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Chester Alan Arthur

Arthur, Chester Alan (1830–86), 21st president of the United States. Arthur was vice president under James A. Garfield and became president on Garfield's assassination. Probably his most important accomplishment as president was his support for reforms in the federal civil service system.


Arthur was the son of a Baptist minister and schoolteacher from Northern Ireland. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1847 and taught school while studying law. In 1853 he joined a New York City law office and was admitted to the bar the following year. Arthur soon gained a reputation as a progressive attorney in two important civil rights cases.

Arthur opened his law firm in 1856 and became active in Republican party politics in New York State. During the Civil War he was given several honorary posts on the Republican governor's military staff.


Arthur returned to his law practice in 1863, and remained active in politics. President Ulysses Grant appointed him customs collector for the Port of New York in 1871. The customs house was notorious for being staffed with political appointees who paid part of their salaries into the party treasury. While Arthur performed his official duties conscientiously, he made little effort to change the system of rewarding party workers with government jobs. In July 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes, seeking to reduce procedures at the customs house, had Arthur removed from his post. Two years later the Republican party chose Arthur as its candidate for vice president, with James A. Garfield running for president.


Garfield and Arthur won the election of 1880, but Garfield's term as president was brief. He was shot by a disappointed office-seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, on July 2, 1881, and died on September 19. Arthur was sworn in as president the following day.

The assassination led to a widespread demand for a new system of civil service appointments. To the surprise of most people, Arthur strongly supported the proposed reforms. He signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Act in January 1883. This law opened the way to the eventual elimination of the worst excesses of the spoils system in national politics. Arthur sought renomination at the Republican convention of 1884, but he was defeated on the fourth ballot by James G. Blaine. After leaving the presidency, he resumed his law practice in New York City, where he died less than 2 years later.


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