The presidency of Chester A. Arthur began on September 19, 1881, when Arthur became the 21st President of the United States upon the assassination and death of President James A. Garfield, and ended on March 4, 1885. He had been Vice President of the United States for only 199 days when he succeeded to the presidency. Arthur was a New York Republican associated with the Stalwart faction of his party. In ill health and lacking the full support of his party by the end of his term, Arthur made only a token effort for the Republican nomination in 1884. He was succeeded in office by Democrat Grover Cleveland.

At the outset of his presidency, Arthur struggled to overcome his reputation as a slick New York machine politician.[1] He succeeded by embracing the cause of civil service reform. His advocacy for, and subsequent enforcement of, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was the centerpiece of his administration. Though patronage remained a powerful force in politics, the Pendleton Act laid the foundations for a professional civil service that would emerge in subsequent decades. Journalist Alexander McClure later wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."[2]

Facing a budget surplus, Arthur signed the Tariff of 1883, which reduced tariffs. He also vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act, an act that would have appropriated federal funds in a manner he thought excessive. He proceeded to rebuild the United States Navy. He was heavily criticized for failing to fully alleviate the federal budget surplus, which had been accumulating since the end of the Civil War. After the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Arthur favored new civil rights legislation to protect African-Americans, but was unable to win passage of a new bill. Facing pressure from Congress, Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which temporarily barred immigration from China. In foreign policy, Arthur pursued closer economic and political relations with Latin America, but many of his proposed trade agreements were defeated in the Senate.

Although his failing health and political temperament combined to make his administration less active than a modern presidency, he earned praise among contemporaries for his solid performance in office. The New York World summed up Arthur's presidency at his death in 1886: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation."[3] Since his death, Arthur's reputation has mostly faded from the public consciousness. Although some have praised his flexibility and willingness to embrace reform, present-day historians and scholars generally rank him as a below-average president.


A group of men, one with his hand raised
Arthur taking the oath of office as administered by Judge John R. Brady at Arthur's home in New York City, September 20, 1881

The 1880 Republican National Convention had dead-locked between supporters of Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine, resulting in the nomination of a dark horse candidate, James A. Garfield.[4] Hoping to win the support of the party's New York Stalwart faction, which was led by Roscoe Conkling, Garfield chose Arthur as his running mate.[5] In the aftermath of the Republican victory in the 1880 presidential election, Garfield and Conkling clashed over appointments and other issues, and Arthur's continued loyalty to Conkling marginalized him within the administration.[6] After the Senate went into recess in May 1881, Arthur returned to his home state of New York.[7] While in Albany on July 2, Arthur learned that Garfield had been shot.[7] The shooter, Charles J. Guiteau, was a deranged office-seeker who believed that Garfield's successor would appoint him to a patronage job. He proclaimed to onlookers: "I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!"[8] Guiteau was found to be mentally unstable, and despite his claims to be a Stalwart supporter of Arthur, they had only a tenuous connection that dated from the 1880 campaign.[9] Nonetheless, Arthur had to allay suspicions that he had been behind the assassination.[10]

As Garfield lingered near death, no one was sure who, if anyone, could exercise presidential authority.[11] Arthur was reluctant to be seen acting as president while Garfield lived, and for the next two months there was a void of authority in the executive office, with Garfield too weak to carry out his duties, and Arthur reluctant to assume them.[12] Many worried about the prospect of an Arthur presidency; the New York Times, which had supported Arthur during his tenure as Collector of the Port of New York, wrote, "Arthur is about the last man who would be considered eligible for the position."[13] Through the summer, Arthur refused to travel to Washington and was at his Lexington Avenue home when, on the night of September 19, he learned that Garfield had died.[12] Judge John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court administered the oath of office in Arthur's home at 2:15 a.m. on September 20. Later that day he took a train to Long Branch to pay his respects to Garfield and to leave a card of sympathy for his wife, afterwards returning to New York City. On the 21st, he returned to Long Branch to take part in Garfield's funeral, and then joined the funeral train to Washington.[14] Before leaving New York, he ensured the presidential line of succession by preparing and mailing to the White House a proclamation calling for a Senate special session. This step ensured that the Senate had legal authority to convene immediately and choose a Senate president pro tempore, who would be able to assume the presidency if Arthur died. Once in Washington he destroyed the mailed proclamation and issued a formal call for a special session.[15]

Arthur arrived in Washington, D.C. on September 21.[16] On September 22 he re-took the oath of office, this time before Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite. Arthur took this step to ensure procedural compliance; there had been a lingering question about whether a state court judge (Brady) could administer a federal oath of office.[17][a] He initially took up residence at the home of Senator John P. Jones, while the White House remodeling he ordered was carried out, including the addition of an elaborate fifty-foot glass screen made by Louis Comfort Tiffany, which would remain in a White House corridor until it was dismantled in 1902.[18] Arthur, a widower, moved into the White House in December 1881, and his sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, served as the de facto First Lady of the United States.[19] Despite the turbulence caused by the assassination and the continued battles over civil service reform, Arthur took office over a growing country (the population had increased from 30 million in 1860 to 50 million in 1880) that maintained budget surplus and peace with the great powers of the day.[20]


The Arthur Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Chester A. Arthur 1881–85
Vice President None 1881–85
Secretary of State James G. Blaine 1881
Frederick T. Frelinghuysen 1881–85
Secretary of Treasury William Windom 1881
Charles J. Folger 1881–84
Walter Q. Gresham 1884
Hugh McCulloch 1884–85
Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln 1881–85
Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh 1881
Benjamin H. Brewster 1881–85
Postmaster General Thomas L. James 1881
Timothy O. Howe 1881–83
Walter Q. Gresham 1883–84
Frank Hatton 1884–85
Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt 1881–82
William E. Chandler 1882–85
Secretary of the Interior Samuel J. Kirkwood 1881–82
Henry M. Teller 1882–85

Arthur quickly came into conflict with Garfield's cabinet, most of whom represented his opposition within the party. But at the same time, he distanced himself from Conkling, and he sought to appoint officials who were well-regarded by both reformers and party loyalists.[21] Arthur asked Garfield's cabinet members to remain until December, when Congress would reconvene, but Treasury Secretary William Windom submitted his resignation in October to enter a Senate race in his home state of Minnesota.[22] Arthur then selected Charles J. Folger, his friend and fellow New York Stalwart, as Windom's replacement.[22][b] Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh was next to resign, believing that, as a reformer, he had no place in an Arthur cabinet.[24] Despite Arthur's personal appeal to remain, MacVeagh resigned in December 1881 and Arthur replaced him with Benjamin H. Brewster, a Philadelphia lawyer and machine politician reputed to have reformist leanings.[24] Secretary of State Blaine, the great nemesis of the Stalwart faction, also resigned in December.[25] Conkling expected Arthur to appoint him in Blaine's place, as he had been Arthur's patron for much of the latter's career. But the President chose Frederick T. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, a Stalwart recommended by ex-President Grant.[25] Frelinghuysen advised Arthur not to fill any future vacancies with Stalwarts, but when Postmaster General James resigned in January 1882, Arthur selected Timothy O. Howe, a Wisconsin Stalwart.[26] Navy Secretary William H. Hunt was next to resign, in April 1882, and Arthur attempted to placate the Half-Breeds by appointing William E. Chandler to the post, on Blaine's recommendation.[26] Finally, when Interior Secretary Samuel J. Kirkwood resigned that same month, Arthur appointed Henry M. Teller, a Colorado Stalwart, to the office.[26] Of the Cabinet members Arthur had inherited from Garfield, only Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln remained for the entirety of Arthur's term.[26]

Judicial appointments

Arthur made appointments to fill two vacancies on the United States Supreme Court. The first vacancy arose in July 1881 with the death of Associate Justice Nathan Clifford, a Democrat who had been a member of the Court since before the Civil War.[27] Arthur nominated Horace Gray, a distinguished jurist from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to replace him, and the nomination was easily confirmed.[27] Gray would remain on the Court until 1902. A second vacancy occurred when Associate Justice Ward Hunt retired in January 1882. Arthur first nominated his old political boss, Roscoe Conkling; he doubted that Conkling would accept, but felt obligated to offer a high office to his former patron.[27] The Senate confirmed the nomination but, as expected, Conkling declined it,[27] the last time a confirmed nominee declined an appointment.[28] Senator George Edmunds was Arthur's next choice, but he declined to be considered.[29] Instead, Arthur nominated Samuel Blatchford, who had been a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for the prior four years.[27] Blatchford accepted, and his nomination was approved by the Senate within two weeks.[27] Blatchford served on the Court until his death in 1893.[30]

In addition to his two Supreme Court appointments, Arthur also appointed four circuit court judges and fourteen district court judges.

Civil service reform

Pendleton Act

Portrait of a man with a tremendous mustache
Ole Peter Hansen Balling's 1881 portrait of Chester A. Arthur

In the early 1880s, American politics operated on the spoils system, a political patronage practice in which victorious candidates rewarded their loyal supporters, family, and friends by installing them in government civil service positions.[31] Movements calling for Civil Service Reform arose in the wake of the corruption in the Grant Administration. In 1880, Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio introduced legislation that required selection of civil servants based on merit as determined by an examination.[32] The measure failed to pass. Garfield's assassination by a deranged office seeker amplified the public demand for reform.[32] Late in 1881, in his first annual address to Congress, Arthur requested civil service reform legislation, and Pendleton again introduced his bill, which again did not pass.[32]

Then, in the 1882 congressional elections, Republicans suffered a crushing defeat. The party lost its majority control in the House of Representatives, as Democrats, campaigning on the reform issue, defeated 40 Republican incumbents and picked up a total of 70 seats.[33] This defeat helped convince many Republicans to support the reform proposal during the 1882 lame-duck session of Congress;[34] the Senate approved the bill 38–5 and the House soon concurred by a vote of 155–47.[35] Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law on January 16, 1883.[35] The bill created a civil service commission to oversee civil service examinations and outlawed the use of "assessments," fees that political appointees were expected to pay to their respective political parties as the price for their appointments.[36] Ironically, these reforms had previously been proposed by the Jay Commission, which had investigated Arthur during his time as Collector of the Port of New York.[34] In just two years' time, an unrepentant Stalwart had become the president who ushered in long-awaited civil service reform.[35]

At first, the act applied only to 10% of federal jobs and, without proper implementation by the president, it could have gone no further.[37] Even after he signed the act into law, its proponents doubted Arthur's commitment to reform.[37] To their surprise, he acted quickly to appoint the members of the Civil Service Commission that the law created, naming reformers Dorman Bridgman Eaton, John Milton Gregory, and Leroy D. Thoman as commissioners.[37] The chief examiner, Silas W. Burt, was a long-time reformer who had been Arthur's opponent when the two men worked at the New York Customs House.[38] The commission issued its first rules in May 1883; by 1884, half of all postal officials and three-quarters of the Customs Service jobs were to be awarded by merit.[38] That year, Arthur expressed satisfaction with the new system, praising its effectiveness "in securing competent and faithful public servants and in protecting the appointing officers of the Government from the pressure of personal importunity and from the labor of examining the claims and pretensions of rival candidates for public employment."[39] Although state patronage systems and numerous federal positions were unaffected by the law, Karabell argues that the Pendleton Act was instrumental in the creation of a professional civil service and the rise of the modern bureaucratic state.[40] The law also caused major changes in campaign finance, and the parties were forced to look for new sources of campaign funds, such as wealthy donors.[41]

Star Route scandal

Reformers feared Arthur, as a former supporter of the spoils system, would not commit to continuing the investigation into the star route scandal.[42] In the 1870s, the scandal had been exposed in which contractors for star postal routes were greatly overpaid for their services with the connivance of government officials (including Second Assistant Postal Secretary Thomas J. Brady and former Senator Stephen Wallace Dorsey).[42] But Arthur's Attorney General, Brewster, did in fact continue the investigations begun by MacVeigh, and hired notable Democratic lawyers William W. Ker and Richard T. Merrick to strengthen the prosecution team and forestall the skeptics.[43] Although Arthur had worked closely with Dorsey before his presidency, once in office he supported the investigation and forced the resignation of officials suspected in the scandal.[43] An 1882 trial of the ringleaders resulted in convictions for two minor conspirators and a hung jury for the rest.[44] After a juror came forward with allegations that the defendants attempted to bribe him, the judge set aside the guilty verdicts and granted a new trial.[44] Before the second trial began, Arthur removed five federal office holders who were sympathetic with the defense, including a former Senator.[45] The second trial began in December 1882 and lasted until July 1883 and, again, did not result in a guilty verdict.[45] Failure to obtain a conviction tarnished the administration's image, but Arthur did succeed in putting a stop to the fraud.[45]

Surplus and the tariff

BEP engraved portrait of Arthur as president
BEP engraved portrait of Arthur as president

With high revenue held over from wartime taxes, the federal government had collected more than it spent since 1866; by 1882 the surplus reached $145 million.[46] Opinions varied on how to balance the budget; the Democrats wished to lower tariffs, in order to reduce revenues and the cost of imported goods, while Republicans believed that high tariffs ensured high wages in manufacturing and mining. They preferred the government spend more on internal improvements and reduce excise taxes.[46] The tariff was one of the most prominent political issues of the day, as manufacturing interests and their allies regarded protective tariffs as essential to the development of domestic manufacturing in the face of European competition, while many other groups preferred lower tariffs, as they generally led to lower prices. The debate was complicated by the fact that each interest preferred higher tariffs for their particular field; many Southerners, for example, preferred low tariffs in general but favored higher tariffs for cotton, a major crop in the South. These competing interests led to the development of a complicated tariff system that levied different rates on different imports.[47]

Arthur agreed with his party, and in 1882 called for the abolition of excise taxes on everything except liquor, as well as a simplification of the complex tariff structure.[48] In May of that year, Representative William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania introduced a bill to establish a tariff commission;[48] the bill passed and Arthur signed it into law but appointed mostly protectionists to the committee. Republicans were pleased with the committee's make-up but were surprised when, in December 1882, they submitted a report to Congress calling for tariff cuts averaging between 20 and 25%. The commission's recommendations were ignored, however, as the House Ways and Means Committee, dominated by protectionists, provided a 10% reduction.[48] After conference with the Senate, the bill that emerged only reduced tariffs by an average of 1.47%. The bill passed both houses narrowly on March 3, 1883, the last full day of the 47th Congress; Arthur signed the measure into law, with no effect on the surplus.[49]

Congress attempted to balance the budget from the other side of the ledger, with increased spending on the 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act in the unprecedented amount of $19 million.[50] While Arthur was not opposed to internal improvements, the scale of the bill disturbed him, as did its narrow focus on "particular localities," rather than projects that benefited a larger part of the nation.[50] On August 1, 1882, Arthur vetoed the bill to widespread popular acclaim;[50] in his veto message, his principal objection was that it appropriated funds for purposes "not for the common defense or general welfare, and which do not promote commerce among the States."[51] Congress overrode his veto the next day[50] and the new law reduced the surplus by $19 million. Republicans considered the law a success at the time, but later concluded that it contributed to their loss of seats in the elections of 1882.[52]

Foreign affairs and immigration

A Chinese man sitting outside a locked gate
A political cartoon from 1882, criticizing Chinese exclusion

During his brief tenure in the Garfield and Arthur administrations, Secretary of State James G. Blaine attempted to invigorate United States diplomacy in Latin America, urging reciprocal trade agreements and offering to mediate disputes among the Latin American nations.[53] Blaine hoped that increased U.S. involvement in the region would counter growing European (particularly British) influence in the Western Hemisphere, and while Blaine left office in December 1881, Secretary of State Frelinghuysen continued to focus on Latin America.[54] Blaine proposed a Pan-American conference in 1882 to discuss trade and an end to the War of the Pacific being fought by Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.[53] However, the conference efforts lapsed after Blaine was replaced by Frelinghuysen.[55] Frelinghuysen also discontinued Blaine's peace efforts in the War of the Pacific, fearing that the United States might be drawn into the conflict.[55] On the other hand, Arthur and Frelinghuysen continued Blaine's efforts to encourage trade among the nations of the Western Hemisphere; a treaty with Mexico providing for reciprocal tariff reductions was signed in 1882 and approved by the Senate in 1884.[56] Legislation required to bring the treaty into force failed in the House, however, rendering it a dead letter.[56] Similar efforts at reciprocal trade treaties with Santo Domingo and Spain's American colonies were defeated by February 1885, and an existing reciprocity treaty with the Kingdom of Hawaii was allowed to lapse.[57] The Frelinghuysen-Zavala Treaty, which would have allowed the United States to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via Nicaragua, was also defeated in the Senate.[58]

The 47th Congress spent a great deal of time on immigration, and at times was in accord with Arthur.[59] In July 1882 Congress easily passed a bill regulating steamships that carried immigrants to the United States.[59] To their surprise, Arthur vetoed it and requested revisions, which they made and Arthur then approved.[59] He also signed in August of that year the Immigration Act of 1882, which levied a 50-cent tax on immigrants to the United States, and excluded from entry the mentally ill, the intellectually disabled, criminals, or any other person potentially dependent upon public assistance.[60]

Chinese immigration was a major political issue in the 1870s and 1880s, and it became a subject of debate in the 47th Congress. When Arthur took office, there were 250,000 Chinese immigrants in the United States, most of whom lived in California and worked as farmers or laborers.[61] In January 1868, the Senate had ratified the Burlingame Treaty with China, allowing an unrestricted flow of Chinese into the country. As the economy soured after the Panic of 1873, Chinese immigrants were blamed for depressing workmen's wages; in reaction Congress in 1879 attempted to abrogate the 1868 treaty by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, but President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it.[62] Three years later, after China had agreed to treaty revisions, Congress tried again to exclude Chinese immigrants; Senator John F. Miller of California introduced another Chinese Exclusion Act that denied Chinese immigrants United States citizenship and banned their immigration for a twenty-year period.[63] Miller's bill passed the Senate and House by overwhelming margins, but Arthur vetoed the bill, as he believed that the twenty-year ban breached the renegotiated treaty of 1880. That treaty allowed only a "reasonable" suspension of immigration. Eastern newspapers praised the veto, while it was condemned in the Western states. Congress was unable to override the veto, but passed a new bill reducing the immigration ban to ten years. Although he still objected to this denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, Arthur acceded to the compromise measure, signing the Chinese Exclusion Act into law on May 6, 1882.[63][c]

Naval reform

Photograph of four warships
The "Squadron of Evolution" at anchor in 1889, after Yorktown had been added: Chicago, Yorktown, Boston, Atlanta

In the years following the Civil War, American naval power declined precipitously, shrinking from nearly 700 vessels to just 52, most of which were obsolete.[64] The nation's military focus over the fifteen years before Garfield and Arthur's election had been on the Indian wars in the West, rather than the high seas, but as the region was increasingly pacified, many in Congress grew concerned at the poor state of the Navy.[65] Garfield's Secretary of the Navy, William H. Hunt, had advocated reform of the Navy and his successor, William E. Chandler, appointed an advisory board to prepare a report on modernization.[66] Based on the suggestions in the report, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of three steel protected cruisers (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and an armed dispatch-steamer (Dolphin), collectively known as the ABCD Ships or the Squadron of Evolution.[67] Congress also approved funds to rebuild four monitors (Puritan, Amphitrite, Monadnock, and Terror), which had lain uncompleted since 1877.[67] Arthur strongly supported these efforts, believing that a strengthened navy would not only increase the country's security but also enhance U.S. prestige.[68] The contracts to build the ABCD ships were all awarded to the low bidder, John Roach & Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania,[69] even though Roach once employed Secretary Chandler as a lobbyist.[69] Democrats turned against the "New Navy" projects and, when they won control of the 48th Congress, refused to appropriate funds for seven more steel warships.[69] Even without the additional ships, the state of the Navy improved when, after several construction delays, the last of the new ships entered service in 1889.[70]

Civil rights and the South

Readjuster Party leader William Mahone pressed civil rights in Virginia.

Like his Republican predecessors, Arthur struggled with the question of how his party was to challenge the Democrats in the South and how, if at all, to protect the civil rights of black southerners.[71] Since the end of Reconstruction, conservative white Democrats (or "Bourbon Democrats") had regained power in the South, and the Republican party dwindled rapidly as their primary supporters in the region, blacks, were disenfranchised.[71] One crack in the solidly Democratic South emerged with the growth of a new party, the Readjusters, in Virginia.[72] Having won an election in that state on a platform of more education funding (for black and white schools alike) and abolition of the poll tax and the whipping post, many northern Republicans saw the Readjusters as a more viable ally in the South than the moribund southern Republican party.[72] Arthur agreed, and directed the federal patronage in Virginia through the Readjusters rather than the Republicans.[72] He followed the same pattern in other Southern states, forging coalitions with independents and Greenback Party members.[72] Some black Republicans felt betrayed by the pragmatic gambit, but others (including Frederick Douglass and ex-Senator Blanche K. Bruce) endorsed the administration's actions, as the Southern independents had more liberal racial policies than the Democrats.[73] Arthur's coalition policy was only successful in Virginia, however, and by 1885 the Readjuster movement began to collapse with the election of a Democratic president.[74]

Other federal action on behalf of blacks was equally ineffective: when the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Arthur expressed his disagreement with the decision in a message to Congress, but was unable to persuade Congress to pass any new legislation in its place.[75] The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had banned discrimination in public accommodations, and its overturning was an important component in the rise of the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination.[76] Arthur did, however, effectively intervene to overturn a court-martial ruling against a black West Point cadet, Johnson Whittaker, after the Judge Advocate General of the Army, David G. Swaim, found the prosecution's case against Whittaker to be illegal and based on racism.[77]

The administration faced a different challenge in the West, where the LDS Church was under government pressure to stop the practice of polygamy in Utah Territory.[78] Garfield had believed polygamy was criminal behavior and was morally detrimental to family values, and Arthur's views were, for once, in line with his predecessor's.[78] In 1882, he signed the Edmunds Act into law; the legislation made polygamy a federal crime, barring polygamists both from public office and the right to vote.[78]

Native American policy

The Arthur administration was challenged by changing relations with western Native American tribes.[79] The American Indian Wars were winding down, and public sentiment was shifting toward more favorable treatment of Native Americans. Arthur urged Congress to increase funding for Native American education, which it did in 1884, although not to the extent he wished.[80] He also favored a move to the allotment system, under which individual Native Americans, rather than tribes, would own land. Arthur was unable to convince Congress to adopt the idea during his administration but, in 1887, the Dawes Act changed the law to favor such a system.[80] The allotment system was favored by liberal reformers at the time, but eventually proved detrimental to Native Americans as most of their land was resold at low prices to white speculators.[81] During Arthur's presidency, settlers and cattle ranchers continued to encroach on Native American territory.[82] Arthur initially resisted their efforts, but after Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller, an opponent of allotment, assured him that the lands were not protected, Arthur opened up the Crow Creek Reservation in the Dakota Territory to settlers by executive order in 1885.[82] Arthur's successor, Grover Cleveland, finding that title belonged to the Native Americans, revoked the order a few months later.[82]

Health, travel, and 1884 election

A group of men seated in a forest
Arthur on an expedition in Yellowstone National Park along with Philip Sheridan and Robert Todd Lincoln

Declining health

Shortly after becoming president, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney ailment now referred to as nephritis.[83] He attempted to keep his condition private, but by 1883 rumors of his illness began to circulate; he had become thinner and more aged in appearance, and struggled to keep the pace of the presidency.[83] To rejuvenate his health outside the confines of Washington, Arthur and some political friends traveled to Florida in April 1883.[84] The vacation had the opposite effect, and Arthur suffered from intense pain before returning to Washington.[84] Shortly after returning from Florida, Arthur visited his home town of New York City, where he presided over the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.[85] In July, on the advice of Missouri Senator George Graham Vest, he visited Yellowstone National Park.[86] Reporters accompanied the presidential party, helping to publicize the new National Park system.[86] The Yellowstone trip was more beneficial to Arthur's health than his Florida excursion, and he returned to Washington refreshed after two months of travel.[87]

1884 election

As the election approached, Arthur came to realize that, like Hayes in 1880, he was unlikely to win renomination in 1884.[88] In the months leading up to the 1884 Republican National Convention, James G. Blaine emerged as the favorite for the nomination, though Arthur had not totally given up on his hopes for another term.[89] It quickly became clear to Arthur, however, that neither of the major party factions was prepared to give him their full support: the Half-Breeds were again solidly behind Blaine, while Stalwarts were undecided. Some Stalwarts backed Arthur, but others supported Senator John A. Logan of Illinois.[89] Reform-minded Republicans, friendlier to Arthur after he endorsed civil service reform, were still not certain enough of his reform credentials to back him over Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont, who had long favored their cause.[89] Business leaders supported him, as did Southern Republicans who owed their jobs to his control of the patronage, but by the time they began to rally around him, Arthur had decided against a serious campaign for the nomination.[90] He kept up a token effort, believing that to drop out would cast doubt on his actions in office and raise questions about his health, but by the time the convention began in June, his defeat was assured.[90] Blaine led on the first ballot, and by the fourth ballot he had a majority.[91] Arthur telegraphed his congratulations to Blaine and accepted his defeat with equanimity.[91] Arthur is the most recent individual to accede to the presidency after the death of a predecessor but be denied his party's nomination to a full term.[92][d]

Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated Republican James G. Blaine in the 1884 election

Arthur played no role in the 1884 campaign, which Blaine would later blame for his loss that November to the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland.[93] Blaine's campaign was damaged by the defection of the Mugwumps, a group of Republicans who believed that the Pendleton Act had not sufficiently diminished public corruption.[94] Blaine made a critical error in the swing state of New York when he failed to distance himself from an attack on Catholicism. Cleveland swept the Solid South and won enough Northern states to take a majority of the electoral vote. A change of just 1,000 votes in New York would have given Blaine the presidency.[95] Cleveland's victory made him the first Democrat to win a presidential election since the Civil War.[96]

Historical reputation

Historical 21-cent stamp with Arthur's profile.
Arthur appears on the 21-cent U.S. Postage stamp of the 1938 Presidential Series.

Arthur's tepid popularity in life carried over into his assessment by historians, and his reputation after leaving office disappeared.[97] By 1935, historian George F. Howe said that Arthur had achieved "an obscurity in strange contrast to his significant part in American history."[98] By 1975, however, Thomas C. Reeves would write that Arthur's "appointments, if unspectacular, were unusually sound; the corruption and scandal that dominated business and politics of the period did not tarnish his administration."[2] As 2004 biographer Zachary Karabell wrote, although Arthur was "physically stretched and emotionally strained, he strove to do what was right for the country."[97] Indeed, Howe had earlier surmised, "Arthur adopted [a code] for his own political behavior but subject to three restraints: he remained to everyone a man of his word; he kept scrupulously free from corrupt graft; he maintained a personal dignity, affable and genial though he might be. These restraints ... distinguished him sharply from the stereotype politician."[99] In his final assessment of Arthur, Karabell argues that Arthur lacked the vision or force of character to achieve greatness, but that he deserves credit for presiding over a period of peace and prosperity.[100]

A 2017 C-SPAN survey has Chester Arthur ranked among the bottom third of presidents of all-time, right below Martin Van Buren and above Herbert Hoover. The survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents (including then-out-going president Barack Obama) in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking. Arthur was ranked 35th among all former presidents (down from 32nd in 2009 and 2000). His rankings in the various categories of this most recent poll were as follows: public persuasion (37), crisis leadership (32), economic management (31), moral authority (35), international relations (35), administrative skills (28), relations with congress (29), vision/setting an agenda (34), pursued equal justice for all (27), performance with context of times (32).[101]


  1. ^ One presidential oath was administered by a state court judge, also in New York City by a New York State judge: Robert Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the first presidential oath to George Washington at Federal Hall in 1789 (there were yet no federal judges). The only other presidential oath administered by someone other than a Federal justice or judge, the first swearing in of Calvin Coolidge in 1923 (by his father John Calvin Coolidge, Sr., a notary public, in the family home), was also re-taken in Washington due to questions about the validity of the first oath.
  2. ^ Arthur first offered the post to Edwin D. Morgan, who had been his patron in New York; Morgan was confirmed by the Senate, but declined on the grounds of age. He died in 1883.[23]
  3. ^ The portion of the law denying citizenship to Chinese-Americans was later found unconstitutional in United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898. Chinese immigration would be banned until the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1942.
  4. ^ Arthur is also most recent sitting president to serve for one full term or less and be denied his party's nomination.[92] More recent sitting presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, have unsuccessfully sought their party's nomination after serving for more than one full term.


  1. ^ "Chester A. Arthur: Impact and Legacy". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved April 23, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b Reeves 1975, p. 420.
  3. ^ Reeves 1975, p. 423.
  4. ^ Karabell, pp. 39–40.
  5. ^ Reeves 1975, pp. 178–181.
  6. ^ Reeves 1975, pp. 213–216; Karabell, pp. 52–53.
  7. ^ a b Reeves 1975, pp. 233–237; Howe, pp. 147–149.
  8. ^ Karabell, p. 59; Reeves 1975, p. 237.
  9. ^ Reeves 1975, pp. 238–241; Doenecke, pp. 53–54.
  10. ^ Karabell, pp. 61–62.
  11. ^ Reeves 1975, pp. 241–243; Howe, pp. 152–154.
  12. ^ a b Reeves 1975, pp. 244–248; Karabell, pp. 61–63.
  13. ^ Karabell, pp. 62–63.
  14. ^ McCabe, James D. (1881). Our Martyred President ... : The Life and Public Services of Gen. James A. Garfield. National Publishing Company. p. 764. 
  15. ^ Reeves 1975, pp. 247–248.
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Further reading



  • Bastert, Russell H. (March 1956). "Diplomatic Reversal: Frelinghuysen's Opposition to Blaine's Pan-American Policy in 1882". The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 42 (4): 653–671. doi:10.2307/1889232. JSTOR 1889232. 
  • "Chester A. Arthur". New York City Statues. Archived from the original on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2012-10-18. 
  • Hutchinson, C.P. (April 1947). "The Present Status of Our Immigration Laws and Policies". The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. 25 (2): 161–173. doi:10.2307/3348178. JSTOR 3348178. 
  • Marszalek, John F., Jr. (August 1971). "A Black Cadet At West Point". American Heritage. 22 (5). 
  • "Monuments At Albany" (PDF). New York Times. January 7, 1894. 
  • Reeves, Thomas C. (Summer 1972). "The Search for the Chester Alan Arthur Papers". The Wisconsin Magazine of History. 55 (4): 310–319. JSTOR 4634741. 
  • Reeves, Thomas C. (Autumn 1970). "The Mystery of Chester Alan Arthur's Birthplace". Vermont History. 38 (4): 300. 
  • Stuart, Paul (September 1977). "United States Indian Policy: From the Dawes Act to the American Indian Policy Review Commission". Social Service Review. 51 (3): 451–463. doi:10.1086/643524. JSTOR 30015511. 
  • Theriault, Sean M. (February 2003). "Patronage, the Pendleton Act, and the Power of the People". The Journal of Politics. 65 (1): 50–68. doi:10.1111/1468-2508.t01-1-00003. JSTOR 3449855. 

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