"Since I came here I have learned that Chester A. Arthur is one man and the President of the United States is another."
Chester Alan Arthur
“Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!”
One of the lesser-known but more interesting U.S. Presidents was Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President. Arthur was the quintessential corrupt government worker before stepping into office. Arthur’s upbringing as a minister’s son may have prevented him from fully engaging in the corruption engendered by the New York City political “Machine.” It did not, however, prevent him from turning a blind eye to the corruption of others. And while not fully breaking the law, he bent it where he could. Arthur’s love for “the good life,” for riches, power and status propelled him to greater heights. Both he and his wife Nell enjoyed material goods, fine food and wines and hosting prominent political guests in their home for regular dinners and parties.
Eventually Arthur's skills led him to an appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant, as the Customs Collector for the Port of New York. In addition to being one of the highest paying government jobs of the time, it gave Arthur and his cronies huge access to financial and material favors. Arthur had a good life or so it seemed. His political life kept him so busy that it put a strain on his marriage, which might have ended except that Nell died unexpectedly. This tragedy occurring not long after the death of their 2-year-old son from a brain infection left Arthur devastated. To make matters worse, public tolerance of Machine corruption hit a peak and Arthur became the scapegoat and the public face of corruption and was fired by President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Still Arthur did not retire to the political wilderness. He campaigned for President Grant for the Republican nomination, which went instead to James B. Garfield. But Garfield’s people were so impressed by Arthur’s efforts, that they offered him the Vice-Presidential spot. The Vice-Presidential spot, despite its proximity to the highest office in the land is often seen as little more than ceremonial. At the same time, it’s a huge honor because of its potential for becoming President. No Vice-President could ever publicly wish to take the position because it would mean the death of the President. At the same time, any man appointed has to know it’s a possibility. The possibility became a horrifying reality when Garfield, only a few months in office, was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, who shouted, “I am a Stalwart of Stalwarts! Arthur is President now!”
It took two months for Garfield to die. Some historians assert that it was poor medical practices, such as unwashed hands, that killed Garfield and not the bullet itself. Others say the bullet caused an infection that killed the President. Either way, Garfield died and upon hearing the news, Arthur put his hands in his head and wept.
Consider where Arthur was at this point in his life. Childless, a widower, a tainted and corrupted politician and to some, even a suspect in the assassination because of what he had to gain by Garfield’s death. In addition he had already alienated some of his political allies simply for accepting the office of Vice-President in the first place. He did not have the good will of most of the public or the press. But he had power and he had the highest office in the land. He also had a choice to make. He could continue being the man he had been or he could be different.
According to Philip B. Kundhart, Jr. et al, in The American President, “Arthur made an all-important decision. He would put aside his past, and disown his old cronies.” And, “As President, Arthur surprised all by becoming a champion of civil service reform, though it took him two years to finally join the movement.” So while it was not an overnight change, it was a profound and significant change. Arthur now championed the cause of civil service, the cause that resulted in his seeming political demise just a few years earlier. Besides Civil Service Reform, Arthur also made significant changes for the U.S. Navy, and the Library of Congress. He also made some minor efforts towards Civil Rights and Native American rights.
Was Arthur motivated by securing a nobler place in history?
Did his spiritual upbringing take hold in the later years of his life?
Did the loss of his wife and son make him want to be a better man?
Did he want to turn the tide of public opinion in his favor?
Or, did he know that, as a sufferer of Bright’s disease, his days were numbered and he would soon face eternal issues?
No one really knows. All of Arthur’s papers were burned at his request. But something changed him and changed him significantly. We don’t know why or how, but he found his Purpose. Rather than being corrupt, he became honest. At the age of 54, Chester Alan Arthur became a different man.
There are two lessons I take from this:
· Anyone can change.
· Anyone can change at any age.
The past doesn’t matter. Age or circumstances don’t matter. The only thing that matters, if I want my life to truly count for something, is that I take action. Action is not only the antidote for despair; it is the antidote for stagnation and emotional and spiritual lethargy.
I have seen two men I knew face death. One of those men bemoaned his fate, his pain and his setbacks and died being the same man he had always been. He allowed life to defeat him. This is not a judgment; this is an observation. The other grieved over his pain and mistakes but used them to become a better, kinder and more loving man. He wept over his losses, but he continued to grow and engage in life.
Those are the choices we all must make – to be in Purpose or out of it. It is sad when someone waits for his final days to be in Purpose, but it is tragic when someone doesn’t make that choice at all.
The time to change my life is now. The time to make better decisions is now and every moment I can. Unlike Arthur, I may not ever be President, but I have a destiny. It starts at this moment. The time to Get Started and Keep Going is now.