The American public had low expectations of Chester Arthur when he became the 21st president of the United States, but he ended up surprising everybody.
He was born in Fairfield, Vt., on Oct. 5, 1829, to a Scots-Irish father who taught school and a mother with English and Welsh ancestry. He was the fifth of nine children. The family had moved to Fairfield in 1828, and would eventually move to New York state.
Fairfield had lost its Yankee farmers to Genesee or Ohio ‘fever’ after the War of 1812. They gave up their rocky, hilly farms for the flat, rich land of western New York and the upper Midwest. They left behind cheap land, which the Irish had craved since the English had made it nearly impossible for Catholics to own land in Ireland. Fairfield was also near Catholic churches in southern Quebec, only two towns away.
Demography was almost destiny for Chester Arthur later in life. His birthplace aroused the suspicion of his political enemies. His political opponents later accused him of being secretly Canadian.
New York Lawyer
Arthur became a New York City lawyer enmeshed in the corrupt Republican political machine. He was viewed as a puppet of political boss 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 after his appointment as collector of the Port of New York.
In 1880, the Republican Party nominated Arthur as vice president under James A. Garfield, though he had never won election to public office. Six months after Garfield’s election, Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back, shouting “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Arthur is president now!”
Chester Arthur was mortified. He 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 took the oath of office privately at home.
A New Broom
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 story about Chester Arthur was updated in 2023.
Image of the Arthur birthplace: By Gerald L. Hann – camera, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37860210.