The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur (2017)
After Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to the post of Lt. General (as well as some family tragedies), Arthur had become so disenchanted with the Lincoln administration that he had almost become a Copperhead. Arthur’s conscience wasn’t bothered by profiteering from a war he thought was badly mismanaged by Lincoln and his top men. Lucrative military contracts disappeared after the Civil War, but Arthur’s friendship with Thomas Murphy, a hatter that he had come to know during the war, deepened. Arthur helped the Republican candidate Murphy win a seat in the NY state senate in a Democratic district. Arthur started to spend almost every night at Murphy’s home, having “Super Happy Fun Time” and talking politics.
Arthur made many valuable connections via state senator Murphy. What Arthur and the others in his political circle were interested in was the pursuit and maintenance of power, not solving problems with that amassed political power. In other words, their politics was based on power, not principles. Arthur’s standing in the Republican Party in the state of New York rose due mostly to Murphy, and by 1868, Arthur had become a prominent politician. But in that same year Murphy lost his senate seat pursuing re-election, but Arthur was soon able to find an even greater patron.
In 1866 Blaine really heaped the insults on Conkling in front of the other representatives. Conkling never again spoke to Blaine or even acknowledged his presence. Conkling was elected to the Senate (before the 17th Amendment, state legislatures selected the two U.S. Senators) before Blaine, and took his seat in 1867. Conkling refused to take direction of party leaders in the Senate; it was basically unprecedented for a freshman Senator to do so.
Conkling was married, but he had a mistress, Kate Sprague, who was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase as well as the wife of the Governor of Rhode Island. Sprague’s advice for Conkling: gain the prize he wanted most, which was to be the Republican Party boss of New York. And the Key to that Kingdom was the New York City Customs House, which by 1872 was still the primary entry point for goods coming into the US. The NY Customs House was the largest federal office in the nation with hundreds of jobs centered around patronage.
In July 1870, President Ulysses Grant nominated Tom Murphy to be the Customs House collector. Conkling immediately saw his chance to become the Republican boss in NY by championing Murphy’s nomination in the Senate, while also earning valuable political capital with Grant. Murphy was confirmed as collector with only three Senators voting in opposition, and Conkling was NY’s undisputed Republican leader; many believed he would become President. It was during the confirmation process of Murphy that Chester Arthur and Roscoe Conkling became acquainted, and then friends. Arthur became Conkling’s “Right Hand Man”, and during the 1870s they advanced together and accumulated power and influence until they were on the brink of the White House.
Arthur and Murphy knew that for the Republicans to ensure their stranglehold on NY politics, the Customs House needed to be in the hands of the Republican Party. Arthur told those in his “Circle of Trust” that if he was in charge of the Customs House he could make the NY Republican Party an unstoppable force. Murphy had been the collector, but he hadn’t paid much attention to the potential of the position since he was so focused on dishing out the spoils to make Conkling happy. Soon enough though, Murphy discovered that vast profits could be skimmed from the position by taking 5% - 25% of what was stored in the Customs House warehouse until payment was received to release the goods. Murphy sent much of that ill-gotten booty to Conkling, et al, but also to some of Grant’s corrupt cronies.
During the Fall of 1871, the most powerful newspaper publisher in the US, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, went on the warpath against the practices of the collector of the Customs House, and he put a lot of political pressure on Grant. Grant gave into that pressure to reform the Customs House, and in November 1871, the President accepted the resignation of Tom Murphy as collector . . . but Grant allowed Murphy to name his successor, which was Chester Arthur. Greeley lamented that Arthur would be nothing more than the puppet of Murphy and Conkling.
Arthur was now in the upper-society of NYC and he became acquainted with many powerful figures which included Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (the father of TR). Arthur and his wife regularly entertained, lavishly so. Arthur showed up for work at 1 pm in that he was usually up to the brink of dawn interacting with influential people. Arthur’s charm and elegance at running the Customs House helped blunt the frustrations of those whose goods were taken by skimming. Arthur was popular with the employees at the Customs House. Arthur demanded party and personal loyalty, but he resisted external efforts to reduce the salaries of those employees. Arthur focused on keeping the workers he had and added new positions instead of thinning the ranks in order to cut costs. In effect, Arthur was Conkling’s man running the NY Republican machine so Conkling could remain an effective Senator (An added bonus was that Arthur’s personality was far more effective than Conkling’s in dealing with the people side of the coin).
In the Fall of 1872, Arthur faced a challenge when the application of the new federal civil service rules went into effect. Arthur gave outward respect to the law but totally ignored implementing any of its aspects. The only applicants that took the required civil service exams were the ones that Arthur had already decided to hire. Republican political bosses in each state put their efforts to make sure that Grant won re-election in 1872, and Arthur did his best to help with the machinery of the Republican Party in the state of New York.