On July 2, 1881, tragedy struck the United States as Charles Giteau, 39, shot President James Garfield, 49. Seventy-nine days later, on September 19, the president was dead from his wounds.
During this time, a man who had been prominent in politics for the past ten years slipped quietly away from the public view, not wanting to draw attention to himself as the president suffered. This man was the vice president, Chester Alan Arthur, 51.
Arthur was almost vice president by mistake. A political follower of prominent New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, Arthur became Collector of the Port of New York in 1871, a well paying position. However, his association with Conkling would lose him his job seven years later. Two years after that, in 1880, the Republicans needed to nominate a president. They chose Garfield, an unpopular decision with Conkling and his followers, known as the Stalwarts. To appease the Stalwarts, the Republicans wanted their vice presidential nominee to be one of them. Although Arthur was not their first choice, he accepted when the position was offered. The Garfield-Arthur ticket would go on to win the 1880 presidential election. Ten months after the election, Arthur was president.
The Stalwarts were the last remaining supporters of the idea of a spoils system, where rather than selecting qualified candidates, party bosses would pick those politically helpful to them. Arthur himself had supported the concept prior to obtaining the presidency. However, once in office, his attitude changed, and on January 16, 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Federal employees were to be chosen on merit, not political grounds, or any other attribute of a candidate besides his merit for the job.
Arthur’s term was also marked by the somewhat unfortunate Chinese Exclusion Act, but Arthur vetoed the original version which demanded a 20-year ban on Chinese immigration, and it had been reduced to 10 on the copy which he signed.
A final event of Arthur’s term was the beginning of a buildup of the American Navy, as Arthur proposed appropriations which would begin its expansion.
Overall, Chester Arthur’s term was a success, especially considering the lack of any positive expectations for his term. He could have easily opposed a bill which basically fixed the broken way in which federal employees were selected; his efforts reduced the effects of a racist bill; and he recommended an expansion of naval appropriations. The years after the assassination of President Garfield could easily have turned disastrous, but under Arthur’s guiding hand, those years were rather serene and improved the functioning of the American government. He is one of our most underrated presidents.