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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Twenty-First President • 1881-85
Chester Arthur
Chester A. Arthur

Arthur, an erstwhile machine politician who became President upon the death of Garfield and had never held elective office except for the Vice-Presidency, seemed unsuited for the role of Chief Executive. Yet he gained major stature in that position. Abandoning the spoilsmanship with which he had long been associated and gaining many enemies in his own party, he championed bipartisan civil service reform. This cost him all chance for renomination.

The eldest son in a large family sired by a Baptist minister who had immigrated from Ireland via Canada, Arthur was born in 1830 near the Canadian border at Fairfield or Waterville, Vt. During his first decade of life, his father moved to a series of parishes, predominantly in the Vermont-New York border area. The youth attended schools in various localities until his father settled for 5 years in Union Village (present Greenwich), N.Y. In 1844 the family relocated to Schenectady, N.Y. Arthur studied at the Lyceum School for a year and then Union College, partially financing himself by teaching and graduating with honors in 1848.

For the next 5 years, Arthur continued to teach, mainly in the Pownal, Vt., area, and attained the rank of principal. Meantime, he had read law. In 1853 he intensified his studies with a New York City firm managed by family friends, was admitted to the bar that same year, and joined them. Because of his antislavery views, the young lawyer associated himself with the emerging Republican Party at its first State convention, provided legal services for fugitive slaves, and in one case dealt a legal blow against segregated public transportation in Brooklyn.

Arthur at his desk in the White House. (Engraving, after a drawing by Frederick Dielman, in Harper's Weekly, Feb. 28, 1885, Library of Congress.)

Ellen Arthur
Ellen Arthur
Mary McElroy
Mary McElroy

In 1859 Arthur married Ellen Lewis Herndon of Fredericksburg, Va., daughter of a prominent naval officer. She was to bear one daughter and two sons. In 1857 Arthur had joined the State militia as a judge advocate. During the Civil War, temporarily discontinuing his legal practice, he went on active duty. He ably served in a variety of administrative posts on the home front: engineer-in-chief, quartermaster general, and inspector general.

In 1863 Arthur resumed his law practice and renewed his interest in Republican politics. Five years later, he directed election strategy for the Central Grant Club of New York. The next year, he was named counsel for the New York City Tax Commission. In 1871 President Grant, rewarding him for his party loyalty, appointed him as collector of customs of the Port of New York.

Arthur, again proving to be an efficient administrator, hired most of his 1,000 employees on the basis of merit. But he also subscribed to the spoils system, hired more personnel than were needed, and expected them to support the party—particularly U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling's Stalwart Republican machine. President Hayes, a Republican reformer who was at odds with the Stalwarts, removed Arthur in 1878.

Arthur returned to his law practice, and aided the revengeful attempts of Conkling's faction to win a third term for Grant at the 1880 convention. This effort failed, but Arthur received the Vice-Presidential nomination under James Garfield. Once in office, Arthur remained a Conkling loyalist, even when the latter clashed with President Garfield over patronage.

Arthur, still grieving over the loss of his wife the previous year, assumed the Presidency in 1881 upon the assassination of Garfield by a disgruntled job seeker. To the dismay of Conkling and his followers, Arthur rose above partisanship. He abandoned his presumed loyalty to the Stalwarts, attempted to unify his party, and became an ardent reformer.

President Arthur registers to vote in New York City. (Engraving, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 28, 1882, Library of Congress.)

Pursuing efforts initiated under Hayes and Garfield, Arthur pushed prosecution of a series of fraud cases in the Post Office Department, and reformed the civil service. Political party affiliation instead of merit had long determined Federal job appointments. Arthur prodded Congress to action. The Pendleton Act of 1883 prohibited assessment of salary kickbacks from public employees, as well as their removal for political reasons. Moreover, it established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, which was charged with classification of Federal jobs and the administration of competitive examinations to fill them. Only a fraction of all positions were filled by merit at first, but the new act laid the foundations for a tenured and nonpolitical civil service.

Arthur met less success in his attempts to lower tariff rates. Although he recognized the need to protect fledgling native industries from cheaper foreign goods, he believed that the existing high customs duties and taxes and the resultant Treasury surpluses fostered reckless "pork-barrel" appropriations by Congress. He created a commission, which included protectionists, to study tariff revision. Despite its advice to cut the duties, in the Tariff Act of 1883 Congress continued the protectionist policy, though it reduced some rates.

Chief Executive Arthur rides down Bellevue Avenue while vacationing at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1884. (Engraving, in Harper's Weekly, 1884, Library of Congress.)

Although Arthur signed the bill under protest, many westerners and southerners, who felt high tariffs contributed to the high cost of manufactured goods and low prices for their farm and other products, turned to the Democratic Party for redress. Arthur did manage to reduce the Treasury surplus by applying about $400 million of it toward payment of the national debt. Then, too, he vetoed but failed to block an 1882 bill that included "pork-barrel" items.

Arthur Home
Arthur Home

Arthur also vetoed an act suspending Chinese immigration for 10 years but Congress overrode him. In 1883, at a time when only 24 outdated naval ships were in commission, the President approved legislation to build four modern steel warships. The next year, he signed a bill creating a rudimentary government for Alaska. Highlights in foreign affairs included: acquisition of the right to construct nautical coaling and repair stations in Hawaii, ratification of a pact of friendship and commerce with Korea, and Senate rejection of a treaty negotiated by Arthur to build a canal through Nicaragua.

In the waning days of his term, Arthur took part in two symbolic ceremonies. Marking the beginning of the electrical age, in December 1884 he pressed a button at the White House that set machinery in motion at a New Orleans exhibition. In February 1885 he dedicated the Washington Monument.

Although Arthur was a respected and popular President, he had made too many enemies within his party. Despite a spirited effort in 1884, he lost his place on the ticket to James G. Blaine. The following year, he even failed to win a nomination for the U.S. Senate from New York.

After the expiration of his Presidential term, Arthur retired to New York City and died less than 2 years later.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004