Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur: Gentleman of the Gilded Age

Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, is often overshadowed by his more illustrious contemporaries. Serving from 1881 to 1885, Arthur’s presidency was marked by unexpected twists and turns, challenging the assumptions of his time. Born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont, Arthur’s journey to the highest office in the land was far from conventional. This article by Academic Block explores the life, career, and presidency of Chester A. Arthur, shedding light on a man whose legacy transcends the initial perceptions of his era.

Early Life and Education

Chester Arthur was born into a humble family. His father, William Arthur, was a Baptist minister, and his mother, Malvina Stone Arthur, managed the household. The Arthur family faced financial struggles, and young Chester’s early life was marked by this adversity. Despite the challenges, Arthur’s parents recognized his potential and prioritized his education.

In 1845, Arthur entered Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he excelled academically and developed a keen interest in literature and politics. His time at Union College laid the foundation for a promising future, and after graduating in 1848, Arthur embarked on a journey that would eventually lead him to the highest echelons of American political power.

Lawyer and Family Man

Following his graduation, Arthur began to study law in the office of Judge E. D. Culver in New York. He was admitted to the bar in 1854, and over the next decade, he built a successful law practice. Arthur’s legal career flourished, and he earned a reputation as a skilled and principled attorney. His dedication to his work and his commitment to justice earned him the respect of his peers and the community.

In 1859, Arthur married Ellen Herndon, the daughter of a naval officer. The couple had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Tragically, Ellen Arthur succumbed to pneumonia in 1880, just as Arthur was about to embark on a new chapter in his political career.

Civil War and the Quartermaster General

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed the course of Arthur’s life. Despite having no military experience, he volunteered for service and was appointed as Quartermaster General of the State of New York. In this crucial role, Arthur was responsible for overseeing the logistics and supply chains essential to the Union war effort.

Arthur’s performance in this position drew attention, and in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called him to serve as Inspector General in the U.S. Army with the rank of brigadier general. While he never saw combat, Arthur’s administrative skills and dedication to the Union cause left a lasting impression.

Post-War Political Rise

After the Civil War, Chester A. Arthur returned to his law practice and became increasingly involved in New York Republican politics. His ability to navigate the intricate world of party politics and his strong connections within the Republican Party propelled him into various positions, including chairman of the New York Republican State Committee.

The political landscape of the time was characterized by intense factionalism within the Republican Party, with the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions vying for control. Arthur aligned himself with the Stalwarts, led by the powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. This alliance proved pivotal to Arthur’s political ascent, eventually leading to his nomination as the vice-presidential candidate in the 1880 Republican National Convention.

Vice Presidency and Unexpected Ascension

In a surprising turn of events, the Republican ticket of James A. Garfield for president and Chester A. Arthur for vice president won the 1880 election. Garfield and Arthur represented a compromise between the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions, with Garfield seen as a moderate figure capable of uniting the party.

Tragically, President Garfield’s term was cut short when he was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881. Chester A. Arthur, now thrust into the presidency, faced the immense challenge of leading the nation during a period of uncertainty and mourning.

Presidency and Reform

Chester A. Arthur’s unexpected ascent to the presidency presented a unique opportunity for him to shape his legacy. Surprising many who expected him to toe the Stalwart line, Arthur surprised the nation by embracing the cause of civil service reform. His commitment to merit-based appointments and the establishment of the United States Civil Service Commission marked a departure from the prevailing patronage system.

Arthur’s reformist agenda faced opposition from within his own party, particularly from the Stalwart faction that had supported his political career. Despite this resistance, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law in 1883, signaling a significant step toward a more professional and non-partisan civil service.

Foreign Policy and Naval Expansion

During Arthur’s presidency, the United States began to assert itself on the world stage. Recognizing the importance of a modern and powerful navy, Arthur supported the expansion of the U.S. Navy. The construction of steel-hulled warships marked a departure from traditional wooden vessels, and this shift laid the foundation for the United States to become a formidable naval power in the years to come.

Arthur’s administration negotiated the first modern copyright treaty with Great Britain, known as the Berne Convention, providing reciprocal protection for intellectual property. This agreement reflected a growing recognition of the importance of international cooperation in the realm of trade and intellectual property.

Legacy and Criticisms

Chester A. Arthur’s presidency was a period of transition and reform, challenging the established norms of American politics. His unexpected dedication to civil service reform and his efforts to modernize the navy left a lasting impact. However, Arthur’s presidency was not without its criticisms.

Detractors argued that his civil service reforms did not go far enough and that his motivations were more about political expediency than genuine reform. Additionally, some accused Arthur of succumbing to the influences of party politics, despite his initial reputation as a reform-minded president.

Personal Challenges and Health

Throughout his presidency, Chester A. Arthur faced personal challenges, including the death of his wife, Ellen, shortly before taking office. The loss weighed heavily on him, and Arthur grappled with grief in the public eye. Despite these personal struggles, he maintained a dignified and composed demeanor, earning the respect of many.

In addition to personal challenges, Arthur’s health became a matter of public concern. Rumors circulated about his battle with Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder. While Arthur sought to dispel these rumors, his health remained a topic of speculation and discussion throughout his presidency.

His Works

Civil Service Reform: One of the most noteworthy aspects of Arthur’s presidency was his commitment to civil service reform. In 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law. This landmark legislation aimed to combat the prevailing spoils system, which involved the distribution of government jobs based on political patronage rather than merit. The Pendleton Act established the United States Civil Service Commission, which was tasked with overseeing competitive examinations for certain government positions. This move marked a significant step toward a more professional and non-partisan civil service.

Naval Expansion and Modernization: Recognizing the strategic importance of a modern and powerful navy, Arthur’s administration initiated the expansion and modernization of the U.S. Navy. This period saw the construction of the first steel-hulled warships, a departure from the traditional wooden vessels. The move towards a more formidable naval force laid the groundwork for the United States to become a major player on the international stage. The development of a more robust navy was not only crucial for national defense but also played a role in securing American interests abroad.

Copyright Treaty with Great Britain: In the realm of intellectual property and international relations, Arthur’s administration negotiated the Berne Convention with Great Britain. This treaty, signed in 1886, was the first modern copyright agreement between nations. It provided reciprocal protection for the copyrights of authors and creators in both countries, laying the foundation for future international agreements on intellectual property. The Berne Convention reflected a growing recognition of the importance of protecting the rights of creative individuals on a global scale.

River and Harbor Improvements: Infrastructure development was another focus of Arthur’s administration. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 authorized federal funding for improvements to rivers and harbors, facilitating navigation and trade. While this legislation faced criticism for potential pork-barrel spending, it demonstrated a commitment to enhancing the country’s infrastructure for economic and strategic purposes.

Post Office Modernization: The Arthur administration also undertook efforts to modernize the United States Postal Service. The Post Office Act of 1883 restructured the postal system, reducing postal rates and streamlining services. This reform aimed to make the postal service more efficient, accessible, and affordable for the general public.

Veterans’ Pensions: In response to the needs of Civil War veterans, Arthur signed the Dependent Pension Act into law in 1882. This legislation expanded the criteria for eligibility for veterans’ pensions, providing financial assistance to a larger number of veterans and their dependents. While criticized for potential abuse, the act reflected a commitment to supporting those who had served in the military during the Civil War.

Support for Agricultural Education: Arthur’s administration endorsed the establishment of agricultural experiment stations through the Hatch Act of 1887. These stations aimed to conduct research on various aspects of agriculture, providing valuable insights to improve farming practices and increase productivity. The emphasis on agricultural education underscored the importance of innovation in a key sector of the American economy.

Construction of Public Buildings: The Arthur administration supported the construction of public buildings, including post offices and customhouses. While not as extensive as later public works programs, these projects contributed to the development of local infrastructure and provided jobs for the growing workforce.

Post-Presidential Years and Death

After leaving office in 1885, Arthur returned to private life. Sadly, his post-presidential years were brief. On November 18, 1886, Chester A. Arthur passed away at the age of 57. The cause of death was officially attributed to a cerebral hemorrhage, though the underlying health issues that had plagued him during his presidency likely contributed to his untimely demise.

Despite the controversies and criticisms that marked his presidency, Arthur’s legacy underwent a reassessment in the years that followed. Historians recognized the significance of his civil service reforms and his role in shaping a more modern and efficient government. Arthur’s unexpected presidency, marked by reform and resilience, left an indelible mark on the nation’s history.

Final Words

Chester A. Arthur’s journey from a small-town boy with humble beginnings to the President of the United States is a testament to the unpredictability of politics and the resilience of the American spirit. His presidency challenged preconceived notions and left a lasting impact on the nation’s political landscape.

While overshadowed by some of his more famous contemporaries, Arthur’s legacy endures as a reminder of the complex and dynamic nature of American history. His commitment to civil service reform and the modernization of the navy demonstrated a willingness to evolve with the times, even in the face of political adversity.

Chester A. Arthur’s presidency may not be the most widely studied or celebrated, but it serves as a critical chapter in the broader narrative of American leadership and governance. As we reflect on the life and career of this unexpected president, we gain insights into the challenges and opportunities that shaped the United States during a pivotal period in its history. Please provide your comments below, it will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Chester Alan Arthur
21th President of the United States
Personal Details
Date of Birth : 5th  October 1829
Died : 18th  November 1886
Place of Birth : Fairfield, Vermont, U.S.
Father : William Arthur
Mother : Eliza McHarg
Spouse/Partner : Ellen Herndon
Children : William Lewis Herndon, Chester Alan II, Ellen Hansbrough
Alma Mater : Union College in Schenectady, New York
Professions : Lawyer, Civil Servant
Career History

Served As:       21st President of the United States
Time Period:   September 19, 1881– March 4, 1885
Predecessor:  James A. Garfield
Successor:     Grover Cleveland

Served As:      20th Vice President of the United States
Time Period:  March 4, 1881 – September 19, 1881
Predecessor:  William A. Wheeler
Successor:     Thomas A. Hendricks

Served As:      10th Chairman of the New York Republican Party
Time Period:  September 11, 1879 – October 11, 1881
Predecessor:  John F. Smyth
Successor:     B. Platt Carpenter

Served As:       21st Collector of the Port of New York
Time Period:   December 1, 1871 – July 11, 1878
Predecessor:  Thomas Murphy
Successor:      Edwin Atkins Merritt

Served As:       Engineer-in-Chief of the New York Militia
Time Period:   January 1, 1861 – January 1, 1863
Predecessor:  George F. Nesbitt
Successor:      Isaac Vanderpoel

Served As:       Inspector General of the New York Militia
Time Period:   April 14, 1862 – July 12, 1862
Predecessor:  Marsena R. Patrick
Successor:      Cuyler Van Vechten

Served As:       Quartermaster General of the New York Militia
Time Period:   July 27, 1862 – January 1, 1863
Predecessor:  Cuyler Van Vechten
Successor:     Sebastian Visscher Talcott

Famous quotes by Chester A. Arthur

“The extravagant expenditure of public money is an evil not to be measured by the value of that money to the people who are taxed for it.”

“Men may die, but the fabrics of free institutions remains unshaken.”

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”

“I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business.”

“The health of the people is of supreme importance. All measures looking to their protection against the spread of contagious diseases and to the increase of our sanitary knowledge for such purposes deserve attention of Congress.”

“It is the duty of the President to propose and it is the privilege of the Congress to dispose.”

“The true way to manage a people is to render them independent of each other and to maintain that independence.”

“We have not the slightest idea what would be the result of our own ideas carried out faithfully.”

“The extravagant expenditure of public money is an evil not to be measured by the value of that money to the people who are taxed for it.”

“I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business.”

Controversies related to Chester A. Arthur

Civil Service Reform and Patronage: Arthur’s commitment to civil service reform was a departure from the prevailing patronage system, but it was not without its critics. Many within his own Republican Party, especially the Stalwart faction led by Senator Roscoe Conkling, opposed efforts to limit the spoils system. Arthur’s endorsement of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883 faced resistance from Stalwarts who saw it as a betrayal of their political interests.

Assassination of President Garfield: One of the most significant events during Arthur’s presidency was the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881. Arthur’s ascension to the presidency following Garfield’s death raised suspicions and conspiracy theories. Some believed that Arthur, a Stalwart, might have had prior knowledge of or even played a role in the assassination to gain the presidency. However, there is no credible evidence supporting these theories, and Arthur was not involved in the conspiracy that led to Garfield’s death.

Health Speculations: Throughout his presidency, rumors and speculations about Arthur’s health circulated. Some suggested that he was suffering from Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder. While Arthur sought to dispel these rumors and continued to fulfill his presidential duties, concerns about his health were a topic of public discussion and speculation during his time in office.

Contradictions in Reform Stance: Arthur’s reputation as a civil service reformer was somewhat contradictory. While he signed the Pendleton Act into law and made appointments based on merit, critics argued that he continued to engage in political patronage to some extent. This inconsistency led to skepticism about the sincerity of his commitment to true civil service reform.

Social Issues and Racial Tensions: The Arthur administration faced challenges related to social issues and racial tensions. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the United States, was passed during his presidency. While Arthur vetoed an initial version of the bill, he later signed a modified version that imposed severe restrictions on Chinese immigrants. This legislation reflected the anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in parts of the country at the time.

Struggles with Congress: Arthur’s presidency was marked by strained relations with Congress, particularly with members of his own party. The Republican Party was divided between the Stalwart and Half-Breed factions, and Arthur’s attempts at bipartisanship and civil service reform led to tensions with the Stalwarts, who were disappointed by what they perceived as a lack of loyalty to their cause.

Post-Presidential Criticism: After leaving office, Arthur faced criticism from some quarters for his perceived lack of decisive action and leadership during his presidency. Some historians argued that his cautious approach to political issues may have hindered his ability to enact more substantial reforms or to leave a more enduring legacy.

Academic References on Chester A. Arthur


“Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series” by Zachary Karabell

“Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics” by George F. Howe

“Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur” by Thomas C. Reeves

“Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents” by Henry F. Graff


“Chester A. Arthur: Reform and the Status Quo” by Arthur Zilversmit

“Chester Alan Arthur and the Politicians” by Charles W. Calhoun

“The Gentleman Boss: Chester A. Arthur” by William H. Hesseltine

“Chester A. Arthur and Civil Service Reform” by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

“The American Vice Presidency of Chester A. Arthur” by Gerhard Loewenberg

“Chester A. Arthur and the Republican Reform Movement” by George W. Curtis

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