If you are a presidential historian or a fan of facial hair, you probably know a little about Chester Alan Arthur. For the rest of us, he’s one of the more obscure leaders in American history.
Arthur was born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont. (In later years there were claims, never proven, that Arthur was born across the border in Canada, which would have threatened his eligibility to serve as President.)
Today, Arthur is best remembered for his classic set of bushy sideburns, his devotion to the patronage system and his replacement of the assassinated James Garfield. The official brief White House description of his one term as President is about as obscure as can be written: “The son of a Baptist preacher who had emigrated from northern Ireland, Chester A. Arthur was America’s 21st President (1881-85), succeeding President James Garfield upon his assassination.”
Among historians, Arthur is considered to be short on both pedigree and achievements in Washington. The most recent poll of historians about Presidents, from the Siena College Research Institute in 2018, ranked him in 34th place out of 44 Presidents, which is consistent with other recent polls.
Fewer leaders faced lower public expectations than Arthur when he became President. Arthur was a surprise choice as Garfield’s running mate on the Republican ticket at the 1880 Republican National Convention. Arthur was a New York attorney who had come to prominence as a skilled public administrator, first during the Civil War and then as the powerful Collector of the Port of New York.
Arthur was also the colleague, friend and protégé of Roscoe Conkling, the New York political boss and Senator who ran that state’s extensive and lucrative patronage machine.
The highly paid Arthur, while not directly accused of wrongdoing, was ousted from his port collector position by President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fellow Republican, in 1880. Hayes used his presidential powers during a congressional recess to remove Arthur, which caused a rift within the Republican Party.
Hayes and others were concerned about a patronage “spoils” system championed by Conkling and Arthur that required kickbacks from port employees that went directly to Conkling’s party operations.
But in a twist of fate, Arthur received the vice presidential nomination, apparently without Conkling’s prior approval in 1880. Garfield’s supporters needed votes in the key state of New York, and Arthur proved to be a skilled political campaigner and organizer.
Within six months of going to Washington as the Vice President, Arthur replaced Garfield as president, after Garfield died from wounds received in a July 1881 assassination.
And soon after assuming the presidency, Arthur set his own independent course for his remaining three years in office. The new president fought the spoils patronage system he supported in New York, advocated tariff relief for businesses, and demanded breaks for taxpayers.
One reason for Arthur’s independent streak, some historians speculate, is that the president was diagnosed with what was called Bright’s disease in October 1882, which was known as a terminal condition at the time.
Although he was in pain and ill health for the rest of his presidency, Arthur championed reforms of the patronage system. In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which banned kickbacks in the civil service system and made merit, and not patronage, the basis for promotion and pay.
Arthur also wanted lower tariffs and less patronage because he thought the huge government budget surpluses in the 1880s should be lowered, through lower tax rates and money returned to taxpayers.
Publicly, Arthur had a reputation for dressing well, eating well, and enjoying the finer things in life. He also convinced Congress to pay for much-needed White House renovations.
Knowing of his illness, Arthur made a less-than-enthusiastic bid for his party’s renomination in 1884, and his political enemy, James Blaine, gained the GOP nomination.
On November 19, 1886, former President Arthur passed away in New York City, surrounded by his family at the age of 56. Dr. George A. Peters, Arthur’s doctor, confirmed publicly the former president had Bright’s disease, and he had known for about six months that he could die from it at any time.