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Chester Alan Arthur


In 1881 a second terrible tragedy came to the supreme official of the United States. As Lincoln had fallen by the hand of an assassin, Garfield fell in the same dread way, and the country was filled with grief and regret. I have told how the wounded President lay, waiting the death that slowly came. The people had a double cause for concern. While full of sympathy for their dying chief, they felt much dismay when they thought of what might follow. Three times before a Vice-President had become President, and each time had bitterly disappointed those who elected him. What would be the case now?

For the answer to this we must wait till we have told the story of the Vice-President's life. His name was Chester Alan Arthur, and he was born in Vermont. He was the son of a Baptist clergyman, who had come from Ireland some years before, and who found life a hard one in this country, with a large family and a small income. This clergyman was a preacher at Fairfield, Vermont, when Chester, his oldest son, was born on October 28, 1830.

The boy was born to comparative poverty, for country ministers got very little to live on in those days. Like several of our Presidents, he was born in a log-cabin, where his father lived while a house was being built for him. But the boy was a happy little fellow, bright in mind, active in disposition, full of impulse, given to boyish pranks and frolics. He was not afraid to work, and now and then earned some small sums by helping on farms or doing other odd jobs. He was fond of reading and study as well as of play and sport, and his father's books and teachings helped him along in this.

When he was fourteen years old he was sent to Union College, in New York State. Here he studied some, but amused himself a good deal. He gave his books only what time he could spare from his sports. None of the boys were fonder of wild freaks and adventures, and he liked these all the better if they had a spice of danger. In this way he became a leader in college pranks. He was fond of parades and processions, of class games and fun, and was in every way a jovial, wide-awake, active and sociable boy. But he did not quite forget what he went to college for, and managed to graduate with a fair showing. Then he had something else before him than college sports. He must begin the business of life. He had taught school to help pay his way while at college, and he kept at it for two years more, saving what money he could, till he had a few hundred dollars in his purse. While he was teaching he was studying law, which he afterward kept up in New York City with the money he had saved. He was in the market for a more profitable employment than that of teaching country boys how to read, write and cipher.

Young Arthur was not wanting in ambition. It was his wish, as it has been with many others, to make his way fast to fame and fortune, and it seemed to him that the great and growing West was the place for that. There brains and hard work were sure to tell—or at least he thought so—and at length, after a period of practice in New York, he and another young lawyer, Henry S. Gardner, set out to try their luck.

They went west. They looked around. They traveled here and there, but nowhere could they see fortune in the air. They would have to work as hard there as in New York; perhaps much harder. So back to New York they came. Here Arthur and Gardner became partners and found the great city much better for them than the great West.   They soon found themselves making money. For ten years Arthur kept up his law practice, now in partnership and now by himself, and he became known as a very able lawyer.

All his time was not given to the law. He became an active abolitionist. He was very indignant when he heard of the way William Lloyd Garrison was treated in Boston, and he appeared as an earnest defender of the colored people. He made a fine argument in what was known as the Lemmon slave case, which decided that a slave brought into New York became a free man. He also won for the colored people the right to ride on the street cars in New York. A black girl had been put off a car, and he took up her case and won it, and thus gave black people that right.

He was active as a politician, too; at first as a Whig, then as a Republican, when the new party was formed. And he gained honors in the State militia. In 1855 he became judge-advocate of a brigade of New York soldiers. In 1860 Governor Morgan made him chief engineer on his staff. This position was not of much importance then, but it was soon to be.

When the Civil War broke out Arthur's knowledge of military affairs came into play. The Governor raised him to the rank of brigadier-general, and soon after he gave him the entire charge of preparing and equipping the soldiers of the State. In 1862 he was made inspector-general, which office he held till December, i863, when a new Governor was elected and a new man was chosen to take his place. But this new man spoke in the very highest terms of praise of the way General Arthur had done his work.

After that Arthur went back to his law practice and kept it up till 1871, steadily making money and winning reputation. But he kept up his political work also, and did much to help General Grant in the 1868 election. He was rewarded in 1871 by being appointed to the profitable office of collector of the port of New York. This is what is usually called Custom House officer. He had to attend to the collection of the customs, or the tariff on imported goods.

General Arthur held this office for four years and then was again appointed to the same office.  He remained in office till 1878, when he was dismissed by President Hayes. This dismissal was not because he did not do his duty well and honestly, but was for another reason. President Hayes was a great believer in Civil Service Reform. He thought that office-holders should take no part in politics. President Hayes could not have served Chester Arthur better than he did by turning him out of office for taking an active part in politics. Only for that it is not likely he would ever have become President of the United States. For it brought him into great notice. It was the first great step in the struggle for Civil Service Reform which was soon to cost President Garfield his life.

When the time for the Presidential nomination of 1880 came round, General Arthur was sent to Chicago as one of the delegates from New York to the Republican National Convention. There he gave his voice warmly in favor of General Grant for a third term. When that could not be had, and Garfield was chosen, Arthur's name was among those offered for Vice-President. A New Yorker was wanted on the ticket, and Arthur's name was offered by Conkling and the other New York delegates. So he was nominated and elected. In July, 1881, came the great tragedy I have spoken of, and on September 19th the wounded President died, and Chester Alan Arthur became President of the United States. 

I have spoken of the alarm many men felt when they found that a Vice-President, of whose sentiments they knew very little, was raised suddenly to the head of the nation. Arthur had said nothing while Garfield lay dying. He had the good sense and discretion to keep quiet then about public affairs But his first message to Congress greatly pleased the people It was quiet and temperate in tone, and he soon showed that he proposed to be President of the people, not of a faction. He gave offence to some of his political friends, but he gave satisfaction to the nation.

The country needed a period of calm and quiet after the strain and excitement through which it had passed. It had it under President Arthur, and the people learned to respect him as a good, safe, moderate man. He left office with the favor and confidence of his party, not with the bitter feeling which had followed Tyler, Fillmore and Johnson.

President Arthur did not live long to enjoy his repose after the cares of office.  His wife, a daughter of Commodore Herndon, had died in 1879. He was soon to follow her.  He was taken suddenly ill in the year after his term ended, and the country he had well served was surprised to hear of his death on November 18, 1886.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House"   by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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