Chester Arthur was a lawyer and teacher, an abolitionist, a party boss known for taking kickbacks, vice president under President James Garfield, and became the 21st American President upon Garfield’s assassination. In 1884, Arthur was defeated for the Republican nomination by James G. Blaine, who had been Secretary of State under Garfield, and again under Benjamin Harrison.
Chester Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829, the son of a Baptist minister. He attended Union College in New York and became a lawyer, working for a prominent New York firm. He joined the Republican Party in 1850, and in 1855, he won a landmark discrimination suit on behalf of an African American woman who was forced off a streetcar.
After serving as quartermaster general in New York during the Civil War, Chester Arthur became part of the Republican political machine of the time. In his role as customs collector for the port at New York City, an appointment he received in 1871, Arthur became involved in supporting the patronage system, and ended up being suspended by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878.
It was patronage that led to his nomination to the vice presidency on the ballot of 1880, with James A. Garfield as the presidential nominee, but many consider Chester Arthur unqualified for the post. When Garfield was assassinated and Arthur became succeeded him in September of 1881, many were concerned about his ability to carry out the office of the presidency. So for many, his performance was a pleasant surprise. Notable achievements of his administration include:
• Supporting the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which reformed the civil service (1883)
• Recommending appropriations to build up the US Navy • Vetoing the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 • Supporting tariff reduction • Pursuing prosecution in the Star Route trials
After vetoing a law that prohibited Chinese immigration for 20 years and violated a treaty with China, Chester Arthur went on to support the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which imposed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration and prohibited citizenship for Chinese immigrants. He also made noted improvements to the decoration of the White House, where his sister served as his hostess, since his wife had died just after the election.
Aware that he was afflicted with a kidney disease that, in that day and age, was fatal, Chester Arthur did not work for renomination. He died of Bright’s disease in 1885.