Today in 1886, former President Chester A. Arthur died from complications from Bright’s disease. He had not been relected for second term, and he had left office in 1884. He died in New York City, just 56 years old.
Although he sported the facial hair style of the time, Arthur was an unlikely President. He ascended to the office in September 1885 when President James Garfield died three months after being shot.
Arthur did have strong administrative experience with the Federal Government, having worked as quartermaster general in the New York Volunteers during the Civil War. He arranged provisions and housing for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, making a reputation for himself as an excellent administrator.
But Arthur was a crony of Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican Party boss and U.S. Senator who was well known for using patronage and party connections to gain power. When Arthur was appointed Collector of the Port of New York by President Grant, he supported the political machine of “Boss Conkling” by collecting salary kickbacks. He also augmented his $12,000 yearly salary to $50,000 by sharing in fines that Customs collected on undervalued imports.
When President Rutherford B. Hayes came into office, he began to dismantle Boss Conkling’s empire, and Arthur lost his job. Because Hayes had declared he would be a one-term President, the 1880 contest was wide open. Arthur was nominated to be Vice President on Garfield’s ticket to help win New York votes.
Then President Garfield was assassinated shortly after taking office. Arthur became President, and he broke with Conkling.
As President, Arthur was not a figurehead of a political machine. He was willing to work to reform government. He signed the Pendleton Act, which banned salary kickbacks and required civil servants to sit for merit exams in order to advance.
He did not follow party lines on other occasions. He supported lower tariffs and vetoed the pork-barrel Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882. He also objected to the 20-year immigration ban of the Chinese Exclusion Act, though he eventually signed the bill when the ban was lowered to 10 years.
Two other noteworthy events of Arthur’s life were his defense of Elizabeth Jennings and his marriage to Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur.
When Arthur was working as a lawyer in New York, he worked on the case of Elizabeth Jennings, a black woman who had been forced to leave the white section of a Brooklyn streetcar. Arthur won $225 from the streetcar company, and the case ended segregated seating on New York City streetcars.
“Nell” Arthur passed away in 1880, and Arthur was still in mourning when he took office. He did not remarry, but had his sister assume responsibility for the social duties in the White House. He also donated a stained glass window in her honor to St. John’s Church, across from the White House, and asked that it be placed in the south transept so that he could see the church lights shining through it at night.