Chester Alan Arthur

views updated Jun 08 2018

Chester Alan Arthur

The twenty-first president of the United States, Chester Alan Arthur (1830-1886) was reputed to be one of the leading spoilsmen in American politics when he took office, but he proved to be a dignified and an able administrator.

Political enemies claimed that Chester A. Arthur was Canadian-born and therefore ineligible to be president of the United States. Arthur himself never replied to the charges and said that he was born on Oct. 5, 1830, in Fairfield, Vt., the eldest of seven children of a Scotch-Irish Baptist minister. He was educated at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., taught school, and studied law. Moving to New York City, he built up a successful law practice and became interested in Republican party politics.

Arthur rose steadily, if undramatically, in the Republican party by virtue of his willingness to perform the less exciting labors necessary to building a new political movement. New York City was slipping into the clutches of the Democratic party machine of William Marcy Tweed during the Civil War, but Arthur moved up steadily as the protégé of the state's governor. He served as engineer in chief, inspector general, and quartermaster general of New York, raising, equipping, and dispatching state troops for the Federal government. In 1863, when the Republicans were turned out of office, he stepped aside for a Democratic successor. By unanimous agreement he had been an excellent administrator.

Arthur as a Spoilsman

As a reward for his work for the party, in November 1871 President U.S. Grant named Arthur to be collector of customs for the Port of New York. In an>age when political parties functioned almost primarily for patronage—the jobs and other "spoils" which accrued to the party in power— Arthur possessed one of the most powerful and lucrative positions in the patronage apparatus by the time he was 41. As collector, he supervised more than 1000 employees, and many of these were troops in the New York State Republican machine. Arthur helped oversee the distribution of the jobs and, at election time, supervised the collection of "assessments"—contributions to Republican campaign funds which were virtually a requirement for holding a Federal job. The Customs House was no stranger to graft but Arthur himself was honest. He once said that "if I had misappropriated five cents, and on walking down-town saw two men talking on the street together, I would imagine they were talking of my dishonesty and the very thought would drive me mad."

In a sense, corruption would have been superfluous. Arthur was paid by a fee of one-half of all monies he recovered for the government from importers misrepresenting what they owed. In one famous case Arthur and two other officials divided $135,000. His pay generally ran to $40,000 a year until 1874, when his salary was set at $12,000.

Not all of this money stayed in Arthur's bank account. Like all political appointees, he was expected to make large donations to the party. These expenditures earned Arthur a prominent place in New York State's patronage-oriented Republican party. With Alonzo Cornell and Levi Morton, he stood second only to Roscoe Conkling in the control of New York's powerful political organization. His reputation among reformers was disgraceful but, until 1880, he could afford to ignore any pressures but Conkling's.

Arthur's nicknames—"the Gentleman Boss," "the Elegant Arthur,"—indicate the figure he cut. Over 6 feet tall, stoutly built according to the specifications of the times, with a wavy moustache and bushy sidewhiskers, he dressed in fine, fashionable clothing. He was exquisitely urbane, dining well, drinking the best wines and brandies, and entertaining on a grand scale. None of this was extraordinary in middle-class New York City, but it made for a stunning contrast to the conservatively clothed and morally straitlaced Midwestern Republican politicians among whom he moved in Washington.

Accidental President

In 1880 Republicans divided sharply and bitterly over the nomination of a presidential candidate. The two principal hopefuls were former president U.S. Grant (Conkling and Arthur were among his chief advocates) and James G. Blaine. The deadlocked convention resolved the issue only by turning to a dark-horse candidate, James A. Garfield of Ohio. Conkling, the leader of the pro-Grant faction, was furious—for Garfield was friendlier to Blaine than himself— and he insisted that Levi Morton decline the offered vice-presidential nomination. Arthur was the Garfield group's second vice-presidential choice and, though Conkling remained adamant, Arthur accepted. Arthur continued to pay court to Conkling, however, even after the election had made him vice president of the United States. In fact, Arthur was in Albany, lobbying for Conkling's reelection, when news arrived that President Garfield had been shot in Washington by a deranged man who claimed he did it in order to make Arthur president. Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881, and Arthur became president.

Historians tend to agree that Arthur was a much better president than anyone expected. He seemed sensitive to the dignity of his office, and, while he continued to send most patronage to his old allies, he generally extricated himself from their society. Though he offered Conkling a seat on the Supreme Court, he left one of Conkling's old enemies in the Customs House. Republicans on the side of reform were chagrined at this new president, but Arthur could be surprising. He even supported and signed a landmark civil service bill (providing, among other things, for examinations as a prerequisite to holding some government jobs), and he permitted an investigation of post office frauds, which implicated several cronies.

Arthur remained what he had always been, a good administrator. But, as H. Wayne Morgan (1969) points out, "Arthur liked the appearance of power more than its substance." He designed a flag for himself, relished military ceremonies, refurbished the shabby White House, and presented a perfect presidential appearance. He took little initiative in the significant events of his term, such as the Pendleton Civil Service Act and the construction of a modern navy.

Unfortunately for Arthur's political future (he would have liked to be reelected in 1884), he had alienated old supporters without winning over old enemies. In 1884 he had no real strength at the Republican Convention and was quietly shelved. He died in 1886. He had not inspired his contemporaries, and, though his biographers have been friendly, he has not inspired them either.

Further Reading

There are several biographies of Arthur, none of particular distinction. A standard account is George F. Howe, Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-century of Machine Politics (1934). Matthew Josephson, The Politicos: 1865-1896 (1938), is a highly readable, if sometimes inaccurate, history of 19th-century politics. H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics (1969), updates Josephson's work and includes brief, incisive portraits of Arthur and other leading personalities of the era. □

Arthur, Chester A. (1829-1886)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886)

President of the united states, 1881-1885


Stalwart Turned Reformer. A member of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, Chester A. Arthur was elected vice president in 1880 and became president on 19 September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield from wounds inflicted by an assassin. As president, Arthur surprised his Stalwart allies, who expected him to uphold political patronage and their conservative agenda on major issues, by working to reform the civil-service system and to lower protective tariffs.

Background. Born in Fairfield, Vermont, on 5 October 1829, Chester Alan Arthur was the fifth child of a Baptist clergyman and abolitionist. The family moved often as the Reverend William Arthur was assigned to different churches. By 1844 they were living in Schenec-tady, New York, where the following year Chester Arthur entered Union College as a sophomore and graduated in 1848. After teaching school and studying law in his spare time for several years, Arthur became a clerk in a New York law firm, where he continued his legal studies and passed the bar examination in May 1854.

Early Career. Two of the cases on which Arthur worked during his early years as an attorney involved the rights of African Americans; one ensured the freedom of a group of slaves who had been brought to New York by their owner while the other led to the integration of the New York streetcar system. In 1859 he married Ellen Lewis Herndon, a native of Virginia. Having become involved with local Republican politics shortly after his arrival in New York City, Arthur was appointed to Gov. Edwin D. Morgans general staff in January 1861. During the Civil War he worked with the governor in organizing state volunteers for the Union cause. He was given the rank of brigadier general, and by July 1862 he had been named quartermaster general of New York State. The job ended when a Democratic governor took office in January 1863. Arthur returned to his law practice while continuing to be active in Republican politics, remaining a loyal member of the Stalwart, or conservative, wing of the party.

Federal Appointee. In 1871, during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, Arthur was appointed collector of the Port of New York, where about 75 percent of U.S. customs duties were collected. In that lucrative post, which earned him roughly $50,000 a year, he controlled more than one thousand federal employees, organizing their political activity for the New York Republican Party. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes tried to inaugurate a merit system for government employees. After a federal investigation of customs houses in several major port cities, Hayes ordered all federal employees to refrain from managing political organiza-tions, caucuses, conventions, or election campaigns. When Arthur and an associate, Alonzo Cornell, refused to cease political activity, Hayes replaced them.

National Office. Two years later, when Arthur arrived at the Republican National Convention, the intra-party battle between the conservative Stalwarts and the reformers was still raging. James Garfield, who represented the reform wing, won the presidential nomination, and Arthur was chosen as his running mate to provide some satisfaction to the Stalwarts of New York. After the Republican ticket was elected, Garfield served for fewer than four months before he was felled by an assassins bullet on 2 July 1881 and lingered for just over two months before he died. Garfields assassin, a deranged office seeker named Charles Guiteau, claimed that he was a Stalwart and had shot Garfield because he wanted Arthur to be president.

President Arthur. His wife having died in January 1881, Arthur was one of a handful of unmarried U.S. presidents. He was a large man, six feet two inches tall and heavily built, and he dressed impeccably, looking the part of a dignified leader. Although he never sought the presidency, he did his best to administer the government fairly. During his administration the federal government showed a regular surplus of revenue over expenditure, and several steps were taken to modernize the U.S. Navy. Stung by Guiteaus remarks, Arthur distanced himself from the Stalwarts, and he tried to clean up government corruption. He investigated frauds and abuses in the civil service, especially in the granting of post-office con-tracts, and helped to pass the Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883). As a consequence, he lost the support of many Stalwarts, without winning the support of reform-ers. In 1882 his vetoes of an $18 million pork barrel rivers and harbors bill and the Chinese Exclusion Act on the grounds that it violated the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 did little to endear him to Congress, which over-rode both vetoes. He did not win his partys nomination for the presidency in 1884. He died of Brights disease on 18 November 1886.


Justus D. Doenecke, The Presidencies of james A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981);

Thomas C. Reeves, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Arthur, Chester Alan

views updated May 29 2018


Chester Alan Arthur was born October 5, 1830, in Fairfield, Vermont. He achieved prominence as a politician and as president of the United States.

An 1848 graduate of Union College, Arthur was admitted to the New York City bar in 1851, and he established a legal practice in New York City that same year.

"Men may die, but the fabric of free institutions remains unshaken."
—Chester A. Arthur

With the onset of the Civil War, Arthur served as quartermaster general and inspector general of New York. After the war, from 1871 to 1878, he performed the duties of collector for the Port of New York. Although Arthur was a believer in the spoils system, a practice that rewards loyal political party members with jobs that require official appointment, he served his office as an honest administrator. President

rutherford b. hayes was, however, an advocate of the civil service system, which provided that qualified people receive employment fairly based upon their qualifications, and removed Arthur from the office of collector.

Arthur returned to politics with his election as vice president of the United States in March of 1880. In September 1881, he assumed the duties of president, after the assassination of President james garfield.

As president, Arthur advocated the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Bill in 1883, adopting a view that was contrary to his previous support of the spoils system. He also signed laws allowing for the modernization of the United States Navy and supported the prosecution of the Star Route Trials, which exposed fraudulent activities in the United States Post Office Department. He also vetoed a Congressional bill, the Rivers and Harbours Bill of 1882, charging that the allotment of funds was too extravagant.

Arthur's presidential term ended in 1885; due to ill health, he did not seek renomination. He died November 18, 1886, in New York, New York.

Arthur, Chester Alan

views updated May 23 2018

Arthur, Chester Alan (1830–86) 21st US president (1881–85). In 1880 Arthur was nominated by the Republican Party as vice president in the (justified) hope that he could deliver New York. He became president after the assassination of James Garfield and tried to reform the spoils system, in which incoming presidents replaced government staff with their own appointees. A Civil Service Commission with a merit system was created, but Arthur's modest reforms were often frustrated by Congress. Gentlemanly but uninspiring, and suffering from incurable illness, he was not renominated (1884). He was succeeded by Grover Cleveland.

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