Happy Birthday, Mr. President…
Chester A. Arthur, born this day in 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont
“Chester A. Arthur,” I reply.*
The looks I get are priceless. Many times I get a “Who?” or a “Bah! He wasn’t a president!”
Ah yes, ignorance about Blank Years presidents. The Blank Years is my term for those years in the late nineteenth century when no one pays a lick of attention to the presidency. See, United States history survey courses follow the presidency very closely through Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Things taper off a bit until Lincoln, and then courses cover Johnson and Grant, but the late nineteenth century? It takes a real trivia buff to be able to name those presidents period, let alone in order.
When covering the late nineteenth century, survey courses focus on economic and social issues that shaped the post-Civil War United States. No one bothers with the presidents again until Teddy Roosevelt. Hence, the Blank Years. And no president exemplifies the Blank Years better than Chester A. Arthur.
This line pretty much sums up everything known about the man I call Chet, the twenty-first president of the United States of America: Although a decent and honorable man, Chester A. Arthur was a firm believer in the spoils system. He filled posts with corrupt members of machine politics.**
Occasionally surveys will give an expanded bio that mentions his being the Quartermaster General of the State of New York before he was named the Collector of the Port of New York, and that he was named as James Garfield’s running mate after President Hayes's attempt to oust Arthur from the Port job (who says that the spoils system doesn’t have its perks?). When Garfield was assassinated in 1881, less than a year into his term, Arthur became president. He was never elected in his own right. He was born in Vermont. He died in 1886. He had great facial hair. Yep. That’s pretty much it.
I think it was a combination of pity and shock that no one knew more about a president than the above that endeared Chester A. Arthur to me. I like saying his name—I draw out the long “A”—Chester A. Arthur. Ah, poor Chet. It makes me laugh to think that he was president. He’s become my favorite answer to questions I don’t know the answer to. Question: Who wrote War and Peace? Answer: Chester A. Arthur. Who is your favorite president? Chester A. Arthur. Easy as pie!
To honor my favorite Blank Years president, I have a small but growing collection of Chester A. Arthur memorabilia. That’s the kind of weirdo chick I am. I’m always on the lookout, so if you know of any Chet goods, let me know.
Happy Birthday, Chet,
hope this doesn't make you roll over in your grave
*He isn’t, of course, but I don’t have a favorite president. I like components of several presidents, but explaining this is long and complicated, and people’s eyes glaze over, so I’ve chosen the wiseass route.
**I'd give a citation for this, but this is the standard line absolutely everywhere (especially the “firm believer” part), and I wouldn't know where to begin.