How Did Chester A. Arthur Become President?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Chester A. Arthur was America's 21st president, but how did he manage to get into the Oval Office? In this lesson, we'll look at the history behind Arthur's rise to power and see how it represented political trends of the time.

President Chester A. Arthur

There are really only two ways that someone can become president of the United States of America. You can be elected, or you can happen to be the vice president when the sitting president dies. Chester A. Arthur came into power the second way. Elected as the vice president to James Garfield, Arthur himself became the nation's 21st president when Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Of course, there's more to the history than that. The real story here isn't how Arthur became president; it's how he became vice president. It was that series of events that propelled him into a position where he was ready to inherit the nation's highest executive office!

Chester A. Arthur
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Port Collector Chester A. Arthur

The story of Arthur's rise to political power is one that embodies the experiences of the post-Civil War 19th century. As the nation grew quickly and industrialized even faster, the ideologies of industrial economics found their ways into politics. In particular, the concept of the political machine emerged at this time, based on the idea that candidates could pump money into their campaigns and crank out votes. Of course, the industrialization of politics required money, and money came from investors. As a result, the political machine ran on a spoils system, in which political favors were awarded to those who put their money or influence into a campaign. So, how did Chester Arthur fit into this?

In 1871, President Grant appointed the rising Chester Arthur to the post of Collector of the Port of New York. This put Arthur in charge of the New York customs house, the building where federal customs duties were collected. It was also the center of one of most powerful political machines in the country. The leader of this Republican political machine was a senator named Roscoe Conkling. He was, for all intents and purposes, the leader of the Senate at the time, commanding incredible influence. He maintained his power through a complex system of patronage and support running through the customs house, and Chester Arthur was now in charge of that machine.

While Chester Arthur ran the customs house and the port of New York fairly and honestly, he was also a dedicated servant of the spoils system. Those who supported Conkling were awarded with well-paying bureaucratic government jobs in the customs house, which meant that the office was overstaffed and full of Republicans.

Vice President Chester A. Arthur

When the election of 1876 rolled around, Conkling and Arthur helped Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes win the election. Hayes, however, had developed an anti-corruption attitude and despite the help of political machines in his election, he overturned many. Arthur, and others at the customs house, were fired. Conkling wasn't pleased, so when the election of 1880 came around, he put his weight behind Ulysses S. Grant and tried to force the Republican Party to name Grant as their candidate.

By this time, however, Conkling's rivals were growing in power, and they started pushing for the nomination of the relatively unknown James Garfield. To bolster their case, they tried to find a New York Republican to run as Garfield's vice president. Chester Arthur was the perfect choice; not only was he popular, but he had directly come from Conkling's political machine. Nobody else could better help them undermine Conkling's candidate. Finally, Conkling sent his men to find a place in Garfield's political machine. After ensuring that they would receive patronage jobs under Garfield, Conkling put his support into the Garfield/Arthur ticket. The spoils system would keep him protected, and see one of his former and loyal subordinates elevated to the second-highest elected office in the nation.

Arthur as the Republican nominee
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