When Chester Alan Arthur took the oath of office as America’s 21st President and swore to uphold the Constitution, the country’s expectations of him were low. It was September 20, 1881—exactly 140 years ago. He exceeded those expectations and, in the case of one of his twelve vetoes, he offered wisdom that puts many of today’s politicians to shame.
Outside of New York, Arthur was largely unknown in 1881. After a stint practicing law in New York City in the 1850s and ‘60s, he became an ally and political beneficiary of Roscoe Conkling, a corrupt GOP bigwig who built a sizable patronage machine by putting his friends in “civil service” positions. Arthur was fired once from his post in the New York Customs House by a US President, Rutherford B. Hayes. When Arthur was shoved onto the successful 1880 Republican ticket as the vice-presidential candidate with presidential nominee James Garfield, much of the country yawned and asked, “Chester who?”
President Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker in July, only four months into his term. He died 11 weeks later, catapulting Arthur into the White House as an accidental president. He served out Garfield’s term and, in poor health, opted not to mount a vigorous campaign to win a term of his own in 1884.
If Arthur had run and won in 1884, he likely would have died in office. As it was, he passed away from Bright’s Disease in 1886 at the age of 57.
Historians these days exhibit a bias for “activist” presidents. They write a great deal—and admiringly—about the ones who expanded the State, engaged in foreign adventures, and tortured the Constitution until it confessed to powers never intended for the federal government. For the most part, Arthur didn’t travel those dead-end paths, so he gets rated as “unmemorable” and “mediocre.” But he did accomplish some good things that few ever expected of him, such as civil service reform that eroded the corrupt spoils system.
While reading through Arthur’s messages to Congress recently, I discovered that his twelve vetoes contain some excellent observations. Considering the gigantic “infrastructure” bills that are pending now in Congress, we ought to think about what President Arthur wrote when he nixed the Rivers and Harbors Act on August 1, 1882. The bill would have appropriated $19 million (that was huge in its day) “for the construction, repair, and preservation of certain works on rivers and harbors, and for other purposes.”
Arthur noted that while some of the projects in the bill were “clearly for the general welfare and most beneficent in their character,” the rest was what we would today call shameless “pork barrel” spending. He wrote,
My principal objection to the bill is that it contains appropriations for purposes not for the common defense or general welfare, and which do not promote commerce among the States. These provisions, on the contrary, are entirely for the benefit of the particular localities in which it is proposed to make the improvements. I regard such appropriation of the public money as beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.
I feel the more bound to withhold my signature from the bill because of the peculiar evils which manifestly result from this infraction of the Constitution. Appropriations of this nature, to be devoted purely to local objects, tend to an increase in number and in amount. As the citizens of one State find that money, to raise which they in common with the whole country are taxed, is to be expended for local improvements in another State, they demand similar benefits for themselves, and it is not unnatural that they should seek to indemnify themselves for such use of the public funds by securing appropriations for similar improvements in their own neighborhood. Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable it secures more support. This result is invariable and necessarily follows a neglect to observe the constitutional limitations imposed upon the lawmaking power.
Arthur was calling attention to the “bandwagon” effect of government spending. The more the politicians toss other people’s money around, the more the people want in on it, even those who weren’t looking for any in the first place. Other terms for what’s going on here are “demagoguery,” “vote-buying” and—let’s be brutally honest—downright moral and financial “corruption.” When it grows to a colossal scale, it’s a sign that a nation is flushing itself down the black hole of fiscal recklessness. It never ends well. (See the recommended readings below to get a sense for how horrified Arthur would be if he could see the Biden “infrastructure” monstrosities of 2021.)
Bear in mind that the main federal fiscal problem in Arthur’s day was a chronic budget surplus, utterly remote from the mammoth, unconscionable and indefensible deficits of our time. The bill he vetoed would have reduced the budget surplus by $19 million; the infrastructure blow-out proposed in Washington right now would increase the budget deficit (and the national debt) by trillions.
Another reason for Arthur’s veto was his belief that the bill would appropriate a sum that “greatly exceed[ed] in amount the needs of the country for the present fiscal year.” He argued that the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 would require the government “to expend so large an amount of money within so brief a period that the expenditure cannot be made economically and advantageously.”
Does anyone in his right mind believe that Joe Biden, or any official or assembly of officials, could “economically and advantageously” spend trillions more next year than they spent this year? Don’t fool yourself or, more to the point, don’t let the spenders fool you. Arthur cautioned,
The extravagant expenditure of public money is an evil not to be measured by the value of that money to the people who are taxed for it. They sustain a greater injury in the demoralizing effect produced upon those who are entrusted with official duty through all the ramifications of government.
In the unlikely event that the big spenders in Washington might read this article, my guess is that they would simply scoff at it. They would regard it as demeaning to their vaunted intellect to suggest that a long-dead Chester Arthur could teach them anything. This is variously called hubris, ignorance, smugness, bigotry, conceit, and self-importance. It is the same pomposity with which the arrogant, swaggering demagogues of ancient Rome demolished first the Roman Republic and then later, the Roman Empire too.
Sadly, the day after Arthur’s veto, the Congress overrode it and the Rivers and Harbors Act became law. The big spenders went home and told their constituents they had just secured some freebies and not to forget it come election time.
We may think of Chester Arthur as a nobody, but I wish we could put him in a room today with Joe Biden to talk infrastructure spending. My bet is that in two minutes, Chester would have Joe tied up in knots of his own making.
For additional information, see:
Biden’s Infrastructure Plan is Loaded with Corporate Welfare by Aadi Golchha
A President Who Didn’t Want the Job by Lawrence W. Reed
Is There a Speaker in the House, Part I by Lawrence W. Reed