The accomplishments, and failures, of our least-remembered presidents

By Bill Felber

Dozens of books have been written on the greatest American presidents. Amazon has nearly 700 entries for FDR, and well past 1,000 for either Lincoln or Washington. Biographers of the stature of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, William Leuchtenberg and Edmund Morris make careers out of delving into the lives of the key figures in U.S. history.

Amazon also lists 43 entries for Chester Alan Arthur, America’s 21st president, but most are compilations of writings that allude to him, or they’re kids’ books. The total number of serious analyses of the Arthur presidency over the past century: a half dozen or so.

It is men such as Arthur who command the attention of Michael Gerhardt, whose recent book, “The Forgotten Presidents,” focuses on the deeds of a dozen men who reached the nation’s highest office only to be largely forgotten by history. Some, among them Franklin Pierce and William Howard Taft, are today widely viewed as abject failures. Others, notably William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, are forgotten because their tenures were cut short by their deaths. Most, like Arthur and John Tyler, are simply overlooked.

A professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina, Gerhardt is not setting about to rehabilitate the reputations of all of these men. Although he cheerfully concedes that some left the nation’s highest office worse than they found it, he also argues that a few actually accomplished significant deeds that history has forgotten. But his central argument is merely that, for better or worse, the agendas of these dozen were impactful.

Arthur is a good illustration of this contention. He came to office in 1881 due to the assassination of President James Garfield, being widely perceived at the time as an unworthy party hack. The general view, probably correct, is that Arthur, whose most prominent position was the political post of collector of the Port of New York City, was only nominated because Garfield needed to solidify the support of backers of Roscoe Conkling, a New York City boss, and Arthur filled that requirement.

On his own merits, nobody involved in Republican politics in 1880 would have conceived of Arthur as presidential material, and that reputation as a lightweight not only stalked him throughout his presidency, it has survived him by a century and a third. In fact, if people today can recall anything at all about Arthur, it is his muttonchop sideburns.

Here are three salient and routinely overlooked aspects of the Arthur presidency that Gerhardt would have you and me memorize.

1. He reformed civil service laws. Arthur emphasized merit-based appointments to office. He endorsed passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act and pushed it through Congress, effectively undermining the perception that the president could remove federal employees at will, which meant for political reasons.

2. He signed into law a bill criminalizing polygamy, and saw it upheld by the Supreme Court. Thus was it asserted that the federal government could assert its opinion in marriage laws.

3. He argued that the 14th Amendment was designed to specifically protect the rights of racial minorities, and positioned the federal government to come to the defense of “all citizens of the United States.” Arthur opposed narrow court interpretations of the amendment, although he was unable by the conclusion of his term to change the prevailing interpretation.

For researchers, one of the handiest aspects of this book is that Gerhardt has created what amounts to an issues index regarding 11 recurring topics of interest. Thus, on the matter of federal-state sovereignty, a reader can tell at a glance that seven of his selectees – Martin VanBuren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and Jimmy Carter – dealt with this issue, and can be directed to the precise pages where those activities are reviewed. Several of these issues, by the way, are recurring, among them congressional powers, presidential powers and constitutional interpretation.

This book will give you a deeper appreciation of the influence all American presidents, not just the celebrity ones, have had on the nation’s developments.

THE FORGOTTEN PRESIDENTS. Michael J. Gerhardt. Oxford University Press, 2013. 243 pages plus notes, $34.95.

Bill Felber is executive editor of The Mercury.

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