Chester Alan Arthur was the 21st President of the United States. He succeeded James Garfield upon the latter’s assassination. Even though he became president unexpectedly, he made significant contributions to the civil service sector. His time in office was marked by an abundance of dignity and an absence of corruption.
Chester Arthur was the son of a Baptist preacher who emigrated from Northern Ireland. He was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. He earned a degree from Union College in 1848 and went on to teach at a school. In the early 1850s, he served as the principal of schools in North Pownal, Vermont, and Cohoes, New York. In 1854, he was admitted to the New York bar and began practicing law in New York City.
In 1859, Arthur married Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon, the Virginia-born daughter of a U.S. naval officer. The couple had two children who survived to adulthood: Chester Arthur Jr. and Ellen Herndon Arthur. Nell Arthur died of pneumonia at age 42, less than two years before her husband became president. In the White House, Chester Arthur’s sister Mary McElroy often took on the role of hostess for social functions.
Chester Arthur in New York
During Chester Arthur’s legal career in New York City, he won several high-profile civil rights cases. In 1855, he successfully represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black woman who had been denied a seat on a Manhattan streetcar due to her race. The case helped lead to the desegregation of public transportation in New York City.
Arthur was also involved in the so-called Lemmon slave case that ruled slaves being transferred to a slave state through New York would be freed. During this time, Arthur decided to join the Republican Party, which was established by anti-slavery activists in 1854.
Chester Arthur became a member of the New York State Militia in the late 1850s, although he was never called upon to fight. During the American Civil War, he was the quartermaster for the state of New York, and was responsible for organizing rations and other supplies for the Union soldiers.
In 1871, President Ulysses Grant named Arthur the customs collector for the Port of New York. During a time when political appointments were being given as forms of patronage, Arthur was given the collector position, which placed him in charge of over 1,000 employees, by the prominent senator, Roscoe Conkling.
Arthur then gave government jobs to Conkling’s supporters, who contributed part of their salaries to the Republican Party. After Rutherford Hayes became president, he forced Arthur to leave the position in 1878 in an attempt to reform the New York Custom House and spoils system. Conkling and his followers tried to retaliate by fighting for the re-nomination of Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention. Failing, they reluctantly accepted the nomination of Arthur for the Vice Presidency.
During his brief tenure as Vice President, Chester Arthur stood firmly beside Conkling in his struggle over the patronage issue against President Garfield. This changed when Arthur succeeded to the Presidency, and he was eager to prove himself above machine politics.
Avoiding old political friends, Chester Arthur became a man of fashion in his appearance and acquaintances, and he was often seen with the upper class of Washington, New York, and Newport. The Stalwart Republicans were utterly annoyed that Arthur, the one-time Collector of the Port of New York became, as American President, became a champion of civil service reform. Public pressure, heightened by the assassination of Garfield, forced an unhappy Congress to heed the President.
In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, forbade levying political assessments against officeholders, and provided for a “classified system” that made certain government positions could be earned only through competitive written examinations. The system was designed to protect employees from removal due to political reasons.
Acting independently of his party’s core beliefs, Arthur also tried to lower tariff rates so the government would not be embarrassed by annual surpluses of revenue. Congress raised about as many rates as it trimmed, but Arthur signed the Tariff Act of 1883. Disgruntled citizens from the West and the South asked the Democratic Party to fight this issue, and the tariff began to emerge as a major political issue between the two parties.
The Arthur Administration enacted the first general Federal immigration law. Arthur approved a measure in 1882 to exclude paupers, criminals, and lunatics from being allowed entry to the country. Congress also suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, and then later made the restriction permanent.
Chester Arthur demonstrated, as an American President, that he was above the divisions within the Republican Party, if indeed not above the party itself. Perhaps, in part, his reason was the well-kept secret he had known since a year after he succeeded to the Presidency that he was suffering from a fatal kidney disease. He kept himself in the running for the Presidential nomination in 1884 in order not to appear that he feared defeat, but was not re-nominated, and died of a brain hemorrhage in 1886. Publisher Alexander K. McClure recalled, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired … more generally respected.”
The accompanying graphic highlights the achievements and notable moments of Chester Arthur: