Chester A. Arthur (1829 – 1886) became the 21st president in 1881. His presidency was short, and many historians say it wasn’t very memorable. Still, his presidency was filled with both controversy and accomplishments.
Arthur was the fifth child born to an abolitionist preacher. History states he was born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont. However, it was debated – though never proven – that he had actually been born in Canada, which would have made him ineligible to become president of the United States. He was one of only five presidents who reached the office without being elected.
Although Arthur worked in the law field, he really had no political background. During the Civil War, he served as quartermaster general for the New York state militia. His troubles began when, in 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as the collector of the Port of New York.
He was a good friend of New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, and the two reportedly used their powers to get kickbacks from employees at the port. The money then went to Conkling’s political party funds. It was never proven that Arthur participated in this scheme, but President Rutherford B. Hayes removed him from the appointment in 1880. This action caused a huge rift in the Republican Party, to which both Arthur and Rutherford belonged.
In a surprising move, Arthur was nominated as vice president to run on the ticket with presidential candidate James Garfield. Just six months after Garfield was elected president, he was assassinated and Arthur became president.
Presidential Accomplishments and Iconic Moments
In 1882, Arthur vetoed the first Chinese Exclusion Act. This legislation would have banned Chinese laborers from immigrating into the U.S. for 20 years and would have denied citizenship to current Chinese residents.
In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which, ironically, banned kickbacks in the civil service system.
On May 24, 1883, the president and New York Governor Grover Cleveland attended the opening of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. It took 14 years to construct and for the first time in history, completed a passageway connecting New York and Brooklyn. It was the largest suspension bridge to have ever been built at the time.
A year later, on July 4, 1884, France presented the U.S. with the Statue of Liberty. The ceremony was held in Paris.
On Feb. 21, 1885, the Washington Monument was dedicated, and President Arthur spoke during the event. “I do now … in behalf of the people, receive this monument … and declare it dedicated from this time forth to the immortal name and memory of George Washington.”
Arthur did not run for another term and served only three years as president. In October 1882, he was diagnosed with terminal Bright’s disease and kept that information from the public. He died shortly after his presidential term ended. Alexander K. McClure, a publisher, said “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired … more generally respected.”