Arthur was born Oct. 5, 1829, in a parsonage at Fairfield, Vt., the fifth child and first son of seven children. His mother, Malvina Stone Arthur, was the daughter of a farmer who lived in Quebec near the Vermont border. His father was an Irish-born Baptist minister and schoolteacher who had a quick temper and difficulty keeping jobs in Baptist congregations. The family moved frequently among towns in Vermont and northern New York, which prompted some of his political enemies to claim that he had been born further north, in Canada, and wasn't eligible to serve as president.
The family settled in New York's Saratoga County in 1839.
Arthur graduated from Union College - then regarded as one of the finest schools in the East - at Schenectady, New York, in 1848. He was in the top third of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Arthur taught school and studied law after graduating from Union College at Schenectady, New York, in 1848, and he was principal of North Pownal Academy in Bennington, Vermont, when James A. Garfield taught there for one semester. He moved to New York City to study in a law office and was certified as a lawyer in 1854.
He quickly established a reputation as one of the best attorneys in New York, a city that even then had more than its share of them. Involved in several civil-rights cases, Arthur successfully represented Lizzie Jennings, an African-American woman who sued the city of New York for the right to ride on city streetcars. The suit was successful, and the color bar was dropped, at least in public transportation.
Arthur's interest in civil rights led him to get involved in politics. He lent his support to protests over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that would allow those states to decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery when they entered the Union.The Republican Party was formed around that time to oppose expansion of slave territory, and Arthur was active at the convention that established it in New York. He supported the candidacy of John Fremont, the Party's first presidential candidate, in 1856, and he also supported the successful election of Abraham Lincoln four years later.
Arthur left New York for a short time to try his luck with a law practice in Kansas, and shortly after he gave up on it, he began courting Ellen Lewis Herndon, the sister of a friend of his, who came from a wealthy family and shared his taste for high fashion and culture. They were married in 1859, and would have three children, two of whom grew to adulthood.
In 1860, New York governor Edwin D. Morgan appointed Arthur engineer in chief of the state military, which carried the rank of brigadier general. Though the job was an honorary one with no paycheck attached, it did put him in charge of supervising the state's military operations, which made it a very powerful post when the Civil War broke out. He was in charge of recruiting soldiers and making sure that they were fully equipped for battle. By 1863, more than 200,000 New Yorkers had been outfitted for war.
Arthur was relieved from the position in 1863 when a Democrat became governor of New York. He had won and then lost the job because of patronage, and the system came back to help him again a short time later when Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York made a deal with him to build and run a state political machine.
Arthur organized voters and regularly recommended Conkling supporters for government jobs, and little by little, Conkling's machine became powerful enough by 1868 to become a factor in national Republican politics with its support of New York resident and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency.
As expected, Arthur was rewarded generously for delivering votes for Grant. He was named collector of the New York Customs House, a huge operation employing more than 1,000 workers responsible for collecting almost 70 percent of all taxes on imported goods. Everyone on the staff, which included a great many more employees than were actually needed, were Republicans who spent a good portion of their work hours on party causes. As one of the party's most important patronage dispensers, Arthur became a significant leader of a Republican faction called the Stalwarts, who offered full support for all Republican policies and could also deliver thousands and thousands of votes.
The system Arthur established for the Customs House was not illegal at the time. Employees did not directly benefit financially, other than performing little Work for good pay. Part of their wages was donated to the Republican Party—a legal maneuver at the time, but regarded as vaguely corrupt even then.
The patronage system was just one of many scandals that riddled the Grant administration. By the 1876 presidential election, scandal was so widespread that Republicans faced the real possibility of losing control of the presidency after having won the previous four National elections. Their nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes helped head off defeat in the controversial election of 1876 by promising to reform the civil service system.
Shortly after he took office, Hayes started taking action on his promise, first by setting his sites on the high-profile Customs House. Charging that Arthur had used his position inappropriately, Hayes bluntly asked him to quit. But Arthur had a powerful protector in the person of Senator Conkling who promised a Senate challenge to Hayes's action. But the president outsmarted him by Waiting until the Senate adjourned for the summer and then fired Arthur.
Arthur returned to his law practice and managed to restore his reputation, and he was still a major power broker when the next election came around. Hayes had promised to serve only one term, but by 1880 he wasn't popular enough to run for reelection anyway.
The Republican Stalwarts named former president Grant as their candidate, while another wing of the Party, the Half-Breeds, nominated Maine senator James G. Blaine. The Half-Breeds embraced a wider variety of positions on issues than the Stalwarts, and they based their center of power in Washington. A third candidate, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, was backed by the strong Ohio-based Republican Party led by Congressman James A. Garfield. Outgoing president Hayes was also from Ohio.
After thirty-five rounds of balloting at the Republican national convention, no candidate had gathered enough delegates to win the nomination, and Sherman and Blaine decided to drop out of the running in favor of James Garfield, an eight-term congressman who had served as Sherman's campaign manager and was well respected among all the factions. After Garfield won the nomination, the convention chose Arthur, who had never run for any office before, as his running mate to pacify the Stalwarts and to ensure that Republicans could win in eastern states. The ploy worked: Garfield won the election by fewer than ten thousand votes, but he won all of the important eastern states for a sure victory in the Electoral College.
At his inauguration in March 1881, President Garfield announced his intention to make good on his campaign pledge of reforming the civil service system. An earlier attempt at such reform had been started by his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, but it had been stalled in Congress.
Garfield lost support for his efforts when his cabinet selections leaned heavily to Half-Breeds, as did the majority of his other political appointments. He was selecting the men he felt comfortable with, but Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling and his fellow New Yorker Thomas Piatt both resigned from the Senate in protest. As a show of strength, Conkling and Piatt went before the New York State Legislature to have themselves reappointed to their seats—the point of their resignations having been made—and Arthur joined them.
While Arthur and the two ex-senators were in New York, President Garfield was planning a trip to New England, but while he was waiting for a train in a Washington station, he was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a deranged Stalwart supporter who was upset over Garfield's brush-off of his job requests. Reportedly, Guiteau had shouted, "I am a Stalwart and now Arthur is president!" before he shot Garfield.
Arthur hurried back to Washington as the president was taken to the executive mansion to have the bullets removed, but Garfield never did recover. He died on September 19, 1881.
Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as president the following day. Many expected that he would serve as a puppet with the Stalwarts pulling the strings, but they were wrong. He emerged as his own man instead. Meanwhile, the Stalwarts were beginning to lose support after the assassination, because the killer had shouted that he was one of them, giving rise to a major conspiracy theory, and Conkling and Piatt were not reappointed to their Senate seats by the New York legislature. Chet Arthur had done some soul searching while Garfield lay dying, and he was determined to steer his own course.
Arthur had benefited as much as anybody from the spoils system, but he acted quickly to continue the reforms that had been promised by both Hayes and Garfield. He supported the trial against postal workers in the Star Route Fraud case that Garfield's administration had begun prosecuting, and he pushed for civil service reform legislation. The Star Route trial, which involved western postal officials who had conspired with stagecoach companies to steal money collected by the government, didn't produce any convictions, but revealing testimony helped bring about overwhelming public sentiment for cleaning up government corruption, which most people thought had been going on too long.
Arthur pushed for civil service legislation in 1882, but he was ignored by Congress. He tried again the following year, this time with the public solidly behind him. Dorman B. Eaton, president of the grassroots National Civil Service Reform League, drafted legislation that was sponsored by Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act passed Congress, and President Arthur signed it into law in 1883. It established the Civil Service Commission, to oversee federal appointments, administer competitive tests, and ensure that appointees to public jobs do not actively participate in partisan affairs while they hold those jobs. Eaton was named its first chairman.
In doing the right thing, Arthur lost support among some of his fellow Republicans. The Pendleton Act was the most noteworthy accomplishment of his administration, but unfortunately, it created a vacuum of support that stood in the way of his other efforts and ensured that the Republican Party would look elsewhere for a candidate for the 1884 presidential election.
"All personal considerations and political views must be merged in the national sorrow. I am among millions grieving for their wounded chief [President James A. Garfield]."
Arthur had a chubby round face framed by bushy side-whiskers. By the time he became president, the six-footer weighed more than 225 pounds, thanks to his enthusiasm for lavish dinner parties back in New York. He dressed expensively, and his wardrobe was said to have included eighty pairs of trousers. He changed his clothes several times a day to suit the occasion.
Presidential receptions and other social occasions were among the most festive and elegant Washington had seen in years. Arthur had taken a personal chef and a butler along with him when he went to Washington. He was the first president to have a valet, and he hired the famous interior designer Lewis Comfort Tiffany to completely redecorate the executive mansion. He had new plumbing, a new bathroom, and the first elevator installed in a house. Chet Arthur loved to entertain and hated to leave a party. Dinner guests would often stay well past midnight when he was their host.
“"[Arthur's presidency] has unquestionably been more satisfactory than was expected."
—The New York Times
"I am but one of 55 million; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five-millionth of the country's population, it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."