hester Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, to Malvina Stone Arthur and
William Arthur, a Baptist preacher and teacher. Although the family struggled
economically, they saw to it that "Chet" received an education in the
classics. In 1848 he completed a degree at Union College in Schenectady, New
York. After graduation he taught school for a few years in upstate New York,
while studying law in his free time. He began working in a New York City law
firm in 1853 and was admitted to the state bar the next year. Arthur, like his
father, was an abolitionist, and as a lawyer participated in two cases that
broadened the civil rights of blacks in New York. Affiliated with the new
Republican party, he formed important political relationships with the powerful
Thurlow Weed and Governor Edwin Morgan. The governor appointed Arthur to the
primarily ceremonial (and unpaid) position of engineer in chief. In October 1859
he married Ellen Lewis Herndon; she died of pneumonia in January 1880, before he
husband's inauguration as vice president.
When the Civil War began, Governor Morgan appointed Arthur acting assistant
quartermaster general at the rank of brigadier general. Arthur effectively
administered the provisioning of food, shelter, clothing, and equipment for over
200,000 military recruits in New York. He acted as lobbyist at the state capitol
for legislation that mandated the inspection of forts and other wartime military
necessities. He did not see battle, but was promoted swiftly to inspector
general, then quartermaster general in July 1862. With the election of a
Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, Arthur lost his commission on January 1,
1863, and did not reenlist.
Arthur became increasingly involved in Republican machine politics in New York.
He collected assessments (a percentage of the salaries of patronage appointees
which were expected to go into the party's coffers) as well as contributions
from military contractors seeking to buy political influence. By 1868 he was
aligned with what would become known as the "Stalwart" faction of the
Republican party, led by Roscoe Conkling in New York and supporting Ulysses
Grant at the national level. As counsel to the New York City Tax Commission,
1869-1870, Arthur worked for William Tweed, the notorious boss of Tammany Hall,
the major Democratic machine in New York City.
In 1871 Senator Conkling secured his ally the prized patronage position of
Collector of the New York Customhouse. As the largest federal office in America,
the New York Customhouse collected 75 percent of the country's custom duties,
worth nearly $2 million annually, and provided approximately 1,000 patronage
jobs. To civil service reformers, it was a symbol of the corrupt and inefficient
patronage system. Arthur, as Collector, was the nation's highest-paid civil
servant. Despite his association with shady characters and politicos, his own
decorum and education earned him the sobriquet "Gentleman Boss."
In 1877 the new Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, initiated a probe of
the New York Customhouse. The investigating commission faulted customhouse
practices and its leadership, recommending the establishment of merit-based
civil service rules to replace the patronage system. Hayes sought to cushion the
blow by offering Arthur a consulate in Paris. Arthur's refusal led the president
to remove him from office on July 11, 1878. He returned to his private law
practice in New York.
Arthur, Conkling, and other Stalwarts redoubled their political efforts and
scored valuable victories in the 1879 New York state elections. They were unable
to gain a third-term nomination for Grant at the 1880 Republican National
Convention, but when delegates turned to the compromise candidate from Ohio,
James Garfield, Arthur was selected as their vice presidential nominee to give
the ticket factional and geographical balance. Arthur raised huge amounts of
money for the Republican party in New York, and that key state proved to be the
Republicans' thin margin of victory in the general election.
Once the new administration was sworn into office, the New York Customhouse
controversy renewed, this time between President Garfield and Senator Conkling.
Vice President Arthur openly supported Conkling, but Garfield prevailed in his
appointment of a reformer as Collector, and Conkling resigned his senate seat. A
few months later the nation was shocked when Garfield was assassinated by a
disgruntled and delusional office-seeker. On September 20, 1881, a somber Arthur
took the presidential oath of office. Expectations were low, not only among
reformers and other critics, but with his friends as well: as one exclaimed,
"Chet Arthur president? Good God!"
The new president, however, took the responsibility of the office seriously as
he attempted to rise above party politics. He endorsed civil service reform and
in 1883 signed the Pendleton Act, which established the beginnings of a
merit-based federal bureaucracy. In 1882 Arthur vetoed a bill that banned
Chinese immigration for twenty years and imposed an internal passport system on
Chinese already resident in the United States. When Congress reduced the
restriction to ten years and dropped the passport clause, he signed the Chinese
Exclusion Act into law. He also vetoed a costly River and Harbors Bill,
considering it to be pork-barrel legislation, but Congress overrode his veto.
Although he encouraged the prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of the Star
Route scandal, their acquittal by juries undercut the president's popularity.
His administration continued the modernization of the U.S. Navy begun during
Garfield's brief tenure.
Unbeknownst to the public, Arthur suffered from Bright's Disease, a usually
fatal kidney ailment, with symptoms of episodic nausea, mental depression, and
lethargy. He denied rumors of illness that surfaced occasionally in the press.
In 1884 the Republican party denied Arthur renomination for a second
presidential term. By his policies as president, he had alienated conservatives
without gaining the trust and support of the reformers. He did endorse the
party's choice of former senator James Blaine. After leaving office, his health
declined rapidly, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in November 1886.
Concerned about his reputation, he destroyed all his personal papers and records
before he died.