Chester A. Arthur: The Unexpected President

Chester A. Arthur is one of the more overlooked figures in American presidential history. Often remembered as an unremarkable machine politician thrust into the spotlight, Arthur’s story is surprisingly compelling. It’s a tale of hidden integrity, surprising reform, and the weight of responsibility transforming a man.

From Vermont to New York

Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, in 1829. His father, a Baptist preacher, moved the family frequently, leading to a childhood bouncing between small towns in Vermont and New York. Ambitious and bright, Arthur graduated from Union College and forged a path as a lawyer in New York City.

The World of Political Machines

Arthur entered New York politics during an era dominated by ‘political machines’. These were powerful organizations, built on patronage, that controlled elections and appointments in return for votes and loyalty. Arthur’s charm and legal skills made him a natural fit in this system, and he rose through the ranks of the Republican machine led by Senator Roscoe Conkling.

A loyal lieutenant, Arthur was rewarded with the lucrative position of Collector of the Port of New York. This role was a key source of funds for political allies and a symbol of the power wielded by machine politicians.

Thrust Into the Presidency

In 1880, Arthur was the surprise choice for vice president on the Republican ticket headed by James Garfield. The aim was to placate Conkling’s faction of the party. No one expected Arthur would become president, but tragedy struck. Garfield was assassinated just months into his term, propelling Arthur into the highest office in the land.

A Surprising Shift

As president, Arthur defied expectations. Many feared he would be a mere puppet for Conkling and the machine bosses. Instead, Arthur revealed an unexpected streak of independence. Determined to honor Garfield’s memory and rise above his machine past, Arthur tackled a growing problem – the spoils system. This patronage-based system of government jobs led to widespread corruption and instability.

Arthur surprised his former allies by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This landmark legislation created a merit-based system for many government jobs, replacing the corrupt practice of filling positions with political cronies.


In addition to civil service reform, Arthur’s presidency saw the modernization of the US Navy and efforts to improve the lives of both Native Americans and African Americans (though with limited success given the era). He also vetoed an overly restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act.

Suffering from kidney disease, Arthur didn’t seek reelection. He passed away in 1886 at his home in New York City.

Chester A. Arthur: An Unlikely Reformer

Chester A. Arthur entered politics as a cog in the machine, but ascended to the presidency as a surprisingly principled statesman. His support for civil service reform helped lay the foundation for a more efficient and ethical government. Arthur’s story is a reminder that even the most unassuming individuals can step up and make a difference when circumstances demand it.

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