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American President Essays: Chester A. Arthur

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Chester A. Arthur: Life in Brief

Chester Arthur was the fifth child of a fervent abolitionist preacher who moved his family from one Baptist parish to the next throughout New York and Vermont. Attending Union College, Arthur showed far more interest in extracurricular activities and political demonstrations than in his studies. As a young man, Arthur worked for one of the most prominent law firms in New York City. He was involved in two cases focusing on African American rights. One involved fugitive slaves while the other centered on segregated streetcars.

Political Machine Operator

Arthur also worked actively for Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican Party boss and U.S. senator who used patronage and party discipline to advance his power. Conkling headed a major party faction, the Stalwarts. Recognizing the administrative genius that Arthur demonstrated as quartermaster general for all of New York during the Civil War and his success as a lawyer, Conkling helped Arthur get appointed as collector of the Port of New York under Republican President Ulysses S. Grant. While there is no evidence of blatant corruption on Arthur's part, the New York Customs House had close ties to Boss Conkling's political machine; Arthur routinely collected kickbacks of salary called "assessments" from customs house employees to support the Republican Party.

In 1881, Arthur became vice president under the moderate Republican candidate, James Garfield. Under President Rutherford B. Hayes's administration, there had been attempts to reform New York's corrupt civil service system, and Arthur broke with President Garfield when Garfield appointed a member of the rival Republican faction, the Half-Breeds, to the post of collector of the Port of New York. The move destroyed Conkling's power once and for all. Arthur and Garfield were nearly estranged when Garfield was assassinated and Arthur found himself President.

Reform and Refurbish President

As President, Arthur surprised everyone by acting independently, defying his state-based reputation as a slick machine politician who would advance the agenda of his own party faction and ignore the needs of the nation at-large. Domestic affairs dominated his presidency. In reforming civil service, Arthur supported the Pendleton Act, which attempted to counter patronage and cronyism by requiring competitive exams for government office. Specifically, the law banned salary kickbacks and ensured that promotion would be based on merit, not connections. While the Republican Party usually worked to protect big business and manufacturing, Arthur pushed for tariff reduction to relieve indebted farmers and middle-class consumers. He also vetoed the notorious pork-barrel Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882, arguing that the growing surplus of federal funds should be decreased by tax reductions rather than government expenditures. After vetoing a more restrictive bill, Arthur supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning Chinese immigration for ten years and forbidding Chinese citizenship.

Arthur was most passionate about his project to refurbish the White House. Known as a man of elegant taste who loved to throw lavish parties, Arthur came to the presidency as "The Gentleman Boss." Disgusted with the shabby look of the executive mansion, Arthur hired the most famous designer in New York, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to transform it into a showplace befitting the office. His wife, Ellen Lewis Herndon, had died before he assumed office. And although Arthur loved to showcase his two children at White House social affairs, he much preferred fishing, feasting with his cronies, and administrative work to family life. Because he knew that he suffered from a fatal kidney disease, Arthur did not actively seek reelection for a second term and died less than two years after leaving office.

Chester A. Arthur's administration marks a period of transition in American politics. Women were beginning to take an active role, pressing strongly for women's suffrage and prohibition of alchoholic beverages. Above all, the era was characterized by civil service reform, which would eventually weaken the grip of traditional ethnic and party loyalties. Despite having advanced in his career through managing the New York political machine, Arthur showed tremendous flexibility and a willingness to embrace reform. He stands as an important transitional figure in the reunification of the nation after the bitter turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Chester A. Arthur: Life Before the Presidency

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in a small log cabin in Fairfield, Vermont. The son of Malvina Arthur and the Reverend William Arthur, a passionate abolitionist, young Chester and his family migrated from one Baptist parish to another in Vermont and New York. The fifth of eight children, Chester had six sisters and one older brother. Before beginning school in Union Village (now Greenwich), New York, he studied the fundamentals of reading and writing at home.

In 1845, young Arthur entered Union College in Schenectady as a sophomore. There he pursued the traditional classical curriculum, supplementing his tuition by teaching at a nearby town during winter vacations. As a student, he engaged in undergraduate high jinks and enjoyed playing school pranks. Though not an outstanding student, he graduated in 1848 in the top third of his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

After college, Arthur spent several years teaching school and reading law, but he was clear about what he wanted to do with his life: He sought to reside in Manhattan as a wealthy lawyer and public servant, living the life of a true gentleman. With such goals in mind, he passed his bar exam in 1854 and then, using his father's influence, gained a clerkship in a New York legal firm headed by the prominent Erastus D. Culver.

Law Career

Culver's firm had achieved fame in 1852 when it supported a plea by a group of free blacks to liberate seven slaves. In transport from Virginia to Texas, these slaves had been brought temporarily to New York by their master. In what became known as the Lemmon Case, Erastus D. Culver successfully argued for a writ of habeas corpus, freeing the slaves from incarceration in the city jail, where their owner had placed them for safekeeping, and thus bondage. This court ruling allegedly violated the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law and called into question the agreements made in the Compromise of 1850. Young Arthur spent much of his time as clerk in Culver's firm handling details of the appeal. Arthur made numerous trips to the state capital, Albany, to assist in arguments before the New York Supreme Court. The final court decision in 1860 upheld the initial ruling, and Arthur's work put him in touch with the leading legal minds in the state and the most prominent state politicians.A second case was also instrumental in advancing Arthur's public profile. The firm defended a black woman, Elizabeth Jennings, who had been forced out of the white section of a Brooklyn streetcar when she refused to leave the section reserved for whites. Jennings's case predated Rosa Parks' case in the 1950s by over 100 years; Parks' defiant act involving racially segregated motor buses in Montgomery, Alabama, launched the historic civil rights movement led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur, now a partner in Culver's firm, won $225 from the streetcar company and $25 from the court. The case forced all New York City railroad companies to seat black passengers without prejudice on their streetcars.

As was common in those days, young unmarried men frequently lived in boardinghouses, where they took meals in family-style settings, socialized with fellow boarders, and tried to establish the appearance of a home life. Arthur lived in such a "family hotel" on Broadway. While there, he befriended a young medical student from Virginia, Dabney Herndon, who frequently visited with relatives living nearby. Arthur occasionally accompanied his friend on these family visits, and Herndon's cousin, the young Ellen "Nell" Lewis Herndon, soon caught Arthur's eye. The two—she was twenty-two and he was thirty—were married on October 25, 1859.

Civil War Service

When the Civil War broke out, Arthur stood primed for duty. In 1858, he joined the state militia principally out of a desire for companionship and political connections. In a rush to staff key positions, the Republican governor appointed Arthur to be engineer-in-chief with the rank of quartermaster general in the New York Volunteers. He served in that post with great efficiency, obtaining the rank of brigadier general. Responsible for provisioning and housing the several hundred thousand soldiers supplied by the state to the federal cause, as well as for the defenses of New York, Arthur dealt with hundreds of private contractors and military personnel. The military service played to his advantage; he gained a reputation for efficiency, administrative genius, and reliability.

Although eager to serve in a battlefield position, Arthur never pressed his case. His wife, a Virginian with family members in the Confederacy, could not tolerate the thought of her husband taking up arms against them. Moreover, his sister had married an official of the Confederate government who was stationed in Petersburg, Virginia.

Upon his retirement from duty in 1863, Arthur threw himself into his law practice, representing clients suing for war-related damages and reimbursements. His practice thrived, making him wealthy by the war's end. He also worked actively for Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican Party boss and U.S. senator who used patronage and party discipline to advance his power in the state. By 1867, Arthur had become one of Conkling's top lieutenants. From 1869 to 1870, he served as the chief counsel to the New York City Tax Commission, earning an annual salary of $10,000, a princely sum of money in those days—in 1870, the wages of a skilled worker ranged from $400 to $650 annually.

Collector of the Port of New York

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur to the position of Collector of the Port of New York. Arthur served in this capacity until 1878, supervising nearly 1,300 agents responsible for collecting about 75 percent of the nation's import duties. His domain included the entire coast of New York State, the Hudson River, and parts of New Jersey. Paid a salary of $12,000 annually, Arthur augmented his income by sharing in a portion of all fines collected on undervalued imports. Indeed, given such "perks," Arthur grossed $50,000 a year, a salary equivalent to that of the President of the United States. While customs office agents frequently accepted bribes from importers, warehouse owners, and ship companies, there is no evidence of Arthur ever partaking in such graft. However, Arthur routinely collected salary kickbacks from customs house employees to support Boss Conkling's machine.

In 1877, soon after he was inaugurated, President Rutherford B. Hayes tackled Conkling's political empire. Eager to distance himself from the Grant administration's reputation for scandal, Hayes sought to reform the New York customs office as an example of his reform-minded agenda. He established a special commission to investigate corruption there. The commission found political favoritism and blatant patronage governing appointments, exposed the practice of salary kickbacks, and charged the port authority with being criminally overstaffed.

Armed with the commission's findings, Hayes sought to remove Arthur. In exchange for his resignation, the collector would receive the consulship in Paris. Conkling and Arthur viewed Hayes's assertion of authority as an open declaration of war, to which they mounted a stiff fight in the Senate. To counter Conkling's opposition, Hayes bided his time, finally suspending Arthur after Congress had adjourned for the summer. In 1880, Arthur and Conkling, determined to reassert their control of the port, moved to draft former President Grant as Hayes's successor in the White House.

Chester A. Arthur: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1880:

Since President Rutherford B. Hayes had declared that he was only going to serve one term (1877-1881), the 1880 election was wide open. Party boss Roscoe Conkling's candidate, former President Ulysses S. Grant, and Senator James G. Blaine were the leading rivals at the Republican nominating convention. Blaine led the Half-Breed Republican faction that struggled against Conkling's Stalwarts faction for control of their party. On the thirty-sixth ballot, a compromise deal was made, and the Republicans rallied behind a political moderate, James Garfield of Ohio. Garfield led the Republican minority in the House of Representatives and, just prior to the convention, had been elected by the Ohio legislature to the United States Senate.

Because of the machinations of some Conkling lieutenants, who acted without the knowledge of their boss, Arthur was sounded out for the vice presidential slot. Garfield reluctantly acceded to Arthur's nomination, as he realized how crucial the New York machine was to his election. Conkling urged Arthur to reject the nomination, believing that Garfield was bound to be defeated at the polls, but his trusted lieutenant was both tempted and pleased by the prospect. In spite of Conkling's urgings, Arthur accepted, declaring that "the office of the Vice-President is a great honor than I ever dreamed of attaining."The Democrats nominated General Winfield S. Hancock of Pennsylvania, a hero of Gettysburg, as their presidential candidate and William H. English, former congressman from Indiana, as his running mate. Another Civil War general, James B. Weaver, ran on the Greenback-Labor ticket. Weaver, running on a soft-money platform, won over 300,000 popular votes but no electoral college delegates.

Arthur actively campaigned during the election, coordinating mass meetings and taking charge of tours made by Grant and Conkling in the Middle West. In fact, he might have been the first advance man in American politics. Furthermore, as chairman of the New York State Republican Committee, he assessed city, state, and federal employees for three percent of their annual salary. Such efforts helped Garfield win the presidency, and there was much talk in the air, although never proved, that Arthur had schemed to buy votes for Garfield in the crucial swing state of Indiana. In the election, the Garfiled-Arthur ticket beat the Democrats in the popular vote by less than one-tenth of 1 percent but dominated the electoral college with 214 votes to 155.

After the election, Arthur, often portrayed as under Conkling's control, openly broke with the President. Acting on the advice of James G. Blaine, whom he had appointed secretary of state, Garfield moved to destroy Conkling's power once and for all by appointing William H. Robertson for the collectorship of the Port of New York. Robertson, president pro tem of the New York Senate, was a strong Half-Breed. Needless to say, in the days before Garfield's assassination, Garfield and Arthur shared a mutual animosity, for Arthur remained firmly in the Stalwart camp. Conkling resigned from the Senate in protest, and it looked as though Arthur would become a powerless figurehead in the Garfield administration. However, Garfield's assassination in July of 1881 left Arthur far from powerless. On September 19, Chester Alan Arthur became the twenty-first President of the United States.

The Campaign and Election of 1884

As Arthur's term in office came to a close, he made little effort to seek a second term. In early October 1882, he had fallen ill with Bright's disease, a fatal kidney ailment. His symptoms included inertness, mental depression, and spasmodic nausea, but the public was never aware of his condition. Since Arthur had converted to political form once he assumed office, his former Stalwart allies, including Grant and Conkling, opposed his nomination. Conversely, reformers remained suspicious, for certain appointments, such as secretary of the Navy, smacked of the old spoils system. Hence, at the 1884 Republican nominating convention in Chicago, Arthur lost his bid for his party's nomination to Blaine on the fourth ballot.

Chester A. Arthur: Domestic Affairs

No President ever came to power who was better equipped to handle the management of a federal bureaucracy than Chester Arthur. His service as quartermaster general for New York and as the collector of the New York Customs House had provided him with a wealth of administrative experience. Those who knew him understood that few men in public life could match his administrative skills. Moreover, the number of federal employees remained relatively small. The secretary of state, for example, was served by three assistants, a chief clerk, and eight bureaus, each possessing a chief and several clerks. Hence, administration was a relatively easy task.

Reforming Civil Service Policies

From the first, Arthur made it clear that no one controlled him. Although he professed skepticism about civil service reform—the major reform issue of the day—in 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Arthur made this decision in part because of Republican mid-term defeats in the congressional elections of 1882. The Pendleton Act, written by the Democratic Ohio Senator George Pendleton, established a bipartisan five-member examination board. The law banned salary kickbacks, apportioned federal appointments among the states, and ruled that new employees must begin their service at the bottom of the career ladder, advancing only by merit exams.

Its initial impact, however, should not be exaggerated. As the legislation was not retroactive, present (primarily Republican) incumbents could remain in office even if the Democrats won the forthcoming presidential election. Hence, one Democratic senator caustically called the measure "a bill to perpetuate in office the Republicans who now control the patronage of the Government." Furthermore, the Pendleton Act exempted the vast majority of federal employees and all municipal and state workers.

Reducing Tariffs

In other matters, Arthur also exhibited a measure of independence and vision that neither his opponents nor his supporters had expected. Though he was extremely cautious, Arthur saw the need for a lower tariff. The Treasury had long shown an embarrassingly high surplus, a condition that presented a major financial problem when money was in short supply. Furthermore, discrepancies in duties made administration of the tariff both irrational and difficult. Consequently, his specially appointed tariff commission called for a 20 to 25 percent reduction across the board. Acting in defiance of the President, Congress instead passed the infamous "Mongrel" Tariff of 1883, which dropped rates on a varied list of items by an average of 1.47 percent, indicating that the nation was far from receptive to the creation of a "scientific" tariff. As in the past, Republicans generally supported high tariff rates in contrast to Democrats. On this measure, as on his attempts to limit patronage, Arthur marched out of step with Republican machine politicians and eastern manufacturers.

Limiting Expenditures and Chinese Immigration

Arthur also stepped out of line when he vetoed the notorious pork-barrel Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882, a measure that he believed unduly benefited the South. The bill, which passed over his veto, enraged him. He thereafter forcefully argued at every opportunity that the growing surplus of federal funds should be reduced by tax and rate reductions rather than by government pork-barrel-type expenditures. His position surprised many of his contemporaries, who had expected Arthur to use the federal surplus to support party patronage, the mother's milk of Gilded Age politics.

Bucking much party and national sentiment, Arthur vetoed a proposed Chinese Exclusion Act. On April 4, 1882, the President assailed the legislation, finding the twenty-year immigration ban unreasonable. Furthermore, he claimed, the Chinese had contributed a great deal to the American economy, and here he cited their labors on the transcontinental railroad. Moreover, he believed such legislation threatened a potentially rich market in China. When Congress lowered the ban to ten years, Arthur signed the bill.

Renovating the White House

Most dear to Arthur's heart as President, however, were his efforts to renovate the White House. Always known as a man of elegant taste—he is reputed to have owned eighty pairs of trousers—Arthur came to the presidency as the "Gentleman Boss." He greatly enjoyed his reputation for throwing elegant parties, for having an exquisite taste for fine food, and for socializing with the most suave and cultivated associates. Disgusted with the shabby look of the White House, he hired Louis Comfort Tiffany, the most fashionable designer in New York City, to completely refurbish the executive mansion into a showplace residence befitting the office. The price tag, funded by Congress, exceeded $30,000, which would be approximately $2 million in today's value.

Chester A. Arthur: Foreign Affairs

Although domestic affairs dominated the Arthur administration, his presidency is remembered for having taken the crucial first steps in building a modern navy. Known as the "Father of the Steel Navy," Arthur sought the construction of steam-powered steel cruisers, steel rams, and steel-clad gunboats. With certain exceptions, such as the shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia, he also moved decisively to curb corruption and incompetency within the Navy. Under Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler, the Naval War College was established in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Office of Naval Intelligence was created. In one sense, the results were disappointing, not going beyond the construction of three cruisers and a dispatch boat. Even in 1889, naval coaling stations were limited to Honolulu, Samoa, and Pichilingue in Lower California.

His secretary of state, James G. Blaine, a holdover from the Garfield administration, had pushed for more direct involvement in Latin America, advocating the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Blaine's successor, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, negotiated a treaty with Nicaragua that ceded a stretch of land to the United States for construction of the waterway. However, Congress refused to ratify this treaty with Nicaragua because the agreement violated an existing treaty with Great Britain, in which each nation pledged not to obtain exclusive control over any canal built through the Isthmus of Panama. President Grover Cleveland, Arthur's successor, later withdrew the treaty. Most importantly, Frelinghuysen negotiated a number of reciprocal treaties with Mexico, Santo Domingo, and Spain, the latter centering exclusively on Cuba and Puerto Rico. All met significant opposition from special interests such as sugar refiners and wool producers and hence lacked crucial Senate support. These treaties placed Arthur at odds with protectionist interests in the Republican Party and were among the reasons why he failed to gain the support of party leaders for a second term.

Chester A. Arthur: Life After the Presidency

Chester A. Arthur died on November 18, 1886, of Bright's disease, a then-fatal kidney ailment. He was first diagnosed with the disease in 1882 and kept it secret. Knowing that his condition was fatal, Arthur made little effort to seek nomination for a second term, although he did not oppose efforts by others on his behalf. On the fourth ballot at the convention, he lost the Republican nomination to his former secretary of state, James G. Blaine.

Arthur tried to resume the practice of law after leaving the presidency, but his ill health prevented him from doing much work. The disease had seriously weakened his heart, and he became too frail even to go fishing, which was the great love of his life. His death came at home with his children and sisters near at hand. He was buried with full ceremonies in Albany, New York. His successor, President Grover Cleveland, was in attendance.

Chester A. Arthur: Family Life

Arthur's wife died of pneumonia in 1880, thus he entered the White House as a widower. The marriage was on the verge of dissolution, for she was losing tolerance for late hours and high living. Although never a doting father, Arthur loved his son, Chester Alan Jr., a student at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) during Arthur's term as President, and his daughter, Ellen "Nell" Herndon Arthur, age ten in 1881. His family competed for his time, however, with his near obsession with fishing, feasting with his cronies, and administrative work. Arthur loved to give grand parties and to showcase his children at such affairs. They were not always as eager to be in the social arena, although Chester Arthur Jr. eventually took to the social life; after attending college, he became a wealthy gentleman playboy with no ambition for politics or work.

Chester A. Arthur: The American Franchise

Chester Alan Arthur served as President at a time when the nation's population reached 50 million. Men voted and were expected to exhibit stern loyalty to a political party. Boss politics dominated the day. Women, who could not vote, were expected to stand outside the party system, attentive to the so-called domestic sphere of life. African Americans, enfranchised by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, still voted in most southern states and everywhere else in the nation. Regardless of their residency or citizenship status, many recent immigrants also voted, especially those who avoided legal scrutiny by having big-city political machine protection.

Incipient Reform Efforts

These electoral characteristics of the American political scene, although commonly accepted, were not set in concrete. Historians see the era as one of transition, especially in the weakening of the walls separating the domestic sphere of the private household and the public sphere of politics. For several historians, this era witnessed the beginnings of the so-called feminization of American politics, a time when women began to press strongly for reform on several levels. Critical issues of the day included women's suffrage and temperance. Males, however, always dominated the civil service reform movement, which aimed at breaking the hold of ethnic politics and party bosses on government. Reformers were intent on forcing both structural change (i.e., the political decision-making process) and policy change (i.e., the way that government uses its power). In time, these reform efforts would bring significant political power to progressive women and their male supporters while weakening the grip of traditional ethnic and party loyalties.

Status of the African American Vote

It was also a time of transition for African American voters, especially in the South. White Democrats were back in power due to the Compromise of 1877, which gave Hayes the presidency in return for the withdrawal of all Union troops. In the 1880 election, a majority of adult black males voted in almost every southern state, and they voted Republican. Only in Mississippi and Georgia was black voting severely restricted. However, in states such as South Carolina, one saw harbingers of exclusion as blacks were punished for voting Republican. At that time, southern newspapers began to demonize African American men as a threat to the safety of white women, thus setting the stage for the lynching that would come in the 1890s and early 1900s. By 1883, when the Supreme Court upheld private segregation of public accommodations in the civil rights cases, Jim Crow was already under way. (For more information on the character of the American electorate in the 1880s, see President Garfield's biography.)

Chester A. Arthur: Impact and Legacy

Historians view the Chester Arthur presidency as an important surprise, one that no one would have expected. Put simply, he performed well in office, defying his state-based reputation as a slick machine politician. Despite his poor health, he attempted to govern competently, and he succeeded to a degree that was never acknowledged by his fellow politicians, the press, or the great mass of Americans.

Although Arthur preferred efficient partisan government service to one selected by competitive examinations, he nevertheless showed tremendous flexibility and a willingness to embrace reform. By struggling with the tariff issue (especially being willing to question the protectionist doctrines of the Republican Party) and supporting the modernization of the American Navy, Arthur stands as an important transitional figure in the reunification of the nation after the bitter turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction. No party hack, Arthur demonstrated how the office of President could bring out the very best in its occupants.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Justus Doenecke

Professor Doenecke is a professor emeritus of history at the New College of Florida. His writings include:

The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University Press of Kansas, 1981)

Debating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policies, 1933–1945 (With Mark S. Stoler, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005)