Chester A Arthur: Twenty-First President of the United States

Black and white portrait of Chester A. Arthur
Portrait of Chester A. Arthur.

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Chester A. Arthur served as America's twenty-first president from September 19, 1881, to March 4, 1885. He succeeded James Garfield who had been assassinated in 1881. 

Arthur is remembered primarily for three things: He was never elected to the presidency and two significant pieces of legislation, one positive and the other negative. The Pendelton Civil Service Reform Act has had long-reaching positive impact while the Chinese Exclusion Act became a black mark in American history.

Early Life

Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in North Fairfield, Vermont. Arthur was born to William Arthur, a Baptist preacher, and Malvina Stone Arthur. He had six sisters and a brother. His family moved often. He attended schools in several New York towns before entering the prestigious Lyceum School in Schenectady, New York, at age 15. In 1845, he enrolled at Union College. He graduated and went on to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1854.

On October 25, 1859, Arthur was married to Ellen "Nell" Lewis Herndon. Sadly, she would die of pneumonia before he became president. Together they had one son, Chester Alan Arthur, Jr., and one daughter, Ellen "Nell" Herndon Arthur. While in the White House, Arthur's sister Mary Arthur McElroy served as the White House hostess. 

Career Before the Presidency

After college, Arthur taught school before becoming a lawyer in 1854. Although he had originally aligned with the Whig Party, he became very active in the Republican Party from 1856 on. In 1858, Arthur joined the New York state militia and served until 1862. He was eventually promoted to quartermaster general in charge of inspecting troops and providing equipment. From 1871 to 1878, Arthur was the collector of the Port of New York. In 1881, he was elected to become vice president under President James Garfield.

Becoming the President

On September 19, 1881, President Garfield died of blood poisoning after being shot by Charles Guiteau. On September 20, Arthur was sworn in as president.

Major Events and Accomplishments While President

Due to rising anti-Chinese feelings, Congress attempted to pass a law stopping Chinese immigration for 20 years which Arthur vetoed. Although he objected to the denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, Arthur compromised with Congress, signing the Chinese Exclusion Act into law in 1882. The act was only supposed to halt immigration for 10 years. However, the act was renewed two more times and was not finally repealed until 1943.

The Pendleton Civil Service Act occurred during his presidency to reform the corrupt civil service system. A long-called-for reform, the Pendleton Act, which created the modern civil service system gained support due to the assassination of President Garfield. Guiteau, President Garfield's assasin was a lawyer who was unhappy for being rejected an ambassadorship to Paris. President Arthur not only signed the bill into law but readily enforced the new system. His staunch support of the law led former supporters to become disenchanted with him and probably cost him the Republican nomination in 1884.

The Mongrel Tariff of 1883 was a conglomeration of measures designed to reduce tariffs while attempting to appease all sides. The tariff actually only reduced duties by 1.5 percent and made very few people happy. The event is significant because it began the decades long debate about tariffs that became divided along party lines. The Republicans became the party of protectionism while the Democrats were more inclined towards free trade. 

Post-Presidential Period

After leaving office, Arthur retired to New York City. He was suffering from a kidney-related illness, Bright's disease, and decided not to run for reelection. Instead, he returned to practicing law, never returning to public service. On November 18, 1886, about a year after he left the White House, Arthur died of a stroke at his home in New York City.

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Kelly, Martin. "Chester A Arthur: Twenty-First President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2022, Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 20). Chester A Arthur: Twenty-First President of the United States. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Chester A Arthur: Twenty-First President of the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).