By Nolan Musslewhite '20
Several weeks ago, Government Club ran simple a Facebook poll to celebrate Presidents’ Day: Name your favorite president. Initial results were, as was to be expected, fairly standard, with Obama, Lincoln, and Reagan topping the charts. In the early afternoon, however, a revolution began; a peculiar newcomer was rising in the polls. Fueled by some turncoats from the Obama group as well as some new voters, President Chester A. Arthur quickly rocketed to the top spot, where he remained for the rest of the day. And here I am to answer the question many have: who was Chester A. Arthur?
Born on October 5th, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont, Chester Alan Arthur was the son of a peripatetic abolitionist preacher. After attending Union College, Arthur became a New York City lawyer, where he played a key role in two crucial cases regarding African-American rights; he represented Elizabeth Jennings in Jennings v. Third Ave. Railroad, a case that directly led to the desegregation of New York City streetcars, and he played a role in the “Lemmon Slave Case,” where the court ruled that slaves transferred through New York, even if to a slave state, were to be freed. As a lawyer, he also became involved in politics as a member of the Republican party. In 1871, he was named customs collector for the Port of New York, where he operated under the Republican political machine. Being a staunch supporter of the spoils (aka patronage) system, where the party in power would give political positions to its members and supporters, he was removed from the office in 1878 by President Rutherford B. Hayes seeking.
Arthur’s political career did not end there, however, as he was nominated to the Vice Presidency under James Garfield at the 1880 Republican Convention. Having defeated the Democrats in the general election, Garfield and Arthur were sworn in as President and Vice President on March 4, 1881. Garfield’s tenure would soon come to an end on September 19th, when he finally passed away due to complications stemming from an assassination attempt on July 2nd, and Chester Arthur was sworn in as 21st President of the United States.
As President, Arthur strove to move beyond the very political machine that had brought him to power. This attitude was most notably manifested in his signing of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883, perhaps the landmark legislative victory of his career, which directed certain federal jobs to be assigned based on merit, rather than for political reasons (as they had under the patronage system). The act also included several other civil service–related mandates and reforms. He also vetoed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from China for 10 years, though his veto was overturned by Congress. Several other attributes of Arthur’s presidency were the raising of tariffs under the 1883 Tariff Act, the attempt at the modernization of the U.S. Navy, and the fighting of fraud in the U.S. Postal System.
Tall and considered handsome by all, Chester A. Arthur also had an affinity for clothing and furnishing. Nicknamed “The Gentleman Boss,” Arthur is rumored to have owned more than 80 pairs of pants. Initially, upon his ascension to the Presidency, Artur hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the state rooms, and auctioned off furnishings from previous administrations.
It is believed that in 1882 Arthur learned he had contracted a fatal kidney disease known as Bright’s disease. Though kept secret during his administration, the disease precluded him from fully engaging in his 1884 reelection campaign, and the Republicans instead chose Secretary of State James Blaine, who was later defeated by Grover Cleveland in the 1885 general election. Having returned to New York after his presidency, Arthur died in 1886 at 57. He was buried beside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.
Chester A. Arthur will be remembered for his firm stance on abolitionism and his push for rights for African Americans, his heroic vetoing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, his key legislative reforms, and his rising above party politics in the final years of his life. Ultimately, however, Arthur will be remembered for succeeding in a position he was never expected to serve.