Chester Arthur was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. His father was a Baptist minister who moved often. Arthur spent some of his childhood years living in Perry and Greenwich, New York. During his time at school, his first political inclinations were to support the Whig Party, and he joined other young Whigs in support of Henry Clay, even participating in a brawl against those students supporting James K. Polk. Arthur enrolled in Union College in 1845 where he studied the traditional classical curriculum. As a senior there in 1848, at age 18, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was president of the debate society.
After graduating, Arthur returned to Schaghticoke and taught school full-time, but soon began to pursue an education in the law. While studying law, he continued teaching, moving closer to home by taking a job teaching in North Pownal, Vermont. Coincidentally, future President James A. Garfield would teach penmanship at the same school three years later, but the two did not cross paths.
In 1852, Arthur moved again, to Cohoes, New York, to become the principal of a school at which his sister Malvina was a teacher. After saving enough money, and studying at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa, he moved to New York City the following year to read law at the law office of Erastus D. Culver, an abolitionist lawyer and family friend. When Arthur was admitted to the bar in 1854, he joined the firm, which was renamed Culver, Parker, and Arthur.
He was very active in the Republican Party from 1856 on. In 1858, Arthur joined the New York state militia and served until 1862. He was eventually promoted to quartermaster general and in charge of inspecting troops and providing equipment. From 1871-78, Arthur was the Collector of the Port of New York.
In 1880 Republicans divided sharply and bitterly over the nomination of a presidential candidate. The two principal hopefuls were former president U.S. Grant (Conkling and Arthur were among his chief advocates) and James G. Blaine. The deadlocked convention resolved the issue only by turning to a dark-horse candidate, James A. Garfield of Ohio. Conkling, the leader of the pro-Grant faction, was furious--for Garfield was friendlier to Blaine than himself--and he insisted that Levi Morton decline the offered vice-presidential nomination. Arthur was the Garfield group's second vice-presidential choice and, though Conkling remained adamant, Arthur accepted. Arthur continued to pay court to Conkling, however, even after the election had made him vice president of the United States. In fact, Arthur was in Albany, lobbying for Conkling's reelection, when news arrived that President Garfield had been shot in Washington by a deranged man who claimed he did it in order to make Arthur president. Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881, and Arthur became president.
Historians tend to agree that Arthur was a much better president than anyone expected. He seemed sensitive to the dignity of his office, and, while he continued to send most patronage to his old allies, he generally extricated himself from their society. Though he offered Conkling a seat on the Supreme Court, he left one of Conkling's old enemies in the Customs House. Republicans on the side of reform were chagrined at this new president, but Arthur could be surprising. He even supported and signed a landmark civil service bill (providing, among other things, for examinations as a prerequisite to holding some government jobs), and he permitted an investigation of post office frauds, which implicated several cronies.
Arthur remained what he had always been, a good administrator. But, as H. Wayne Morgan (1969) points out, "Arthur liked the appearance of power more than its substance." He designed a flag for himself, relished military ceremonies, refurbished the shabby White House, and presented a perfect presidential appearance. He took little initiative in the significant events of his term, such as the Pendleton Civil Service Act and the construction of a modern navy.
Unfortunately for Arthur's political future (he would have liked to be reelected in 1884), he had alienated old supporters without winning over old enemies. In 1884 he had no real strength at the Republican Convention and was quietly shelved. He died in 1886. He had not inspired his contemporaries, and, though his biographers have been friendly, he has not inspired them either.