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Chester A. Arthur Monument, New York City
Chester Arthur (born October 5, 1829) was the son of northern Irish Baptist immigrant Reverend William Arthur and Malvina Stone. He was born in Fairfield, Vermont and graduated from Union College in 1848. Arthur studied law and became principal of a Vermont academy. In 1853, and after passing the bar, Arthur moved to New York City and opened a law firm. An opponent of slavery, Arthur joined the newly-formed Republican Party in the mid-1850s. Arthur also represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham when she sued a New York City streetcar company in 1854 for denying her a seat owing to her race. Arthur won the case and with the support of Frederick Douglass and other black leaders who publicized the case, Graham's victory set an important precedent that Northern passenger rail lines generally followed both before and after the Civil War.
Although Arthur's wife Nell was a Southerner with family members in the Confederate Army, Chester Arthur was a fervent supporter of the Union. During the Civil War, Arthur was appointed inspector general and quartermaster. President Grant later appointed Arthur as Customs Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. During these years, Arthur's reputation suffered and he was charged with corruption for over-staffing the Customs House with party workers on behalf of the political machine led by Roscoe Conklin. President Hayes removed Arthur from office in 1878. However, the Republicans nominated Arthur for Vice President under James A. Garfield in 1880.
Garfield was assassinated in 1881, and Arthur became President--much to the surprise of many in his own party who felt that he was unfit for office. Arthur became the first to take the oath of office in New York City since George Washington. Contrary to the reputation for corruption he earned while Customs Collector, as President, Arthur earned a reputation as a reformer and opposed several pieces of legislation because they included funds for projects he deemed to be more motivated by political reasons than the public good. Arthur reformed the civil service with the Pendleton Act of 1883, which protected employees of the Government from removal for political reasons. He also enacted the first federal immigration law, and vetoed a law against Chinese immigrants.
This change in orientation and series of principled stands are attributed to Arthur's desire to redeem his reputation. The 1958 discovery of a series of letters from Julia Sand, a bedridden admirer who encouraged Arthur when few others supported him, also provides insight into the President's actions. Arthur ordered the destruction of most of his personal letters, but he kept 23 letters from Julia Sand. In these letters, Sand challenges many of Arthur's actions and draws attention to the fact that many believed that he might have been complicit in the assassination of Garfield. Unlike these detractors, Sand writes that she believes in Arthur and asks him to enact reform measures and stand against those who opposed the civil rights of minorities. Arthur was so impressed by Julia Sand's letters that he paid a visit to her home and met with the young woman and her brother who cared for his disabled sister.
Arthur might have also been motivated by a sense of his own mortality. Since 1882, President Arthur had known that he was suffering from a fatal kidney disease. He chose to remain in the running for Presidential nomination nonetheless. He was not renominated by the Party and died in 1886, only a year after the end of his term in office. Publisher Alexander K. McClure wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired...more generally respected," .
SourcesScott S. Greenberger, The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. Cambridge, Da Capo Pres, 2017.
"Chester Alan Arthur." NYC Parks. Accessed Web, 5/26/17. https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/madison-square-park/monuments/55.
"Chester A. Arthur." The White House. Accessed Web, 5/26/17. https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/chesterarthur.
New York, NY 10010
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