Who is Chester Arthur?

Mary Elizabeth

Chester Arthur was a lawyer and teacher, an abolitionist, a party boss known for taking kickbacks, vice president under President James Garfield, and became the 21st American President upon Garfield’s assassination. In 1884, Arthur was defeated for the Republican nomination by James G. Blaine, who had been Secretary of State under Garfield, and again under Benjamin Harrison.

After U.S. president James Garfield was assassinated, his vice president, Chester Arthur, became the 21st U.S. president.
After U.S. president James Garfield was assassinated, his vice president, Chester Arthur, became the 21st U.S. president.

Chester Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829, the son of a Baptist minister. He attended Union College in New York and became a lawyer, working for a prominent New York firm. He joined the Republican Party in 1850, and in 1855, he won a landmark discrimination suit on behalf of an African American woman who was forced off a streetcar.

Chester Arthur made decorative improvements to the White House during his time in office.
Chester Arthur made decorative improvements to the White House during his time in office.

After serving as quartermaster general in New York during the Civil War, Chester Arthur became part of the Republican political machine of the time. In his role as customs collector for the port at New York City, an appointment he received in 1871, Arthur became involved in supporting the patronage system, and ended up being suspended by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878.

It was patronage that led to his nomination to the vice presidency on the ballot of 1880, with James A. Garfield as the presidential nominee, but many consider Chester Arthur unqualified for the post. When Garfield was assassinated and Arthur became succeeded him in September of 1881, many were concerned about his ability to carry out the office of the presidency. So for many, his performance was a pleasant surprise. Notable achievements of his administration include:

• Supporting the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which reformed the civil service (1883)
• Recommending appropriations to build up the US Navy • Vetoing the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 • Supporting tariff reduction • Pursuing prosecution in the Star Route trials

After vetoing a law that prohibited Chinese immigration for 20 years and violated a treaty with China, Chester Arthur went on to support the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which imposed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration and prohibited citizenship for Chinese immigrants. He also made noted improvements to the decoration of the White House, where his sister served as his hostess, since his wife had died just after the election.

Aware that he was afflicted with a kidney disease that, in that day and age, was fatal, Chester Arthur did not work for renomination. He died of Bright’s disease in 1885.

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Discussion Comments


I can't believe that Chester Arthur only died at the age of 57. He doesn't usually pop up in lists of the best US Presidents. But I think he was a fine President and served the country well. I'm sure he would have had many more successes as a politician if he had lived longer. I think he had a difficult time since it was never expected that he would be president and since he didn't have the best of reputations. I'm sure that made him work harder to prove himself and he definitely did. I'm no US political history buff but I consider him one of the better US presidents for sure.


@fBoyle-- In order to understand, we have to go some years back to the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China which essentially allowed any number of Chinese immigrants into the US. But when this treaty was signed, US policymakers hadn't predicted that the economy would slow down. But it did and Chinese immigrants were largely seen as responsible. So several different acts were proposed by Congress at the time to limit or stop the inflow of Chinese immigrants.

The initial proposition was to exclude Chinese immigrants for 20 years. President Chester Arthur opposed this. He knew that this would be against the treaty made with China. But Congressman kept pushing with another act where the exclusion would be for 10 years instead. President Arthur was actually against this idea as well but I think he was aware that if he didn't approve, exclusion acts would continue to be proposed. And on some level, I'm sure that he didn't want to see the economy worsen. I think it's undeniable that the large surge of immigrants did have a role in the condition of the economy.


I don't understand why after vetoing the prohibition of Chinese immigration, President then allowed the Chinese Exclusion Act to be passed. That seems contradictory? Why veto it in the first place or why support it later?

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