Chester Arthur – Vermont’s Unexpected Reformer

The American public had low expectations of Chester Arthur when he became the 21st president of the United States, but he surprised everybody. Born in Fairfield, Vt., Arthur became a New York City lawyer enmeshed in the corrupt Republican political machine. He was viewed as a puppet of political Chester Arthurboss Roscoe Conkling, who headed the Stalwart wing of the GOP. Stalwarts openly supported machine politics and patronage. Arthur had plenty of patronage to dole out when he was appointed collector of the Port of New York. In 1880, Arthur was nominated vice president under James A. Garfield though he had never been elected to public office. Six months after Garfield was elected, Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back, shouting “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Arthur is president now!” Arthur was mortified and knew people thought he had something to do with the shooting. He hid out in his Lexington Avenue home in New York City for two months and 18 days while Garfield lingered near death. When Garfield finally died, Arthur was inaugurated privately at home. He then overcome his dirty reputation by advocating civil service reform – and enforcing it. By the end of his term in 1885 he was in ill health and didn’t actively pursue renomination. He died shortly after leaving office. Mark Twain praised him, saying, “”[I]t would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.” This satirical cartoon from Puck magazine shows Arthur pondering what to do with Roscoe Conkling, his white elephant.

To Top