Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur

21st President, 1881-1885

Early Life and Pre-presidency

Chester A. Arthur Portrait by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1881

Chester A. Arthur Portrait by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1881

  • Born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont.
  • Parents: William Arthur and Malvina Stone. Siblings: Regina, Jane, Almeda, Ann, Eliza, Malvina, William, George, and Mary.
  • Attended schools in Perry and Greenwich, New York. Then in 1845, enrolled at Union College, graduating in 1848.
  • Taught in Schaghticoke in Rensselaer County, New York during the winter while studying at Union College. After graduating, he taught there full time.
  • Studied law while teaching in Vermont and New York. In New York, he attended the State and National Law School before reading law in New York City. He was admitted to the bar in 1854.
  • Joined the firm of Erastus D. Culver in New York City where he was involved in two high-profile cases involving blacks. In 1854, he won a case for Elizabeth Jennings that led to the desegregation of streetcars in New York City.
  • Married Ellen Lewis Herndon (1837-1880) on October 25, 1859. Children: William Lewis Herndon (1860–1863), Chester Alan (1864–1937), and Ellen Herndon (1871–1915).
  • During the Civil War, he joined the state militia in 1858 but was then assigned by the New York governor to the quartermaster department in 1861 with the rank of brigadier general. In February 1862, he was promoted to inspector general, then to quartermaster general in July. He served until January 1863.
  • Returned to practicing law in 1863 and became more active in the Republican Party politics particularly for U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling.
  • Appointed Collector of the Port of New York in 1871 by then President Ulysses S. Grant because of his connections to Sentaor Conkling. He served in the position until 1878.
  • During Rutherford B. Hayes’ term, the President sought to remove Arthur from his post in 1877 to counter the political favoritism that had become rampant in the New York Custom House. Arthur and Senator Conkling fought the decision, but Hayes eventually succeeded.
  • Nominated for the Vice President of James A. Garfield in the Republican Party convention for the 1880 elections. Garfield won the election and Arthur became the Vice President of the United States.
  • Arthur and President Garfield had a strained relationship because Garfield sought to break Conkling’s power in determining key appointments and Arthur tried to influence Garfield to appoint Conkling supporters. Garfield increasingly isolated Arthur from his administration.
  • On July 2, 1888, President James A. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled lawyer who had been denied a consular post. Arthur was in Albany at the time and remained at his home.
  • On September 19, 1888, Arthur learned of the President’s death. The next day, New York Supreme Court Judge John R. Brady arrived at Arthur’s home to administer the oath of office. Arthur left for Washington two days later.

Presidency

Chester A. Arthur Photograph by Charles Milton Bell, 1882

Chester A. Arthur Photograph by Charles Milton Bell, 1882

  • Took his oath of office publicly on September 22, 1881 at the Office of the Vice President, U.S. Capitol.
  • Arthur repeated his oath of office in Washington, this time administered by the Chief Justice, because of concerns that the state judge did not have the authority to administer the Presidential oath.
  • Known for his elegant tastes, he ordered a refurbishing of the White House before he arrived in late 1881. The refurbishing cost $30,000 and was funded by Congress.
  • Garfield had worked to reform politcal favoritism in government appointments that were largely influenced by then Senator Conkling. Because Arthur was close to Conkling, many believed he would continue with political favoritism in his appointments. However, the assassination of Garfield by a man who had expected to be given a position through favoritism convinced Arthur to seek reform in the appointments to government positions.
  • Garfield’s cabinet resigned one by one after Arthur began his term. The only one who did not was the Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of former President Abraham Lincoln. He completed Arthur’s term.
  • Arthur’s first battle for civil service reform was the Star Route scandal in the Postal Department. Nine men were indicted in 1882. Although they were eventually found not guilty, Arthur was able to put a stop to the corruption in the postal service.
  • In early 1882, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a terminal kidney ailment. He kept the disease a secret from the public.
  • In April 1882, Arthur vetoed an early version of the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned the immigration of Chinese laborers for 20 years and denied citizenship to Chinese residents. He approved a revised version limiting the ban to 10 years and still denying citizenship. This act would be renewed every ten years throughout the 20th century.
  • Arthur signed the Immigration Act of 1882 in August. The Act levied a tax on immigrants to the U.S. It also prohibited the entry of persons who were mentally ill, criminals, and those unable to care for themselves.
  • Arthur vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act in August 1882, but Congress overrode the veto and passed the legislation.
  • In January 1883, Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act establishing a Civil Service Commission and rules for filling federal government positions based on a merit system.
  • Arthur signed the “Mongrel” Tarrif Act to reduce tariffs and the budget surplus brought on by the high taxes during the Civil War.
  • Arthur signed a bill in March 1883 that appropriated funds for the improvement of the Navy. He was particularly interested in the construction of Navy vessels made of steel.
  • Arthur led the dedication ceremony for the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. on February 21, 1885.
  • He did not seek re-election in the 1884 election because of his secret illness, but he did not discourage his supporters from campaigning for his nomination in the Republican Party.

Post-presidency

Arthur as a young man. Daguerrotype by Rufus Anson, ca. 1858

Arthur as a young man.
Daguerrotype by Rufus Anson, ca. 1858

  • Retired to his home in New York City after leaving the White House.
  • Returned to practicing law, but his worsening health limited his activities.
  • Died November 18, 1886 of cerebral hemorrhage.
  • He had nearly all of his personal and official papers burned a few days before his death.
  • A private funeral service was held at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City on November 22. It was attended by President Grover Cleveland and former President Rutherford B. Hayes.
  • He was interred at the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York next to his wife.
  • A monument was erected on Arthur’s burial plot in 1889.
  • The Chester A. Arthur statue was dedicated in Madison Square, New York City in 1898.
  • Arthur’s ancestral home in Northern Ireland has been preserved and called Arthur Cottage. It was the home of his grandparents, and where his father was born and raised before emigrating to the U.S. sometime between 1816 and 1820.