President Chester A. Arthur's Failures

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Have you ever wanted to know more about the politics and politicians of the Gilded Age? This lesson may have what you are looking for. In this lesson we will discuss the accidental presidency of Chester A. Arthur and some of his failures while in office.

Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur was born to an Irish immigrant father who came to the United States looking for a better life. In 1829, when Arthur was born, America was coming into its own and redefining what it meant to be American. With the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 against the British in America's rear view mirror, the country was rapidly expanding and Americans were seeking the opportunities that came with expansion, such as education.

Young Arthur grew up in Vermont with his Baptist preacher father, and as the son of an immigrant worked hard to advance himself. By 1848 Arthur was a college graduate who taught school briefly before passing the bar exam in 1854. Arthur then moved to the hustle and bustle of New York City where he settled and began to practice law.

When the Civil War began, Arthur had distinguished himself within the New York Republican Party and was made Quartermaster General of New York, in charge of procuring the supplies New York regiments needed to fight the Confederacy. This position propelled Arthur through the Republican Party of New York into more administrative posts after the war.

Post Civil War New York was run by one man, Roscoe Conkling, the head of the Conkling Machine that controlled state politics and government. In New York, nothing happened without Conkling's approval. Luckily for Arthur, Conkling took an immediate liking to him. In 1871, Arthur became the Collector of the Port of New York. This position was very powerful because Arthur was in charge of collecting customs duties at one of the largest ports in the country.

Chester A. Arthur
Chester Arthur

The Spoils System

The Gilded Age was a time period marked for its corruption and its greedy and inept politicians and bureaucrats. Roscoe Conkling ran and operated one of the most corrupt political machines in the country. A big city political machine operated like a hierarchy.

On the bottom were the poor (mainly immigrant) workers whose main job it was to vote the way they were told. Precinct captains were placed in charge of neighborhoods to corral immigrants on Election Day, ensuring that they voted for the political machine's many candidates. Ward bosses were placed in control of the precinct captains, and delivered the directives of the all-important city boss (like Conkling) who placed loyal candidates on ballots and made important appointments to bureaucracies (like Arthur's).

The spoils system ensured that only party loyalists were elected or held civil service positions. Because this system was based on nepotism and rewards for loyalty, oftentimes the wrong people held important jobs. Arthur was an able and competent exception to this rule, and he and Conkling became fast friends.

In 1878, President Hayes reached too far into the New York machine and removed Arthur as customs collector. As Arthur was an insider within the Conkling machine, supporters were furious and sought revenge in 1880 at the Republican National Convention. Hayes decided not to run for president in 1880, leaving the field open for James Garfield. The Conkling Machine made sure that Chester Arthur (who had never held elected office before) was Garfield's running mate.

President Arthur

Garfield and Arthur won in 1880. Arthur was well known for being something of a dandy, and in celebration of his ascension went on a shopping spree. With the transition in government, party loyalists expected to earn new civil service positions via the spoils system. Charles Guiteau was one such Republican loyalist who believed he was owed a job due to his support of Garfield. When Guiteau failed to earn a position as he felt he had been promised, he sought revenge.

Just four months into Garfield's presidency, on July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot by Guiteau. The nation was horrified at the first presidential assassination since Lincoln. Garfield didn't die immediately. Doctors used instruments that hadn't been properly cleaned to remove the bullet from Garfield under torturous conditions. From infection (not the bullet) Garfield died that September.

President Arthur was officially sworn in early the next day.

Arthur's Missteps

Arthur had benefited greatly from the spoils system, but due to Garfield's tragic death sought to reform it. However, Conkling and other Gilded Age politicians didn't agree. Keeping the status quo was all-important to Conkling and his supporters, but Arthur felt something had to be done. In a move that shocked everyone, Arthur advocated for the Pendleton Civil Service Act which required anyone employed as a civil servant to take an examination to prove their qualifications.

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