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Chester A. Arthur: Facts, Accomplishments & Quotes

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  • 0:03 Chester A. Arthur
  • 0:44 Early Life and Rise to…
  • 1:53 Assuming the Presidency
  • 2:51 Accomplishments and Legacy
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Chester A. Arthur was the 21st president of the United States. An interesting leader, he became chief executive after an assassination. Learn all about it in this lesson and take a short quiz at the end.

Chester A. Arthur

Appearances are not always what they seem. That statement is quite accurate with respect to Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States. A New Yorker, he worked in many vocations and benefited from the spoils system, a method of appointing government officials based on political connections. Arthur was an ardent supporter of the spoils system, yet once he became president, he would backstab his political allies to support the civil service approach to hiring. In this lesson, we'll explore Arthur's early life and ascension to politics, his entry to the White House, and his efficient yet little-known legacy.

Early Life and Rise to Politics

Born in Vermont on October 5, 1829, Chester A. Arthur lived in New York for most of his life. He attended Union College to be a teacher. After serving as a teacher and principal, he passed the bar exam and became a lawyer. One of his most notable cases dealt with the transfer of slaves through New York state prior to the Civil War, a conflict in which he also served.

  • FACT: Arthur didn't see combat in the Civil War, but his role in the Quartermaster General's office was nonetheless vital.

What's interesting about Arthur's early life is that he entered politics through appointment, not election. President Ulysses Grant selected him as customs collector for the Port of New York, one of the most powerful positions out there. He didn't just get this job out of the blue; it was handed to him through the political support of Republican leaders. In turn, he was to give jobs to others as favors, which he did. No one got a job based on whether or not they were qualified; it's like that friend you may have who never worked hard for anything yet got everything they wanted.

Assuming the Presidency

Arthur was later dismissed from the customs house by then president, Rutherford Hayes, who sought reform of the spoils system. Arthur would later become a running mate of James Garfield for president in 1880. Things with Arthur weren't what they seemed, however. He was fired by a leader who wanted to reform the system, and then he joined forces with another one who also wanted to change the spoils system. Nevertheless, Garfield won, and he and Arthur whisked off to Washington.

Garfield was assassinated four months later, ironically by someone who was passed over for a government job. With no executive experience, Arthur was now in charge. Interestingly, Arthur had stated once that, 'The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.'

  • FACT: Arthur was the second to assume control via assassination. Andrew Johnson was the other (after President Lincoln was shot).

Accomplishments and Legacy

Arthur was conflicted. He wanted to support Garfield's brief legacy of spoils system reform, but he also wanted to side with his political allies. Both were Republicans, but the party was divided. He decided to rise above the situation and surprise everyone by changing his whole persona and standing out in the conflict.

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