Chester A. Arthur (1881 – 1885): The 21st Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Chester Arthur was removed in disgrace as Chief Collector of the NY Custom House in 1878. Three years later he would become President. Only in America.
Slavery and Civil Rights
Todd Arrington notes how Arthur’s father, William, was a Free Will Baptist minister and an outspoken abolitionist, and the son absorbed his father’s hatred of slavery. As a young New York City attorney, Chester Arthur participated in two important civil rights cases, both times arguing for the rights of African Americans. Arthur was on the right side of history and the racial equality argument that dominated the nineteenth century and led to the Civil War.
Arthur continued to argue for the civil rights of black Americans during his presidency, signed the Edmunds Act of 1882 outlawing polygamy, and proceeded with Garfield’s plans to expand and modernize the U.S. Navy. But he was not always on the right side of history: he also approved the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. Building on the earlier Page Act of 1875 which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first, and remains the only law to have been implemented, to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.
The act followed the Angell Treaty of 1880, a set of revisions to the U.S.–China Burlingame Treaty of 1868 that allowed the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration. The act was initially intended to last for 10 years, but was renewed and strengthened in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902. These laws attempted to stop all Chinese immigration into the United States for ten years, with exceptions for diplomats, teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. The laws were widely evaded.
Exclusion was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, which allowed 105 Chinese to enter per year. Chinese immigration later increased with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which abolished direct racial barriers, and later by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula.
New York, New York
While Arthur was a native of Vermont, he was every bit a New Yorker. He was fashionable, loved food and drink, and “was about that Gilded Age life.” With sideburns as a distinguishing feature, he celebrated his VP nomination with a shopping spree.
In fact, the move to the White House was a social demotion for Arthur. He got a young designer named Tiffany to redecorate the White House for he refused to live in it as was when he moved in.
President Chester Arthur was the product of a corrupt New York political machine. He had to convince the nation he wasn’t just a hack, so he became a reformer even separating from Conkling and the Stalwarts. His argument is that a representative of the old system is someone who is in the best position to change it. When he signed the Pendleton Act (1883), it was remarked by his former friends and cronies that he was no longer Chet Arthur but President.
Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
Established in 1883, it decided that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation. The act provided selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than ties to politicians or political affiliation. It also made it illegal to fire or demote government officials for political reasons and prohibited soliciting campaign donations on Federal government property.
To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission (dissolved as part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978). This board would be in charge of determining the rules and regulations of the act. The Act also allowed for the president, by executive order to decide which positions could be subject to the act and which would not. A crucial result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls.
Arthur Upgrades The Navy
Arthur severely upgraded the Navy, building a modern fleet of sleek ships with rifled gun turrets. We couldn’t effectively fight the Spanish-American War in 1898 without Arthur’s naval foundation in 1882 and 1883.
Chester A. Arthur
Arthur ascended to the presidency via assassination. He never got the opportunity to win his own nomination as he was denied his party’s nomination in 1884 and died two years later from a kidney ailment he battled throughout the Presidency.
Arthur was a competent president during a time when all Americans wanted out of the President was competent. There is no doubt that Arthur was a party apparatchik whose political rise was benefitted by being rich, having the right friends, and going to and hosting the right parties in New York City. He is an example of a crony who became a reformer much like what Donald Trump is purporting to do today.
We are now 20 years post Civil War, and the Presidency has been tested as the public bitched about scandal, assassination and impeachment. Arthur marks how irrelevant the presidency had become as much of the power of the executive had been ceded to Congress.
- Angell Treaty of 1880. (n.d.). Immigration to the United States. https://immigrationtounitedstates.org/343-angell-treaty-of-1880.html
- Burlingame treaty, 1868. (2019, January 14). IDCA. https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/immigration-regulation-response-and/burlingame-treaty
- (n.d.). Chinese American Heroes|. https://www.chineseamericanheroes.org/history/May%205%201892%20Geary%20Act%20v4.pdf
- Chishti, M., & Faye Hipsman Muzaffar Chishti, Faye Hipsman, Isabel Ball. (2017, March 2). Fifty years on, the 1965 immigration and nationality act continues to reshape the United States. migrationpolicy.org. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/fifty-years-1965-immigration-and-nationality-act-continues-reshape-united-states
- HistoryLink.org. (n.d.). The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History – HistoryLink.org. https://historylink.org/File/8993
- Immigration Act of 1952. (n.d.). Densho Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Immigration_Act_of_1952/
- Louis comfort Tiffany’s work on the White House during Chester Arthur’s administration, by Sarah E. Mitchell. (n.d.). Vintage Designs. https://vintagedesigns.com/fam/wh/tiff/index.htm
- Page law (1875). (2019, July 18). Immigration History. https://immigrationhistory.org/item/page-act/
- Pendleton act inaugurates U.S. civil service system, Jan. 16, 1883. (2018, January 16). POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/16/pendleton-act-inaugurates-us-civil-service-system-jan-16-1883-340488
- Pike, J. (2011, July 7). Ship building 1881-85 – Arthur, Chester. GlobalSecurity.org. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/scn-1881-arthur.htm
- President Chester A. Arthur. (2016, October 5). We’re History. https://werehistory.org/arthur/
- Stars aligned for civil service reform in 1978; will they again in 2018? (2018, October 9). Federal News Network. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/workforce/2018/08/stars-aligned-for-civil-service-reform-in-1978-will-they-again-in-2018/
- United States civil service commission | Author | FRASER | St. Louis fed. (n.d.). FRASER | Discover Economic History | St. Louis Fed. https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/author/united-states-civil-service-commission
Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889) would follow Chester A. Arthur
James A. Garfield (1881) preceded Chester A. Arthur
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.