Chester A. Arthur (1829-86)

Figure 1.--.

Chester A. Arthur was the 21st president. He was a Republican machine politician, who fervently believed in the spoils system. He became president after the assaination of President Garfield and proceeded to champion civil service reform. Handsome, dignified, and genial, Arthur was a conscientious administrator, but never an inspiring leader of men. He was probably one of the unhappiest presidents, both because of his wife's death and his own debilitating disease. He was the last Republican champion of Civil Rights for blacks.


Chester Arthur's father was the Reverend William Arthur (1796-1875). His father emigrated from northern Ireland at the age of 18 and, after teaching in Vermont and Canada, became a Baptist minister. Elder Arthur, an eloquent preacher and moved constantly from one town to another. He was a difficult, outspoken man and an ardent abolistionist. As a result he soon aliennated his congregatins. He brought his family he finally settled down at Union Village (now Greenwich), in eastern New York during 1839

His mother was Malvina Stone Arthur (1802-1869), a descendant of English settlers in New Hampshire.

The Arthurs had four daughters when Chester was born. When the family was complete, Chester had a brother and another sister. He was close to his brother William, both of whom left their parent's church. One sister helped to bring up his daughter Nell afterher mother's death.


Chester was born in Fairfield, Vermont, in 1829. He was the fifth of eight surviving children. As the middle son of a Baptist preacher, he presumably had a strict upbringing. He may have objected to his father's strict regime because as an adult he left the Baptist church. Also because his father consistentl alienated his partionioners and had to move constantly, the unsettled conditions of moving a year or so may have also had an impact on young Chet Arthur. Presumably if Chester's father was hard on his partioners, it must been a very stric regime for the Arthur children. Given the fact that his father was constantly losing his parish and moving on, money was always tight in the Arthur household.


Chester was tutored by his father who spoke Latin Greek, and Hebrew. Chester attended the academy at Union Village (now Greenwich). He is remembered by his teacher as being "frank and open in manners and genial."

Elder Arthur moved to Schenectady in 1844. There Chester was admitted to Union College as a sophomore when he was only 15, because his father had already taught him Latin and Greek. His father, however, could give him no financial help; so the next year Chester began to teach during the long winter vacations. After graduation at 18, near the top of his class, he continued to teach while studying law.

He was graduated from Union College in 1848. He entered just before he turned 16. He was an excellent student, although he did skip prayers and classes occasionally. He studied the classics.


After graduating in 1848, he studied law at home and earned his living as a teacher at North Pownal, Vt. He was reportedly quite a popular teacher. He then became the principal of the academy at Cohoes, N.Y. in 1852. He received his final training in New York City at the law office of Culver and Parker. Admitted to the bar in 1854, he formed his own law firm in 1856. He argued a case which helped ton desegregate NewvYork street cars and railroads, representing the Rosa Parks of his day.

Early in the Civil War he served as Quartermaster General of the State of New York. His family life was disrupted because his wife was a Confederate simpithiser and many of her family served in the Confederate Army.

An antislavery Whig, Arthur joined the Republican party at its birth. He rose in the part after the Civil War. President Grant in 1871 appointed Arthur Collector of the Port of New York. Arthur effectively marshalled the thousand Customs House employees under his supervision on behalf of Roscoe Conkling's Stalwart Republican machine. Honorable in his personal life and his public career, Arthur nevertheless was a firm believer in the spoils system when it was coming under vehement attack from reformers. He insisted upon honest administration of the Customs House, but staffed it with more employees than it needed, retaining them for their merit as party workers rather than as Government officials.

President Hayes in 1878 , attempting to reform the Customs House, ousted Arthur. Conkling and his followers tried to win redress by fighting for the renomination of Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention. Failing, they reluctantly accepted the nomination of Arthur for the Vice Presidency. During his brief tenure as Vice President, Arthur stood firmly beside Conkling in his patronage struggle against President Garfield. But when Arthur succeeded to the Presidency, he was eager to prove himself above machine politics.


Dignified, tall, and handsome, with clean-shaven chin and side-whiskers, Chester A. Arthur "looked like a President." Never had a president assumed office with such a limited background. All previous presidents had gained the office through extebnsive political or glorious military careers. Arthur had neither and in fact had never before won elected office. His political background was Customs chief for the port of New York, appointed by President Grant. while sounding like a small post today, it was in fact a major appointment at the time. There was no income tax. The Federal Government was financed primarily through Customs duties and New York was America's principal port. As Customs chief, his primary job was to siphon off as much money as possible to support the Republican Party in New York--dominated by Arthur's mentor, Senator ??? Conklin.

Avoiding old political friends, he became a man of fashion in his garb and associates, and often was seen with the elite of Washington, New York, and Newport. To the indignation of the Stalwart Republicans, the onetime Collector of the Port of New York became, as President, a champion of civil service reform. Public pressure, heightened by the assassination of Garfield, forced an unwieldy Congress to heed the President.

Congress in 1883 passed the Pendleton Act, which established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, forbade levying political assessments against officeholders, and provided for a "classified system" that made certain Government positions obtainable only through competitive written examinations. The system protected employees against removal for political reasons.

Acting independently of party dogma, Arthur also tried to lower tariff rates so the Government would not be embarrassed by annual surpluses of revenue. Congress raised about as many rates as it trimmed, but Arthur signed the Tariff Act of 1883. Aggrieved Westerners and Southerners looked to the Democratic Party for redress, and the tariff began to emerge as a major political issue between the two parties.

The Arthur Administration enacted the first general Federal immigration law. Arthur approved a measure in 1882 excluding paupers, criminals, and lunatics. Congress suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years, later making the restriction permanent.

Few governments in history had ever complained of too much money in the treasury. Throughout the 1880s, however, each year the United States government had a large surplus over ordinary expenditures. At this time government funds were stored in vaults rather than in banks. With each increase in the treasury surplus, more money was taken out of circulation, which resulted in a deflation of prices. Moreover this was happening in a period of rapid economic expansion. The most pressing problem of the administration therefore was how to return money to circulation.

The foundation of the modern Navy was layed during the Athur Admibistration when orders were made for the ABCD ships, begining the conversion from sails. This process was continued in the Cleveland administration who has received most of the credit.

Arthur demonstrated as President that he was above factions the Republican Party, if indeed not above the party itself. Perhaps in part his reason was the well-kept secret he had known since a year after he succeeded to the Presidency, that he was suffering from a fatal kidney disease--Bright's desease.

Arthur was probably one of the unhappiest of presidents. He was in fact neither happy nor healthy during his term of office. He was seen weaping upon replacing President Garfield. He grieved over the death in 1880 of his wife and suffered the debilitating effects of Bright's disease, particularly after 1882. As part of his effort to hide his condition from the public, he did did nothing to stop those striving to nominate him in 1884. Their efforts failed, however, partly because he lacked charisma and partly because he was too much of a spoils politician to win reform support, yet too sound an administrator to suit party regulars. His terminal illness, however, was a major reason that he was not renominated by his party for the 1884 election. He died in 1886. Publisher Alexander K. McClure recalled, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected."


Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur (1837-1880)

Chester Alan Arthur's beloved "Nell" died of pneumonia on January 12, 1880. That November, when he was elected Vice President, he was still mourning her bitterly. In his own words: "Honors to me now are not what they once were." His grief was the more poignant because she was only 42 and her death sudden. Just two days earlier she had attended a benefit concert in New York City--while he was busy with politics in Albany--and she caught cold that night while waiting for her carriage. She was already unconscious when he reached her side.

Her family connections among distinguished Virginians had shaped her life. She was born at Culpeper Court House, only child of Elizabeth Hansbrough and William Lewis Herndon, U.S.N. They moved to Washington, D.C., when he was assigned to help his brother-in-law Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury establish the Naval Observatory. While Ellen was still just a girl her beautiful contralto voice attracted attention; she joined the choir at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square.

Then her father assumed command of a mail steamer operating from New York; and in 1856 a cousin introduced her to "Chet" Arthur, who was establishing a law practice in the city. By 1857 they were engaged. In a birthday letter that year he reminded her of "the soft, moonlight nights of June, a year ago...happy, happy days at Saratoga--the golden, fleeting hours at Lake George." He wished he could hear her singing.

That same year her father died a hero's death at sea, going down with his ship in a gale off Cape Hatteras. The marriage did not take place until October 1859; and a son named for Commander Herndon died when only two. But another boy was born in 1864 and a girl, named for her mother, in 1871. Arthur's career brought the family an increasing prosperity; they decorated their home in the latest fashion and entertained prominent friends with elegance. At Christmas there were jewels from Tiffany for Nell, the finest toys for the children.

Nell died of pneumonia just 10 months before her husband became Vice President. At the White House, Arthur would not give anyone the place that would have been his wife's. He asked his sister Mary (Mrs. John E. McElroy) to assume certain social duties and help care for his daughter. He presented a stained-glass window to St. John's Church in his wife's memory; it depicted angels of the Resurrection, and at his special request it was placed in the south transept so that he could see it at night from the White House with the lights of the church shining through.


The Athurs had three children, two sons and one daughter. One son died in infancy.

William Lewis (1860-63)

Arthur's first son, born in 1860, died at 2 years of age from convulsions. His parents grieved terribly at William's death.

Chester Alan Arthur, Jr. (1864-1937)

Another son, born in 1864, was given his father's name but was called Alan. He was by all accounts a playboy. Like many presidential sons, he used the family name to open doors. He married twice and had one child. He traveled extensively in Europe and enjoyed mixing with high society.

Ellen 'Nell' Herndon (1871-1915)

A daughter, born in 1871, was named for her mother, Ellen Herndon Arthur. he was 9 years old when her father became president. He insisted on protecting her and demanded that the press not bother her. He was adament on the subject and the press complied. She married Charles Pinkerton and lived in upstate New York. She died fairly young from complocations resulting from surgery.

Children's Clothes

Chester Arthur was interested in fashionable clothes, at the time he was viewed as a dandy . He was one of the most elegant and best-dressed presidents. President Arthur was considered a stylish dresser in his day and loved fashionable clothes. His clothes were made to order by a New York tailor, and he had a personal valet to help groom him. He reportedly had 80 suits in his closets. He was nicknamed "The Gentleman Boss," enjoyed parties, and had an epicure's taste in food and drink.

I have no information yet, however, on the children's clothes.


Doenecke, Justus D., The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (Univ. Press of Kans. 1981)

Howe, George F., Chester A. Arthur (1934; reprint, Ungar 1957)

Lorant, Stefan. The Presidency: A Pictorial History of Presidential Elections from Washington to Truman.

Reeves, Thomas C., Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur (1975; reprint, Amer Political 1991).

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: July 30, 1999
Last changed: March 27, 2003