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 Sept. 20, 1881 — 140 years ago.
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?”
Then President Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker in July 1881, 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 did a rather good job.
Historians these days exhibit a bias for “activist” presidents. They praise the ones who expanded the State 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.”
Considering the gigantic “infrastructure” bills of today, we ought to think about what President Arthur wrote when he nixed the Rivers and Harbors Act on Aug. 1, 1882. The bill would have appropriated money “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,
I regard such appropriation of the public money as beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President. I feel 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... Thus, as the bill becomes more objectionable it secures more support.
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 here — downright moral and financial corruption.
Today’s big spenders in Washington 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.
We may think of Chester Arthur as a nobody, but I wish we could put him in a room today with the incompetent and unprincipled 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.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at email@example.com.