They say he was born in Canada. They say his grandfather was born in Ireland. They say he searched the records in Montréal to insure there was no record of his birth. They say his grandfather’s last name was MacArthur but he dropped the Mac to distance himself from the Roman Catholic (whispers: Irish, papist) side of his family. They say his associates in Canada called his father “Billy” Arthur. They say the son born to Billy Arthur, named Chester Alan Arthur, was born in Dunham Flats, Canada, and they say he cannot be fit for the office of the vice-president because of the Twelfth Amendment and God help us if Garfield dies and Arthur becomes president.
Where’s the birth certificate? They said that Frémont was a Catholic. They said that Jefferson had mixed blood. They said Jackson was a bigamist. They say they say they say. We’ve heard candidates called bigots and secret Muslims, seen fake news, seen them swift-boated, seen their hopes go down the river, the neat calligraphy of a campaign smeared across the page. You have to get dirty to win. Don’t you?
They said he never knew the smell of gunpowder. They say he enriched his friends while Quartermaster of the Union Army, while he was Collector of the Port of New York. They said he was corrupt to the core. They said Garfield was against the patronage jobs, the star routes of the postal service, the ripe plums handed out to the electoral winners, but Arthur? They said Arthur was rotten. And then Guiteau surrendered to the authorities, and he said I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts—Arthur is president now!
They said Garfield was dying in a town by the beach. Arthur, in his townhouse in Manhattan, didn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, wanted the cup taken away, but the telegram came anyway. They found a New York Supreme Court justice, a man named Brady, to administer the oath—execute the office—in the parlor.
Hold your breath as Garfield dies in New Jersey. They say they could have saved him if the doctors hadn’t infected him with their unwashed hands, their unsterilized instruments. Hold your breath, because they say Arthur will gather up all the spoils of the system to give to his cronies.
The telegram arrives, then Brady arrives, then Arthur says the oath—solemnly swear, best of my ability—and now, in a room full of men on Lexington Avenue in 1881, he is president. Feel free to imagine a moment of silence.
Then the work begins, and he surprises everyone. He is not corrupt, even if he had once been. He does not give patronage jobs to cronies. He orders prosecution of the postal service’s patronage regardless of party affiliation. He expertly wields the veto to deny Congress their overreaching. He refuses to sign a bill banning Chinese immigration for twenty years, calling the length of the ban a breach of our national faith for its exclusion of an entire generation. He vetoes a bill to improve rivers and harbors because they only improve the nearby towns and are thus not for the common defense or general welfare, he says, quoting the Constitution.
But smear him appropriately: he signed a revision of the bill that excluded Chinese from the country for ten years, the first time this country closed its borders to a group. This is a stain, a large one, on him. Yet there is something to be said about President Arthur, nearly forgotten now. You may visit New York City, and walk down Lexington Avenue to number 123, and stand in front of the Indian market on the ground floor of that building, the other place in our nation’s first capital where a president took the oath of office. Washington stood in Federal Hall, and Arthur stood here. You may try to read the plaque marking the occasion, but the Plexiglas that protects it is smeared with the dirt of the city and barely allows for legibility. And you may say something about President Arthur to the people walking past you, but they walk so quickly and they speak so loudly in their one hundred languages—English and Spanish and French and Swahili and Hindi and Malay and of course Chinese—that everything you say, everything they say, everything we say will vanish like rumors into the air, floating up to the sky, past the window of the parlor in which, long ago, he said the oath.