Chester Alan Arthur was born near the northern Vermont community of Fairfield; later political opponents would charge that he was actually born farther north across the Canadian boundary, which would have rendered him ineligible for the presidency. Arthur's father was an Irish immigrant and Baptist preacher, who kept his family on the move from one town to another.
Young Arthur was an excellent student and mastered Latin and Greek under his father's supervision. Political interest developed early; he was an ardent supporter of Henry Clay in 1844. Arthur graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1848. He supported himself as a teacher and began the study of law in his free time.
In 1854, Arthur formed a law partnership with a colleague in New York City. He willingly took cases to protect the civil rights of black citizens. Arthur became active in a number of political organizations and was involved in the establishment of the Republican Party in New York State. In 1859, he joined the Republican governor's staff and was later made responsible for outfitting New York soldiers in the Civil War; he developed a reputation for honesty and always insisted on receiving quality supplies for the soldiers.
During the 1860s Arthur developed a political relationship with Roscoe Conkling, the patronage king of New York politics. Through this contact Arthur was selected by the Grant administration to be the chief collector of the New York Customhouse. In that capacity he became responsible for collecting import duties, but also headed a vast patronage system. Arthur emerged as one of the key Republican leaders in the city and would later become the chairman of the state Republican organization.
In 1879, the Hayes administration investigated the New York Customhouse and found widespread waste and corruption; Arthur was forced to resign. Most historians of this period agree that Arthur was personally honest, but was a dedicated supporter of the spoils system that was harnessed to advance his political interests.
In Election of 1880, the Republican Party professionals selected Arthur to be James A. Garfield's running mate, achieving an apparent balance between the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions. Following the electoral victory, Arthur supported his fellow Stalwarts, Conkling and Thomas Platt in their patronage spat with the president. Garfield was mortally wounded in July 1881, but lingered for eleven excruciating weeks before expiring. Arthur remained out of the public eye during that period, but took the oath of office the day after Garfield's death.
Major events during the Arthur administration included, civil service reform, an effort to combat postal fraud, unsuccessful tries at meaningful tariff reform and wasteful spending. Arthur also worked to outlaw polygamy in Utah, opposed the exclusion of Chinese and modernized the Navy. The Arthur White House presented a stark contrast to the staid life of his predecessor, Hayes. Official functions offered wide arrays of food and drink and parties often lasted into the early hours of the next day.
Arthur wanted a second term as president, but had alienated both factions of his party. He tried to placate the Half-Breeds by appointing James G. Blaine as secretary of state and giving him a free hand in foreign affairs; Blaine, however, wanted the top job himself.
In order to placate the Stalwarts, Arthur twice offered a Supreme Court seat to Conkling, who refused both times. In the Election of 1884 Blaine won the Republican nomination, but lost to the Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Arthur returned to the practice of law after leaving the White house, but his health rapidly declined from a fatal kidney disease. He died in 1886.
By the end of his term in office, Chester Arthur had become a widely admired president. Publisher Alexander K. McClure wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected."
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Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves.
The Gentleman Boss covers the turbulent times of the Gilded Age through Chester Arthur's eyes. While being very sympathetic to its subject it nonethel...
Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell.
The Gilded Age bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform of the system that nurtured him Che...