Chester A. Arthur was born in Fairfield Vermont on October 5th, 1829. His father William had been a school teacher but became a Minister and joined the Free Will Baptists, a religious organization opposed to slavery. Chester’s mother was an immigrant from Ireland who had moved to Canada but met William when he visited across the border. William became a traveling preacher and the family moved frequently until they finally settled in Schenectady New York.
Since the family travelled Arthur attended a number of schools as a child and eventually went to Union College in New York. During this period he first entered politics by joining the Young Whigs party and the Fenian Brotherhood, a pro Irish Republic organization with members in Canada and the United States. After he received his degree Arthur became a school teacher working at various towns around New York. He then attended the State And National Law School where he earned his degree. He moved to New York City where he was admitted to the bar in 1854 and became a full partner in the law firm of Culver, Parker and Arthur.
As a lawyer Arthur became involved in several Civil Rights cases, he was an associate in the matter of Lemmon vs. New York, the court ruled that since New York was a Free State any slave brought into the state could be declared a free citizen. He was the lead attorney in the Jennings vs. The Third Ave. Railroad. The trolley had denied Elizabeth Jennings a seat because she was Black. Arthur won the lawsuit and the decision became an important cornerstone in the desegregation of public facilities in New York City. In 1856 Arthur joined with Henry Gardner and they moved to Kansas City to start their own law firm but they found themselves in the middle of the pro versus anti slavery fight, most ending in violence, so they decided to head back to New York. Once in the city he married Ellen Herndon and set up his own law practice. It was during this period that he joined the new Republican Party.
Arthur was appointed Judge Advocate General for the Second Brigade of the New York Militia. When the Civil War broke out he was transferred to the quartermasters department and given the rank of Brigadier General. His work was so efficient that he was promoted to Inspector General and then Quartermaster General for New York. The 9th New York Voluntary Infantry Regiment tried to name him as their colonel but Governor Morgan asked Arthur to remain in his current position so he turned down a combat commander posting. He also turned down the command of the New York City militia. In 1863 Horatio Seymour was elected Governor of New York and relieved Arthur so he could put his own political appointee into the position. This was the end of Arthur’s military career.
Arthur returned to his legal practice but he helped Thomas Murphy who was supplying the military during the war. It was through this association he met William Tweed, the powerful boss of Tammany Hall, an organization that controlled the politics of New York. He also became involved with Roscoe Conkling, the Republican version of Tweed. Arthur attempted to gain the position of Naval Officer to the New York Custom House, a lucrative political appointment but was rejected however Conkling named him Chairman of the New York City Republican Executive Committee in 1868. In 1869 he was named counselor to the New York Tax Commission. After the election of 1870 Arthur was replaced by the Democratic governor, Grant offered him a position as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue but he turned the position down.
As a kick back for carrying the state of New York President Grant turned control of the custom houses over to Conkling. He appointed former New York governor Thomas Murphy as the Collector of taxes however his association with Tammany Hall made him unpopular with the Republicans and after a lot of pressure Conkling was forced to request his resignation. After several other people turned the position down it was offered to Arthur who accepted and was appointed by Grant.
During his time Arthur was know for running an efficient department, however he was also known for assessing fines and seizing illegal cargo, which fattened his personal bank account. There was also a growing complaint about the patronage system in which positions were rewards for political support and employees were required to make “voluntary contributions” towards the political party in power. When real reform was pushed through the legislator Arthur was put on a regular salary and seized goods became the property of the state.
After the 1876 Rutherford B. Hays set out to end the patronage system. The prime target was the political machines of New York including Tammany Hall and Conkling. The investigation into the Custom House of New York discovered that 20% of the employees were unnecessary political appointees and exposed the corruption of the spoils system. The commission decided that the management of the Custom House could not be directly involved in any political organization. Hays demanded Arthur’s resignation but he refused, the matter was turned over to the Senate but Conkling still had enough of a powerbase to control the vote and Arthur’s job was spared. Hays attempted to defuse the situation by offering Arthur the position of Consul General in Paris but he refused the appointment. Hays then used a recess appointment to remove Arthur from office, Conkling tried to overturn the appointment when the Senate reconvened but the vote went against him and opened the door for further civil service reform. Arthur retuned to the position of New York City Republican Executive Committee and worked to get Conkling friendly politicians, The Stalewarts, elected to important positions.
When the election of 1880 rolled around the Republicans found themselves divided between Conkling’s Stalewarts who supported Grant and the Half-Breeds who supported James Blane. After neither could secure a majority they finally compromised and selected the neutral candidate of James Garfield with Arthur as his Vice Presidential candidate, even though Conkling objected. The Republicans ran on the ticket that the Democrats wanted to go back to the pre Civil War era and their tax policy would cost thousands of American jobs when cheap foreign products flooded the market. Thanks to Conkling’s New York machine the Republicans won the state and its crucial Electoral College votes.
Having won the election Arthur attempted to get Garfield to appoint Stalewarts to important position but soon found himself clashing with the Presidential nominee. Arthur became angry and suggested that the Illinois vote had been rigged, as a result he found himself frozen out of the Garfield administration. Arthur then tried to push through appointees but found himself blocked by the Democrats in the Senate. He also found that Conkling continued to control the political machine and wanted his own loyal patrons in those same positions. The Senate deadlocked over the appointees and many positions remained vacant. In May of 1881 Conkling resigned the Senate in protest over Garfield’s blocking of his Stalewarts.
Arthur journeyed with Conkling back to New York to convince the State Senate to reappoint him to the Senate as a vote of no confidence of the Garfield administration. While there they were informed that Garfield had been shot by Charles Guietau, a man who believed that he was owed a patronage job and as President Arthur would fulfill his request. Since Garfield remained alive but in a coma the nation found itself in a Constitutional Crisis for the next two month. The Senate was in recess, Conkling had been the Senate Pro Tempore so the position was unoccupied and Arthur was unsure if he could assume the office with Garfield still alive. During this period the nation was technically without leadership. On September 19th Garfield died and Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States. His first act was to call for a special secession of Congress to elect a new Pro Tempore to ensure that the government had a successor in the case of his own death. The office of the Vice President remained vacant until the next election.
Arthur’s administration came under controversy when Arthur P. Hinman, a lawyer working for the Democrats, claimed Chester was born in Ireland and moved to the U.S. when he was 14. Later he claimed Arthur’s parents were Irish immigrants who moved to Canada and Chester was born there. Hinman had no proof of either claim and they were dismissed, it was the original Birther movement.
In order to maintain order Arthur requested that Garfield’s cabinet remained in their positions until the end of the year but most resigned. Politicians advised Arthur to avoid the spoils system but the majority of his appointees were either Stalewarts or recommended by Grant. Arthur faced a new problem as more government officials were named in the growing spoils system scandal, with several officials being convicted of taking kick backs. The scandals combined with the assassination of Garfield led to major reforms and congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act which required an employee to prove their ability to handle the job and take an exam. Although Arthur had been a supporter of the spoils system he quickly created the Civil Service Commission that oversaw a total reform of the government.
Arthur inherited many problems from the Garfield administration. They government found that it had a budget surplus, congress attempted to pass a tax reform but found opposition from those who wanted to maintain protective tariffs. Eventually taxes were reduced by a small margin and congress earmarked other funds for infrastructure repairs, despite Arthur’s veto of the bills since they didn’t “provide for the common defense or promote the general welfare”. Another problem was the War of the Pacific between Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Arthur wanted to intervene as part of an overall plan to open trade to South America but Congress feared the U.S. getting drug into a new war and rejected his plans. There was also the issue of immigration, the U.S. had opened to the West to immigrants following the Civil War but now they wanted to stem the tide by reducing the numbers coming from each nation, including a full ban on the Chinese. After vetoing several bills Arthur agreed to a reform law including a 10 year ban on immigrants from the East.
In domestic issues Arthur found himself fighting for Civil Rights in the South but he was ineffective in overturning the new segregationist attitude. As the Indian/American wars came to an end he attempted to help the Native Americans by declaring tribal lands the private property of the sovereign nations but people took advantage of this ruling to buy up tribal property at a low rate. He also signed a bill opening the Dakota Territory to settlers driving tribes off their ancestral homelands.
In 1883 Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney aliment. He tried to hide the condition but people noticed the change in his appearance and his drastic weigh loss. As the election rolled around he put up a token effort to keep his name in the running but he knew he couldn’t unite the fractured Republican Party and was glad to step down when James Blain became the nominee. Arthur stayed out of the election and Blain tried to blame him for the loss to Cleveland.
After the election the Stalewarts tried to convince Arthur to run for Governor but his health prevented him from accepting the offer. He retuned to his private practice but found it hard to do more than consult on cases. On November 17th he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage; he never regained consciousness and passed away the next day. He was buried in Menands New York and several statues were dedicated in his honor including one at Madison Square in New York City.
Chester A. Arthur had been a controversial politician. He had benefited from the spoils system but became the champion of civil service reforms. He tried to help out southern Blacks and the Native Americans but his efforts were usually failures. He was opposed by both the Democrats and the Republicans but was hailed by them after his death. And he was the first person to face a Birther claim.
So as the Vice President I promise to not appoint people just because they are my friends, to treat everyone equally and to hopefully never have to be President.