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The Presidency of Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, served from 1881 to 1885. Throughout his presidency, Arthur left a lasting impact on the country, both in terms of his legislative achievements and his personal philosophies. This article explores the life history of Chester A. Arthur, shedding light on his journey to the highest office in the land, his notable achievements during his time as President, and the success philosophies that guided his leadership. Discover the fascinating story of a President who transformed the nation with his vision and dedication.

Early Life and Career

Birth and Family Background

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont. He was the fifth Child of William and Malvina Arthur. His father, William Arthur, was a Baptist preacher and an abolitionist. Chester’s mother had been born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. Growing up, Chester was surrounded by a strong sense of values and a commitment to justice, which would shape his future endeavors.


Arthur attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he excelled academically. He honed his skills in oratory and debate, developing the eloquence and persuasive abilities that would serve him well in his later political career. After graduating in 1848, he pursued his legal studies, eventually becoming a lawyer in New York City.

Legal and Political Career

Arthur began his legal career by working for one of the leading law firms in New York City. He quickly gained a reputation for his keen legal mind and attention to detail. In the 1850s, he became involved in politics and joined the Republican Party. He held various positions within the party and established connections with influential political figures.

Rise to the Presidency

Vice Presidency

In 1880, Chester A. Arthur was nominated as the vice presidential candidate alongside James A. Garfield. Arthur’s nomination was seen as a strategic move by the Republican Party to gain the support of the Stalwart faction, a group within the party that supported the spoils system and opposed civil service reform. Despite his reputation as a party loyalist, Arthur surprised many by his performance as vice president, displaying integrity and temperament that garnered respect from both sides of the political spectrum.

Assassination of James Garfield

Tragedy struck the nation in July 1881 when President James Garfield was shot by an assassin. Garfield’s condition worsened, and it became apparent that he would not survive. As the vice president, Chester A. Arthur found himself thrust into the role of president, facing the daunting task of leading the nation during a time of crisis and uncertainty.

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Taking Oath as President

On September 20, 1881, following the death of President Garfield, Chester A. Arthur took the oath of office, becoming the 21st President of the United States. Despite initial skepticism about his ability to lead, Arthur rose to the occasion and demonstrated a newfound commitment to reform and progressive policies.

Domestic Policies

Civil Service Reform

Chester A. Arthur recognized the need for civil service reform and understood that the spoils system had led to corruption and inefficiency within the government. In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law, which established a merit-based system for government employment. This act marked a significant step forward in professionalizing the civil service and reducing political patronage.

Tariff Policy

Arthur’s administration focused on tariff policy as a means of stimulating the economy. In 1883, he signed the Tariff Act, which aimed to protect American industries from foreign competition by imposing higher tariffs on imported goods. While the act faced criticisms for its protectionist stance, it was seen as a necessary measure to support domestic industries and encourage economic growth.

Naval Expansion

Recognizing the importance of a strong naval presence, Arthur championed naval expansion during his presidency. He advocated for the modernization and expansion of the United States Navy, strengthening its capabilities and positioning the nation as a global maritime power.

First Federal Immigration Law

In response to the influx of immigrants entering the United States, Arthur signed the first federal immigration law in 1882. The law, known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, aimed to restrict Chinese immigration and prohibit Chinese laborers from entering the country. While controversial, this legislation reflected the sentiment of the time and represented Arthur’s efforts to respond to the challenges of immigration.

Foreign Affairs

Anglo-American Relations

During his presidency, Arthur prioritized maintaining positive relations with the United Kingdom. He sought to resolve disputes arising from the Alabama Claims, a matter dating back to the American Civil War. Through diplomatic negotiations, Arthur successfully brokered a treaty in 1882, known as the Treaty of Washington, which resolved outstanding issues between the two nations and fostered a more amicable relationship.

Relations with Latin America

Arthur also sought to strengthen ties with Latin American nations. He actively pursued trade agreements and established diplomatic missions with countries such as Mexico and Brazil. By promoting economic and diplomatic cooperation, Arthur aimed to cultivate a favorable environment for American interests in the region.


Like many of his contemporaries, Arthur believed in the expansion of American influence and territory. During his presidency, the United States engaged in several territorial acquisitions, including the purchase of the rights to construct the Panama Canal and the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii. These actions reflected Arthur’s vision of a globally influential United States.

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Chinese Exclusion Act

While Arthur’s administration had positive relations with some foreign powers, it also implemented policies that targeted specific immigrant groups. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, mentioned earlier, was a controversial move that restricted Chinese immigration. This legislation highlighted the tensions between immigration policy, foreign relations, and domestic concerns during Arthur’s presidency.

Economic Challenges and Solutions

Economic Depression

Arthur faced significant economic challenges during his presidency. The nation was grappling with an economic depression resulting from the Panic of 1873. High unemployment rates, bankruptcies, and poverty were widespread. Arthur implemented policies aimed at stimulating economic growth and revitalizing industries, laying the foundation for future economic reforms.

The Pendleton Act

To address issues of corruption and inefficiency in government, Arthur supported and signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law. This act created a merit-based system for federal employment, reducing the influence of patronage and ensuring a more competent and professional civil service.

Surplus Revenue Distribution

During his presidency, Arthur dealt with the issue of surplus revenue accumulated by the federal government. He advocated for the distribution of excess funds to the states, believing that it would alleviate financial strain and promote economic development at the local level. However, his proposal faced resistance from Congress and was ultimately not successful.

Presidential Policies

Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act

Arthur deemed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act as one of the most important pieces of legislation during his presidency. Signing it into law demonstrated his commitment to progressive policies and his willingness to challenge the traditional spoils system. The act established the Civil Service Commission, which oversaw appointments based on merit rather than political affiliation.

The Tariff Issue

As mentioned earlier, Arthur’s administration focused on tariff policy to protect American industries. His support for increased tariffs aimed to shield domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. Critics argued that higher tariffs could lead to retaliatory measures and hinder international trade. Nonetheless, Arthur upheld the belief that a robust tariff system was crucial for American economic growth and stability.

The Rivers and Harbors Act

Arthur also promoted infrastructure development during his presidency. In 1882, he signed the Rivers and Harbors Act, which allocated funding for the improvement of riverways and harbor facilities throughout the country. This legislation aimed to enhance transportation and facilitate trade, fostering economic growth and connecting disparate regions.

Civil Rights and Immigration

Support for Civil Rights

Chester A. Arthur demonstrated a commitment to civil rights during his presidency. He supported the enforcement of the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1875, which aimed to protect African Americans from discrimination in public accommodations and jury service. Arthur’s endorsement of this legislation illustrated his belief in equal rights and justice for all citizens.

Chinese Immigration

While Arthur supported civil rights, his stance on immigration, particularly regarding Chinese immigrants, was not entirely consistent with these principles. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as mentioned earlier, reflected a discriminatory policy aimed at limiting Chinese immigration. This legislation marked a setback in Arthur’s legacy regarding equal treatment of all individuals.

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Americanization Policy

During Arthur’s presidency, there was a growing concern about the assimilation of immigrants into American society. In response, the government implemented an Americanization policy that aimed to encourage immigrants to adopt American customs and values. This policy reflected the belief that a unified national identity was crucial for social cohesion and stability.


Arthur faced opposition from a faction within his own party known as the Mugwumps. The Mugwumps were a group of Republicans who disapproved of the spoils system and sought civil service reform. While their discontent did not prevent Arthur from implementing reform measures, it highlighted the divisions within the Republican Party at the time.

Legacy and Historical Impact

Controversies Surrounding His Administration

Arthur’s presidency was not without its share of controversies. Critics labeled him as a corrupt politician due to his previous associations with the New York City political machine known as the Stalwarts. Additionally, his support for higher tariffs and the Chinese Exclusion Act drew criticism from those who believed in free trade and equal treatment of all immigrants.

Historical Assessment

Despite the controversies, historians have reevaluated Arthur’s presidency and recognized his significant contributions. His pursuit of civil service reform and his efforts to tackle economic depression demonstrated a commitment to progressive policies and reform. Arthur’s presidency laid the groundwork for future initiatives aimed at professionalizing the civil service and promoting economic growth.

Evaluation of Achievements

Arthur’s presidency is often overlooked, yet his achievements remain noteworthy. He successfully navigated the challenges of assuming the presidency after Garfield’s assassination and managed to leave a lasting impact on civil service reform and economic policies. Arthur’s presidency was crucial in shaping the role of the federal government and its responsibility in promoting the welfare of the nation.

Last Years and Death


Following the conclusion of his presidency, Chester A. Arthur retired from politics. He returned to New York City and resumed his law practice, but he remained active in various social and civic organizations. Throughout his retirement, Arthur maintained an interest in public affairs and continued to offer guidance and support to political figures.

Health Issues

Arthur’s health began to decline during his retirement years. He was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney condition, which caused him to experience fatigue and other related symptoms. Despite his illness, Arthur managed to remain involved in public life to some extent, attending social events and maintaining connections with his network of friends and associates.

Death and Funeral

On November 18, 1886, Chester Alan Arthur passed away at his residence in New York City. His death was mourned by many who recognized his contributions and leadership during his presidency. Arthur’s funeral was attended by an outpouring of grief and respect, with dignitaries and citizens paying their final respects to the late president.

Memorials and Honors

Arthur Memorial Statue

To commemorate Chester A. Arthur’s legacy, a memorial statue was erected in Madison Square Park in New York City. The bronze statue depicts Arthur in a seated position, reflecting his calm demeanor and dedication to public service. The statue serves as a reminder of the impact he made as a president and a tribute to his enduring contributions to civil service reform.

Chester Alan Arthur State Historic Site

In his hometown of Fairfield, Vermont, the Chester Alan Arthur State Historic Site was established to honor the life and achievements of the 21st president. The site includes his childhood home, providing visitors with a glimpse into his early years and the historical context of his upbringing. It serves as an educational center, preserving the legacy of Chester A. Arthur for future generations.