(HOST) With all the talk of bipartisanship and transparency in government these days, one might think that they’re relatively new ideas, but commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman believes that it’s one of Vermont’s own who first gave true meaning to those concepts more than 100 years ago.
(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) On September 19, 1881, Franklin County born Chester Alan Arthur became the 21st President of the United States following the death of President James Garfield. Although both Republicans, they represented two very distinct factions of the Party which was decidedly split over the issue of patronage, or
rewarding individuals for their electoral support. When Arthur took the oath of office he knew that he needed not only to mend the Party, but also to assure the American public that no individual or political dogma would control him as President. To that end, he rose above the decidedly partisan climate of the day, continued the reform policies of the previous two administrations, and worked diligently to engage politicians of every stripe.
No one really expected him to succeed, nor to be an innovator. But he did, and he was. One of his greatest accomplishments was the Pendleton Civil Service Reform
Act of 1883. This legislation prohibited firing of public employees for political reasons. It also banned salary kickbacks, and established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission charged with classifying Federal jobs. Prior to this, civil service positions were based on the spoils system, and hence driven by political affiliation, not merit. It was this structure, in fact, that gained Arthur the vice-presidency.
But Arthur understood that if the country was to heal, he needed to change, and the "gentleman boss" of the Republican Party soon became known as "The Father of Civil Service." The committed reformer felt a great sense of responsibility to do what was right for the country regardless of political consequences, and demonstrated it in a number of ways. Among them: Arthur overhauled the corrupt U.S. Postal Service, ardently supported civil rights, and championed reduction in tariff rates to benefit the middle class. He was an advocate for Native American causes, and promoted a new Navy. He also renovated a deteriorating White House, making it a showplace for the best and finest this country had to offer.
Yet, for all of these accomplishments, and many more like them, one of the biggest hullabaloos in Arthur’s political career was over his birthplace. When he ran for the vice-presidency in 1880, enemies argued that he was born in either Canada, or his father’s native Ireland, and not in these United States. If said rumors had been true, according to the Constitution, he would have been ineligible to serve as either Vice President – or President. Happily the tales were greatly exaggerated, and Vermont can claim Arthur as one of its own. The modest little cabin on a quiet road in Fairfield attests to that fact. The President Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site, open weekends from now through mid-October, is a faithful replica of the parsonage the Arthur family occupied in 1830 when Chester was an infant. It offers an exhibit that celebrates his life, his career, and his efforts to achieve bipartisan cooperation – efforts, by the way, that led to the kind of transparency in government then, that many currently in Washington aspire to now.