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Chester A. Arthur: Surprisingly Good

2017-07-24

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[00:06.00]
  • VOA Learning English presents America’s Presidents.
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  • Today we are talking about Chester A. Arthur. (The letter “A” is for Alan, his middle name.)
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  • Arthur took office because because of an unexpected event.
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  • He was sworn in as Vice President in March 1881 under James Garfield.
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  • But only 100 days into Garfield’s term, the president was shot. He suffered for months.
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  • Arthur was not close to Garfield.
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  • The two men belonged to the same party, but they had different ideas on the issues of the day.
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  • They publicly disagreed on a number of subjects.
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  • If Garfield lived, Arthur would probably not have much power in his administration.
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  • But Garfield eventually died.
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  • By this time, it was well-established that if the president of the United States dies in office, the vice president becomes the president.
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  • So, in September 1881, Arthur became the country’s chief executive.
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  • He served the remaining three and a half years of Garfield’s term.
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  • Historians say that, for the most part, Arthur performed ably and well.
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  • Chester Arthur was raised in the northeastern states of Vermont and New York.
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  • He was one of eight children in his family.
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  • Their father was a religious leader and anti-slavery activist.
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  • Arthur attended college in New York, then taught school and studied law.
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  • But he never wanted to stay in a small town and live modestly.
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  • He wanted to live in New York City, work as a lawyer and public official, become wealthy, and enjoy the lifestyle of a gentleman.
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  • And that is what he did.
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  • Arthur advanced from an entry-level job in a law office, to a leadership position in the military during the Civil War.
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  • After the fighting stopped, he worked in a good-paying job as a lawyer, and then accepted a top position in the government.
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  • For seven years, Arthur served as the collector of the port of New York.
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  • His job involved supervising 1,300 people.
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  • They collected large amounts of money that came from taxes on imported goods.
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  • The job had a political element, too.
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  • It was under the control of a U.S. senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling.
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  • Conkling was known as a Republican Party chief, who traded political support for financial and other benefits.
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  • Arthur was never found guilty of accepting money or gifts in exchange for the help of his office.
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  • But he was closely linked to Conkling’s political machine.
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  • When Rutherford B. Hayes became president in 1878, he tried to fight corruption in government jobs.
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  • He targeted Conkling and Arthur.
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  • Arthur’s position as the collector of the port of New York was one of the issues in the election of 1880.
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  • President Hayes had suspended Arthur from the job.
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  • To get it back, Arthur and Conkling supported an effort to re-elect former president Ulysses S. Grant.
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  • But another candidate won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination: James Garfield.
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  • Garfield and Arthur were not natural allies.
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  • Although they were both Republicans, they represented different points of view.
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  • Political leaders hoped to unite the party.
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  • So, when Garfield was chosen as the presidential candidate, they added Arthur as the vice presidential nominee.
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  • The effort to unite the party worked well enough to win the election.
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  • But relations between the two men were uneasy.
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  • One of Garfield’s first acts was to appoint someone for Arthur’s old job in New York.
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  • The new president wanted someone who was not loyal to Conkling.
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  • So he gave the position to one of his supporters, instead.
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  • In protest, Conkling resigned from the Senate.
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  • But then events took an unexpected turn. Garfield was shot by a mentally unbalanced man who believed the president owed him a government job.
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  • And Chester A. Arthur became president.
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  • When Arthur took office, he had the public image of being an experienced political operator.
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  • Most people believed he cared only about supporting the aims of a small part of the Republican Party.
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  • Instead, President Arthur took an independent position on several issues.
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  • In opposition to most of his party, Arthur supported legislation to reform the country’s civil service.
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  • It aimed to clean up corruption in government and took away some of the ability of politicians to give government jobs to their supporters.
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  • (To be fair, in the short term, the act helped Arthur’s party.)
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  • Arthur also broke with the Republican Party leadership to support a reduction in tariffs.
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  • And he strongly argued to limit spending federal money on projects that helped only a few areas or businesses.
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  • Instead, he wanted to cut taxes so more people would profit from the government’s surplus.
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  • Finally, Arthur vetoed an anti-immigration act from Congress.
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  • The measure proposed banning Chinese immigrants for 20 years.
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  • Arthur argued that the Chinese had improved the American economy by helping build a railroad across the country.
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  • He also did not want to hurt potential trade with China.
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  • However, when Congress offered to ban Chinese immigrants for only 10 years, Arthur agreed.
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  • In addition, his administration banned immigrants who were considered poor, criminal, or mentally insane.
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  • Perhaps Arthur’s most memorable act as president, however, was to re-decorate the White House.
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  • He did not like its appearance inside.
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  • So he asked one of New York’s top designers, Louis Tiffany, to make the home brighter and more stylish.
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  • In the newly remodeled rooms, Arthur held parties, with fine food and drink, for elite guests.
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  • He was known as “The Gentleman Boss.”
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  • Observers then and now say that Arthur served well as president.
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  • He was a solid leader after the difficult years of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
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  • But Arthur did not live much beyond his presidency.
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  • Shortly into his term, he learned he had a serious kidney disease that would likely kill him.
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  • As a result, he did not try hard to get re-elected.
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  • Instead, after finishing his term he returned to his home in New York.
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  • Arthur tried to work as a lawyer, but he soon became too sick.
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  • His wife had died of malaria before he became president.
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  • And he liked to spend his free time fishing or with friends instead of with his children.
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  • But, in his last months, he could not enjoy those activities either.
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  • He died at home at the age of 57.
  • [09:53.04]
  • I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
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