Thursday, March 16, 2006

Can An Obscure President Become a Lesson in Character?

Is it plausible that a term in the White House can induce a man to change his ways and toil for the benefit of mankind? In our post-Watergate, post conspiracy-a-minute world we would be hard-pressed to find someone that the White House had changed for good. What about Chester A. Arthur?

Since President Arthur falls into fifth grade curriculum it had been about three years since I have uttered his name in the classroom. Generally, Arthur is treated very quickly in our curriculum during a section of content that drags on endlessly between Reconstruction and the excitement of Theodore Roosevelt. He’s mentioned on only one page in our fifth grade text.

When I taught fifth grade I generally began talking about President Arthur by asking students to refer to the page in the text. We read it together. I then ask students for their observations. I take all answers, right or wrong. If they are wrong I usually qualify their participation by stating something like, “Good observation but you’re heading in the wrong direction.” Some little sweetie will finally observe the small amount of information in the text. “Why is there so little?” I ask. In response to their thoughtful faces I bring out several resources that contain information about President Arthur. Some resources are simple elementary level trade books containing general information regarding presidents. Some of my resources are Internet biography sites that I’ve printed and copied. Students are in groups of four and they read through the information. They are asked to create a list of facts about Arthur. The next day each group shares from their list, and we begin completing a character analysis of President Arthur.

The following is a series of facts (black) and a compilation of students’ observations (red).

Following the Civil War the Republican Party divided into three distinct factions along the following lines: the South’s treatment during Reconstruction, civil service reform, and tariff regulations. The Stalwart Republican machine controlled the party in New York, and influenced national politics. They firmly supported the spoils system while the opposing faction, the Half Breeds, did not.

Students discuss civil service and they give examples of modern civil service type jobs. Students discuss why “half breed” would not be a nice name for a group of people. The class decides the Republicans were acting like a group of children instead of men with important jobs.

Before serving as president Arthur was employed as New York’s quartermaster general and as collector for the port of New York. He was known as the “Gentleman Boss” because he was powerful and could organize and deliver votes for political candidates including Senator Roscoe Conkling, the ring leader of the Stalwarts. Under Arthur’s direction the U.S. Customs House in New York City became the largest Federal office in the country with over 1,000 employees. The majority of these employees had received their jobs as payment for some type of political favor.

Students discuss the qualities we look for in a good employee. Students give their opinions based on the question, “Is it ok to hire someone just to repay a favor?”

When the Feds finally investigated the Customs House they knew that Arthur had far too many employees than what was really needed. They were only being retained for their merit as a Republican Party member. An order was issued banning civil servants from managing political affairs. Arthur, under Conkling’s direction, refused to comply with the Federal order. President Rutherford B. Hayes had no other alternative than to remove Arthur from office.

At this point many students are simply aghast. “How can he become president if he was fired?” “It’s not right to hire someone simply to pay back a favor.”

Arthur was still supported by the Stalwarts and he was placed on the Republican ticket for Vice President when James A. Garfield was nominated for President in 1880. It was quite a backroom deal. When the Stalwarts chosen candidate, U.S. Grant, was passed over by the Republican Party for Garfield, a Half Breed, they agreed to nominate Arthur to please the Stalwarts.

That doesn’t seem fair. What about ‘we the people’? We review the party system and how people are nominated for president. Students are still surprised how someone that seems so crooked could get nominated for president.

When President Garfield was assassinated in September, 1881, Chester A. Arthur became our 21st president. Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, had repeatedly requested a job from the White House and state department. When he was refused he reasoned that if Garfield was out of the way it would be easier to obtain a job under Arthur’s administration since Arthur had hired government employees as the port authority following the spoils system. In a note left behind, Guiteau stated:

“The President’s tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican Party and save the Republic…I had no ill-will toward the President. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…”

Students usually agree that a government job is a silly reason for murder. I ask students to think hard. Do they think Guieau acted alone? Students immediately come up with a conspiracy theory. “I bet Conkling put him up to it.” “No, no! Arthur did it so he could become president.” I tell students that I haven’t ever seen any direct links to other Stalwarts, myself, but I wonder how the assassination affected the Stalwart Machine. We decide that the murder would give the group a black eye even if they weren’t involved. Our idea is correct.

Surprisingly Arthur put his Stalwart friends behind him and committed his efforts to moderate reforms. He placed reformers in cabinet positions and got rid of officials who had owed their jobs to party bosses. Arthut supported a civil service bill formally known as the Pendleton Act in 1883 which called for criteria to hire a government employee be based on merit rather than political connections. It ended the spoils system.

The Pendleton Act allowed the president to decide which federal jobs would be filled according to rules laid down by a bipartisan Civil Service Commission. Candidates would compete for jobs through examinations and appointments that could be made only from the list of those who took the exams. Once appointed a civil service official could not be removed for political reasons. Arthur placed approximately 14, 000 jobs (about 1/10 of the total) under the control of the civil service

Students usually are very excited upon finding this out. We discuss how it is important to not always follow your friends and sometimes you just have to do the right thing. I try to get students to analyze Arthur’s behavior. Why did he follow Conkling and then turn against him? Some decide he simply did what he had to do to get the positions he wanted. I ask, “Well, is it ok to do that?” Students decide it’s not ok if laws are broken or people are harmed. We discuss how civil service impacts our lives today. We discover that several parents have civil service jobs.

Another group shares information about the removal of White House furniture. It seems that upon moving in the White House Arthur was appalled at his surroundings. He renovated the White House with his own funds in a late Victorian style. The public became extremely outraged after Arthur had approximately 24 wagonloads of furniture removed from the house. The contents that were removed garnered the price of $8,000. It is estimated that many priceless items were simply lost.

“Maybe he didn’t know the items were priceless. They are priceless now because more time has gone by.” “There wasn’t a law against it then.” I tell students that there wasn’t a law at the time, but Presidents today are guided by strict procedures regarding White House furniture.

We learn that Chester A. Arthur increased funding for the Navy and helped it grow into a more modern force. He also laid the cornerstones for two important American monuments. Ninety-nine years after the Battle of Yorktown Arthur helped to dedicate its monument and he dedicated the Washington Monument on February 21, 1885. He also appointed a woman, Helen Hunt Jackson, as the director of Indian Affairs.

“Obviously history was important to Arthur or he wouldn’t have spent his time dedicating those monuments.” Students are really impressed that Arthur would appoint a women to a government job especially since women could not even vote at the time.

Finally, students are impressed that Arthur’s family were abolitionists and as a young lawyer Arthur won a case that allowed blacks entry to New York streetcars. Arthur also traveled to Kansas when it was “bleeding” prior to the Civil War to work against slavery.

Overall, my fifth grade groups generally decided that Chester A. Arthur was a good president. He may have been on the wrong side of right for a time but he found his way back again. A publisher named Alexander K. McClure probably said it best when he made the following comment about Arthur, “A man never entered the presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and none ever retired…more generally respected”


Michael said...

This is a good choice for a first post. Clearly, Arthur exceeded all expectations except for those of his old cronies in New York!

He did not push hard to be renominated as he knew he was dying from a kidney disease. He put up a short fight for the sake of honor and let it go at that. If he had served a second term, he might be better remembered today.

Jennie W said...

Its great that you take the time to talk about an obsure president with your students - too many teachers would just do the text and take the easy way out.