Chester A. Arthur
Inside Madison Square, near Madison Avenue and East 26th Street
This statue of Chester Alan Arthur, the New York lawyer and politician who we all know was the 21st president of the United States because it was the answer to a riddle in the movie “Diehard With a Vengeance,” sits in the well-shaded northeastern corner of Madison Square. There are four historical monuments in the park; the other three are all contemporaries and friends of Arthur’s: the former secretary of state William H. Seward on the corner of East 23rd and Broadway, the politician Roscoe Conkling at East 23rd and Madison and, at the north end of the park, about in the middle, is the statue of the Civil War hero Adm. David Glasgow Farragut.
It was sculpted by George Edwin Bissell. The figure is bronze and the pedestal is Barre granite. All told it’s about 15 feet tall. It was cast by Henry-Bonnard Bronze Co. of New York in 1898.
This figure of Arthur is particular interesting for the minor hub-bub that surrounded its creation. The monument had its origins in 1887, when the committee that had been organized to build a memorial to Arthur at his grave site near Albany realized they had raised way more money than they needed. They pledged their initial surplus, about $10,000, for a second statue to be placed in New York City and advertised for more subscriptions. Evidently, Arthur was not unpopular: The money continued to pour in, and organizers informally settled on a site inside Madison Square.
By 1892, an item in The Times’s Art Notes reports that a statue of Arthur, sculpted by Ephraim Keyser, was complete. Keyser had made the monument to Arthur in the Albany cemetery, which was well received, but his try at immortalizing Arthur (conceived standing upright, with his eyeglasses in his right hand, about nine feet tall, placed on a 10-foot pedestal built into a 40-foot semicircular bench that was adorned with granite nymphs and electric lights) was about to become a professional embarrassment.
On Feb. 8, 1893, the parks commission voted to reject Keyser’s statue, calling the monument “not equal to the average of the sculpture in Central Park.” The commissioners also recommended that, in the consideration of future monuments, the “average” standard be raised. After the meeting, a commissioner and the parks department president clashed “savagely,” if the report in the next day’s Times is to be believed, over press reports that had hinted at the commission’s rejection. The actual exchange between the antagonists is fairly mundane, but the reporter took no pains to conceal his glee at the officious outburst: “Then he glared at the president and remarked, ‘Anything that I said I am ready to stand by.” [He] remembered the days of the duello.”
The next day, The Times had a story appropriately headlined, “CHESTER A ARTHUR’S STATUE. WHAT WILL BECOME OF IT IS NOW THE QUESTION.” The president of the committee that raised the money for the statue was at a loss of what to do, according to The Times, saying that “he had known ex-President Arthur very well, and that he considered the statue a very excellent likeness.” Keyser was depressed. After hearing the verdict of the commission, he said “It must be pretty bad if it is as bad as that.”
The Times’s reporter concludes by way of offering some context:
To censure a statue on the grounds that it is “not equal to the average of sculpture in the Park” is considered to be pretty severe, in view of the fact that the proposition has received more than passing consideration to gather up the great number of hideous memorials that now mar the parks and plant them in a bunch in some forsaken corner of one of the new parks in the annexed district.
The commission went so far as to ask the eminent sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Quincy Adams Ward and Daniel Chester French to appraise the city’s statuary. I don’t think the three ever met for that purpose, but it wasn’t unusual for there to be occasional hysterics over the city’s monuments. (One enterprising Times reporter wrote a story during World War II about the prospect of melting statues down for the bronze.)
So, the committee started over. Bissell was eventually given the commission, and he probably did some of the work for the piece in Paris, where he lived from 1883 to 1896. Six years after Keyser’s statue was cast aside, Bissell’s monument was completed. It cost $25,000 and was dedicated on June 13, 1899.
The dedication ceremony was fairly mundane. A crowd of several thousand people gathered in front of a low stage built in front of the statue, which was veiled by the flag. The roster of stuffed shirts in attendance was unremarkable: the mayor did not attend; Randolph Guggenheimer, the president of the city council, took his place.
The keynote speaker was Elihu Root, a prominent lawyer who once defended Boss Tweed and who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. Root’s speech was praised the next day in an editorial by The Times, but I’m not sure that was necessary. Mostly, Root spins off the contentious election victory of Garfield and Arthur’s supposed dignified conduct after Garfield’s death. After some introductory babble, Root gets to the heart of the matter:
No greater peril ever menaced the Constitutional Government of the United States than that which confronted the American people when President Garfield fell by the hand of Guiteau. …the danger came from within. The factional strife within the dominant party which resulted in the nomination of President Garfield had been of unprecedented bitterness. Vice President Arthur had been selected from the defeated faction. He was one of its most conspicuous and active leaders.
…Surely no more lonely and pathetic figure was ever seen assuming the powers of Government. He had no people behind him, for Garfield, not he, was the people’s choice; he had no party behind him, for the dominant faction of his party hated his name, were enraged by his advancement and distrusted his motives. He had not even his own faction behind him, for he already knew that the just discharge of his duties would not accord with the ardent desires of their partisanship…
Then came the revelation to the people of America that our ever fortunate Republic had again found the man for the hour. His actions were informed and guided by absolute self-devotion to the loftiest conception of his great office.
Whew. And American dodged another bullet.
After Root finished, Guggenheimer got up and said some very forgettable things. Then the figure was unveiled by Arthur’s sister, Mrs. John E. McElroy. There was a burst of cheers and applause, then everyone went about their own business.
At the base of the statue, on the front, is written the sculptor’s name:
GEO. E. BISSELL SCULPTOR 1898
Round the back it says:
THE HENRY-BONNARD BRONZE CO. FOUNDERS. NEW YORK.
On the front of the granite pedestal, it says:
CHESTER ALAN ARTHUR TWENTY-FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
In February 2009, I received an e-mail message from an amateur historian and author who related some interesting information about the pose of the statue:
I thought you might be interested in the factoid that President Arthur is supposed to be holding his glasses in his right hand. These bronze glasses kept disappearing, and now, witness your piece, no one even knows they were ever there. Mr. Bissell bemoaned their repeated losses (he’d made several pair) in a letter published in the New York Times in 1912 which is the only way I know of them.
Frankly, I consider their loss, (which Bissell really should have been able to predict) a considerable loss. As it is now, the President is lecturing us, pontificating. The glasses, like the book, reinforce the notion that he was reading when he rose to greet us. A nice, perhaps imaginary, distinction, but it works for me.
I have just learned that the Keyser monument to Arthur, the piece apparently denied a location in any city park, is now at Union College in Schenectady. Equally apparently, in Keyser’s piece the President was also supposed to be holding his eyeglasses. Though both monuments are made of bronze there’s a lot of irony in them too.
Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vt., on Oct. 5, 1830. He was a school principal briefly before moving to New York City to practice law, earning a reputation as an expert in civil rights cases. He was eventually appointed the customs collector for the port of New York, an influential post, but left office under the threat of corruption charges. Two years later, after considerable agitation by his New York Republican friends, he was named James Garfield’s vice president and, after Garfield was assassinated, became the 21st president. He died Nov. 18, 1886, in New York.
Arthur’s relationship with the political boss Roscoe Conkling, whose statue faces Arthur at the opposite (southern) end of Madison Square, is noteworthy, in a sleazy sort of way. Crackpots will tell you to this day that Conkling engineered Garfield’s death to get his friend Arthur in the White House. The truth, though certainly less spectacular, is probably just as intriguing. Alas, revealing it is beyond our purview.
The monument was refurbished in 1968 and 1987.