Let us now praise Chester Alan Arthur.
The largely forgotten 21st president, a Republican vice president propelled into the office by the assassination of President John Garfield in 1881, Arthur served out the fallen president’s term and no longer. But during his one term he signed into law the Pendleton Act, which replaced the corrupt spoils system with the apolitical civil service.
Garfield’s assassin was Charles J. Guiteau, a writer, lawyer and disappointed office seeker who felt he deserved a government job for helping in the slain president’s campaign.
Arthur, the accidental president, had himself been the beneficiary of the spoils system, which he had supported, as Collector of the Port of New York. He was mostly a product of the city’s political machine, and his nomination for vice-president in 1880 was something of a surprise.
But his earlier legal career as a lawyer in New York City suggested he was also a man of higher principles. He successfully represented eight slaves held by a Virginia couple who had brought them along to board a Texas-bound steamer. On Arthur’s motion, a judge freed them.
In another case, he represented Lizzie Jennings, “a colored woman of excellent character, superintendent of a Sunday school,” who “was roughly expelled from a fourth av car because she was black,” according to Arthur’s campaign biography. She sued the streetcar company. The jury awarded her $500 in damages the company paid. Almost immediately, the company integrated all its streetcars, and other car companies quickly followed suit.
After ascending to the presidency, Arthur became an advocate for civil service reform. He supported legislation introduced by Sen. George H. Pendleton (D-Ohio) to do away with the spoils system. It created the U.S. Civil Service Commission to keep politics out of government.
Thus, was the concept of civil service enshrined in American democracy for nearly 140 years – until now. Following a secretive, four-year effort by the conservative Heritage Foundation, ensconced in the White House, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order, timed to take effect on Jan. 19, 2021, the day before inauguration.
The order would create a new category of federal employee that could include tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of government workers who would lose civil service protections, including any semblance of due process. Should they not toe the administration line, they could, on executive whim, be replaced with political loyalists. The term “civil service” will then become an oxymoron.
Signing the Pendleton Act into law in 1883, Arthur accomplished with his pen what Trump is determined to undo, effective the day before he is either inaugurated for a second term, or not.
Even if Trump loses, my former Washington Post colleague Robert McCartney writes, “It’s conceivable that… he could attempt to use the order to cripple the Biden administration as a final vindictive action. In what experts called a ‘nightmare scenario,’ the outgoing administration would dismiss legions of employees it didn’t like in its last days in office and possibly replace them with Trump supporters.….”
Once the Pendleton Act became law, Arthur was quick to appoint reformers to the new civil service commission. Unfortunately, he suffered from a chronic kidney ailment known as Bright’s disease. In ill health, he only half-heartedly, and unsuccessfully, sought his party’s nomination for a full term in 1884. He died the year after leaving office at the age of 56.
Now his greatest legacy, like his life, is threatened to be cut short. Chester A. Arthur must be turning over in his grave.