Chester A. Arthur, served March 4, 1881 - September 19, 1881
Arthur (October 5, 1829 - November 18, 1886) was the 21st President of the United States (1881-1885). Becoming President after the assassination of President James A. Garfield, Arthur struggled to overcome suspicions of his beginnings as a politician from the New York City Republican machine, succeeding at that task by embracing the cause of civil service reform. His advocacy for, and enforcement of, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was the centerpiece of his administration.
Chester Alan Arthur was born October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont. His father, William Arthur, was born just outside the village of Cullybackey, County Antrim, Ireland, and emigrated to Dunham, Lower Canada (in present-day Quebec) in 1818 or 1819 after graduating from Belfast College. Arthur’s mother, Malvina Stone, was born in Vermont, the daughter of George Washington Stone and Judith Stevens. Malvina’s family was primarily of English descent, and her grandfather, Uriah Stone, fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Arthur’s mother met his father while he was teaching at a school in Dunham, just over the border from her native Vermont, and the two soon married in Dunham, Missisquoi, Quebec, Canada on April 12, 1821.
William Arthur’s frequent moves would later form the basis for accusations that Chester Arthur was not a native-born citizen of the United States. After Arthur was nominated for Vice President in 1880, his political opponents suggested that he might be constitutionally ineligible to hold that office. A New York attorney, Arthur P. Hinman, apparently hired by his opponents, explored rumors of Arthur’s foreign birth. Hinman initially alleged that Arthur was born in Ireland and did not come to the United States until he was fourteen years old, which would make him ineligible for the Vice Presidency under the United States Constitution’s natural-born citizen clause. When that story did not take root, Hinman spread a new rumor that Arthur was born in Canada, but this claim also failed to gain credence.
Arthur spent some of his childhood years living in Perry and Greenwich, New York. During his time at school, his first political inclinations were to support the Whig Party, and he joined other young Whigs in support of Henry Clay, even participating in a brawl against those students supporting James K. Polk. He also showed his support for the Fenian Brotherhood by wearing a green coat. Arthur enrolled in Union College in 1845 where he studied the traditional classical curriculum. As a senior there in 1848, at age 18, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was president of the debate society. During his winter breaks, Arthur taught school in Schaghticoke.
After graduating, Arthur returned to Schaghticoke and taught school full-time, but soon began to pursue an education in the law. While studying law, he continued teaching, moving closer to home by taking a job teaching in North Pownal, Vermont. Coincidentally, future President James A. Garfield would teach penmanship at the same school three years later, but the two did not cross paths. In 1852, Arthur moved again, to Cohoes, New York, to become the principal of a school at which his sister Malvina was a teacher. After saving enough money, and studying at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa, he moved to New York City the following year to read law at the law office of Erastus D. Culver, an abolitionist lawyer and family friend. When Arthur was admitted to the bar in 1854, he joined the firm, which was renamed Culver, Parker, and Arthur.
In 1860, Arthur was appointed to the military staff of Governor Edwin D. Morgan. The office was a patronage appointment of minor importance until the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, when New York and the other northern states were faced with raising and equipping armies of a size never before seen in American history. Arthur was given the rank of brigadier general and assigned to the quartermaster department. He was so efficient at housing and outfitting the troops that poured into New York City that he was promoted within the state militia to inspector general in February 1862, and then to quartermaster general that July. He had an opportunity to serve at the front when the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment elected him colonel early in the war, but at Governor Morgan’s request, he turned it down to remain at his post in New York. The closest Arthur came to the front was when he traveled south to inspect New York troops near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in May 1862, shortly after forces under Major General Irwin McDowell seized the town during the Peninsula Campaign. That summer, he and other representatives of northern governors met with Secretary of State William H. Seward in New York to coordinate the raising of additional troops, and spent the next few months enlisting New York’s quota of 120,000 men. Arthur received plaudits for his work, but his post was a political one, and he was relieved of his office in January 1863 when Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, took office.
Arthur returned to his law practice in 1863 and the firm of Arthur & Gardiner flourished. Even as his professional life improved, however, Arthur and his wife experienced a personal tragedy as their only child, William, died suddenly that year at the age of three. The couple took their son’s death hard, and when they had another son, Chester Alan Jr., in 1864, they lavished attention on him. They would also have a daughter, Ellen, in 1871. Both children survived to adulthood. Arthur’s political prospects improved along with his law practice when his patron, ex-Governor Morgan, was elected to the United States Senate. He was hired by Thomas Murphy, a hatter who sold goods to the Union Army, to represent him in Washington. The two became associates within New York Republican party circles, eventually rising in the ranks of the conservative branch of the party dominated by Thurlow Weed. In the presidential election of 1864, Arthur and Murphy raised funds from Republicans in New York and attended Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1865.
The end of the Civil War meant new opportunities for the men in Morgan’s Republican machine, including Arthur. Morgan leaned toward the conservative wing of the New York Republican party, as did the men who worked for him, including Weed, Seward (who continued in office under President Andrew Johnson), and Roscoe Conkling (an eloquent Utica Congressman and rising star in the party). Arthur rarely articulated his own political ideas during his time as a part of the machine; as was common at the time, loyalty and hard work on the machine’s behalf was more important than actual political sympathies. In 1866, he attempted to secure the position of Naval Officer at the New York Custom House, a lucrative job with few responsibilities, but was unable to do so. Nevertheless, he continued his law practice (now a solo practitionership after Gardiner’s death) and his role in politics, becoming a member of the prestigious Century Club in 1867. Conkling, elected in 1867 to the United States Senate, noticed Arthur and aided his rise in the party. Arthur became chairman of the New York City Republican executive committee in 1868. His ascent in the party hierarchy kept him busy most nights, and his wife began to resent his continual absence from the family home on party business.
Conkling’s machine was solidly behind General Ulysses S. Grant’s candidacy for president, and Arthur worked to raise funds for Grant’s election in 1868. The opposing Democratic machine in New York City, known as Tammany Hall, worked for Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour; while Grant was victorious in the national vote, Seymour narrowly carried the state of New York. Arthur began to devote more of his time to politics and less to law. In 1869, he was appointed counsel to the New York City tax commission under an arrangement his friend Murphy made with William Marcy Tweed, the Tammany Hall boss.
Eventually, the pressure to replace Murphy grew too great, and Grant asked for his resignation in 1871. To replace him, Grant nominated Arthur. The Senate confirmed Arthur’s appointment. As Collector, he not only controlled nearly a thousand jobs, but he also stood to receive personal compensation as great as any federal officeholder. Arthur’s salary was $6,500, but senior customs employees were also compensated by the “moiety” system, which awarded them a percentage of the fines levied on importers who attempted to evade the tariff. In total, his income came to more than $50,000-more than the president’s salary, and more than enough for him to enjoy fashionable clothes and a lavish lifestyle.
Arthur’s four-year term expired on December 10, 1875, and Conkling, now among the most powerful politicians in Washington, arranged his protégé’s reappointment by President Grant. By 1876, Conkling was considering a run for the Presidency himself, but the selection of Rutherford B. Hayes, a reformer, at the 1876 Republican National Convention presaged problems for the machine boss. Arthur and the machine gathered campaign funds with their usual zeal, but Conkling limited his own campaign activities to a few speeches. Hayes’s opponent, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, carried New York, but after the resolution of several months of disputes over twenty electoral votes (from the states of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina), he lost the Presidency.
Conkling and his fellow Stalwarts, including Arthur, wished to follow up their 1879 success at the 1880 Republican National Convention by securing the nomination for their ally, ex-President Grant. Their opponents in the Republican party, known as Half-Breeds, concentrated their efforts on James G. Blaine, a Senator from Maine who was more amenable to civil service reform. Neither candidate commanded a majority of delegates and, deadlocked after thirty-six ballots, the convention turned to a dark horse, James A. Garfield, an Ohio Congressman and Civil War General who was neither Stalwart nor Half-Breed. Garfield and his supporters knew they would face a difficult election without the support of the New York Stalwarts and decided to offer one of them the vice presidential nomination. Levi P. Morton was the first choice of Garfield’s supporters but, on Conkling’s advice, refused to run. They next approached Arthur. Conkling advised him to also reject the nomination, believing the Republicans would lose. Arthur thought otherwise and accepted, telling Conkling, “The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”
Candidates for high office did not personally campaign in those days, but Arthur played a part in the campaign in his usual fashion: raising money. The funds were crucial in the close election, and his home state of New York was pivotal. The Republicans carried New York by 20,000 votes and, in an election with the largest turnout of qualified voters ever recorded-78.4%-they won the nationwide popular vote by just 7,018 votes. The Electoral College result was more decisive-214 to 155-and Garfield and Arthur were elected.
After the election, Arthur worked to persuade Garfield to fill certain positions-especially that of the Secretary of the Treasury-with his fellow New York Stalwarts. He was unsuccessful, and the Stalwart machine received a further rebuke when they discovered that Garfield planned to appoint Blaine, Conkling’s arch-enemy, as Secretary of State. The running mates, never close, grew further apart as Garfield continued to freeze out the Stalwarts from the patronage at his disposal. Arthur’s status in the administration fell further when, a month before inauguration day, he gave a speech in front of newspaper reporters that suggested the election in Indiana, a swing state, had been won by illegal voting. Garfield ultimately appointed a Stalwart, Thomas Lemuel James, to be Postmaster General, but the cabinet fight and Arthur’s ill-considered speech left the President and Vice President estranged when they took their oaths of office on March 4, 1881.
With the Senate in recess, Arthur had no duties in Washington and returned to New York City. Once there, he traveled with Conkling to Albany, where the former Senator had hoped for a quick re-election to the Senate and, thereby, a rebuke to the Garfield administration. The Republican majority in the state legislature was divided on the question, to Conkling and Platt’s surprise, and they found themselves fighting for their political lives. While in Albany on July 2, word reached Arthur that Garfield had been shot. The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was a deranged office-seeker who believed that assassinating Garfield would convince Arthur to appoint him to a patronage job; he proclaimed to onlookers: “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!” Despite his claims of friendship with Arthur, the public soon learned that Guiteau was mentally unstable and unconnected with the Vice President. More troubling was the lack of legal guidance on presidential succession: as Garfield lingered near death, no one was sure who, if anyone, could exercise presidential authority. Moreover, after Conkling’s resignation, the Senate had adjourned without electing a president pro tempore, who would normally follow Arthur in the succession. Arthur was reluctant to be seen to act as President while Garfield lived, and the next two months saw a vacuum in the executive office, with Garfield too weak to carry out any of his duties and Arthur refusing to assume them. Through the summer, Arthur refused to travel to Washington and was at his Lexington Avenue home when, on the night of September 19, he learned that Garfield had died. Judge John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court administered the oath of office in Arthur’s home at 2:15 a.m. the following day, and Arthur boarded a train for the nation’s capital two days later.
After just half a year as Vice President, Arthur found himself, unexpectedly, in the Executive Mansion. To the surprise of reformers, Arthur took up the reform cause that had once led to his expulsion from office. He signed the Pendleton Act into law, and enforced its provisions vigorously. He won plaudits for his veto of a Rivers and Harbors Act that would have appropriated federal funds in a manner he thought excessive. He presided over the rebirth of the United States Navy but was criticized for failing to alleviate the federal budget surplus that had been accumulating since the end of the American Civil War. Suffering from poor health, Arthur made only a limited effort to secure renomination in 1884; he retired at the close of his term. As journalist Alexander McClure would later write, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.” Although his failing health and political temperament combined to make his administration less active than a modern presidency, he earned praise among contemporaries for his solid performance in office. The New York World summed up Arthur’s presidency at his death in 1886: “No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation.”
Arthur left office in 1885 and returned to his New York City home. Two months before the end of his term, several New York Stalwarts approached him to request that he run for United States Senate, but he declined, preferring to return to his old law practice at Arthur, Knevals & Ransom. His health limited his activity with the firm, and Arthur served only of counsel. He took on few assignments with the firm and was often too ill to leave his house. He managed a few public appearances, up until the end of 1885.
After summering in New London, Connecticut, in 1886, he returned quite ill and, on November 16, ordered nearly all of his papers, both personal and official, burned. The next morning, Arthur suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness; he died the following day at the age of 57.
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