RALEIGH – While doing some research for my remarks tonight at the John Locke Foundation’s 19th anniversary celebration, I ran across a wonderful statement from the nation’s 21st president, Chester A. Arthur.
Arthur has always been one of my faves. Admittedly, my criteria for presidential greatness is a bit different from those employed by the predominantly Left-leaning journalists and historians who make up the familiar lists. I don’t reward presidents for presiding over wars, disasters, and economic recessions. I don’t rate them higher if they are more “active” at growing the size and power of the federal government. I don’t care if they were trendsetters or had interesting First Ladies or sought to bestride the Earth like a Colossus.
In my rating system, American presidents have been great to the extent that they protected the country’s security and interests, defended the principles of constitutional government, and advanced the cause of human freedom.
So the likes of Woodrow Wilson are right out. Few individuals have done more damage to traditional American liberties and the constitutional order. Plus, he lied a lot.
Chester A. Arthur deserves more popular acclaim for several reasons. First and foremost, he fought for competence and against rank political patronage in government offices. Added to the ticket of James Garfield in 1880, he was assumed to be the slavish creature of a New York political machine. But when Garfield’s assassination in 1881 elevated him to the presidency, Arthur bucked the political bosses and later signed the Civil Service Reform Act into law, protecting federal employees from partisan political pressure.
Second, Arthur bucked the Republican Party establishment by seeking to lower the federal tariff, which he viewed as unnecessary and counterproductive in developing the nation’s economy. The president didn’t get all of what he wanted in the resulting congressional compromise, but Arthur did help foster a more economically enlightened faction within the then-protectionist GOP.
Third, Arthur preferred to be called “Chet.” Gotta like that.
Finally, President Arthur was one of those rare federal officials who actually believed that the Constitution imposed binding constraints on the exercise of federal power. In 1882, he vetoed a bill that funded a large number of transportation and infrastructure projects across the country. His reasoning is well worth reading in the current political context. An excerpt:
My principal objection to the bill is that it contains appropriations for purposes not for the common defense or general welfare, and which do not promote commerce among the states. These provisions, on the contrary, are entirely for the benefit of the particular localities in which it is proposed to make the improvements. I regard such appropriation of the public money as beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.
I feel the more 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, and it is not unnatural that they should seek to indemnify themselves for such use of the public funds by securing appropriations for similar improvements in their own neighborhood.
Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable it secures more support. This result is invariable and necessarily follows a neglect to observe the constitutional limitations imposed upon the lawmaking power.
Would that America produced such national leaders today.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation