Chester A. Arthur | Biography, Early Life, Political Career, Achievements & Failures

Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, is often overshadowed by his more prominent predecessors and successors. However, Arthur’s presidency was a critical period in American history marked by significant reforms and his unexpected rise to power. Born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont, Arthur led a life dedicated to public service, culminating in his presidency from 1881 to 1885.

Early Life and Political Career

Chester Alan Arthur, born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont, was the fifth child of a Baptist preacher, William Arthur, and Malvina Stone. His father’s profession instilled in him a sense of public service and duty, which would later guide his political endeavors. At an early age, Arthur showed a keen intellect and a strong drive to succeed.

After completing his education, Arthur moved to New York City, where he pursued a legal career. He studied law at State and National Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1854. He quickly gained recognition for his legal expertise and sharp intellect, which led to the establishment of a successful law practice.

Arthur’s involvement in Republican politics began during the early 1850s. He aligned himself with the newly formed Republican Party, which strongly opposed the expansion of slavery. Arthur’s political convictions were solidified during this time, and he became an outspoken advocate for abolitionist and anti-slavery causes.

In 1871, Arthur received a significant political appointment that propelled him into the national spotlight. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as the Collector of the Port of New York, one of the most lucrative and influential federal positions at the time. The Port of New York was a hub of trade and commerce, making this appointment a significant honor and responsibility.

Arthur assumed his duties as Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. However, the customs office was notorious for rampant corruption and political patronage. Arthur surprised many by using his position to reform the customs system. He implemented measures to improve efficiency, reduce corruption, and increase revenue collection for the federal government. This marked a significant departure from the established norms of the spoils system, where political appointments were made based on party affiliation rather than merit.

Arthur’s actions caught the attention of his political peers and superiors, showcasing his dedication to reform and his willingness to challenge the prevalent corrupt practices. This successful tenure as Collector of the Port of New York boosted his political career and set the stage for his eventual ascendancy to the presidency.

Presidential Ascendancy

The unexpected ascendancy to the presidency was a defining moment in Chester A. Arthur’s life and political career. Up until that point, Arthur had not harbored ambitions for the highest office in the land. His career had been marked by dedication to his legal practice and a focus on political appointments within New York’s Republican Party. However, destiny had different plans for him.

The tragic event of President James A. Garfield’s assassination on July 2, 1881, changed the trajectory of Arthur’s life. Garfield, a beloved figure and promising leader, was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, plunging the nation into mourning. The circumstances surrounding Garfield’s death were a turning point for Arthur, as the Vice President was suddenly thrust into the limelight and faced the enormous responsibility of leading the nation through tumultuous times.

Arthur’s assumption of the presidency was met with skepticism and uncertainty. Many doubted his abilities and were concerned about his political allegiances, given his earlier association with a faction known for patronage and political spoils. However, Arthur’s response to this newfound responsibility surprised both his critics and allies alike.

Immediately after taking the oath of office, Arthur adopted a more serious and statesmanlike approach, recognizing the gravity of the situation. He took the initiative to unite a divided nation and started working towards healing the wounds caused by the assassination. Arthur sought to reassure the public and restore their faith in the nation’s leadership.

As President, Arthur navigated the challenges with a sense of duty and an eagerness to prove himself. He sought to distance himself from his previous image associated with the spoils system and pledged to carry out the remainder of Garfield’s term with integrity and dedication to the American people.

This pivotal period in Arthur’s presidency was marked by careful decision-making, strategic appointments, and policy reforms. He surrounded himself with advisors known for their integrity and expertise, gradually building a reputation as a fair and principled leader.

The unforeseen circumstances surrounding President Garfield’s assassination placed Chester A. Arthur in a position of great responsibility that he had not anticipated. This event marked a turning point in his life and political career, leading to unexpected accomplishments and an enduring legacy as a reformist president.

Presidential Accomplishments and Reforms

During his presidency, Chester A. Arthur made a considerable mark with his efforts to reform various aspects of the government and enhance the nation’s capabilities on both domestic and international fronts.

1. Civil Service Reform:
Chester A. Arthur emerged as an unexpected advocate for civil service reform, a cause that was gaining momentum during his time in office. In an era rife with political patronage and the spoils system, where government positions were often awarded based on political loyalty rather than merit, Arthur recognized the need for change. In his inaugural address, he openly supported reforming the civil service to make federal appointments based on qualifications and competence. This was a significant departure from the prevalent corrupt practices and set the stage for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

2. Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (1883):
One of Arthur’s most enduring achievements was the successful advocacy for and eventual passage of the Pendleton Act. The Act established the United States Civil Service Commission and mandated a merit-based system for federal appointments based on competitive examinations. This groundbreaking legislation fundamentally transformed the federal government’s hiring practices, ensuring that positions were awarded based on individuals’ skills and qualifications rather than political favoritism.

3. Modernization of the United States Navy:
Recognizing the strategic importance of a strong naval force for national security and international standing, Arthur pushed for the modernization and professionalization of the United States Navy. He advocated for an expansion of the navy, encouraging the development and acquisition of advanced naval vessels and technologies. This effort laid the foundation for the significant growth and advancements in the U.S. Navy that followed, reinforcing the nation’s position on the global stage.

4. Advocacy for Tariff Reform:
Another key aspect of Arthur’s presidency was his support for tariff reform. He believed in protective tariffs, which were intended to shield American industries from foreign competition and promote economic growth domestically. Arthur sought to strike a balance between generating revenue for the federal government and safeguarding American businesses. Although tariff reform remained a contentious issue during his presidency and beyond, his advocacy highlighted the evolving economic dynamics of the United States during that era.

Legacy and Later Years

Chester A. Arthur’s legacy has evolved over time, gaining a more positive outlook as historians recognize the significance of his presidency in shaping the trajectory of American politics. In the years following his passing on November 18, 1886, Arthur’s contributions to civil service reform and governmental transparency started to be fully appreciated.

One of Arthur’s most enduring legacies is his commitment to civil service reform. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, signed into law during his presidency, fundamentally changed the way federal employees were hired and promoted. This legislation created a merit-based system for government jobs, removing the prevailing patronage system and establishing a more equitable and professional approach to public service. Arthur’s advocacy for this reform laid the groundwork for a more efficient and accountable government, influencing subsequent administrations to further refine and strengthen the civil service system.

Furthermore, Arthur’s efforts to modernize the United States Navy underscore his foresight regarding the nation’s defense and strategic interests. He recognized the importance of a robust naval force in safeguarding national security and projecting influence on the world stage. Arthur’s advocacy for naval expansion paved the way for future advancements and established a strong precedent for the growth of the U.S. Navy in the decades to come.

In light of changing historical perspectives and a deeper understanding of the complexities of his presidency, Chester A. Arthur is increasingly acknowledged as a president who rose to the occasion during a challenging period in American history. The initial skepticism that surrounded his ascension to power was gradually replaced by recognition of his efforts to address corruption and promote institutional reforms. Arthur’s dedication to ethical governance and his contributions to the betterment of American society have earned him a more favorable place in the annals of American history.

Chester A. Arthur’s legacy is one of reform, progress, and a commitment to the principles of good governance. As time has passed, historians and scholars have come to appreciate the significance of his presidency and the lasting impact of his policies on the American political landscape. Arthur’s presidency serves as a testament to the potential for unexpected leaders to bring about meaningful change and leave a lasting imprint on the nation they serve.

Marriage and Family

Chester A. Arthur’s marriage and family life played a significant role in shaping his personal and political trajectory. Here is an overview of his marriage, family, and their influence on his life and career:

Marriage to Ellen Lewis Herndon

Chester A. Arthur married Ellen Lewis Herndon on October 25, 1859. Ellen, often referred to as “Nell,” was the daughter of Captain William Lewis Herndon, a distinguished naval officer. The couple had met in 1856 and had a strong bond that developed into a lasting and loving marriage.

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Ellen Arthur was known for her intelligence, grace, and social acumen, which complemented Arthur’s political aspirations. She was also an influential figure during Arthur’s political career, offering advice and support throughout his various positions.

Tragically, Ellen Arthur passed away on January 12, 1880, just before Arthur assumed the vice presidency. Her death deeply affected Arthur, and he sought solace in his family and faith during this challenging period.

Family Life

Chester and Ellen Arthur had three children: William Lewis Arthur, Chester Alan Arthur II, and Ellen Hansbrough Herndon Arthur. Their family life was centered on their home in New York City, where Arthur pursued his law practice and political ambitions.

Arthur was a devoted father and took an active interest in the education and upbringing of his children. He ensured they received a good education and instilled in them the values of hard work, integrity, and public service.

Influence on His Presidency

Arthur’s family life and marriage had a notable influence on his presidency. The loss of his wife, Ellen, prior to becoming president left him with a profound sense of personal loss and changed his perspective on his responsibilities. Arthur, often seen as a product of the corrupt political machine, surprised many by embracing reform during his presidency. Some historians believe that the loss of Ellen played a role in his shift towards promoting reforms, reflecting a deeper commitment to ethical governance.

Achievements & Failures of Chester A. Arthur Presidency

Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, served from September 19, 1881, to March 4, 1885, completing the term started by the assassination of President James A. Garfield. Arthur’s presidency was marked by both achievements and controversies, shaping the nation during a crucial period of industrialization and civil service reform.


Civil Service Reform

One of President Arthur’s most notable achievements was his support for civil service reform. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 was signed into law during his presidency, establishing a merit-based system for federal employment. This legislation aimed to reduce political patronage and establish a fairer process for hiring based on qualifications and competency rather than political connections.

Modernization of the Navy

President Arthur advocated for the modernization and strengthening of the U.S. Navy. He signed the Naval Appropriations Bill in 1883, which led to the construction of new warships and the expansion of the naval fleet. Arthur’s efforts were critical in positioning the United States as a naval power on the global stage.

Tariff Reform

Arthur supported and signed the Tariff Act of 1883, known as the “Mongrel Tariff” or the “Mongrel Tariff Act.” While it wasn’t a comprehensive reform, it did lower some tariff rates and simplified the existing tariff structure. This was a step toward addressing the complexities and disparities in the tariff system, setting the stage for future tariff reforms.


Opposition to Civil Rights

During his presidency, Arthur did not take significant action to address civil rights issues, particularly for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era. Despite his reputation for being open to civil service reform, Arthur did not strongly advocate for equal rights for all citizens, which disappointed civil rights activists.

Limited Economic Reform

While Arthur made some efforts to reform the tariff system with the Tariff Act of 1883, it fell short of significant economic reform. The act was a compromise and did not make substantial changes to the tariff structure, leaving many unsatisfied with the results.

Handling of the “Chinese Exclusion Act”

Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 into law, which suspended Chinese immigration into the United States for ten years and denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. While this was largely a response to anti-Chinese sentiment and economic fears, it stands as a negative aspect of his presidency, contributing to a discriminatory immigration policy.


Chester A. Arthur’s presidency stands as a testament to the potential for unexpected leadership and the ability to effect profound change. In the face of skepticism and doubts about his capabilities, Arthur rose to the occasion and implemented significant reforms that altered the course of the nation. His journey from an unassuming figure to a reformist president showcases the transformative power of dedication, perseverance, and a commitment to bettering the nation’s governance.

During his time in office, Arthur was able to overcome the shadow of a reputation tied to the spoils system. He championed the cause of civil service reform through the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, a pivotal piece of legislation that established a merit-based system for federal appointments. This move marked a departure from the prevailing corrupt practices of the time and laid the foundation for a more transparent and accountable government.

Moreover, Arthur’s initiatives extended beyond civil service reform. He recognized the significance of a modernized navy, advocating for its growth and professionalization. This foresight in strengthening the nation’s defense capabilities showcased his ability to perceive and address emerging challenges, setting a precedent for future leaders.

Arthur’s unexpected ascent to the presidency and subsequent accomplishments underscore the idea that leaders may emerge from unexpected circumstances, driven by a deep sense of duty and vision for a better future. Arthur’s dedication to the ideals of good governance and his willingness to evolve beyond initial perceptions affirm that impactful leadership is not limited to those with grandiose beginnings.

Chester A. Arthur’s presidency provides valuable insights into the potential for transformation and reform under the stewardship of a seemingly unassuming leader. His legacy serves as an inspiration for leaders to rise above preconceived notions and societal expectations, proving that determined and conscientious leadership can leave an enduring mark on the annals of history. Arthur’s story resonates, reminding us that impactful change is within the grasp of those who choose to embrace unexpected opportunities and lead with integrity and purpose.

Read also:

James A. Garfield | The 20th President of the United States

Rutherford Birchard Hayes | 19th President of the United States

Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President of the US

Andrew Johnson – 17th President of the US

Abraham Lincoln – 16th President of the US

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