Chester A. Arthur: Domestic & Foreign Policy

Instructor: Evan Thompson

Evan has taught high school History and has a bachelor's degree in history with a master's degree in teaching.

Imagine that you are vice president of the United States. The president has just been shot, and, as the gunman is being apprehended, he yells that you are president now. For 80 days, the ailing president is bedridden. Then, he dies, making you president. Some people resent you as you take office. How would you feel? That happened to Chester A. Arthur. Read on to learn about his presidency.

President Chester A. Arthur's Administration

Chester A. Arthur ascended to the presidency in September of 1881 upon the death of James Garfield who died from an assassin's bullet. He was not very well-liked as he took office, and expectations of him were low, but he left office with a reputation so high that publisher Alexander McClure said, 'No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.' What happened to increase his reputation? Let's take a look.

Assassination of James Garfield
Assassination of James Garfield

Civil Service Reform

The Spoils System, in which supporters of an election campaign were rewarded with appointments to a federal office, was still being used at this time. The outgoing president -- Rutherford Hayes -- did not believe in the Spoils System, but when James Garfield took office as president (and Arthur took office as vice president), many in the Republican Party thought that Garfield would resume the practice. One such person was Charles Guiteau, and when his continued pleas to be made an ambassador fell on deaf ears, he shot and mortally wounded President Garfield. After Garfield died from his wounds nearly three months later, Arthur became president, knowing full well why Guiteau had murdered Garfield. It took over a year, but finally, Congress did something about the Spoils System through the Pendleton Act. The Pendleton Act created a federal job distribution system that was based on merit, and it established a Civil Service Commission to make sure it happened.

Political cartoon of Charles Guiteau
Political cartoon of Charles Guiteau

Treasury Surplus and Tariffs

The U.S. Treasury had carried a large surplus for several years. Calls were made to either spend the surplus or lower the tariff. Republicans -- of which Arthur was one -- tended to favor higher tariffs in order to boost profits in the industrial Northeast. Democrats tended to favor lower tariffs in an effort to promote free trade. Arthur appointed a tariff commission to study the situation and recommend what the tariff should be. They recommended that tariffs be reduced by 20-25%. Congress, however, disagreed with the board and passed the 'Mongrel' Tariff, which only lowered the rates on several items by an average of less than 1.5%, in 1883. This tariff outraged many Westerners and Southerners, who wanted a much lower tariff, and it may have had an effect on Democrat Grover Cleveland's victory in the 1884 presidential election.

In order to alleviate some of the surpluses, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882, which allocated federal funds for improvements to ports and river channels. Arthur vetoed it, stating that it benefited certain localities more than others. Congress overrode his veto, infuriating him. From that point on, he was a champion of preventing government surpluses by lowering tariffs rather than spending money.


Chinese immigration was a topic that had carried over from the 1870s. When the economy crumbled after the Panic of 1873, Chinese immigrants were blamed for taking jobs that Americans should have. This sentiment ran especially high in California, where the bulk of the Chinese immigrants lived. Congress, in 1882, overwhelmingly passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from China for 20 years and prohibited Chinese immigrants who had already arrived from ever obtaining citizenship. (If you hadn't heard of this yet, your jaw probably hit the floor. Yes. This really happened.) Arthur vetoed it, stating that Chinese immigrants had contributed greatly to the American economy and that China was a ripe market for international trade. Congress lowered the ban to 10 years, and, although Arthur still did not like the prohibition of citizenship for Chinese immigrants, he caved to public sentiment and signed the bill into law.

Political Cartoon Criticizing the Chinese Exclusion Act
Political Cartoon Criticizing the Chinese Exclusion Act

Modernizing the Navy

Since the end of the Civil War, the focus of the U.S. Military was on the 'Indian Wars.' Consequently, the Army gained the lion's share of the attention, and the Navy was all but forgotten. Since the U.S. Navy was still made up of vessels that saw action in the Civil War, Arthur wanted to modernize the U.S. fleet, and consequently gained the title 'Father of the Steel Navy.' He wanted modern steel cruisers, gunboats, and rams, all powered by steam. Only three cruisers ended up being built, but it was a start.

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