Arthur, Chester A.
Chester A. Arthur
Chester A. Arthur was the twenty-first president of the United States, serving from 1881 until 1885.
Climbs the political ladder
Chester Alan Arthur was born to an Irish minister and his wife on October 5, 1829, in Vermont. He graduated from college in 1848 and went on to study law. To support himself, he worked in education as a teacher and a principal. To complete his formal training, Arthur moved to New York City, where he passed the bar exam in 1854. Two years later, he opened his own law firm.
Arthur quickly became active in politics in an effort to make contacts and find clients. The Republican Party benefited from the young lawyer's knowledge and efforts, particularly New York governor Edwin D. Morgan (1811–1883), whose 1860 reelection was due in large part to Arthur's tireless promotion. As thanks, Morgan appointed Arthur to
the position of state engineer-in-chief. Within a year, the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–65) caused Arthur to be reappointed as the state assistant quartermaster general. His duties included supplying housing, food, and equipment for New York's militia (volunteer civilian fighting troops). By 1862, he was promoted as the state quartermaster general.
Arthur returned to his law practice in 1863 when Democrat Horatio Seymour (1819–1886) was elected governor. He kept close ties with the Republican Party and with U.S. senator Roscoe Conkling (1829–1888) of New York in particular. Conkling was a corrupt politician with a great amount of power, and he helped secure Arthur a position as collector for the port of New York. As collector, Arthur was responsible for all paperwork filed on imports and exports as well as for collecting import taxes on goods coming in from other countries. In such a powerful position of authority, Arthur gave thousands of jobs to fellow Republicans based solely on their political affiliation. Whether they were qualified to perform these government jobs was not important. This was known as the spoils system, and American politics relied heavily on such strategy.
In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) had the Customs House investigated. Arthur was held accountable for the poor management of the organization and lost his job in 1878.
Enters vice presidency
Arthur ran as vice president on the James A. Garfield (1831–1881; served 1881) ticket (list of candidates) in the 1880 election and the duo won, despite Arthur's past. Just four months into the Garfield presidency, Charles J. Guiteau (c. 1840–1882), an enraged attorney who had unsuccessfully sought a government position, shot Garfield. The president lingered for ten weeks before dying in September. Arthur took over the presidency.
While vice president, Arthur had not joined Garfield in his battle against Conkling and other supporters of the spoils system. Once he reached the presidency, though, he wanted to prove himself trustworthy. He stopped spending time with friends who knew him before his change of heart, and he began to support civil service (government workers) reform.
Arthur was responsible for passing the first federal immigration law in 1882. The law barred criminals, lunatics, and paupers (extremely poor people) from entering America. That same year, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put severe restrictions on Chinese immigrants. (See Asian Immigration .)
In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established a Civil Service Commission that required that applicants to government agency positions pass a test. No longer would a friendship with a politician influence who was hired. The act also protected government employees from being fired for reasons other than job performance. The Pendleton Act angered Republicans because it allowed members of the Democratic Party to secure powerful positions in the civil service.
Angering his own party did not concern Arthur. He also sought to lower taxes so that the federal government did not have an embarrassingly high surplus of revenue each year. Republicans were traditionally in favor of high taxes, and they were furious over the signing of the Tariff Act of 1883. The law brought a gradual reduction in import taxes over the next decade.
A year after he became president, Arthur learned that he had a fatal kidney disease. He kept this information private, and in 1884, he sought reelection to avoid the appearance of being afraid of getting beat. He failed to receive his party's nomination, however, and died in 1886.