reincarnation of Chester A. Arthur. We elected a bully and a sociopath, one who will soon wield military, economic and cultural power that Arthur could never have imagined, who has threatened to use that power against the most vulnerable among us.
But the triumphs and failures of the Arthur administration can offer us a few important lessons on how to move forward in the months and years ahead. To those elated by the result, do not let strength become the enemy of compassion. To those dispirited, do not let fear become the enemy of progress — and never lose faith in your ability to make a difference, both out on the streets and in the halls of power. And most importantly, to the majority of Americans hoping to just move on from an acrimonious campaign, do not let unity become the enemy of justice.
Our Forum today tackles some of these lessons. Guest columnist Sophie Jerwick writes on why so many Americans are grieving this week — and how to translate that grief into action. And editor-in-chief Alexander Chase discusses the political approach it’ll take to mitigate the damage this election has wrought.
We’ll have lots more coverage from many more angles in the weeks to come. Now more than ever, we encourage the community to share their thoughts and reactions with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, we hope you remain encouraged by our country’s successes thus far, vigilant against any efforts to undermine them, and motivated by how much work lies ahead in the pursuit of a more perfect union.
Shenhar is an economics, government and Plan II senior from Westport, Connecticut.