Chester Alan Arthur: The Underrated President With Three First Names

On this date in 1881, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States. Our friend Thomas Sonnenschein is here to honor the underappreciated, overnamed twenty-first president.

Many years ago, in a college trivia tournament, a moderator asked a question: Who is the least-known American president?

The question itself invited more questions. Least known by whom? American historians? The general public? Nepalese monarchs?

And, of course, if the least-known president is well known enough to be the answer of a trivia question, how little known could he be?

It was a conundrum.

The answer the questioner was looking for was Millard Fillmore. But Fillmore, even then, was better known than probably a half-dozen U.S. presidents. The great journalist H.L. Mencken had seized on Fillmore's semi-anonymous mediocrity to give him credit for having installed the first White House bathtub "“ a canard that, more than 80 years after Mencken invented it, is still considered the highlight of the Fillmore administration.

But if any president should have the title "least known," it should be Chester Alan Arthur (pictured), the 21st president, as an extremely informal 2007 Mother Jones survey observed. Whether this survey is accurate or not "“ on a different day with a different polling pool, the conclusion could have favored Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or even the beloved Franklin Pierce, described by a recent biographer as (yes) "the nation's least-known president" "“ the results make more sense. For Chester Alan Arthur, a man with some stunning muttonchop whiskers, may truly be the most anonymous man ever to hold the United States' highest office.

Consider his unlikely career.

Most presidents rise to the office through military fame (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower), Cabinet distinction (John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover) or previous election to high office (most everyone else). Prior to his election as vice-president, Arthur was "¦ the former Collector of the Port of New York.

Indeed, at the time he was nominated, he had returned to practicing law, as he'd been forced out of the Collector's position by President Rutherford B. Hayes in an attempt at reform. (In Arthur's defense, he apparently ran the Customs House more honorably than his often corrupt predecessors.)

He was selected as the vice-presidential nominee during a particularly bitter Republican convention. The party was divided between three groups: the Stalwarts, the Half-Breeds and the Reformers. The Stalwarts were in favor of the post-Civil War Republican hard line and led by Roscoe Conkling, the New York senator and Republican kingmaker with the unbelievably perfect politician's name. The Half-Breeds were the less-radical followers of presidential candidate and senator James G. "The Plumed Knight," "The Man from Maine" Blaine. The Reformers were in favor of ending the spoils system then in force "“ a system favored by the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds.

Oh, and Conkling and Blaine didn't like each other.

The convention went to 36 ballots before finally picking James A. Garfield "“ who started the convention as the campaign manager for another candidate -- as its presidential standard-bearer.

After Garfield's selection, party regulars offered the vice-presidential nomination to Arthur, largely because he was Conkling's right-hand man. Conkling actually urged Arthur to decline the nomination "as you would a red-hot shoe from the forge," since he thought Garfield was a sure loser, but Arthur was adamant: "This is a higher honor than I have ever dreamt of attaining. I shall accept!"

So, who was this mysterious man with the three first names?

Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, on October 5, 1829, the son of a preacher man. (Sources are not entirely clear on his birth; he may have been born in 1830, and he may have been born in Canada, but that's a discussion for another time.) He grew up in Perry, New York, and graduated from that Schenectady's Union College in 1848. After a few years as a school principal, he earned his law degree and moved to New York City. Among his cases was a lawsuit that ended desegregation of public transit in New York.

During the Civil War, he was quartermaster of the State of New York, and after another stint practicing law, President Grant "“ who Arthur had supported strongly in 1868 -- appointed him Collector in 1871, a position Arthur held for seven years.

Despite Arthur's bona fides, he was viewed as Conkling's man. Garfield didn't think much of his running mate. (Apparently, neither did the news media of the time; The New York Times said Arthur was "about the last man who would be considered eligible" for the presidency.)

However, Arthur "“ or, more precisely, Conkling "“ may have made a difference in November, as Garfield won the presidency by less than 10,000 votes in the popular count, and 214 to 155 in the Electoral College. Had New York gone Democratic "“ it favored Garfield by just 20,000 votes -- we'd be talking about the administration of Winfield Scott Hancock.

Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. He spent his first months in office trying to find a middle ground between the Republican forces that had helped put him there. (Among his moves: naming Blaine Secretary of State.)

And then, tragedy. Or, if your name was Chester Alan Arthur, opportunity.

Garfield's first months in office turned out to be his only months in office. On July 2, 1881, only four months after beginning his term, he was shot by the most famous disgruntled office-seeker in American history, Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield died 10 weeks later, and Arthur was sworn in as president on September 20, 1881. He was 51 years old. Legend has it that a Republican friend, upon hearing the news, said, "Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!"


[Image courtesy of Slags House of Stats.]

No doubt, Conkling thought he'd now control the presidency. Moreover, Conkling's opponents, the Half-Breeds, probably thought the same thing. Instead, Arthur managed to rise above both factions, firing Garfield's entire cabinet, including Blaine (only secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln kept his job) and coming out in favor of ending the spoils system, which he'd previously supported. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established the bipartisan Civil Service Commission.

Arthur was also key in helping to establish the modern American navy.

He did have his faults, however. A dandy "“ he was known as both "the Gentleman Boss" and "Elegant Arthur," which was saying something in Gilded Age America "“ he asked Louis Tiffany to redecorate the White House in the style to which he was accustomed, which resulted in previous generations of White House furniture being sold or destroyed. (Arthur, a widower who had lost his wife in 1880, requested Tiffany's work himself; it cost $30,000, quite a sum in 1881.) He also signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an anti-immigrant law that wasn't repealed until World War II.

In general, however, Arthur was thought of highly. Even the cynical Mark Twain observed, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration." (He wasn't joking.)

But the Republicans remained mistrustful, and though Arthur didn't campaign actively for the 1884 nomination "“ he was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment that would kill him two years later "“ the party nominated his old rival Blaine instead. To this day, Arthur is the last sitting president pursuing re-election to be denied his party's nomination.

Nevertheless, his place in American history is secure. Perhaps the next time someone asks the name of the least-known president in American history, the answer won't be Chester Alan Arthur. He'll have earned far too much distinction for that. One could do worse than the president with three first names.

Thomas Sonnenschein is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Come back Monday for an extra special Chester A. Quiz.


Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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