Chester Alan Arthur

October 5, 1829–November 18, 1886

Chester Alan Arthur was the twenty-first President of the United States, from September 19, 1881–March 4, 1885, succeeding President James Garfield after his assassination.

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Early Life

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in North Fairfield, Vermont, near the Canadian border. He was the fifth of eight children, and the first son, born to William and Malvina (Stone) Arthur. William Arthur was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States through Canada in 1822 after marrying Malvina. He was an itinerant schoolteacher, Baptist minister, and the co-founder of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, who moved his family frequently where he could find work in Vermont and New York. 

Young Chester Arthur received his first schooling at home, and in various local schools as his family moved. In 1844 he studied for one year at the Lyceum School in Schenectady, N.Y. before enrolling as a sophomore at Union College in the same town. Reportedly not a diligent student, Arthur still excelled in the classroom and graduated with honors in 1848.

Upon receiving his college degree, Arthur began teaching school as he prepared for a legal career in his free time. In 1853 he moved to New York City where he interned and studied law at the office of Erastus D. Culver. A year later, Arthur passed his examinations and joined the New York bar.

Early Career

After receiving his license to practice law, Arthur joined Culver’s firm. In 1855, Arthur formed a partnership with Henry Gardner. Over the next few years, he prospered and developed a notable reputation by successfully defending African Americans in some high-profile cases. Arthur’s strong anti-slavery views also prompted him to join the fledgling Republican Party.

Family Life

While living in New York, Arthur shared rented quarters with a medical student named Dabney Herndon. In 1857, the pair traveled to Saratoga, New York, where Herndon introduced Arthur to his cousin Ellen who was visiting from Virginia. A year later, Arthur proposed to Ellen Herndon, who he referred to as Nell. The couple wed at Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church in New York on October 29, 1859. Their marriage produced one son who died at age three, and another son and a daughter who grew to adulthood. 

Nell’s family wealth and social connections with prestigious New York families including the Astors, Roosevelts, and Vanderbilts contributed to Arthur’s rising political career. Ironically, Arthur’s near-obsession with politics contributed to what some people described as an unhappy marriage.

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Civil War

In 1857 Arthur joined the New York State Militia. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, New York Governor Edwin Morgan appointed Arthur as engineer-in-chief with the rank of brigadier general. For the rest of his life, Arthur insisted on being referred to as “General Arthur.”

Although Arthur saw no combat during the war, he performed critical administrative duties. In 1862, Morgan promoted him to inspector general in February and to quartermaster general in July. Arthur made significant contributions to the war effort by recruiting volunteers and then contracting for supplies to feed, house, clothe, arm, and transport them.

By 1862, the war was not going well for the North. As a result, the Republican Party did not fare well during the midterm elections. In New York, Democrat Horatio Seymour upset Governor Morgan’s bid for reelection. Upon assuming office, Seymour replaced Arthur with a member of his own party.  On January 1, 1863, Arthur left the service. Adding to the disappointment of losing his military assignment, Arthur suffered a personal tragedy in July when his two-and-one-half-year-old son William died unexpectedly.

New York Politician

After leaving the military, Arthur returned to his legal practice. His close friendship with former New York Governor and U.S. Senator Edwin Morgan raised Arthur’s reputation within the New York State Republican Party. Eschewing public office, Arthur preferred working behind the scenes promoting the interests of New York’s Republican politicians. He quickly advanced through the ranks of the party’s leadership after becoming a protégé of U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling, head of the state Republican political machine. By 1868, the party leadership selected Arthur as chairman of the New York City Republican executive committee.

Arthur’s loyal support of Conkling paid off handsomely. In 1871, at Conkling’s request, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur to the lucrative position of the Collector of the Port of New York. When Arthur assumed his new position on December 1, 1871, he oversaw roughly 1,000 workers who enforced federal tariffs in the nation’s busiest port.

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Arthur used his authority to reward Republican Party members with government jobs. In return, workers affirmed their loyalty to the party by making “voluntary” donations regularly. In Arthur’s defense, the custom of awarding government jobs based upon patronage or loyalty to a political party was not new to American politics. During Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s tenure (1829-1837) the practice was so rampant that people derisively labeled it the “spoils system,” meaning to the victors go the spoils. Although Arthur championed the spoils system, there is little, if any, evidence that he benefitted monetarily from the practice. Still, his position enhanced his status and power within the Republican Party.

Arthur’s generous income as a collector enabled him to maintain a posh lifestyle. Initially, his total wage (including bonuses for confiscating smuggled goods) exceeded the President’s $50,000 annual salary. That amount later decreased to $12,000 when officials eliminated the bonus system after discovering that some customs house employees falsified reports to increase their pay.

In 1875, President Grant appointed Arthur to a second four-year term as a collector. However, when reform-minded Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the presidency in 1877, he ordered investigations into the operations of all the nation’s custom houses. Hayes had personal reasons for focusing on New York. Conkling’s lukewarm support of Hayes’ campaign contributed to Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden’s New York victory in the general election, nearly costing Hayes the presidency.

In April 1877, Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, appointed a three-man commission to investigate operations at the New York customhouse. The commission issued several reports during the investigation that lasted several months. The review produced no evidence of criminal behavior on Arthur’s part, but the commission found that his operation was over-staffed and rampant with incompetence and fraud. As a result, President Hayes offered Arthur an appointment as ambassador to France in return for his resignation as a collector. When Arthur refused the deal, Hayes demanded his resignation in September 1877. Arthur refused to resign contending that to do so would confirm misconduct. Unable to muster support from the Senate, Hayes waited until Congress was in summer recess and removed Arthur from his position on July 11, 1878.

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Presidential Election of 1880

After being sacked by Hayes, Arthur returned to his law practice and remained active in Republican politics. In September 1879, party leaders selected Arthur as Chairman of the New York State Republican Executive Committee. His new appointment took him to Albany in January to oversee the creation of the party’s agenda for the upcoming year. While he was away, his wife contracted pneumonia and died unexpectedly in New York City on January 12, 1880.

With a heavy heart, Arthur traveled to Chicago in June for the 1880 Republican National Convention. Incumbent President Hayes was intent upon fulfilling his 1876 campaign pledge to serve only one term, so the contest for the party’s presidential nomination was wide open. The leading contenders represented a divided party. The Conkling faction (known as the Stalwarts), to which Arthur belonged, lobbied for a third term for ex-President Ulysses S. Grant. The Hayes faction (who the Stalwarts derisively called Half-Breeds) supported Maine Senator James G. Blaine. Moderates who did not identify with the Stalwarts or Half-Breeds backed Ohio Senator John Sherman. When none of the three main contenders could garner enough votes to secure the nomination after thirty-five ballots, Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield emerged as a dark horse candidate. On June 8, 1880, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the delegates selected Garfield (who was neither a Stalwart nor a Half-Breed) as their nominee for the 1880 presidential election.

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Acutely aware that they needed Conkling’s support to win New York’s thirty-five electoral votes, Garfield’s camp offered the vice-presidency to Conkling’s lieutenant, Arthur. Conkling advised Arthur to reject the proposal because he expected Garfield to lose the election. Nonetheless, Arthur accepted the nomination, declaring that “the office of the Vice-President is a great honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

Throughout the summer and fall, Garfield conducted the first “front porch campaign” from his home in Mentor, Ohio. Meanwhile, as chairman of the New York State Republican Committee, Arthur worked fervently behind the scenes to deliver the Empire State for the Republican ticket.

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During the campaign, rumors surfaced that Arthur was not born in the United States, thus making him ineligible for the office of vice-president. After Arthur’s nomination, Democratic Party officials hired New York attorney Arthur P. Hinman to investigate Arthur’s heritage. Initially, Hinman reported that Arthur was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at age fourteen. When Republicans easily debunked that falsehood, Hinman changed his story, claiming that Arthur was born in Canada while his pregnant mother was north of the border visiting relatives. Lacking much concrete evidence, Hinman’s accusations had little, if any, effect on the outcome of the election.

On November 2, 1880, over nine million American men went to the polls to elect a new president. When election officials tabulated the results, the Republican Garfield-Arthur nominees defeated the Democratic ticket of Winfield Scott Hancock-William H. English by fewer than 2,000 votes. Each party carried nineteen states, but Garfield and Arthur prevailed in the more-populated North. As a result, the Electoral College results were much more decisively favored the Republicans, 214 to 155.

Vice-President

Arthur took the vice-presidential oath of office on March 4, 1881. Before being sworn in, however, he and Garfield had become estranged over Garfield’s refusal to appoint Stalwart Republicans to federal offices. Their relationship became so strained after their inaugurations that Garfield banned Arthur from the White House.

On July 2, 1881, Arthur was in Albany attending to Republican Party business when he learned that Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, had shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, DC. As Guiteau surrendered after the shooting, he stated “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!” Guiteau’s confession briefly led to baseless suspicions that Arthur or his supporters had instigated the crime.

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Garfield survived the shooting and lingered in poor health for ten weeks before dying from complications at 10:35 p.m. on Monday, September 19, 1881. At 2:15 the next morning, New York Supreme Court Justice John R. Brady administered the presidential oath of office to Arthur in the vice-president’s home. On September 21, Arthur attended Garfield’s funeral and then traveled to Washington. On September 22, 1881, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite re-administered the presidential oath of office to ensure full compliance with the Constitution.

President Arthur

Because Arthur was a product of New York machine politics who had never held an elected public office before becoming vice-president, Americans had good reason to expect the worst of their new president. Surprisingly though, Arthur became his own man as president. In January 1883, he continued the civil service reform efforts of his predecessors, Hayes and Garfield, by signing the Pendleton Act.

Introduced by Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio, the legislation established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission that enacted policies for filling federal jobs based on merit rather than political party affiliation. Some believed that Arthur’s change of heart about patronage was a political maneuver prompted by the success of reform Democrats in the 1882 Congressional mid-term elections. He soon quieted his critics, however, by quickly appointing the three members of the Civil Service Commission with reformers. Later that year, during his State-of-the-Union address to Congress, Arthur praised the new system for “securing competent and faithful public servants and in protecting the appointing officers of the Government from the pressure of personal importunity and from the labor of examining the claims and pretensions of rival candidates for public employment.”

Civil service reform was not the only issue that prompted Arthur to affirm his independence. In 1883 he fought a losing battle with the Republican-controlled Congress to lower tariffs to reduce a growing government surplus. When Congress passed legislation to reduce the surplus by spending more, Arthur vetoed it, arguing that the government should lower taxes rather than raising expenditures. The Republican Congress, which saw more federal patronage jobs as a way to bolster their power, quickly overrode Arthur’s veto.

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Arthur also found himself at odds with Congress and popular public sentiment when he vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have established a twenty-nine-year ban on Chinese immigration. Arguing that Chinese immigrants had contributed substantially to the development of the American West, Arthur successfully convinced Congress to lower the ban to ten years.

It is possible that a pressing concern about his legacy may have spawned Arthur’s independent streak. Just months after becoming president, he began suffering from nausea and fatigue, which led to depression and irritability. After noting that the president was “sick in body and soul,” his doctor diagnosed Bright’s disease, a nineteenth-century catchall term for what modern medicine recognizes as a variety of kidney ailments. Advised that his condition was terminal, Arthur refused to disclose his illness, fearing that it would curtail his effectiveness as president.

1884 Presidential Election

Although Arthur knew he was dying, he hoped to serve another term as president. Most Republican leaders, however, did not share his ambitions. Riding a wave of political reform, delegates attending the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago snubbed Arthur and selected Stalwart nemesis James G. Blaine as their presidential candidate.

On November 4, 1884, Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated Blaine to win the presidency. On March 4, 1885, Arthur attended Cleveland’s inauguration and then quietly left Washington.

Post-Presidency

After leaving the White House, Arthur returned to New York, where he planned to resume his law practice. His deteriorating health soon limited his activity, however. In 1886 he spent the summer resting in New London, Connecticut. After returning to New York, Arthur’s health worsened noticeably. Sensing the end was near, on Tuesday, November 16, 1886, Arthur directed his nephew, Charles E. McElroy, to burn “three large garbage cans, each at least four feet high,” of his personal papers. That evening, or early the next morning, Arthur suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and lapsed in and out of consciousness, unable to speak.

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Death and Burial

Arthur died in his New York City home at 5:10 a.m. on Thursday, November 18, 1886, at age fifty-seven. His remains were buried alongside his wife at the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Chester Alan Arthur
  • Coverage October 5, 1829–November 18, 1886
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 8, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 12, 2022

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